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Chapter Eight-- Meanings of Gender and Age in Irish Step Dancing Costuming

Chapter Eight-- Meanings of Gender and Age in Irish Step Dancing Costuming

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Published by Elizabeth Venable

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Published by: Elizabeth Venable on Jul 26, 2010
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Chapter EightMEANINGS OF GENDER AND AGE IN IRISH STEP DANCING COSTUMING
Irish step dancers learn to navigate a wide variety of social codes and expectationsthrough their interactions with costuming. Not all of these meanings are based ineconomics. For example, Irish step dancing dresses can be viewed as expressing a varietyof notions concerning gender. Some observers might characterize Irish step dancingdresses as allowing dancers to convey cheerful aspects of their personalities and asempowering. Other viewers, however might note the ways in which Irish costumestandards reinforce conventional norms of femininity. Irish step dancing dresses, Isuggest, offer portrayals of a girl-child ideal, which is solidified both through rules andconstraints on costumes worn by both children and adults.GENDER AND THE MEANINGS OF COMMODITIESMy scrutiny of this girl-child ideal draws from recent considerations of the natureof gender. In her 1996 book,
Gender: The Pain and Pleasure of Difference
, Betsy Waringprovides a historiography of feminist and gender philosophies. According to Waring,structuralist philosophers such as Ferdinand de Sauserre, Roland Barthes and JacquesLacan were concerned with the existence of fundamental systems of knowledge such as apre-existing unified structure of language that is conveyed by signs and signifiers of meaning. Similarly, although not identically, structuralist feminists (including Marxist,socialist, anarchist, radical, and liberal feminists—who may also incorporate post-structuralist views into their repertoire) are interested in “patriarchy” as a system of 249
 
control in which women and feminine gender expressions are subjugated to men andmasculinity.However, Waring also details ways in which many feminist scholars haveembraced postmodern and post-structuralist theory as a means of understanding gender asa malleable and socially constructed system, as opposed to a fixed biological one, or onewhich is completely determined by overarching systems of control. Post-structuralistgender philosophies are influenced by the work of postmodern philosophers such as Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, and Julia Kristeva, who criticize ideas of overarchingnarratives, binary oppositions, essential human nature, and universals in general. Post-structuralists are often concerned with meaning as something that is relative to theobserver, unstable and transitory, and thus malleable. In these philosophies, women andothers can engage in resistance through the remaking of meaning relating to theirgenders, their bodies, their lives, and other subjectivities.In
The Gender and Consumer Culture Reader 
(2000), Jennifer Scanlon applies anapproach to the ways in which scholarship relating to products and marketing campaigns,as well as acts of consuming and relating to goods, can be influenced by postmodernistand post-structuralist analyses of gender. This is particularly relevant to my studies as Iam trying to combine a study of a consumer good—Irish step dancing dresses—and theway it relates to gendered norms and practices. Scanlon notes that early scholarlyapproaches tended to portray consumer cultures in negative terms, for example, asdictating the choices of actors in society. She argues that analysis of products and250
 
consumption practices has (and should) become more multifaceted, moving beyonduntroubled condemnations of consumer culture. Scanlon writes:Historians now fruitfully explore the complex relationships between thosewho produce and those who consume. Contemporary sociologists explorethe ways in which consumption meets individual needs for both socialidentity and personal distinction. Anthropologists see consumption not associal control but as a cultural and psychological construct, arrived atthrough the active engagement of everyday people with the goods theypurchase and indicative of cultural values” (4).In addition, Scanlon notes that feminist scholars, some of whom had previouslycondemned commodity cultures for reinforcing stereotypical roles for women, haveexpanded their viewpoints and critiques of consumer culture to acknowledge the agencyof women and others who participate in building identity through consumption. Thesescholars explore the ways that women may even be using consumption to contestpatriarchal norms of gender and to assert power in the home, among other spaces.Scanlon writes:Feminists have been among those who have objected most strongly towomen’s participation in the culture of consumption, viewing women asvictims of male capitalism and male family members. Yet recent feministscholarship, particularly that of historians and cultural theorists, haslooked at the ways in which women play with the images thrust at themand, by so doing, disrupt dominant notions of femininity” (7).According to Scanlon, consumers are agents who may choose to utilize their purchasingpower to construct new identities as women and as individuals. Scanlon viewsconsumption as an active process, “rather than simply an act,” in which consumers“continually make choices” (6).Some scholars critique overly positive portrayals of the abilities of women tomake agentive decisions. Susan J. Douglas’s “Narcissism as Liberation,” an article in251

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