Monday, March 04, 2013

Sergei Brin's Masculinity

At first I thought it was a joke: "Speaking at the TED Conference today in Long Beach, Calif., Brin told the audience that smartphones are "emasculating." "You're standing around and just rubbing this featureless piece of glass," he said."  Perhaps I didn't believe it was true because I first encountered it in the form of a BoingBoing parody for "Mandroid: Google's remasculating new operating system." Another one of those moments when reality and parody are just soooooo close.

The Ted talk won't be available for while so I don't know if he said this with any hint of humor. (I rather hope so, but I fear not.) The talk was about the Google Glass product, which he was demonstrating and promoting.  But even if he meant the statement as something of a joke, there are things that need to be said about the not-so-sub text.

1. Using "emasculating" to deride a competitor's product when neither product has anything to do with gender is just a cheap shot. It's like Coke saying that Pepsi is "emasculating."

2. The ongoing attempt to raise the testosterone levels of electronic equipment has gotten out of hand. Yet, unfortunately, products must make an appeal to identity in order to sell. Apple pushes an identity of design and sophistication that was once considered "un-manly" by early Mac reviewers. Brin's remark, albeit nonsensical, pushes back against Apple's more gender-neutral image.

3. It makes little sense to eliminate women from your market, and promoting a product as a kind of "technology viagra" is not going to win over female consumers. Brin's remark shows that he's more concerned with promoting a masculine image that he is comfortable with than with following good marketing practice.

Some reading:

Wikipedia Women in Computing
Gender codes: why women are leaving computing edited by Thomas Misa
How to market to women, by Carol Nelson (1994, so a little out of date, but still useful)


Lesli M said...

Did you read the TED Blog post about his talk?

That seems to provide a different view/take on his "emasculating" comment. The way the blog post reads, Brin seems to feel emasculated by smartphones. He's entitled to his opinion. He's entitled to his feelings. He's a guy -- what's the same feeling for women? Then again, a definition for "emasculate" is "to weaken or deprive of strength, vigor, or spirit."

I am going to hope the TED blog post is a more accurate reflection than the CNET article. Even if CNET is more accurate, should the word never be used because of the gender connotations?

I'm also curious as to why you think Brin is deriding competing products? I had never heard of the BoingBoing parody -- and probably won't give any of my time -- so, I'm wondering if that may be a reflection of your reaction. The flipside being that I may not see the whole picture because I don't care for paraodies (especially obnoxious ones).

Maxens said...

The word (it's the word for everyone regardless of gender, class, age, or race) is disempowering. I can't think of a context in which "disempowering" would be problematic.
"Using a smartphone feels disempowering to me."

tflynch said...


One can only laugh at you for quoting the dictionary to note that a word that etymologically means, more or less, "unmanning" is nowadays understood to mean "disempowering" in a more general sense is therefore not gendered.

What could be more indicative of the deeply ingrained association of power with masculinity?

takingitoutside said...

"Emasculate" can mean "to deprive of strength or vigor", but its various forms can also mean "effeminate", "to castrate" (more specifically, "the removal of the genitalia of a male") and "to render a male less of a man, or to make a male feel less of a man by humiliation" - the last of which is noted as its most common usage.

If you trade out "emasculate" for a word that carries some of the same meanings (like "disempowering") but does not carry the gendered meanings that emasculate does, you're either missing or ignoring the point.

Unknown said...

i love this. thank you.