Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Gendering Cells

My cell (and only) phone committed suicide on Monday afternoon. The battery is completely fucked and I consequently lost all of my contacts, pictures, and worst of all, the text messages I had been saving for sentimental reasons throughout the last year or so. But it’s ok. It’s forcing another new start for me and although it’s a nuisance having to collect and enter everyone’s phone numbers from scratch it’s really not that terrible.

The phone people asked me if I wanted to get a new one with a full keyboard or super video functions or double flip or music download-ability. (We’ve come a long way, baby.) I refused. I told them I wanted a replacement for my very basic flip phone, and I wanted something very inexpensive. The salesperson walked me over to the section of phones that fit this description, warning me that ANY and EVERY phone available would be much more advanced than my two-year old phone that had just died. But I was sorely disappointed. Everything was boxy looking—sharp right angles, lots of silvery metal, no colour, no sass. Finally, the salesperson (reading my lack of enthusiasm) led me to the cheapest phone available—a light blue razor-style with rounded corners. Without even touching it I knew it was the one.

It occurred to me in that moment that there’s something to be said about phones and technology and gendered aesthetics. I wanted something cheap and that was my first priority. But then I wanted something that looked softer, less machine-like, and more colourful than the first selection of phones I saw. I later described my new phone as more “feminine” and admitted that this quality was what compelled me to choose it. Am I uncritically gendering cell phones? Or, more accurately, how have I been seduced by the gendered marketing ploys of phone-designers?

The tragedy of all this is that phone-makers’ rendering of gender fits so squarely into stereotypical, mainstream depictions of masculine/feminine binaries (and I totally rolled with it!). But here’s the messier stuff: why are the more gadgety, tech-savvy, do-your-taxes-and-make-you-dinner phones made to look a certain way? How have we been culturally programmed to associate technologies with gender, race, class... through aesthetics of decorum, dependability, advancement…? I think it’s worth paying attention to the aesthetics of technologies, what attracts and repels us and why, and how the nuances of these aesthetics cut across the complicated ideals of “progress.”

My new phone functions. It suits my purposes and I hope it will last. And I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to replace the old one. But I have to wonder if the phone-folks make the cheap “girly” ones to fall apart sooner…disposable and weak. It’s not an anti-feminist conspiracy at work as much as I think THAT’S the heart of stereotypical, mainstream depictions of masculine/feminine binaries. And I just can’t roll with it.


mikey said...

I think that you need a picture of the phone. a full body shot.

Megan Helwin said...

What bothers me most about the whole cell phone industry and culture surrounding it is the purposeful cheapness of all of them. I'm sure there are some real toughies out there, but for the most part they are meant to be disposable. That to me is not progress. It is wasteful and a glaring example of capitalist conceit. There is technology out there that the marketing powers are doling out sloooowly to the salivating public. Look how many people stood in line for iPhones.

Grrrr. It makes me want to hit a fool in the face with a twenty pound rotary phone.

Well, I feel better now.

Keep up the great blogs. Sorry I didn't have much to add in the way of gender thoughts. I think throw away culture could be looked at closer along these lines though.

Little Ms Whatshertights said...

Yes! Well said, Helwin. You make a great point and I couldn't agree more. The disposability is heartbreaking and has such severe consequences.