In this piece, Nathan Palmer asks us to consider how the non-material aspects of our culture can be seen in the material objects of our culture.
“Can you drop me off at the front door, I can’t walk in these shoes?” my wife asked on the way to a recent wedding ceremony. As we sipped drinks during the reception that followed, my wife told me she was cold. I offered her my suit jacket, draped it over her shoulders, and wrapped my arm around her. At the end of the night, I offered to pick her up at the door so she could avoid the walk and the cold outside.
This routine, which my wife and I have enacted many times, is mundane. However, by “seeing the familiar as strange” and critically thinking about the mundanity of our daily lives, we can uncover the influences that society has on our individual lives. Believe it or not, this mundane routine can help us see how the non-material aspects of culture manifest themselves inside the material objects of our culture.
The Two Sides of Culture
Every culture contains material and non-material elements. The ideas, beliefs, values, ideologies, and rituals are the central non-material elements of culture. These are the aspects of culture that clearly live inside our minds. Material culture, on the other hand, exists outside of our heads. This would include, the clothing, foods, tools, and every other object common to the people of a particular culture.
Non-Material Cultural Aspects of Gender Performance
An ideology central to many cultures contends that men and women are distinct and separate categories (Blair-Loy 2003). From this mindset, the differences between men and women lead to differences in how each behaves. Masculinity is a collection of personal characteristics and behaviors that our culture teaches us to associate with males. Likewise, femininity consists of the characteristics and behaviors we assign to and expect of females. As we’ve talked on this site before, both the distinction between males and females and the corresponding expectations about masculinity and femininity are social constructions. They are not inevitable facts of nature, but stories our culture teaches us (Ridgeway 2011).
In patriarchal cultures, men are thought to be superior to women and thus it is right and just for men to dominate women. Patriarchy teaches us that men and masculinity are defined by their strong rugged independence. On the opposite side of this patriarchal equation, women and femininity are defined by their submissiveness to and dependence on men. Here again, this non-material aspect of culture is a social construction and not an immutable truth.
How Non-Material Culture Spills Over Into The Material World
To see the beliefs and ideologies of our culture, we need look no further than the gendered costumes society teaches us to wear. During formal events, like weddings, the clothing men and women are stereotypically expected to wear accentuates the culturally perceived difference between the sexes. As a cisgender heterosexual man, I perform my masculinity by wearing a suit, necktie, and shiny black dress shoes. The corresponding attire stereotypically prescribed for women features a dress, jewelry, and fancy shoes.
Here, the masculine costume highlights that rugged independence we were talking about before. Suits cover almost the entire body, are designed to fit comfortably, and have multiple pockets. When I wear a suit, I am protected from the elements, I can fill my pockets with things I may need, and I can move through my day in (relative) comfort. The same cannot be said for the stereotypical feminine costume.
Formal dresses often expose the neck, chest, arms, and legs. Feminine formal dress shoes are notoriously uncomfortable, and this is especially true of shoes with high heels. Feminine formal attire does not shield the person wearing it from the elements, provide pockets to carry necessities, or function comfortably. With this in mind, it is not surprising that my wife asks me to drop her off at the door, carry her phone and I.D. for her, and provide a stabilizing hand for her to hold when traversing uneven terrain. These are all examples of her depending on me, but this dependence is by design.
My wife, whom I admire as much as I respect, is a strong and independent person who doesn’t need my help to accomplish anything. We have both tried to express our gender identities in ways that challenge stereotypes and push back against patriarchy. In fact, I think this is why I found our routine at formal events remarkable in the first place.
In our minds, we defy the gender stereotypes. Or put another way, we both fight against the non-material aspects of patriarchal culture. However, when patriarchy (or any other cultural ideology) is baked right into the clothes you wear, it can feel like the larger culture we are a part of is inescapable.
- What is another example of how the beliefs, values, and ideologies surrounding gender can be seen in the material objects we associate with males/masculinity and females/femininity? Explain your answer.
- Beyond gender, what other examples can you see of cultural ideas, beliefs, and values appearing within the material world?
- Why do you think that formal events are more likely to reinforce cultural stereotypes than casual events are? What are the key differences between the two types of events?
- Assume for a second that the author is correct and that masculine and feminine clothes reinforce patriarchal ideologies. Do you think that means we should work to change the clothes we wear to formal events? Why or why not? Explain your answer.
- Blair-Loy, Mary. 2003. Competing Devotions: Career and Family Among Women Executives. Harvard University Press.
- Ridgeway, Cecilia L. 2011. Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World. Oxford University Press.