“Woooah there, little missy! I could see that beautiful smile of yours from a mile away!”
If you’ve ever worked in the service industry and you identify as a woman, this type of comment may seem all too familiar to you. “Ah, Stanley,” you say, masking your responsive cringe behind wide eyes and a vibrant smile, “What’ll it be today?” Stanley, a middle-aged man who visits the Cracker Barrel you work at every Sunday afternoon without fail, takes a long look at the menu and responds: (as if you’ve never heard this one before) “Hmm… I think I’ll have you.”
Like many other people my age, I’ve spent quite a few years racking up minimum wage in the service industry. Looking for the best deal on popcorn and drink combos? I got you. Wondering if that Khol’s cash expires today or tomorrow? I’ll probably scan it either way to be honest. Can’t decide what goes best with that oven-roasted chicken? Well… certainly not me, Stanley.
Working in the service industry has definitely been an interesting experience. With managers and shift leaders instructing me to combat comment’s like Stanley with feminine smiles, and nurturing ‘Anything you want!’s I’ve often found myself falling privy to viewing my sexuality, my femininity, and mothering nature as tool to combatting sexism. After all, the feminist movement encourages identifying women to embrace the qualities that make them who they are. However, viewing the expression of these female traits as a competitive tool against the patriarchy, is a very tricky process.
For instance, over the summer I worked as a server at Cracker Barrel. While not an explicit rule, I would wake up every morning, fix my hair, do my makeup, and take out my “provocative” cartilage ear piercings in hopes of increasing my chances for earning big tips. Like many of the women I worked with, this was seen as a playful tactic or even, to some, an advantage we held over our guy servers. However, as the Huffington Post argues, “there is no short cut to female empowerment.” What we were doing may have seemed like an advantage we had in evening the playing field, but the truth was, we were only catering to a system that was already oppressing us. (#feministinception?) By depending on our sexuality and our perceived nurturing/mothering personalities, my coworkers and I were literally using the power of the male gaze to propel our advancements on the job. The dynamic in scenarios like this is unmistakable; men still have the power, and women still do not.
Because men and women are often pigeonholed into certain professions based on their perceived gendered characteristics (women as teachers, nurses, or secretaries; men as just about everything else) the idea of accentuating our feminine or masculine traits as empowerment often only plays into the system of oppression. While we certainly should take comfort and pride in the characteristics that make us, well, us, we mustn’t confuse the feeling of empowerment with gaining actual, real-world power.
If forced to go back to my position at Cracker Barrel, I would still wear makeup and do my hair every day. I would still talk to every customer as though they were kings and queens of the world. That’s just who I am. However, I would not allow coworkers to tell me that unwarranted winks, comment or pet names were signs of me breaking that ugly ole’ glass ceiling. I would tell Stanley that I am not an object for sale… and that coming to Cracker Barrel every Sunday is a terrible investment.