Friday, May 02, 2008

Descriptive, Not Prescriptive

A while back, I was involved in a BBS discussion about computers and gender (in the context of whether the notion of "female-friendly design features" was a logical one).

Initially I was rather annoyed with the very premise of the discussion, as when I think of "female-friendly design features", my mind cynically goes straight to pictures of pink Barbie-themed laptops where you can play "shopping games".

But it turned out that (and I'm paraphrasing heavily here, since this discussion happened a while ago) the person who started the discussion was actually just referring to design features that might actually be functionally useful for a statistically significant percentage of women. Such features might include, say, a smaller keyboard to accommodate smaller hands. In other words, she wasn't talking about making computers pink, or pre-loading them with "Magic Makeover" software or anything else relating to cultural stereotypes -- she was just talking about perhaps implementing design variations and options that at least some women might benefit from.

Now, I'm still vaguely skeptical about the need to "gender" these features in the first place, as there are always going to be people of every gender (and I say "every" because gender isn't exactly binary) who find certain device options useful per their individual characteristics. But at the same time, I do see it as potentially useful to look at what groups are using (or not using) particular devices, and why. Sometimes, things end up getting designed with all kinds of built-in assumptions about who is going to be using them -- and consequently, people the designers didn't have in mind have more difficulty using those things, or have a sub-optimal experience while using them.

So in a sense, I guess I'm okay with considering gender as a design factor when the consideration is geared toward making devices (or offering services) that a wider variety of people can benefit from. As the person who started the gender-and-computers discussion noted, there are ways of accounting for physical and functional realities different people face that are descriptive, not prescriptive.

Descriptive Versus Prescriptive

I want to explore the concept of "descriptive versus prescriptive" a bit here, as it's a distinction I've been finding tremendously useful lately in thinking about labels and how they are employed. In the aforementioned discussion about computers and gender, I initially jumped right to the conclusion that "female-friendly design features" must refer to silly, stereotype-reinforcing aesthetic elements.

I remember as a kid being tremendously irritated by things like the fact that bicycles in catalogs advertised as being "for girls" were almost invariably PINK, covered in hearts, and emblazoned with ridiculous phrases like "Pretty Lady" or "Princess Sunshine". Not only that, but they often had white tires (as if they didn't expect girls would even dream of riding through mud puddles, etc.).

(Me, I was all about riding the BMX through the dirt.)

Eventually, as a result of seeing so many things I had no interest in presented as being "for girls!", and being occasionally chastised for daring to wander outside the boundaries of certain stereotypes, it got to the point where I started to wonder if I even was a "real girl". There was so much I was apparently "supposed" to be that I just plain wasn't, so my natural reaction was to wonder if someone had stuck the wrong tag on me at the factory, so to speak.

So, even though I was definitely what you might call "socially oblivious" in some respects, I was very aware of stereotypes and how they tended to be "enforced" from a fairly early age. I couldn't really not notice them, as I ran up against them constantly in pursuing my interests and trying to express my actual preferences.

Nevertheless, I can now see that pretty much everything that bothered me about gender-related stuff as a kid was rooted in gender (and gender stereotypes in particular) being applied prescriptively. I think I figured this out on some level (though not the linguistic level, as I couldn't have described it in this way back then) when I was maybe ten or eleven -- at that point I stopped doubting the fact that I was actually a girl, and decided instead that the problem had to do with the assumed definition of "girl" being too narrow.

In other words, girl was a fine enough descriptive term for someone with my physical features and chromosome configuration, but there was absolutely no reason for that term to limit me as far as what activities I could try out, or as far as what things I could be interested in.

And...that's how I've tended to approach labels and associated concepts ever since.


Robin said...

I will never forget my surprise and utter *confusion* when a young-me came to school with a red ewok-laden lunch box and was told, quite simply, that it was a "boy's" lunchbox.

I couldn't comprehend what that meant - had I accidentally bought something I couldn't use? I seemed to be using it just fine... Did this mean the kids were going to think I was a boy? It was really confusing for me as a child to figure out what was going on. It took awhile (I'm a bit slow with these things) but I finally realized that what all the children meant was that girls *ought* to carry pink lunchboxes simply because they overwhelmingly *did* carry pink lunchboxes.

It would be another dozen years before Hume's claim that you can't get an ought from an is would remind me of that lunchbox!

AnneC said...

robin: Huh, I hadn't made the connection between "prescriptive/descriptive" and "is/ought", but that's a really good point.

And was the Ewok lunchbox you had this one? I think I remember people carrying that around. I had this one starting in around fourth grade.

Robin said...

Haha, yes! I think that was the one! Apparently, Star Wars was a boy's movie. Who knew??

Kakalina said...

Ha ha, I can relate to this ;) When I was a very little girl I was pretty oblivious to whether something should be specifically boy-or-girl, and universally liked dolls, dinosaurs, airplanes, cars, and stuffed animals. When I was in mid-elementary school I went through a very girlish stage with liking colors like pink and purple, dolls, and childish things like that. But around 4th grade and on, I became pretty indifferent to it all (stopped liking dresses, pink, didn’t want anything to do with cheerleading, etc.). I’ve grown to be so indifferent to “girl-ish” things that when a teacher remarked that I didn’t seem like the type to talk about “make-up” with other girls, I first thought she was referring make-up tests and quizzes, as opposed to cosmetics. I think my parents actually find this anecdote rather relief inducing; in addition to the fact that I’m much more interested in playing volleyball and studying foreign languages than I am in chasing boys (see “Bend It Like Beckham” ;P). Not to mention that I’m practically averse to any kind of shopping except for books or computer games ^__^. My English Teacher has been trying to convince me to attend prom, and if I do, I’m going to wear a blazer and slacks, no dress. Or maybe cosplay. I like your definition of girl as being a descriptive term applying only one’s chromosomal and physical makeup (no pun intended), with no limitations placed on the girl’s capabilities and interests. I agree wholeheartedly ^^
I’d like to note that the image of girls in manga/anime/video games is slowly beginning to evolve into something (or rather, a position) beyond eye candy. Sure, there have been a couple of exceptions in the past, but now that more girls are beginning to play the games at younger ages, the business has had to adapt a less belittling or condescending view of girls.
My dad and I were talking about college majors the other day (argh, after being lectured about junior/senior year for about five years straight I’m now going through the actual process and it’s so damn annoying!!), and apparently the English literature degree was actually developed so that girls would have something “safe” to study so they wouldn’t go and outperform boys or “get in over their head” in some subject like physics or mathematics. Hmph! So much for something safe to study— I actually have a great-aunt (or maybe great-great-aunt, I can’t remember) who was a Neurosurgeon in the early 20th century. (granted, her father was also a prominent doctor, so she did have help—but still \^-^/ *dance dance*)
However, I will admit that (in part due to my brother’s incessant love of the series) I have never been a particular devotee to the Star Wars movies (I do like A New Hope though). The whole movie industry is infuriating though (Lord of the Rings included in this case)—one of my mother’s favorite things to say about Disney is that to Disney, the Powerful Women are always evil (From Snow White to Sleeping Beauty to Shrek). She’s got a good point. Women seem to have an increasingly less varying number of films with interesting and complex women to portray (one of the multiple reasons I love Helen Mirren, not to mention the german movie Beyond Silence). The films seem to be all about shallow girls who just like to have fun, or they’re evil and trying to destroy the good guys. Or at least, that’s what if feels like. There are so few American films with central female characters who seem like genuine people are so few and those that do fill this requisite never seem to be very popular. Leia seems to be a semi-exception though…but she was thirty-some years ago. Proof was good though. And Hermione is as much a Role Model as ever ^^