Final Essay // Gender creation in XX Cen

Gender “is not a ‘given’, it … is created and manipulated through film, magazines, advertising and, of course, clothing.” (Christopher Breward, The Culture of Fashion). Discuss the construction of gender relating your analysis to images from Kays Catalogue over the last 100 years.

It is commonly accepted that no one is safe from the influences created by the outside world. The way we look, the way we speak, the way we dance – all those activities are closely related to where we live (geographically), when we live (century/decade), as well as to which social class and gender we belong. In this essay I shall argue that mass media had a great influence on the construction of gender in the 20th century. I am going to analyse how different range of media, from fashion and advertising to movie industry, created different patterns for individuals in Europe and America, also differentiating those for male and female. I have chosen this subject because of my fascination in the 20th century’s culture as well as in mechanisms of mass control.

After the success of propaganda in World War I a new mechanism of mass control was introduced in America. The powerful device referred to as ‘public relations’ was significantly developed and popularised by the Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays. The ‘father of public relations’ was inspired by his uncle’s theory concerning the dangerous, primitive forces hidden inside each human being’s mind, and used it to manipulate masses (and not as it was originally intended to as a warning). He learned how the mass produced goods can be linked to people’s unconscious desires. By means of instructing corporations on how they can manipulate people into buying things they did not need he had created a new machine that would eventually shape the lives of millions to this very day. However, it must be noted that Bernays was not the only one interested in using Freud’s theory in order to control the society. After the War Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna emerged as the face of the psychoanalytic movement. She developed a theory related to the various possible ways of controlling the hidden drives. By studying her friend’s children she came to the conclusion that one have to teach children from the early stages to conform to the rules of the society in order to strengthen their personality and enable them to control their emotions. After the introduction of The National Mental Health Act 1946 psychoanalysis has been applied to masses. The main focus placed by the government was on raising people’s awareness on emotion self-control and teaching them how to do it (The Century of the Self, 2002). This triggered the emergence of accepted internationally across Europe and the United States templates of social identities. To every class, gender and age there was attached a set of social rules on how one should look and behave. These templates were created and controlled by magazines, films, advertising and fashion industries with members of social elites and celebrities as role models.

Founded in 1890 British company Kays & Co Ltd relished a catalogue twice a year. Each issue was filled with templates of identities for the society to adapt to. Strict guidance on how women should dress when they leave the house, when they are going to the party or simply enjoying themselves at the beach could be found on it’s pages. Even though each page usually consisted of couple sets of clothing they were as similar to one another as they could possibly be. It created a persuasive delusion that people actually had a choice and could independently come to the decision. The same could be said about possible hairstyles and cosmetics. (Kays Heritage Group, 2013). Those templates were introduced by magazines across the world and were easily obtainable in big cities through the department stores. Stores offered everything from shoes, dresses to cosmetics and even furniture. They were full of ready-made sets that could fit perfectly into socially accepted patterns and were organised to be an academy of social identity (New Elements Of A Theory Of Commodity Aesthetics, 1971, p.25). Clothing guidance was strict in the early 20th century and as the 60s went by they became more liberal and invited more variation to accepted templates. Serving as the symbol for 20th century individuals, clothing was the first thing that people were judged upon, and when followed by guidance started being perceived as socially acceptable. Magazines across the world referred to each other for direction. “America was in thrall to British taste and Britain to Americas industrial wealth, it’s cinema, music, it’s larger than life personalities. London may have had class and style but New York had glamour and showmanship. For fashion guidance, both still looked to Paris” (Vogue 100, 2016)


The next question that needs to be assessed relates to the theory underlying this carefully picked clothing. It is argued that fashion was perceived as the primary tool of the mass control mechanisms in the 20th century. Nevertheless, only few were actually aware of the entire machinery’s complexity that was designed to manipulate people into the socially accepted patterns, strictly divided by gender. Jobs, places, habits, responsibilities, all of them were firmly attached to genders. It is submitted that the most popular, desired and accepted female role in the 20th century was the role of a housewife. Of course this does not mean that women were not employed at all. Many of them were working, but their roles and what is more significant their salaries differed significantly from men’s. ‘In America in 1918, women earned half men’s salary’ writes Simone de Beauvoir, French feminist writer in her book ‘The second sex’ (The second sex, 1949, p. 167). Although women undoubtedly possessed more privileges and rights than one or two centuries before, it was not until the 1928 when they were granted voting rights (without restrictions) in Great Britain (1893 in New Zealand, 1908 in Australia). Since early childhood parents raised their daughter in a believe that marriage, not personal development (such as education), should be the definite desired goal. Women were taught that the best way they could serve the society was by taking care of their husbands and children. Furthermore, women were often defined by their men. The phenomenon that for a woman being accepted by a man was more important than being accepted by herself was heighten by the film industry of that time. Who would Scarlett O’ Hara be without Rhett Butler (Gone with the wind, 1939), or Ilsa Lund Laszlo without Richard Blaine (Casablanca, 1942)? Whatever the original attempt of the writer Russ Morgan was, his song “You’re Nobody till Somebody Loves You” written in 1944, could easily replace many film titles from that era. When a woman finally managed to fulfil her dream of marring a successful man, she usually founded herself even more constrained then she was before.


Marriage was based on a strict division of responsibilities and privileges between sexes. Woman was burdened with managing the house (cleaning, grocery shopping, cooking), taking care of children and always looking flawless in the company of her husband’s friends and associates. Relished in 2007 American series “Mad Men” which depicts the life of an advertising agent provides a perfect and detailed image of a typical upper middle class marriage in the 1960s. Betty and Don Draper live their lives according to the roles society had prepared for them. She is a perfect housewife who knows her place and duties, while he is a partner in an advertising agency at Madison Avenue, who successfully provides for their family. The series illustrates how strong the social templates were embedded in their minds. If anyone acts in a way, which is not seen as proper by the society, he/she would come across a strong social disapproval. As it is the case in the first season when Draper’s neighbour Helen Bishop comes to their party. Helen is a red head single mother, who struggles with two jobs in order to provide for their living. Women from the neighbourhood see her walking around without clear purpose on the street and decide that such behaviour is inappropriate and rude. The series provide also a perfect example of Anna’s Freud idea about raising children. The eldest child in the Drapers residence, Sally, a young girl who rebels against her parents and constantly disappoints her mother who expects Sally to follow into her footsteps to become a ‘proper’ woman. When Sally suddenly kisses her friend, Betty gives her a strong lesson condemning Sally’s behaviour by saying “You don’t kiss boys. Boys kiss you” doing so contributing to the passive nature of female existence discussed by John Berger in “Ways of Seeing” (1972, p.47). Even greater fight arises when Sally hurt her nose. Betty does not seem worried about her daughter’s health (not to mention the pain), but instead she is mad because she gave her daughter a perfect nose and she, through her carelessness, could destroy it. The argument ends when Betty slaps her daughter after she said “Yeah, I know. Because where would mom be without her perfect nose?” (‘The Runaways’, 2014). It is obvious that Betty knew her daughter was right. She was aware that her strength lies in her appearance and in her ability to be a proper housewife, not in her intellectual potential. Although she sometimes expressed her disapproval of how people view her, she never took any action to change that and was leaving it just to a verbal remark. It seems that she had come to turns with the reality and embraced her role in the society saying “As far as I’m concern, as long as men look at me that way, I’m earning my keep”. It is easy to imagine the fury of today’s feminists hearing that sentence, but it has to be borne in mind that the meaning of female emancipation in the 1960s was significantly different. As Wilson and Taylor perfectly state it “The popular meaning of emancipation for women had shifted away from the ideas of social and political rights that had been so important before 1914. Social emancipation – the freedom to drink, to smoke, even to make love, to dispense for ever with chaperones – served as a substitute for possibly more solid economic freedoms, and was in any case an option only for those few women who were socially and economically independent” (Through the Looking Glass, 1989).

Social patterns were not only strict about one gender. Men were bound to them as much as women were. The greatest difference lied not in the actual freedom they had but in the illusion that made them think they had more of it. From early stages boys were not given as much affection as girls, and thus they were condemned to harsh independence (The second sex, 1949, p. 333), being also deprived of the right to an easy, inside life. After house became a gendered spade it was considered to be a woman’s private castle, free from her husband’s professional work (Houses, Habit and Memory, 2006). At the same time, it made a man an alien intruder in that sphere. He was considered the head of the family and therefor burdened with making all important decisions. It was his task to decide where his family was going to live, what car they were driving and what they spent their money on. Woman was often unaware of the real financial state of their household. It was expected of man to leave the house every day in the morning, preferably with a briefcase wearing suit and tie, and spend the whole day in the office and later come back home in the evening. Proper man was supposed to provide for his family (without burdening them with the inside of his work), was expected to be physically strong and able to fix everything in the house. He was also expected to have served in the army, preferably with many successes any without any detrimental impact on his mental health. As the opposite sex, man was taught to keep his emotions hidden. He was excluded from the house as much as woman was bound to it. The strong symbol of this exclusion in the 20th century was a male hat. Rain or shine – a proper man must always wear his hat when he was leaving the house (always remembering to take it down when entering inside). He’s privileges contained of a freedom to choose a job (from a set of male jobs, which was much wider than females), freedom to drink and smoke without social disapproval, as well as a freedom to cheat on his wife in a decent way (which meant that he should keep his mistress from running into his wife). It has been the status quo for many centuries – “adultery was a natural part of marriage” (The second sex, 1949, p. 88). However, unlike women, men possessed an exceptional power which allowed them to run away if everything else failed. This and many other advantages came from a historical fact that almost entire world as they knew it was created by men. Kays catalogue provides us with a ready-made example of how a proper man should look like. True gentleman look was promoted by all magazines, films and advertisements of the 20th Century. The finest example of that kind was a playboy-spy James Bond, a character created by Ian Fleming in 1952. In the 1960s he became every man role model and every woman dreamed lover. Bond represented an extravagance life full of dangerous adventures, gorgeous women and fast cars. Stories of him served as a substitute for men and women of a thrill that was missing in their everyday lives. Following the existing trends, Bond was presented as an example of a good taste. Always shaved, wearing a perfectly tailored suit, expensive Omega watch and having a perfect haircut.


After 1960s everything began to change. From music and fashion to film and advertising. As people began to rebel against status quo mass media could not stay unaltered. They still tried to organise people but had given them more templates to choose from. Although the world was far from recognising more than just two genders it slowly began to accept the possibility of seeing homosexsualism not as something abnormal. Many of those changes are attributed to the hippies’ movement and the sexual revolution. Through the improvement of the quality of living, science, medicine and technology ordinary people became more aware. They knew more and therefore expected more. Mass media lost their power of infinite control over the life of individuals in favour of an illusion partnership with the people. They no longer voted for a repression of feelings but encouraged to set them free. However, although the possibilities had evolved, this was not the end of a gendered society. Many of the stigmas, templates exist to this very day.

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