In the miniverse of salt and pepper shakers, almost everything is either humanized or genderized or both. Most of the apples and bunnies and fire hydrants and yachts have been given some sort of human characteristic–human eyes or mouths or human smiles on non-human mouths. And apparently objects can’t be represented as somehow human without something, some sort of evidence, that makes their maleness or femaleness obvious.
It seems that what makes the world as represented by many salt and pepper shakers desirable, what makes the shakers pleasing to us, is the way in which they claim the world as ours and like us. In this world, there appears to be hardly anything that’s truly alien or scarily other and different, for almost anything can be made to appear at least a little bit human, a little bit like you and me, a little bit of us and ours. As I’ve suggested before in a number of earlier posts, much of what novelty salt and pepper shakers are all about is safety: the comfort of the familiar and the diluted and the small.
And part of that comfort is in easily recognizable gender roles. Apparently what makes us male or female is very close to the essence of what makes us human–or at least, what most matters to us about our own humanity.
Furthermore,shaker sets that represent gender almost always contain one male and one female. To be sure, I own a number of salt and pepper sets that consist of two of the exact same shakers–but I don’t think any of those duplicate sets offers any marker of gender identification. Once gender has been signified, however, then it is always, as far as I can tell, one shaker of one gender and one of the opposite gender. One male, one female–that is the strict order of the world of shakers. No Adam and Steve here. No distressingly disorderly LGBT stuff ever at all.
This set is a particularly apropos example:
A briefcase and a newspaper–accoutrements of a commuting businessperson. But here, the accoutrements are humanized and genderized. The briefcase is male, the newspaper female. And not just male and female, but a classically leering male (dressed in a suit of blue) and a hootchy-koochy, leg-revealing woman, dressed in pink, who has arranged herself in a sort of classical pinup pose. Lacan and a number of feminist theorists have talked about the male gaze as a source of power: the right to look at someone else, usually female, who submits to being gazed at is a way of bringing it under control–which is why, as John Berger suggested in Ways of Seeing, so many classical paintings and more recent pinup photos of vulnerably unclothed and apparently available women imply a clothed male outside the picture–the commanding presence of a man with a right to gaze as someone vulnerable so submissively making herself available to his gaze. In this set of shakers, similarly, the newspaper, something to be carefully looked at and freely perused, is the object of the briefcase’s leering eyes. Appearing to be aware that that is its central function, the newspaper has arranged herelf in a position of submissive readiness to be gazed at. She is merely a newspaper, interesting to take a look at but otherwise disposable, easily thrown away, or perhaps, if kept for another hour or two, stuffed into the sturdy case along with his other possessions. This is gender as organized in the outmoded hierarchy of patriarchy.
Maybe it’s a joke–but I don’t think it’s intended as a joke that makes fun of or wants to attack those patriarchal assumptions. The set exists within a conservative set of assumptions that sustain patriarchy through the cheery amusement of realizing how things like newspapers and briefcases can be made to represent the way human relationships always have been always are, and, apparently, always and forever should be. In representing the presumably ideal or at the very least inevitable relationship between maleness and femaleness, these shakers are a utopian vision of a patriarchal paradise. These are, in other words, sexist ceramics.