The gender of an object – 

For a seminar session on “gendered objects”, my colleague and I asked the participants to bring to class an object that they regarded as gendered. We read the article “On gender and things” (2002) by Oudshoorn et al. and wanted to elicit discussions on the basis of the participants’ objects. In this article, the authors discuss two exhibitions about the gender of things, which they curated in the Netherlands and Norway respectively.

Following a “gender script approach”, the Dutch exhibition intended to point the visitors to how gender is inscribed in objects. For instance, the curators juxtaposed the labeling of a microwave and a video recorder. While the functions of the microwave buttons were labeled with pictograms, one could read English abbreviations like “vrt” and “rec” next to the buttons on the recorder. According to the authors, this difference shows the product designers’ gendered assumptions about the users’ technical competencies: Women do use microwaves. Women do lack technical competencies. Ergo: the buttons on a microwave have to be easily comprehensible (Oudshoorn et al. 2002, 474).

In Norway, the curators followed the “domestication approach”. The main concern was not which assumptions are inscribed in objects. Instead, it was asked how objects are used in different contexts. Thus, this second approach stresses the active role of the users in negotiating and creatively appropriating gendered meanings (Oudshoorn et al. 2002, 477-78).

The hair clipper

The cover picture shows a hair clipper that is used in my field site, the hairdressing salon Mastercut*. If the clipper is not in use, it is positioned in the charger on the drawer between Franci’s and Oliver’s work stations.

For those who believe that only men have short hair, the hair clipper is clearly gendered. One could also conduct research among the product designers of the machine to determine which gendered assumptions are inscribed in this specific hair clipper. Should the shape and color of the product appeal to male customers? Or are the symbols and buttons especially designed with presumably female hairdressers in mind? This is where the inscription approach might be limited, because it assumes one gendered user. It would be interesting, though, to investigate how product designers built into one object contrasting assumptions.

In her book “Styling masculinities” (2016), Kristen Barber does not attend to which norms and assumptions are inscribed in hair clippers. Instead, she asks for the contexts of use of hair clippers and which cultural assumptions are reinforced through their use. Barber conducted her research in two upper-class US-American barber shops. She argues that in these barber shops white professional hetero-masculinities are cultivated. In this cultivation process, hair clippers play a significant role in that stylists working at the barber shops rejected clipper cuts as only done in cheap cut-and-go salons and barber shops for black people. This rejection, so Barber, ignores the creative use of clippers in black barber shops and the usefulness of the tool for black persons’ hair. Thus, the context of use is not just gendered, but it is ascribed racialized and classed qualities. Barber, therefore, concludes that “by associating particular tools and haircuts with professionalism, stylists end up reinforcing larger cultural associations of white-collar manhood with white men” (Barber 2016, 71).

It depends…

However, it is not that easy, as Cedric, a stylist at Mastercut, explains to me while cutting my contours with the clipper in the cover picture. Of course, he couldn’t give a clipper cut to a customer who pays around forty euros and whose appointment is scheduled for a whole hour, Cedric explains. Furthermore, he loves using scissors because cutting with them gives him the feeling that his work is worth the price of the haircut. This, however, does not mean that he would cut a contour as short as mine with the scissors. It just depends – not only on the price category of the salon or the race of its customers, but also on the specific haircut. Additionally, Cedric knows of high-price salons where the hairdressers cut every hair – including very long hair – exclusively with clippers and trimmers. These salons, however, also have much better clippers than this one – he points at the mid-range machine on the shelf in front of me. With enthusiasm, he tells me about a US-American brand that is leading in the business of electronic hairdressing supplies. Those high-quality clippers allow you to produce smooth lines immediately, Cedric explains, and you don’t have to go over one spot more than once, as is the case with our clippers. While talking, Cedric repeats the typical movement of bending his wrist, pretending to hold the clipper still in his right hand.

By refusing to offer clipper cuts, stylists can perform a salon and its customers as white and upper-class, as shown by Barber. For Cedric, pragmatic decisions about a specific haircut play into the choice of his tool, too: Why would he trouble himself with cutting my short contours with the scissors? It would be quite time consuming and in this specific situation the result wouldn’t vary that much. And finally, one hair clipper is not like another. Some clippers immediately produce a smooth result and are even used for long hair by top-stylists, whereas mid-range machines require the hairdresser to repeatedly bent his wrists for a similar result.

These short thoughts about an object frequently used at the hairdressing salon shows how much is overlooked in social analysis if we only pay attention to “the social” – defined as human interaction. The example of the hair clipper points out that a “mundane artifact” can not only have a gender, it can perform the salon as a classed and racialized space. Nevertheless, one has to attended ethnographically to what exactly the hair clipper does.



Barber, Kristen. 2016. Styling masculinity: Gender, class, and inequality in the men’s grooming industry. New Brunswick: Rutgers.

Oudshoorn, Nelly, Ann Rudinow Saetnan, and Merete Lie. 2002. “On gender and things: Reflections on an exhibition on gendered artifacts.” Women’s Studies International Forum 25 (4): 471-483.


* To ensure the anonymity of my interlocutors, I changed the names of the salon and the persons mentioned.

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Susan Rottmann 06/11/2017 at 13:59

Hi Max,
I have to push you to explain more…

What does “human interaction” mean to you? In what sense does the object perform and not the actors?

Everything you’ve described seems to be about meaning and human interaction. Cedric’s ideas do not exist outside of the human interactions he has had in the past and is having with you.

Do you mean simply that focusing on the object brings the effect of interactions into greater relief or do you mean something deeper? Do you really believe that the object is an actor?

(It’s not too late to come back from the dark side 😉 )

    mxschnepf 06/11/2017 at 14:16

    Hi Susan,
    thanks for pushing me! It is highly appreciated 🙂
    With this short piece I wanted to point out that “big” explanations like the “gender script approach” have to be questioned against the backdrop of ethnographic observations. Instead of taking artifacts out of their context of use and displaying them as static museum objects, we have to look what they do in specific constellations.
    And yes, I do believe that objects are actors. Not in the way that they act intentionally, but in the way that they take part in shaping the course of action – for instance, of an encounter between hairdresser and customer within a classed/racialized/gendered space.
    Greetings from the dark STS/ANT-side 😀

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