About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Subtle discrimination

So, this morning I stopped at my bank to have a signature notarized on a document. I was sitting at the desk of the bank employee who was doing the deed, when I glanced at a little advertisement for the bank, showing a sample check, with the name of the bank and those of two fictional customers. I couldn't help but notice that the two names were: "Robert W. Andrews" and "Mary C. Andrews." What struck me was not only that Mary's name was the same as that of her fictional husband (even though in the US it is legally possible for a woman to marry and retain her name, which many people now do), but that -- of course -- Mary was below Robert on the check.

I'm not going to make a big deal and accuse the bank of overt anti-feminism. But it strikes me that, if one pays attention, one sees plenty of similar occurrences, so many that it is hard to dismiss them all as irrelevant coincidences. Have you noticed that the majority of TV ads for house cleaning products still feature the woman doing the cleaning? The same is true for kitchen items. In fact, the problem is that once you start paying attention, the subtle trend doesn't go away, and it becomes positively sickening (i.e., if you actually think that gender roles should be as equalized as biologically possible!).

I'll keep going to the same bank, of course, but next time I'll point out to the branch director that they might want to think about randomizing the names on their sample checks...


  1. So let's play one of those thought games:
    Joy diswashing detergent uses a male actor touting the sparkling clean dishes and how his hands feel so soft afterwards. Sales drop off, Joy loses its market share, workers are laid off, stock holders (little old ladies on a pension) don't get their dividends, but Massimo is happy that the commercial was not sexist. Is that a good thing?
    Personally, I hate all commercials. Not because I'm against commercialism (I'm all for it), but because the kinds of commercials I see don't sell me the product. I don't care about some cute little skit -- whether it features male or female actors -- or designer shaped containers. I want to see real results at a competitive price for a product I really need.

  2. While I agree with your general dismissal of commercials, I doubt there is any data out there showing that your scenario of bankruptcy is realistic. I think the answer is simpler: people who design commercials tend to follow the culture, rather than lead it, so their products are a reflection of our culture. And that's the sad part...

  3. I mentioned in an earlier post something to the effect that commercials (for the most part) don't really do what they are designed to do (sell your product over your competitor's). Advertisers and buisnesses just believe they do because that is the status quo and they are afraid to try any other way (say, actually making a superior product).

    People don't buy Joy based on which gender the actor in the commercial is, they buy it because it's two cent's off with a cupon.


  4. If you randomize the names on checks some of them are still going to come up with the man's name listed first, so what has been accomplished? I'm sorry Massimo but one can just get too carried away with the discrimination thing. If you put the woman's name first some one will cry reverse discrimination.

    Let's confine our complaints to things that really matter, and direct our energies to being serious about getting Robert W. arrested and punished if he beats the hell out of Mary C. Or better yet, preventing him from whuppin' up on her in the first place.

    Your blog's great (although over my head at times re: the Wiggenstein (sic) business. Keep up the good work!

  5. Sory - failed to sign my post poo-pooing the randomization of names on checks (posted at 2:03). I don't want to be anonymous and anonymous probably doesn't want to be Dennis.

  6. Dennis,

    well, my complaint wasn't specifically about the instance I used as an example, but about the fact that these sorts of things are pervasive in our society, and the reflection of the fact that we still have a long way to go. Thanks for your comments about the blog, sorry for Wittgensein! :)

  7. MP said: "people who design commercials tend to follow the culture, rather than lead it"

    And that's as it should be. Do we really want those crass commercialists to lead our culture? Do you trust those money grubbers to lead us into a better society? I don't. I'd much prefer that they follow along, trying to tap into the latest culture created by "we the people". Oh sure, "we the people" get it wrong sometimes but better that we make our own way than being led by the nose.

  8. Personally, when I see a woman's name first on a check, I assume it's another example of political correctness gone amuck. Who cares? Why should it matter?

    As for cleaning products, most guys I know just don't get too excited about the kinds of things the marketers use to promote products. Maybe it's culture, maybe not.

    Remember, if a person's actions are 90% constrained by heredity and 10% by environment, or vice versa, they are still constrained.

  9. Subtle, biased content is the 'heart and soul' of marketing strategies. Presentation is fundamental in successfully promoting products and principles. Far too often the subconscious fails to register such 'information' on the cognitive level. The success of selling a product or an idea depends on the audience. In the case of television advertisement a ‘captive’ audience is the resource being ‘minded’ or ‘mined’. Channel selection is one of few rational choices available a viewer, the wisest would be turning off the tube.

    The human brain is constantly bombarded by ‘suggestions’ via familiar imagery and accessible language; popular culture. To overlook such ‘intent’ is the desired response, or lack of, that rewards the imaginative and innovative peddlers of our day.

    And yes, my name is below my beloved Mrs on our checks. It was neither an accident nor PC.

  10. And then there is real discrimination...

    Spent the last few days in Vegas NV., and am curious to know why the same people who claim to care about where a woman's name happens to fall on a check, are not at least as incensed with the way that women are exploited in place like Vegas?

    To me, the men who really care about issues of this nature are the men who “kidnap” and sometimes buy back the women who have been sold into "slavery" in places like India. (but these women are actually set free to live in their own villages, or rehabilitated, if possible) And do you know who legislated the abolishment the practice of widow burning in India, Mr. Pigilucci? A missionary to India by the name of William Carey.

    Compared to the problems of others across the world, we as american women, have no problems. (of course, unless we create them ourselves by becoming reactionaries)

    And to suggest that a woman fight against issues that are almost non-existent, and in the practical sense, un-important, is to marginalize the areas where the real issues of disrespect and inequality lie.


  11. Personally, when I see a woman's name first on a check, I assume it's another example of political correctness gone amuck. Who cares? Why should it matter?

    If it doesn't matter and you don't care, why do you assume that it's political correctness gone amuck instead of thinking nothing of it? I think that just proves Massimo's point.

    Do we really want those crass commercialists to lead our culture? Do you trust those money grubbers to lead us into a better society? I don't. I'd much prefer that they follow along, trying to tap into the latest culture created by "we the people".

    One of the ways we lead the way is to complain about the content of the advertising so that the advertisers know they are out of touch with the culture. If nobody talks about it, it won't change.

  12. "Political correctness", in my mind, is just a matter of giving lip service to some issue, so that it seems that we care. I think that valid tests for truly caring about any gender related issue, has to go much deeper than all that. If we will not, we don’t want solutions, we just want OUR OWN WAY.

    "The entire fury over gender warfare and sexuality is because the issues are positioned in purely pragmatic terms, forgetting that in the first created order there was a specific design and intended purpose. All the philosophizing and arguing by well meaning people to the contrary will not explain why the biology is so distinctive, as is the chemistry that follows. The differences between men and women are not perfunctory; they are essential. The complementariness is not bestowed by society; it is God given. The purpose is not just love; it is procreation. It is not merely a provision; it is a pattern. Woman is not a fellow man; she is a unique entity, part of man but separate from him. The difference matters and is sacred in purpose. In violating this we violate a transcending intent.

    Philosopher Peter Kreeft, commenting on Francis Bacon's Man's Conquest of Nature, had this to say: "The term in the phrase Man's conquest of Nature is a sexually chauvinistic term, not because all use of the traditional generic 'Man' is, but because we have a civilization that is in the midst of what Karl Stern called 'the flight from woman.' We extol action over being, analysis over intuition, problems over mysteries, success over contentment, conquering over nurturing, the quick fix over life-long commitments, the prostitute over the mother."

    Kreeft goes on to remind us that Aristotle gave three reasons for seeking knowledge; truth, moral action, and power or the ability to make things (technology or technique). Francis Bacon and our modern pragmatists, says Kreeft, have inverted the reasons. Truth and morality are displaced by our desire to make things in our own image.

    This flight from womanhood is the costly price we have paid in our gender wars by making difference synonymous with hierarchy."

    ("I Isaac, take Thee, Rebekah" Ravi Zacharias pgs 15-16)


  13. Hey, guys... Step back a bit and see the forest for the trees or whatever they say! Your too fixated in the little story from the post. I believe Massimo does not care much about the little check example either, as I had the impression from the post itself.

    I believe his point is more that this is a little and harmless symptom of a much bigger and more serious condition - the pervasive and widespread sexism of society. Any society, probably. Or at least the ones I hear about - Middle Eastern, Americas, Far East, Africa, whatever.

    That man and women are different biologically, no doubt about it. But is it a significant difference from the point of view of their capabilities? (except for obvious things like child bearing).

    Now, if both women and men have the same potential, would it be fair to have a world where some things are "men" (or "women") only, just because of society's prejudices? Remember, women could not be engineers or scientists, but some of them went there and did it anyway. I can't remember ANY male teacher from elementary school (except Phys. Ed.), and they are not very common as nurses either. But I'm sure there are some out there, and they can do as good a job as any woman.

    And if we did like the ones who believe in some ridiculous and fictitious "first created order", we would still be in the caves (maybe for the better...) Lucky, specially for women and slaves, that sociely at large long ago stopped paying attention to these "created orders"...

    Oh, why can't I learn to be concise? I must be lying too much, according to a loony theory that I heard of recently. :O)


  14. Whether it's the hands-on-hips, kick-in-the-balls sexism or the woman holding a toilet mop, let's all just stop complaining about depictions and each live our lives the way that we individually feel comfortable.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.