Ahoy, Maties

Nor, I now see, are the gay sailors I talked about in my last entry the only completely masculine pair in my collection.  There are also these guys:

It’s interesting that these two, as stereotyped pirates, should also have a connection to the sea, and should also be old and somewhat timeworn, with a white beard and a suspiciously glowing nose and various appendages missing and so on.  I say “interesting” because I have absolutely no idea what those connections to the sea and to being old might mean.  Would a pair of younger men in a less ocean-oriented profession be somehow less expectable, or more scandalous in relation to the heteronormativity of the shaker miniverse??  Two youngish male tax accountants, say, or two male apprentice electricians?  I guess I won’t know until I find a pair of salt-and-pepper tax accountants or young electricians and see how scandalized I am by them.

Meanwhile, I’m suspecting there’s something about the rough, active trades these two sets of salt-and-pepper men are depicted as engaging in that makes them safely and conventionally masculine enough to hang around together and be a pair without arousing traditionally scandalous suspicions–and also, old enough to seem both entirely respectable and a little bit past it in terms of sexual activity, and therefore, boring enough to hang around together without arousing those same traditionally scandalous suspicions.  They are just a couple of guys, nothing so unsettling to the heteronormative miniverse of salt-and-pepper shakers as an actual couple of gay guys.

On the other hand, there is the matter of their attachment to seagoing in the light of the fetishizing of sailors in gay porno and such, as, e.g., in the work of Tom of Finland:

tom of finland

(I have cropped the bottom of this picture in order to avoid the enormity of its forthrightness.)  This sort of sailor surely lives in a completely different world from the one my two aging pirates occupy.  On the other hand, well, you know what they say about sailors.

Adam and Steve After All

This post stands as a warning about never making a generalization.  In my last post, commenting on how salt and pepper shakers represent the gender of the characters they represent, I suggested that  “once gender has been signified . . . 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.”  And then, as soon as I posted that, I took a look through my collection and immediately found this set:


Well, hello, sailors.  Hello, Adam and Steve, otherwise known as the writing on their pedestals says, as “Old Salt” and “Cap’n Pepper.”

This is not to say that my generalization is not generally true.  The vast majority of salt and pepper shakers that imply the gender of the characters they represent do include just one male and just one female.  The oddity of Old Salt and Cap’n Pepper is noticeable enough that I realize I usually refer to this set as “the gay sailors”–the mere fact of the set consisting of two males seems almost inevitably, in the context of the heteronormativity so stringently enforced in the salt and pepper miniverse, to be a statement about their sexuality.

This set, incidentally, is one of the few I own that is made of moulded plastic, rather than the usual ceramic or, occasionally, wood.

The News Is a Woman

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.

Breeding Like Rabbits

Sometimes sand-and-pepper sets make clear distinctions between the masculinity and femininity of the shakers they contain without having to resort to putting the animal figures they represent into human clothing. You might guess that this particular shaker represents a female rabbit just because she happens to be pink:

But if you place her in relation to her partner in the way that their shapes and curves clearly require, her femaleness becomes even more explicit:

Although I suppose it could be two gay male bunnies.  Or just two random rabbits playing leapfrog?

And as usual in response to shaker sets like this one, I find myself wondering why anyone wants to be reminded of copulating rabbits while seasoning their food.

Underlining Gender Differences–Especially When We Kiss

One of the things I find fascinating about shaker sets is how their basic purpose–to contain two different condiments–becomes the basis of an ongoing confirmation, not only of the difference between salt and pepper, but indeed, of their oppositeness. They’re not just different flavors. One is black and one is white. Black is not just different from white, it seems; many of us won’t be satisfied unless we understand them as opposites, a habit that underscores a lot of thoughtless racist discourse; white is good, black is evil, etc. And that becomes the basis of all the opposites shaker sets represent once they become representational figures: cats and dogs, hens and roosters, etc. Once we have associated different things together, we humans seem to have some sort of innate urge not just to understand them as different, but as exactly and completely opposite.

Thus, most obviously, the inherent physical difference between males and females very quickly in conventional thinking turns into an assertion of oppositeness: men are strong, so women are weak, men at reasonable, so women are emotional, etc.,etc., most of which amount to the assertion that men are inherently superior and more evolved in every conceivable way. While I do own a number of salt and pepper sets which consist of two duplicate examples of the same object, most of my sets find ways of distinguishing between their two component parts–and more often than not they do so by including details that imply an opposition in gender. In an earlier post, I discussed this set:

As viewed from a respectful distance by most humans, a male bear and a female bear generally look much like each other. But as this set insists, that’s not enough. We humans need to underline the importance of the gender distinction by dressing the bears up as humans in human garments in colors that conventionally represent and reinforce the gender distinction. He’s in blue,she’s in pink.

The same thing happens here, perhaps more obviously:

This time it’s an actual boy and an actual girl; but nevertheless, there’s an underlining of the gender difference in the clothing: once more, he’s in blue and she’s in pink.

You might be wondering why their mouths are so shiny. Is it a celebration of orthodontia? No. This pairs are what are known in the shaker world as kissers. The round silver bits are actually magnets, and hold them together at the mouth once they are brought close to each other.

The magnets are pretty powerful, as evidenced here:

Perhaps it’s the power of this implied attraction that mandates the underlining of maleness and femaleness–a possibly homophobic insistence on the conventionality and appropriateness of the coupling. Above all, I keep realizing in different ways, salt and pepper shakers, made for a conventional-minded middle class market, are all about asserting the triumph and tyranny of the norm.

Shaker. Sculpture. Shaker Sculpture.

In my last post, after discussing the unsettling disproportion of a shaker set that contains a human figure accompanied by some relatively giant shakers (or perhaps, some normal-sized shakers accompanied by a decidedly tiny human figure, I promised to talk about another set I have that consists of the usual shaker-sized miniature human figure and a proportionally giant (or in terms of my real world, normally life-size) shaker–but this time the set makes perfectly good sense. Here it is:

The miniature figure is a sculptor, and what he is sculpting is a giant pepper shaker–a truly inspired work of art in the context of a salt and pepper set.  The clever joke here is that what is to me a normal-sized shaker that actually looks like (and can actually be used like) a normal-sized pepper shaker has come to represent, placed beside its supposed sculptor, a weird artistic take on the shaker world–the depiction of something usually quite small as immense.  There’s something Dada about it.  Or may something Pop-Artish.  One or the other.  either way, the sculptor is clearly a genius, his eyes fixed on unsettling reality.  And on focussing attention on the disproportion between the figures represented in shakers and the people who use them–something we surely usually take for granted and don’t even begin to think about.

It’s interesting, in the light of the string of posts about chubby chefs that I’ve been doing lately, that this non-chef shaker figure should also be fairly rotund, and have some pretty puffy cheeks, too.  If the figures who inhabit the imaginary world represented by salt and pepper shakers could actually come to life, we’d probably be wanting to be putting a goodly proportion of them in a sever calorie-lowering diet.   There is rarely ever anything angular about them. They are safely and unthreateningly rounded–as are so many of things we like to call cute; and so, they are safely utopian, the cute harmless way things ought to be, if things were perfect.  Cute means vulnerable, and  for no clear reason I can think of, chubbiness tends to seem sort of vulnerable.  The evidence of the existence of bones and muscles under the skin is the end of cuteness.

Chubby Chef Goes Solo, and Apparently Sings Solo, Too

This not-so-svelte cook is all on his own:

With a moustache similar to the gentleman in the set I discussed a couple of posts ago, he seems to be aspring to the Italian-chef stereotype: not just large-tummied and round-cheeked (and cherubically round-nosed), but with a moustache, another perky handlebar moustache.   And from the look of his mouth, he appears to be raising his voice in song–possibly a Verdi aria or a song in praise of pasta fazool.

He is not himself a shaker: but the cart he is wheeling contains two objects almost as large as he is but shaped like a fairly conventional set of non-representational shakers–so there is a sort of disruption of the usual binarism of the shaker world: here we have three separate entities representing four major objects: one cook, one wagon, one salt marked S , one pepper marked P.

There’s another disruption also.  The shakers are giant ones for the chef, in scale for would-be users like me.  And there’s maybe something a little disconcerting about the inconsistency of scale; like, why is this tiny chef carting around these gigantic salt-and-pepper shakers?  Is he really that tiny?  Are they really so large, and if so, why?  It might make more sense if they looked like large barrels of flour or something like that, something large enough to be pulled in a cart that size by a figure that size.  But they don’t.  They just look like boring but gigantic shakers.

And yet this set is similar to another set I have that consists of a miniature human figure and a proportionally giant shaker–and this time the set makes perfectly good sense.  How, you ask?  More about it in my next post.

Chubby Chefs Cooking for Campbells

Yet another set of chubby-cheeked chefs:

This wide-eyed pair works for  certain soup company, it seems.  They are sitting on their cans.  Their cute chubbiness confirms the chubby cuteness cliché.

An odd thing about this set is the variant shape of the containers of condiments against which the two chefs lean.  He leans against a cylindrical container marked “salt,” she against a square container labelled “pepper.”  I’m tempted to explore the connections: why is a male associated with pepper and cylindricity (is that a word?) and why is a female associated with squareness and salt?  I can think of some reasons for the shapes, although they seem all too obvious to spell out here.  But I have no idea why salt might be more masculine than pepper is.

Chubby Chefs

Speaking of stereotypes (as I have doing in recent posts about salt-and-pepper depictions of Asiatics): did you notice how chubby all those chefs are, in the set I talked about in my last post?  And indeed, not really very much to my surprise, other sets depicting non-Asiatic chefs are equally chubby–like this one:

This time around, the racial or ethnic marking seems to be Italian–consider the ridiculous comic opera moustache.  And those things they are holding that look like pretzels in the shape of an S and a P must therefore be Italian taralli.  But the ethnicity hardly matters, for if they are salt and pepper shakers, clearly, and if they are chefs, then they must be chubby.  Very very chubby.  So cutely chubby that you want to hug them or hit them.  More examples to follow.

Chinese Cooking Clones

As I suggested in an earlier post, alongside the exotic aliens, the other major branch of Asiatic stereotypes represented in my salt and pepper shaker collection consists of cooks.  Here’s a pair:

The standard stereotypical slanty eyes, so slanty that seem to be creepily without any whites, and this time accompanied by jolly rounded cheeks and a merry smile–a sort of Asian-stereotype version of Jolly old Saint Nick, albeit without the beard or Rudolph.

What seems most interesting about them, however, is that these two look exactly the same.  I suppose you could make the same comment about lots of figures in salt and pepper sets, which, as a quick browse through earlier posts on this blog will quickly reveal,  often consist of two similar or even duplicate dogs or cats or potatoes or feet or light bulbs.  But when they are dogs or potatoes, they don’t conform to any longstanding cliché about how all [insert racist slur here] look alike.  Such a cliché does, however, exist about Chinese or Japanese people–and so these two lookalikes fit ever so comfortably into that context and thus seem to be a jolly but perhaps unconsciously mean-minded affirmation of that racist cliché.

The cliché is only further confirmed when I place these salt and pepper shakers into the context of the even larger set of which they are a part:

Now we see that we have not one, not two, not even three, but actually four Chinese cooks who all look exactly the same as each other. As does, clearly, if this set is any evidence, the entire population of China.  The whole thing about racial stereotypes is that believing in them depends on crude approximation and lack of actual perception or experience of any individual members of the groups they purport to sum up.

It’s interesting that these Chinese people should be cooks, and that these cooks should be Chinese people. There was a time not so long ago, especially in small towns on the Prairies and elsewhere, when the average North American’s experience of people of Chinese descent consisted of the only “Chinaman” in town, the cook who ran the local restaurant, where you could get not only bacon and eggs and hamburgers, but also exotic dishes called things like chow mein, and chop suey.  Not surprising, then, that Asians stereotypes in the form of salt and pepper sets directed at the North American market should be represented as cooks–even though most of the people involved in manufacturing the sets were most likely Asian and in Asia but too busy at their menial factory jobs to be doing much cooking.  Or all that much smiling.