Gendered Objects


8 March 2018

We live surrounded by objects gendered against their will. Pink toothbrushes, manly chocolate bars, princess lunch boxes, macho earbuds – there’s nothing that can’t be needlessly feminised or masculinised. The internet, a sarcastic medium at the best of times, has documented these developments in lists and blogs of “pointlessly gendered products”.

When Bic launched its 2012 “for her” pens line – a series of pastel biros – many were quick to laugh: “Since I've begun using these pens, men have found me more attractive and approachable. It has given me soft skin and manageable hair and it has really given me the self-esteem I needed to start a book club and flirt with the bag-boy at my local market,” wrote one wit on Amazon. As absurd as the Bic case is, it reveals how deeply culturally tied we are to gendered associations, such that colours alone (or a particularly “soft” version of a colour) signify femininity. As Pat Kirkham, editor of The Gendered Object (1996), puts it: “At one level, the gendering of objects is an extremely complex process, which sometimes seems impossible to elucidate, yet the over-determination of coding involved in the construction of certain objects as ‘male’ or ‘female’ can sometimes seem crude, almost comical.”

Smaller commodities and children’s toys, in particular, are especially vulnerable to this kind of gender-branding, making it clear that objects are frequently used to police the training of the young into assuming the “correct” gender. Patriarchal society benefits greatly from encouraging gender roles, punishing girls for not being deferential enough and boys for not being tough enough, despite the damage these narrow roles continue to do to individuals. But there is money to be made too. In 2016, The Times revealed the existence of a “gender price gap”, where items branded for women cost on average 37 per cent more: a pink scooter commanding £5 more than a blue one, Levi’s 501 jeans for women retailing at 46 per cent more than those for men. The only item across hundreds of products more expensive for men were boys’ underpants, possibly because more material is used than for the girls’ equivalent. Sam Smethers, CEO of the Fawcett Society, a UK charity supporting gender equality and women’s rights, described the price discrepancy simply as a “sexist surcharge”. We have seen a rapid de-gendering and re-gendering of commodities over the past 50 years, the former trend (towards neutral objects) in large part the success of second-wave feminism, which pointed out the rigid and restrictive nature of gender stereotypes, particularly for children. Toys are just toys, clothes just clothes. Since then we have seen a kind of revenge of gender, with anything and everything branded blue or pink with accompanying roles: more money is to be made this way, perhaps. And yet so much of our lives we spend among neutral objects, as neutral beings, human first.

So what about large objects – furniture, fittings, interior design, houses? How does gendering work when it comes to static things and larger designs? Allen Jones’s controversial Chair (1969) aside, we tend not to think of these things primarily in terms of gender because they appear neutral or shared. There are of course some types of rooms that have been historically gendered, from the “bachelor pad” with its stress on the latest gadgets, free-flowing alcohol and a prominent bed, to ultra-feminine “powder rooms”. But in reality, there are very few objects that are solely divided by gender at the level of use, and there are many buildings, halls and walkways we all pass through, many chairs we all sit at, many tables we share. Ergonomically, it makes little sense to gender space, although there are obvious issues when it comes to the height of furniture, the placement of mirrors and so on – where the average able-bodied male height is assumed to the detriment of shorter women, children and the disabled. It is worth, then, pursuing the idea that objects that are gendered are always, somehow, in drag, obscuring their androgynous or gender-neutral reality. We can learn a way of seeing that undoes gender: Méret Elisabeth Oppenheim’s 1936 Object, a gazelle fur-covered cup, saucer and spoon, makes us feel strange about both gender and the object. Oppenheim’s creation is deliciously useless for practical purposes – though the fur hints that it could keep the tea warm – so the challenge for designers here would be to create drag-objects that also function.

Behind the mockery of the crass and opportunistic gender-branding that surrounds us daily are some more serious questions about designers and where we locate gender in our everyday environment. In 2016, the Design Council noted that the UK’s design workforce is 78 per cent male and 22 per cent female, and that only 5 per cent of design workers in product and industrial design are women. Old images of industry and engineering as “male” clearly persist, despite efforts to recruit more women into these fields. How does this asymmetry of representation manifest itself in deeper ways? Are many designs that purport to be neutral or genderless in fact masculine without us even noticing, and how best can female designers respond to the relative lack of female representation in the field without it becoming the sole dynamic of their practice?

MONTAGE Gabriel Maher

Matylda Krzykowski is the curator of Room with Its Own Rules, an exhibition that opened at the Chamber gallery in New York in May 2017 with work produced by an all-female lineup of designers. Here Ania Jaworska’s Soft Pavilion #1 (Stool), Soft Pavilion #2 (Bench) and Soft Pavilion #2 (Chair) are rounded, soft-edged headless beasts, like orphaned hobby-horses, the chair’s “back” rising no higher than the seat. Gun Gordillo’s glass and neon works, Xhosa and Taraxa, are loopy, faintly absurd semi-sexual objects, the outlines of empty organs pulsing with light. Buro Belén’s Falling Rock (Rosequartz) sees a pinkish hard-stone slab of rose quartz nestle into a velvet-pink beanbag. Meanwhile, Johanna Grawunder’s Pussy Grabs Back – fluorescent tubes in the shades of the pussy hats from the Women’s March protest against Donald Trump in aluminium casing – makes a more direct, though formally subtle, political protest. In her curatorial statement, Krzykowski says that the show is “an example of what is clearly not yet happening. It presents a parallel, post-patriarchal reality in which an all-female show is a normal phenomenon, rather than a specially planned ‘affirmative action’.” Krzykowski’s point is an interesting one: as feminists have long pointed out, in order to address the history of male domination and make true reparation, not only would a 50/50 balance in the present be required, but also every field would have to be completely female-dominated for hundreds of years. Krzykowski’s comment, like the work of other female design platforms such as No Sir, is an attempt to normalise female practice. If we don’t regard entirely male firms and shows as unusual, why should shows by women stand out? There is a double game here: drawing attention to larger structural inequalities by positively presenting new work, some of which might play around with these inequalities more or less directly.

We are taught to be wary of all kinds of essentialisms, in part because normative claims about how women and men should behave and make work are so restrictive, but the truth is that we do not really know what male or female work might look like in the absence of historical context. Women-only shows and platforms have no choice but to be a response to this history, in the absence so far of a “post-patriarchal reality”. It may be that humour – a dry, weary humour, a humour that mocks oneself as much as it mocks the world at large – is a necessary stage in the identification of this history, and tactics of ironic essentialising and drag-objects are critical comments along the way. If you say women like pink and are inherently soft and fuzzy, here are some objects that subversively perform femininity: The Ladies’ Room, which exhibited at Milan Design Week, is another women’s collective formed by Ilaria Bianchi, Agustina Bottoni, Astrid Luglio and Sara Ricciardi. Here a tactic of “over-conformity” is in full swing – Fenoména, their show, was a sensorial riot – all pink feathers, perfume, fans. The tactic is risky, however, and depends upon a certain knowing reception – will people get it, or will they take it at face value? To “drag” objects is to play with the very line that divides performance from what lies behind – and to point out simultaneously that there is nothing behind the performance. This is a heavy dialectical burden for furnishings to bear, which is why humour – Sara Ricciardi’s Autopiumaggio, a “snuggling facial machine made of brass and feathers”, as the press release puts it – proves useful, a kind of make-up for drag-objects.

We see a subtly different approach to gender in the work of the Italian metal brand De Castelli, which, for the 2017 Salone del Mobile furniture fair, commissioned seven female designers (Nika Zupanc, Constance Guisset, Alessandra Baldereschi, Nathalie Dewez, Francesca Lanzavecchia, Donata Paruccini and Elena Salmistraro) to design furniture to “soften” the cold, hard masculine image of metal. Francesca Lanzavecchia’s Scribble is a family of curvy, undulating coffee tables, oxidised and polished, like metallic versions of worms. Constance Guisset’s Volte is an elegant copper shelving unit, uncannily wood-like and understated. But it is hard not to sniff a certain non-ironic essentialism here – why is metal masculine in the first place? While industrial labour is typically perceived as man’s work, didn’t the Second World War see millions of women work in steel mills, with munitions and lathes? De Castelli’s move could be perceived as somewhat cynical, cashing in on a temporary interest in gender and design. By opposing metal and women from the outset, they establish a détente, in which female designers and their creations suffer from being perceived as tokens and their work reducible to a heavy-handed set of stereotypes and counter-stereotypes. It may be that a permanent sense of unease attaches to the question of gender and design, which is why we might be resistant, in obscure, buried ways, to those groups and designers who bring the question to the fore, forcing us to see the world in terms of injustices and stereotypes instead of clean lines, colours and forms.

We have two interrelated issues here – the way in which gender relates to the creation of objects, and the continued dominance of men in art and design. A recent letter to Frieze Sculpture signed by Ruth Maclennan and others notes that “the 2017 exhibition, which will open in July, includes 23 artists, three of whom are women. This statistic, of 87 per cent male artists has remained fairly stable in Frieze Sculpture exhibitions over the past 12 years, with the exception of two years curated by David Thorp which, with 46 per cent women artists, demonstrates that it is possible for Frieze Sculpture to stage successful shows which have a balanced approach to gender.” There are periods of progress followed by periods of reversal. Meanwhile, the actor and producer Jessica Chastain noted in May that 90 per cent of film critics were men. David Adjaye weighed in earlier this year too, stating that the lack of gender parity in architecture and design was “embarrassing”. The regressive gendering of objects seems matched by the static immobility and backsliding on women’s representation in art and design, despite the dominance of women at lower levels, and in art and design programmes, as government reports consistently note. A double-pronged approach – gender vigilance at the level of disciplines and industries, alongside critical reflection on the content of the disciplines of themselves and the kind of work being made – is necessary in order for talent not to be squandered or squashed.

MONTAGE Gabriel Maher

Part of the resistance to the gendering of smaller consumer objects is the needlessness of it. We do not need scissors for men or for women, but merely scissors. However, when we think of a totally degendered object world where all hints of gender stereotypes are removed and every object is “neutral”, we might worry that a certain Soviet-style conformity is the alternative – boiler-suits for all! Conversely, we might remember the Rational Dress Society and its campaign at the end of the 19th century to emancipate women from restrictive and impractical outfits – corsets, high heels, long and heavy skirts – and how these kinds of social shifts, along with the invention of the bicycle, paved the way for women’s freedom and suffrage. There are routes out of both gender stereotypes and an unhelpful gender neutrality: we could both celebrate the androgynous potential of design and architecture while still remembering to build enough toilets for women and leave enough space for baby-changing rooms.

We could, for instance, fuse gendered colours and stereotypes to create amorphous, ambiguous objects and designs that speak to everyone without simply reverting to monochrome sameness. Montage – recomposing fragments, juxtaposing discontinuous scenes and images – and drag provide resources for undertaking the difficult work of undoing gender as well as reconstructing it in new and revolutionary ways. Drag can parodically showcase gendered roles, pointing to the constructed and artificial nature of all gender performance. What would design in drag look like? Could design take inspiration from artists such as Victoria Sin, a female drag queen (i.e. a woman who performs as a man in drag in order to undo gender completely)? Can we imagine objects gendered feminine in drag as masculine objects visualising feminine objects? What would a skirt designed for a woman performing a man performing a woman look like? What about “men’s shoes” that morph into women’s shoes pretending to be men’s shoes? Sara Ahmed’s concept of “queer phenomenology” offers a route into thinking of objects as capable of such oscillatory properties. In Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006), Ahmed writes: “Objects may [...] take the shape of the bodies for whom they are ‘intended,’ in what it is they allow a body to do [...]. An action is possible when the body and the object ‘fit.’ So it is not simply that some bodies and tools happen to generate specific actions. Objects, as well as spaces, are made for some kinds of bodies more than others.” There is ample room for a positive notion of gender as a kind of playing, a certain sort of game, with a view to overturning its regressive aspects. If drag is a deliberate kind of over-conformity, where subjects pretend to be objects, we can begin to imagine the reverse where objects attempt to become certain kinds of (gendered) subjects – drag objects, queer objects that bring into view the entire horizon of gendered possibility.

MONTAGE Gabriel Maher

Similarly, montage explodes our conventional ways of imagining bodies and objects. The 20th-century German painter and graphic artist Hannah Höch used her Dadaist montages to stress ambivalence and androgyny, pasting male and female body parts together from fashion magazines, presenting the audience with unexpected heads and barely contained gender violence, or rather, the violence of gender. Playing with Weimar Germany’s concept of the “New Woman” as independent, often childfree, and androgynous, Höch touches on the possibilities and limits of breaking free of images, through montage and juxtaposition. We do not need designs “for him” or “for her”, but rather designs that crash together all aspects of gendered life – multipurpose odd tools that fit neither category but willingly or accidentally destroy both. Design has a real opportunity here, partly because so many of the objects we use, despite the best efforts of branding consultants, are already functionally and formally genderless. Paradoxically, then, they are ripe for strategies of drag and montage, of androgyny and the gleeful toying with a destruction of the negative aspects of gender. Krzykowski’s Chamber gallery show – an “example of what is clearly not yet happening” – poses the correct challenge: to work as if we lived in a “parallel, post-patriarchal reality,” while never forgetting that we do not yet do so.