Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Gender, Artifacts, and Ritual Encounters: The Case of Tomboy Tools Sales Parties

Academic journal article Canadian Review of Sociology

Gender, Artifacts, and Ritual Encounters: The Case of Tomboy Tools Sales Parties

Article excerpt

LAUNCHED IN 2003, THE COMPANY Tomboy Tools has attempted to grow a woman-focused tool market along with the "do-it-herself' philosophy of liberation and autonomy that comes with it. The original mission of the company was to increase women's independence through emphasizing instruction and education as a marketing strategy. The idea is to encourage women to learn home-repair techniques by providing female-friendly tools that are small, lightweight, pink colored, and contain special features to make them easier to use. The hope is that women gain confidence and independence as they are encouraged to pursue the traditionally male activity of home repair. The company's strategy in selling these tools is to convince women that buying into the lifestyle will bring strength, independence, and empowerment, yet the pink, dainty designs seem to undermine this by falling back on traditional feminine scripts that are not associated with autonomy and strength.

This sets up an interesting tension between a discourse of empowerment that is traditionally associated with masculine autonomy and the contrasting stereotypical images of pink designs and hyperfeminine slogans that are disconnected from these self-sufficient messages. This odd juxtaposition is heightened even more since the tools are sold through a historically feminine tradition of home parties, similar to Tupperware. With this in mind, our paper asks how the tool party ritual encourages women to buy and use tools that are from a traditionally male domain, while still protecting gender identity by reinforcing traditional scripts of femininity. We also consider how women ultimately view the product line, design choices, and marketing pitches of the company, considering the mixed messages on display, and the various tensions and contradictions that emerge throughout the sales ritual.

We draw on Collins' (2004) theory of interaction ritual chains to analyze participant observation data from home parties as well as interviews with consumers, salespeople, and executives of Tomboy Tools. We explore the microstructures and ritual dynamics of these home parties, and observe how both new gendered practices as well as traditional feminine scripts are idealized and reinforced in relation to the tools on display. In this sense, we examine how this negotiated process of gender rules unfolds within the emotional energy generated by women's practices of familiarizing themselves with these new artifacts collectively, through a shared ritual experience. We also assess how women critically interpret the tensions and contradictions between female empowerment and traditional gender stereotypes. In collecting and analyzing our qualitative data, we utilize a constructionist grounded theory approach (Charmaz 2014), which allows for theory-driven analyses that are still flexible and open to emergent themes as they are encountered. Throughout the study, we are careful to attend to the multiple viewpoints of the actors on the ground, exploring how they perceive these new gendered artifacts, view the lifestyle that is promoted, and act toward these constructs in meaningful ways. While there have been studies on home-sales parties in the past (Clarke 1999; Gainer and Fischer 1991; Prus and Frisby 1990; Vincent 2003; Williams and Bemiller 2011), none have considered the practices of selling products that challenge, and try to break through, traditional gendered domains. Further, none have utilized Collins' (2004) ritual theory to explore how emotional energy is important for challenging and reinforcing gender norms, and for building up enough shared emotional energy to promote and sell the products effectively.

We understand that discourse and interaction unfolds within already existing gendered structures, while still respecting the capacity for actors to have independent, plural, and sometimes conflicting perceptions, choices, and value orientations that may adapt to or challenge these situational realities. …

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