• R E J Saunders

Capitalism’s love affair with gender

Walk into any store and invariably women will be asked to pay the pink tax for “female” products that are exactly the same as male equivalents but in bubble gum colouring. Scroll through any social media and invariably you will be bombarded with fashion, make-up, car, gadget, and all sundry of ads that explicitly use gender to both code and sell a product. It is such a fact of life that unless you take a step back we assume it is a natural order of things. Women are sold femininity pre-packaged and bottled up with a neat bow, while men are given this dream of abs, more abs, and that Ford pickup you always wanted. Capitalism loves gender, and will recommodify any cultural shifts as a new norm as long as it sells (looking at you male moisturiser).

This matters both in terms of the pink tax for women and the overarching reinforcement of gender stereotypes that go along with it. If you are a man who enjoys traditionally feminine things or a woman who just wants to be darn comfortable you have your work cut out for you, for unless corporations decide your personal choices are worth their branding you will find yourself in the societal and cultural wilderness. This in turn often leads to isolation, bullying, and rigid reinforcement of gender roles by parents, workplaces, and society at large.

Gender performativity is a slow burning conversation within feminism, namely that the genders we perceive within society are both reinforced by the performative elements sold to us, such as clothes and make-up, and branded as the only binary options available to humans if we want to exist within society. To breakdown the performative nature of gender is to essentially break apart the capitalist impulses behind it, for without the branding and hard sell what are we as people? No corner of our existence is unaffected by design decisions made long before our purchase, all with the notion that this colour or cut of fabric will make us part with our cash. Even if you strip back the binary nature of gender, you are still left with those design decisions, in part predicated on at least some notion of masculine or feminine.

Of course, gender roles have been reinforced since at least the Babylonians. The crucial issue is not that capitalism invented social gender constructs, but that is goes out of its way to hyper reinforce them. Even non-binary folk have to code themselves according to the boundaries set out by the capitalist system. Hair dye is manufactured because it sells, all those funk clothes are designed and made because they will sell. Being true to one’s own self is as much choosing from a wider array of other people’s design choices as it is looking fabulous. This is not to say you could not approach a designer and get bespoke clothing, but the reality is unless you are privileged, rich, or talented you are always going to go for shop brought.

The impact this has on society is felt by cis folk as much as those who venture into the non-cis hinterland. By reinforcing a gender binary capitalism makes it easier to commodify identity, to the point that we are sold pills and surgery to meet a particular aesthetic, which of course will shift the next season over. Want a big butt, bigger boobs, smaller boobs, white skin, straight hair, a bleached anus, the list is endless. Nip this, tuck that, million dollar smile that fades as the sun goes down. We buy into this because we know no better. The step back and resist is impossible because the system is designed to sell, sell, sell. Each of us has to hustle to make rent and bills, and it is often the designers, seamstresses, and garment makers who are left in penury because most of the money gets siphoned off before it hits their pocket.

Add to this the corporate desire to pillage low key designers of colour without remuneration or acknowledgement, and how the very same companies repackage those designs as white, middle class, and beyond the reach of the people they grifted from. That gender is reinforced by an army of unpaid social media advocates chasing the social dragon says a lot for the way capitalism has outsourced its most basic marketing needs. Why both paying someone when you can just throw yet more gendered products at them and get them to work for free in the hope that potential exposure and possible ad money will mean something. Yes, a handful of influencers gain sustainable success, but the rest are used up and spat out as has been the rote routine of capitalism across the centuries.

As a society we do not like to critique capitalism for fear that it will be a backdoor to socialism, yet with respect to gender if we do not put in the take to tease apart the perfidious betwixing of the two we are left with all the current trappings that go along with it. Male on female violence, women’s unpaid hidden labour, fast fashion’s ever growing landfill spoils, the reinforcement of gender roles within specific career paths and much more flow in part by capitalism’s need to keep us in rigid binary boxes. Men suffer from such rigid boundaries as much as women, and for the sake of a healthy society we need to interrogate and argue for systemic change, as otherwise that way lies more ruined lives.

There are no easy solutions, for if you choose to step back and eschew corporate gendered products you are still buying within the same capitalist system. All choices carry the balance of personal ethics and understanding, and for most of us being ignorant of the wider picture is not so much a choice but a necessity due to our wages and level of privilege. Society wraps gender up so tightly with the products we buy, the hobbies we partake in, and work we do that the only way systemic change will ever happen is by each of us being mindful, choosing the ethical route over the short term cheap option, and by putting pressure on those who can make key decisions to breakdown the capitalist siloing of gender. The deepest irony is that even if gender and gender roles were performatively swept away capitalism would probably repackage and rebrand whatever comes next. This is the great gender conundrum, one we all must be aware of in our oft necessary veil of ignorance.


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