What's Technology Doing to "Femininity"?


It’s pretty common to hear particular technologies presented as being either for dudes (i.e., srs bsns gadgets) or for girls (think messaging apps and anything related to shopping). It’s also common to see technologies adopted by female consumers as either fluffy or some quasi-miraculous sign of alien life—see every early article about Pinterest.

Forget that for a second, though. Here’s another way to think about the relationship between women and technology: Consider this post from Cyborgology (part of the Society Pages, a collection of blogs run by the University of Minnesota’s sociology department), which asks what happens to “femininity” when technology encroaches on many of the tasks traditionally considered the work of women and minorities.

The post was spurred by an Atlantic essay suggesting we’ve entered an exhausting age of hyperemployment. Short version: Much middle-class work has metastasized to the point we’re essentially on call 24/7. Email itself is a second job, ditto tasks like calendar invites. Then there’s a sea of personal correspondence, like fundraising emails and notices from your kid’s school and junk mail and so on.

Meanwhile we spend our “free” time in places like Facebook, and what’s that but another a job? We’re just generating more data points for Zuck and Co. to sell ads around. “Hyperemployment offers a subtly different way to characterize all the tiny effort we contribute to Facebook and Instagram and the like. It’s not just that we’ve been duped into contributing free value to technology companies (although that’s also true), but that we’ve tacitly agreed to work unpaid jobs for all these companies,” the Atlantic suggests.

It’s a useful idea, but CUNY’s Karen Gregory points out a problem with it: “I wonder if calling the cozy arrangement between digital technologies, data economies, and invisible labor ’employment’ runs the danger of side-stepping the deeper (gendered and racialized) antagonisms inherent in the distinction between what is considered labor and what is considered ‘care.'” These tasks aren’t new; they’re just new for the proverbial man in the gray flannel suit.

Which brings us to Cyborgology’s question. Author Robin James argues that “femininity” is actually a tool, a technology, developed to accomplish the kinds of work that aren’t traditionally considered “labor” you get paid for:

Conforming to feminine ideals like cuteness, neatness, cleanliness, attention to (self)presentation, receptivity to others, and so on, trains you in the skills you need to accomplish feminized care/second+ shift work…. Now that “men” (by which I mean, masculinized or non-feminine subjects) are also expected to perform these sorts of tasks as part of their hyperemployment contracts, we rely on technologies other than femininity to assist us in accomplishing this work. Just think about the ways personal computers and smartphones regendered and re-classed secretarial labor.

So as computers, software and other technologies take over some of these tasks (we’re not just talking alarm clocks — think of the development of caregiving robots) and make it easier for employers to just build others into job descriptions (once vital, secretaries now seem straight out of Mad Men), what happens to “femininity”?

Maybe this is a chance to rethink our assumptions about who does what work, and how we as a society value that work. Or maybe it just reincarnates as a weird Donna Reed fantasy played out via Pinterest boards and D.I.Y. Tumblrs. Guess we’ll see, huh?

Femininity as a technology: some thoughts on hyperemployment [Cyberology]


Hyperemployment, or the Exhausting Work of the Technology User [The Atlantic]

h/t the Hairpin

Image via Stokkete/Shutterstock.com

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin