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Gender Branding

Anyone with a background in marketing or advertising has learned about branding: the “personality of a product, service or company and how it relates to key constituencies: Customers, Staff, Partners, Investors etc” (thank you, Wikipedia).  The vast majority consumer products are branded - they are sold to us through a combination of their actual functions and symbols, colors, and emotional triggers designed to give us an understanding of what the “personality” of the company selling the product is supposed to be.

Pretty much everything that exists in our world is, or can be, branded, whether or not they already have their own personality.  Savvy politicians brand themselves (like, say our current President).  Cities brand themselves, or at least get branded over time.  Businesses generally have a little more control over their brand and image than things like cities do, but events in the real world have an ability to either reinforce or break down the brand that a product or city or politician has developed over time (see BP’s brand and how it has changed since they broke the Earth).

Branding is powerful.  Coca-Cola is the most powerful soft-drink brand in the world.  Even though Pepsi regularly beats Coke in taste-tests around the world, Coke outsells Pepsi in virtually every market.  Researchers have started to look into whether knowing the brand of a soft can actually change its flavor to consumers.  I’m a sucker for this - I loves me some Vanilla Coke, but I generally detest Pepsi.  Sure, there are differences in taste, but I’ve been so convinced by good marketing and emotional connection to the product that Coke tastes better than Pepsi that in some very real way, my brain makes it so.

I’ve started to think about branding in different contexts after a friend sent me this article from the New York Times: how are we branding gender?  I don’t think we’re getting any less branded messages from the world about what our gender identities mean.  When I wrote my post last week about broken guitars, I wish I had thought of the word branding, because I think it’s a useful tool for me in my thinking about gender-based violence.

Men get branded as violent.  Women get branded as victims.  What are the effects of that branding on individual men and women, if Coke alone can convince me that their blend of unusual chemicals tastes better than a virtually identical blend of chemicals and make me purchase one over the other?  If I have an emotional attachment that strong to a soft-drink, what has my emotional attachment to, say, the entirety of my gender and sexuality identity done to my behavior?

Laura Kipnis touched on the idea that women are branded as vulnerable in her book The Female Thing:

It is, after all, a story upon which a good chunk of gender identity hinges, including a large part of what it feels like to be a woman: endangered.

Rape, sexual assault, domestic violence - these things are discussed as “women’s issues,” in part because men DO primarily perpetrate this type of violence against women, but also I think, because we as a culture have determined that being a victim, of anything, is the provenance of women.  Being disempowered, being assaulted, being a survivor of something seems to be as much a part of the social narrative of female-ness as any physiological characteristics (and maybe even more). 

We treat violence against women the way we treat…boys growing chest hair during puberty.  Sure, individual guys might need to manage it a little bit, and for some it will be more of an issue than it is for others, but pretty much it’s a part of being a man, even though there are large swathes of the population that probably don’t grow chest hair, or don’t grow it during puberty, or grow it well before puberty.  Likewise, women being victims and assaulted is part of being female, says the wider culture.  What could we possibly do about it?  It’s part of being a woman.  This is the branding of sexual violence, and I hate it because it’s really, really hard to fight.

There are other ways of looking at sexual violence.  Car crashes might be a good example: car crashes happen too often.  They are tragic and hurt or kill many, many people every year.  We recognize that car crashes are, pretty much universally very bad things.  Even though Americans recognize that car crashes occur regularly, we at least TRY to prevent them - we have police to ticket speeders and arrest drunk drivers, even if we can’t stop all of them.  We have state bureaucracies in our RMVs or DMVs dedicated to ensuring that, before people operate a car, they have some understanding of how they work and the dangers of using them.  Social organizations like MADD fight to make sure teens and new drivers know not to drive under the influence.  I like the way we look at car crashes.  I call this, for lack of a better phrase, the objective approach.  I want us to replace the branding approach of sexual violence with the objective approach.

The New York Times article really brought this point home for me, during the description of the first survivor’s attempts to navigate the legal system in Brooklyn:

The case was initially classified as a simple assault, Rebecca said. She remembered how the detective assigned to the investigation had told her that “the Brooklyn courts are tough and they may just throw out my case.”

The court system never got the opportunity. The man she accused of attacking her was never arrested, she said, even though she had more evidence than many sexual assault victims do: a witness, medically documented injuries and condoms that the man wore.

Damn.  What else could she have possibly needed to move forward with this case?  Well, if she were fighting this case in a society that treated rape more like a car crash, nothing: she had witnesses, evidence, and medical reports.  She would be fighting on the facts, and facts can be proven easily with objective research.  But she wasn’t in that society, she was in our reality, which treats rape and sexual assault like a branding issue.

The branding approach we often can’t fight using facts.  I can’t prove to anyone that Coke is better than Pepsi, I can only state my preference.  Because Coke has better branding than Pepsi, most people will agree with me that Coke is better, no matter how much possible evidence we collect about the ingredients in Pepsi activating more taste buds or being more dynamic on the tongue or something similar.  If we keep looking at sexual violence as an intrinsic part of what it means to be a woman, then it will always be hard to convince the rest of society at large that we can, and need, to stop rape.  Isn’t it supposed to happen?

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Posted by Dave

Dave has volunteered with BARCC since 2007 and works in higher education administration. He also facilitates a men's pro-feminist group, is a STARZ member of Socializing for Justice, a Yelp Elite '10 member, and sits on the advisory council of the Boston Medical Center's domestic violence prevention board. He got involved with BARCC to further his understanding of feminism and gender justice, and also to get the chance to show his speaking skills far and wide. He lives in Allston, where the music is.


  1. I think this is very true that rape, and other sexual violence, has become "branded" as normative in our society. We are usually not surprised when we hear about a sexual assault, because they are commonplace. This makes me think of what is considered a tragedy in our society-it seems that if "victims" of sexual violence are from an advantaged race, gender, or socio-economic group are worthy victims-meaning, their story may actually get told, their crimes may be investigated or prosecuted, they may not be shamed/blamed by society by being asked why they wore a particular outfit or went to a particular place. However, if you are not from the preferred race/gender/class-good luck! Rape is normalized and almost expected to happen to you and our society does not see this expectation and normalization of sexual violence as a problem-it's so disheartening!

  2. It never occurred to me to use "branding" language to describe the problem, but you're absolutely right, Dave. The risk of sexual violence is, on some level, simply considered part of being female. Calling this out as a form of branding may be a great way to reach some folks who'd otherwise tune it out. (BTW, I LOOOOUUUURRRRVE the car crash analogy, too. I intend to use it often, if you don't mind.)

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