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Codes of Gender: Identity + Performance in Pop Culture

Distributed by Media Education Foundation, 60 Masonic St., Northampton, MA 01060; 800-897-0089
Produced by Sut Jhally
Directed by Sut Jhally
DVD , color, 74 min.
College - Adult
Gender Studies, Women's Studies, Media Studies, Popular Culture

Reviewed by Gary Handman, University of California Berkeley

Date Entered: 3/8/2010

Codes of Gender is a recent addition to the rapidly expanding catalog of the redoubtable Media Education Foundation. As is the case with many of MEF's productions, the video was written and directed by the Foundation's founder and moving force, renowned media theorist and cultural studies scholar Professor Sut Jhally (University of Massachusetts). Jhally also provides voice-over and on-screen narration for the video, which, like a fair number of MEF's titles, is basically a well produced lecture, accompanied by a superb array illustrations drawn from various media. In Codes of Gender Jhally provides an extended riff on the influential writings and theories of sociologist Erving Goffman, focusing particularly on Gendered Advertisements, Goffman's ground-breaking deconstruction of gender codes and images in advertising. Jhally sets out to explain that unlike the generally cut-and-dried biological determinates and aspects of sex, there is "nothing natural about gender identity" or gender roles; the latter are entirely constructed, assigned, and taught by the culture into which we're born. As males and females, the way we walk, our body postures, our emotional aspects--our sense of what is normal or appropriate for a particular gender--are all more or less governed by codes, rules, and conventions that are more or less hardwired into the culture. Because these codes are so thoroughly normalized and subliminal, because they're under our cultural skin, they are largely invisible to us. Goffman/Jhally contend that one effective way to make these codes visible and to examine their function in the culture is to closely study advertising and other pop culture artifacts, which tend to distill, exaggerate, and reinforce existing gender conventions and notions. The majority of Jhally's discussion focuses on an often astounding series of advertisements which illustrate Goffman's taxonomies of gender display, the ways in which ads employ the body as text. These coded displays are often profoundly more subtle than the out-and-out baring of skin or obviously suggestive sexual poses. Jhally reveals a catalog of body tropes in ads, from the familiar model's stance with bent-knee or contorted torso, to an array of other physical cues, all intended to communicate passivity, availability, and subordination, what Goffman has termed the "ritualization of subordination."

Some of the most interesting points made concern the relationships and differences between codes of femininity and masculinity in ads (and society at large). Jhally suggests that a good way to reveal these differences and subvert our cultural expectations is to try a simple experiment: imagine switching exactly the figure of a male model for a female one in most ads. The results are incredibly revealing.

In other segments, the video takes on the rise of new gender images in the media, including the recent spate of movie super-heroines and kick-ass riot girrrrls, and women superstar athletes. Here, again, however, Jhally demonstrates that gender codes and expectations are so firmly ingrained in the culture and its media, that more often than not, lurking just under the surface of these images of female empowerment and agency are the same old coded rituals of subordination.

While Codes of Gender is a definitely engaging and highly informative piece of work and well worth acquiring for most libraries, it is not without its problems. Jhally's explanation of why advertisers strategically choose to exploit these codes, the connection between gender exploitation and capitalism, seems a bit perfunctory. One assumes that the use of codes of ritualized submission and sexual availability in women's clothing ads sells frocks because it's assumed by advertisers that women desiring to be desired will respond to conventionized codes and images. This isn't ever really discussed (except in the segments on gay imagery).

I found that the 74 minute version that I viewed (there's also a 46 minute abridged version, which I did not screen) often tends to be maddeningly repetitive in some spots ("OK, Sut, I get it: there's nothing natural about gender roles and codes!"). There are also some segments in the long version that could have probably been trimmed. Using the writing of art historian John Berger (Ways of Seeing) as a jumping off point, Jhally races through the psycho-cultural and psycho-historical precedents for the pandering of ads to the male gaze. It's a discussion that could profitably be grist for a whole separate MEF documentary. Similarly, Jhally spends a somewhat inordinate amount of time training his sights and his (well-contained) ire on the fetishized ads of clothing manufacturer GUESS and on the over-the-top gender fantasies of its founder, Paul Marciano. As sleazy as GUESS ads and Marciano are, they don't seem any more egregious than Calvin Klein and his emaciated, androgynous "heroin chic" models—or most other clothing houses, for that matter.

Despite these few qualms, I found Codes of Gender to be completely engrossing--no little feat given the fairly static talking-head and slide-show format of the video. For a generally jaded viewer such as I, perhaps the best measure of the effectiveness of this work is the fact that it made me see things I hadn't seen before and made me think in new ways about the ubiquitous images and messages that inundate and inform everyday life.