Sex in Retail

The average style-conscious consumer of our generation often uses a lineup of fast fashion brands as a source of consistent access to the latest fashion trends. Especially among an urban environment like big city Chicago, if the most current trends in popular culture are not continuously represented, that source becomes less relevant and ultimately less successful. Urban Outfitters has maintained an ever-growing and overwhelming presence in the world of fashion retail and trend-driven consumer culture. Though infamous for partnerships with over-priced unique brands, making politically insensitive statements through apparel, and use of questionable marketing techniques, UO has never quite found space outside of dominating popularity, with few competitors.

As I engaged in my daily imaginary wardrobe-building cyber escapade this week, I scrolled across a festive advertisement that I found particularly ambiguous. 

The “Gift” section is currently the highlight of the store’s online website, as the holiday season is quickly approaching. Immediately on the page, the gift shopping cover layout is strategically organized into “his” and “her” components.

Most consumers wouldn’t question this categorizing technique, as it does make the section easy to navigate through, based on common shopping intention: Who you are shopping for. Yet instead of titling the portions of the gift section simply by gender or sex, they are labeled in distinction as “For Her” and “Treat Him Right”. Immediately these categories are qualified and separated into the supposed objective of consumption based on the brand’s premise of how and what each gender is being shopped for. To break it down, the two titles are interpreted as “what she gets” and “what he will enjoy; what he deserves”. This quite directly suggests that a woman is obligated to satisfy and seek validation from a man through what she can provide for him, but the man is not addressed by the same requirement. I can’t help but relate this contrast to a statement quoted by historian John Berger, “Men act; Women appear”. This notion attempts to identify the physical purpose of an individual, according to whether they are male or female, by their expected role, and if their presence is active and powerful, or passive and minimally asserted. The complexity of the social constructs “male” vs. “female” and “man” vs. “woman” are even further complicated when represented by the unnecessary gendering of objects and product.

Of course I had to see what Urban Outfitters defined as “for her” and what purchases would allow a woman to “treat him right”, so I investigated. To name one contrast among fifteen collective pages of product, a woman’s cookbook is a piece of literature titled, Eat Pretty: Nutrition for Beauty, Inside and Out. In the male section, a cookbook is found too, entitled Thug Kitchen Party Grub. Here we have a perfect display of the social expectations set for persons to consider in their daily lives, in consonance with their gender. A woman is expected to prepare and consume food keeping in mind the way it will ultimately make her look and how it will affect her perceived beauty. A man is encouraged to engage in the same food system, but with the intention of pursuing a respective status of cool (“thug”) and eatings that will enhance his party experience. This comparison demonstrates the ultimate social obligations that are associated specifically with gender. Scrolling along further into the sections, I found that both women and men each have their own “survival kits” in order to respond to the crises that could potentially threaten their well being on any given day. “For Her” is the ‘Pinch Provisions Monogrammed Mini-Emergency Kit’ that is sure to protect any woman in the direst of unfortunate circumstances. The kit includes a small mending kit, nail file, hairspray, nail polish and remover, lip balm, earring backs, deodorant towelette, tampon, breath freshener, and a few more life-saving essentials. The man’s emergency equipment in the section that is sure to make him feel rightfully treated, includes a device that has multiple mini-tools, screw drivers, a small wrench, knife, a bottle opener, and a mustache comb. There is a clear difference in the sorts of circumstances the brand suspects each gender should be prepared to encounter. It is quite displeasing to observe such a strong sense of gendered social conditioning so subtly enforced by a brand respected and celebrated by an overwhelming majority of young consumers.

Of course, most women and men would prefer to shop among the products in the sections designated to them; which is simply technical marketing to the common consumer and convenience. However assigning gender to an object creates a social confinement around something that should be purchased on terms of personal interest, rather than through a discourse of gender interest. It creates and enables the notion that pursuing something not “designated” to appeal to your gender or sex is in a sense taboo and distasteful. I do hope that Urban Outfitters, while responding to the drop-crotch and over-sized sweater trends, also finds time to endorse the oh-so fashionable growing novelty of Feminism.

Here are some of the contrasting gendered products offered online by our favorite hipster shopping spot:






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