Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Tea And Gender Roles: Gendered Marketing

Some time ago I read a post by Tony Gebely, titled Tea: Not Just For Girls (now only available on Tony writes about how there is a widespread perception in American society that tea is associated with "tea parties", a phenomenon that is associated with women or girls, but that in the tea business and industry, and among people who view tea as a serious interest or hobby, men are actually more well-represented than women. Lahikmajoe has also written about this topic, in the post add tea preparation to her feminine wiles.

This is a topic I actually have been wanting to write about for some time, because it's a topic that I feel strongly about, and that strikes a personal note for me.

My experience with gender roles:

When I was a child, I remember my reaction to gender roles: I thought they were stupid. I saw no good reasons for them, and I would react negatively whenever I saw someone, whether an adult or another kid, telling someone that it was not appropriate for them to play with a certain toy or act a certain way because that toy or activity or action was "for girls" or "for boys" or made them look or seem "like a boy" or "like a girl". As a kid, I asked "Why?" a lot, and no one ever gave me a good reason for the way some people considered it good for boys to act a certain way and girls a different way, and why some people considered it bad to cross that line.

As a kid, I consciously sought out toys that I saw as gender-neutral, like legos. I remember finding both Barbie and G.I. Joe unappealing because they were clearly presented as only being for one sex.

In most ways, I conformed to gender roles. I did not want to be a girl, dress like a girl, or play with dolls or other toys that society seemed to view as "for girls". But I reacted negatively to the idea of being told what to do, how to act, with respect to gender roles. And I noticed that the people I liked most were ones who often did not conform fully to gender roles. A lot of my friends were tomboyish girls, and boys who were interested in the social dynamics of adults. And the role models and authority figures I was most comfortable with were ones that I never saw enforce gender roles, but who treated children (and adults) consistently regardless of their sex.

I also remember feeling angry when people would tell me stories of sexism, mostly older adults telling me about times in their past when women were not given the same options or respect given to men. I also remember identifying this sort of sexism, mentally, with people enforcing gender roles negatively on boys. In some cases, in cases where I overstepped a cultural gender boundary, I remember being called homophobic epithets, or hearing such epithets hurled at other boys. Both of these forms of sexism, to me as a young child, seemed stupid and completely unnecessary.

Now, looking back as an adult, I think that I had gender roles pretty well figured out as a kid--my childhood reaction to resist gender roles and distrust people who tried to enforce them was normal and healthy.

How to handle gender roles constructively?

Certain activities tend to be populated more by men or boys whereas others are populated more by women or girls. And it's fine for things to turn out this way. Humans have certain innate biological differences, which include differences in abilities, strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, likes and dislikes, and a whole variety of other attributes. There's nothing wrong with having more men or more women naturally fill certain roles in society.

The problem is when we start introducing negativity and coercion into the social structure of society, when people deviate from those roles. There's no problem if a certain profession tends to attract one sex or another. The problem is when someone stepping into an uncommon field for their sex results in negative stigma. The problem is negativity and judgment, and coercion--when people exercise sexism in hiring practices, in promotion or assigning salaries, or when people belittle, insult, or harm others, whether adults or children, who deviate from gender norms.

I also have a problem with people making normative statements or telling people, directly, or by implication, what they "should" do. We all know that I dislike the word should. When people say that boys "should" like certain things or girls "should" like other things, or worse, that they "should" not like certain things...or that certain toys are activities are for boys or girls, or worse, that they are not for boys or not for girls....I think that's overstepped a's no longer just a natural gender tendency, but it's become a damaging, constraining social norm.

Sometimes there are reasons for limiting the membership of a group to one sex. Certain discussion groups or book clubs may focus on women's issues or men's issues, and may want to create a safe environment where people can bring up issues that they may be afraid to talk about around the opposite sex. But creating a group limited to one sex is not the same as enforcing gender roles coercively. I feel comfortable with people choosing to form single-sex groups, because this is a consensual activity, something people agree to participate in. Gender norms are not something people consent to; rather, they are imposed on people, and this is where I have a problem with them.

Back to tea: gender in marketing:

Gender roles also appear in marketing, sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly. There are whole stores and brands oriented exclusively or primarily towards men or towards women, and there are even a few examples of this in the tea industry.

Above is a screenshot from ManTeas, which strikes me as more of a parody than a serious marketing effort. Yes, the logo really is that bad. But, ManTeas doesn't really bug me...if anything, it seems to me to be making fun of both the association of tea culture with femininity, and our cultural ideas of masculinity as well. My only disappointment with ManTeas is that I don't see any sign of recent activity on their website...does anyone know if they are still operating?

But...back to the topic of serious marketing. Outside of the parodies, and the relatively milder cases, I hate advertising that is specifically oriented towards men or women. I'm not talking about a company or product that naturally appeals more to women or to men. I'm talking about advertising for normally gender-free products that is unambiguously oriented only towards one gender (and is completely serious about itself). When it comes to this sort of marketing, I absolutely hate it, with a passion. Here is an example of some of this sort of marketing, a screenshot from one of my favorite companies, Lego:

There's so much about this marketing that I find objectionable. I already don't like the idea of separating lego sets into ones "for boys" and "for girls", but the way this is executed is troubling to me in further ways. It strikes a personal note because it threatens to turn one of my favorite gender-neutral toys from childhood into a strongly-gendered one. And I don't like the identification of the label "friends" with a toy marketed for girls only--and the associated implication that friendship is something "for girls". Like I said above, I have always found interpersonal relationships fascinating, and even as a kid, was drawn to boys who were more socially-oriented. And, over the years, most of my friends have been girls.

And look at the shape of the girls' bodies used in the marketing material...they all look pretty thin to me. While some girls might naturally be this thin, these bodies do not reflect the full range of natural body types of healthy girls. Marketing and toys are definitely linked to body image...if you're skeptical, read What Barbie does for a little girl's body image - this sort of marketing is a contributing factor to eating disorders.

This sort of issue also hits close to home for me; I have had a number of close friends who have suffered from eating disorders, including Anorexia nervosa and Bulimia. And I just don't understand it...women with a broad range of body types can be beautiful. Why can't marketing material reflect the natural diversity of the human body?

Back to tea:

As usual, I've gotten a bit off the topic of tea; I now have two headings in this post titled "back to tea". Does the tea industry use gendered marketing that plays into negative body image issues for women? Unfortunately, yes. One thing that I see most often, oriented towards women, is the weight loss marketing fad, used to sell green tea, oolong, Pu-erh, or blends including various herbs. Here's an example from Teavana:

The words "guilt-free, slimful beauty inside" occur in the description of this tea. Needless to say, I don't have the most positive reaction to this marketing. And I really wish Teavana would retire this tea, or at least rename it, and ditch this aspect of the description.

In summary:

Women and men are not the same...they never have been and they never will be. But there are problems when we enforce gender roles in ways that are coercive or negative. There are also problems with strongly-gendered marketing. One primary issue in gendered marketing is marketing oriented towards women which promotes a negative body image. In the tea industry, this sort of marketing is primarily oriented in terms of faddish associations between tea and weight loss, or "detox" teas.

What do you think?

How did you feel about gender roles as a child? How do you feel about them now? Do you agree with my criticisms of the marketing here, or do you think I'm being overly harsh?


  1. I'd like to try that jalapeno tea by the offensively-marketed "ManTeas". Sounds interesting, though going to the site did make burble a bit of bile down my front. In my mind, it's basically a mirror of those "women, you need to drink pu'er to lose weight", which has the double effect of both being sexist and scientifically inaccurate.


  2. Actually I am not very much upset by "ManTeas". I guess the name is due to the fact that many people see tea drinking as a "female behavior" - that thought is very strange and unfounded, but I do know many people who would think so. So maybe ManTeas means to argue with that, although it might not be a perfect way of argument.

    On the other hand, I've noticed from time to time that people refer to flavored tea as "catering to typical female customers", or indicate darker oolong or puerh as more "manly". I think there is definitely (subtle) sex discrimination in people's view of tea. Such discrimination exists else where too. So usually I wouldn't be too much upset with it, but I'm always delighted to see anti-discrimination views.

    About being gender neutral, there were a few times my writings (in Chinese, as my English writing is lousy) were taken by other people as written by my husband. Each time I was quite happy about it not because it's a compliment (my husband by far doesn't write as well as I do in Chinese haha) but because I know my writing was not too girly or wifey.

  3. Also I want to share a picture I saw from facebook about girls' images in fairy tales. It's so funny!

    In fact, some of the images were not so biased in original fairy tales, but have been much distorted in commercial products such as Disney movies and toys.

  4. Great post, I've just now come across it.
    I'm new to tea (as in "proper tea"). From what I can see, women enjoy a cup of tea, men follow complex rituals that require special tools...

    1. Haha, well...I think I see that trend to a point, but I certainly know a lot of exceptions.

      I'm certainly more of the casual type even though I seem to enjoy going into all this depth about tea, most of the time I'm not reviewing, and not even putting that much care into brewing...I'm just drinking a few cups a tea a day and enjoying them.

      Then again, I think I'm a little more on the "girly" side than most men, so maybe that supports your claim.