Archive for July, 2005

Dominant Reading and Presupposition: Women and the Domesticated Animal Metaphor

Metaphors which connect women with domesticated animals perpetuate the derogation and objectification of women. In the article “The Semantic Derogation of Woman,” Muriel Schulz illustrates how over time, terms used to describe horses like jade, harridan, and tit have been used to refer to women, and have acquired sexual overtones when used in this way. Schulz states that using a vocabulary to describe women that is usually applied to horses carries the implication that women are ‘mounts’ (139-140). Contemporary evidence of the horse metaphor is found in Proctor and Gamble’s advertising for Pantene Pro-V hair products targeted to a female audience in the magazine In Style.

The dominant reading of this advertisement equates health and beauty. The hair product promises that it will work quickly and will make the user “sleek”. This product will be reliable: the user can ‘bet on’ it to do what it offers. This product will be effective and thorough: it will make the user “shine from end to end.” The product promises to do no damage, consequently it can be considered healthy for the body. This product will allow the user to ‘win’ the race for style. Using this product will make the consumer many things: sleek, elegant, smooth, silky, shiny, stylish, undamaged, and a winner.

shampoo advert
Play the ponies. Fast, sleek, and elegant.
Bet on smooth, silky shine, from end to end.
Do the style, not the damage.

There are many suppositions in this advertisement. The first is that women want to be healthy. Twice in this advertisement the product asks the reader to equate beauty and health (“the beauty of health” and “not the damage”). This advertisement also presupposes that women want to be beautiful and stylish. If a woman is not concerned with her appearance than this advertisement will be meaningless to her. The language “play the ponies” and “bet on” makes use of gambling metaphors and suggests that there is an element of chance in being well groomed. This advertisement suggests that products, specifically hair care products, are needed to make a woman attractive.

If this product promises to do no damage it presupposes that there are other products that are damaging. The reader is encouraged to avoid using a product that might harm her.

The use of the horse metaphor presumes prior knowledge of the characteristics of racehorses: ponies are fast, sleek, and elegant. This advertisement is suggesting that if a woman uses this product she will also be all of these things. There is a presupposition that the reader wants to be all of these things. It is presupposed that the reader has “ends” that she wants to be smooth, silky, and shiny. If the reader makes her ends smooth and shiny she will be stylish. Apparently the reader must currently be something other than fast, sleek, elegant, smooth, silky, shiny, and stylish.

In a negotiated reading of the Pantene advertisement a reader might see the references to horses inherent in the advertisement’s text but may not interpret it as a direct metaphor for women. She may feel that comparing a woman’s appearance to the power and majestic beauty of a racehorse is positive. Racehorses are admired for their long and shapely necks, their grace, their beauty, and their eyes. A woman might see this comparison as a compliment.

An alternative reading and the one that this course suggests is as Schulz proposes. The use of the horse metaphor is derogative to women. The image used in the advertisement presents the model’s head so she resembles a racehorse. Her neck is stretched and turned away from the camera to increase the appearance of its length; her hair is pulled back tightly in (ironically) a ‘ponytail’ to look like the mane and tail of a horse. The photograph is done in black and white to remove the skin tones that would distract from comparison between the model’s head and a horse’s head. This advertisement objectifies the model making only one part of her body (her hair) visible, that is, significant.

Horseracing is a tradition historically engaged in by the aristocracy and elite. A healthy horse requires a great deal of costly care: grooming, exercise, healthy diet, and healthy environment. A healthy horse is often considered a great beauty: something to prize. Equating women with horses suggest that they too are something to own, something to prize, something to groom. Racehorses have only a finite usefulness. Injury and age decrease their value and in time they become only pasture ornaments. This is also contemporary Western society’s opinion of women: youth and ability are of high value in the capitalist economy but women who are neither young nor productive can try to exploit society’s obsession with female appearance.

In the context of this advertisement and the language of horseracing it is implied that some ponies are winners and some ponies are losers. This can be extrapolated to women: some are winners and some are losers. In contemporary society the concept of ‘winning’ is valued. There is an element of chance and luck, and a prize at the end, the same that provides the addictive adrenalin rush craved by gambling addicts. It is considered common knowledge that everyone wants to be a winner and this is what Proctor and Gamble promises to the user of this product. The alternative reading suggests that women are a prize that can be won.

Works Cited

Schulz, Muriel R. “The Semantic Derogation of Women.” The Feminist Critique of Language, 1st edition. Ed. Deborah Cameron. London and New York: Routledge. 1990. 139-140.


image of women across generations

When I consider aging I think about it from both sides: what it’s like for a child to think about getting old and for an older person to remember being young.
There’s so much hype about sending wisdom back in time to our younger selves but would our self listen?
We have a need to make our own choices. I’m not sure that I’d appreciate my self of the future telling me to take/not take that job or do/not do anything.
Our identities are very much tied to our autonomy.

image of woman in the air

strength and passion.
I want a body like this.

Altered Bodies: Disability, Illness and Aging

The concept of control greatly affects my body thoughts and practices. I have had experience with illness and aging and being unable to control my body. These experiences continue to shape the way I behave.

Because I overbook myself and get involved in too many activities and take on too many responsibilities I place great expectations on my body to perform consistently and at peak capacity. Mostly I can sense when I am weakening and can attempt to adjust my schedule so that there is less pressure but this has not always been the case. In the past I have chosen to ignore my body’s warning signs. This has led to personal injury and illness.

As a dancer I have depended on my body for a significant piece of my livelihood. Too many rehearsals and not enough rest caused my initial ankle and hip injury. Since the first one I have been prone to re-injury. At one point I was advised by my health care provider to quit dancing because of the repeated injuries. It was agonizing to consider leaving the work I loved. Not only was dancing a job, it was also part of my self-identity. Without it I would be forced to create a new identity. This period was a very difficult for me. Returning to dance after I had healed was very important for the same reason. I was able to show that I was in control over my body and that my body was merely a tool. I have since learned to watch for warning signs that I may be risking an injury and adapted my activity in order to stay safe.

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Mary Mary quite contrary, how does your garden grow?

image of pregnant belly

Pregrancy is supposed to be a blissful time, but what if it isn’t?

Reproductive Bodies

There is a myth that pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding are ‘natural’ and therefore ‘easy’ for all women regardless of their race, sexuality, religion, ability, age, or socioeconomic status. This is the paradigm that has substantially shaped my views around reproduction.

I was not prepared for the difficulties I encountered during my pregnancies. I expected pregnancy to be a blissful time when I would glow and grow and connect with my baby and make plans for the future. I did not expect to throw-up around the clockmost everyday for six months . I looked forward to being able to eat as much as I wanted. Pregnant women get to satisfy their cravings! But this was not the case for me. Even smelling other people’s food turned my stomach. Plain rice and water were all that I could stomach, and these only in very small quantities at a time.

I often hated the changes in my body. Although I wanted to have children “someday”, my pregnancies were unplanned. I felt my body and my life being taken over by this ‘thing’ inside me: I couldn’t eat, couldn’t work, couldn’t sleep . . . I was a long way from the content mama portrayed in the media.

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image of sexy belly

This one’s not retouched, just desaturated so you can’t see the stretchmarks so much. Mmmm. stretchmarks. moles. freckles. hair. how sexy.

Sexy Bodies (sensitive content)

Warning: contains sensitive material.

When I was sixteen my boyfriend raped me. It was my first sexual experience. Before this I was completely ignorant: I did not know about penises, or erections, or sexual pleasure. I was taught as a young girl to always wear clean underwear and never take them off. As a girl I was not prepared for menstruation and even after I was not taught how to manage my blood. I quit ballet shortly after menarche because I could not figure out how to keep a rolled up wad of toilet paper in the right place at the right time of month. It was a tragic thing for me to quit dancing. It was many years before I was able to return to serious study and I am sure it was the beginning of associating my body with misery.

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Unbearable Weight

My mother was an on-again off-again member of Weight Watchers. Throughout my childhood she was a constant dieter: she did aerobics every morning (from the t.v.) and several nights each week (t.v. or at a centre), took diet pills, laxatives, measured her food, recorded every bite – or skipped meals completely. I don’t remember her ever sitting down with the kids at mealtime (my dad worked afternoon shift). I do not remember her being overweight (how could she be with all of this obsessive behaviour?) but she must have been unhappy with her body or else why would she have tortured herself this way?

I picked up her habits early and by the time I was twelve I also hated my body. I would choose an arbitrary number on the scale and decide that this would be my ideal weight of the week. I would skip meals until I had reached my ‘goal’. I remember making the concious realization that there was so little in my ife that I could control that reaching this “goal”, this arbitrary number on the display, would mean I was good at something. It never occurred to me and no one pointed out that I was a growing child or that what I was doing and what my mother was teaching me was unhealthy.

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collage of women

All of these women are beautiful. But it’s not because of how they look, it’s because they have substance. Beauty has come to mean different things to different people. What once referred to aesthetics or physical appearance can now refer to content.

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