GS498/ANTH E400     FALL 2005    Sections 26907/27460    TR 2:30-3:45

Kirkwood 212



Prof. Richard Wilk

Office: 242 Student Building, Phone 855-3901

Office Hours: Tuesdays, Thursdays 4-5 PM or by appointment

Instructor's Email address: wilkr

Class Website:

This class is also available through the old version of Oncourse

Supplementary Reading List on Gender and Consumer Culture:

Course Reading Schedule, Just in Time Assignments and Due Dates:

Course Content


There are many ways to think about and describe what life is like for people living in rich countries like the USA in the early 21st century. One thing that is obvious to any visitor though, is that we live in a consumer culture. Advertising is literally everywhere – the mediascape we live in is created by giant corporations. We measure personal success and failure largely through our material surroundings. People have come to define themselves and others through brands and logos, by what they wear, drive, eat and drink. We even measure time by the flow of fashion and the appearance of new models, the seasons through sport, and we experience aging as a sequence of products and services.


Another obvious thing that any outside observer can see about our consumer culture is that it is profoundly gendered and sexualized. In a very real sense, our bodies have become part of consumer culture. Masculine, feminine, gay and other gendered identities are constructed, maintained, and experienced through consumption. Gender and sexuality are at the heart of advertising and mass media.


The recognition that gender is closely tied to consumer culture was just under the surface in a good deal of first wave feminist writing and activism. Feminists recognized that fashion and advertising were conservative forces that tended to solidify and enforce social limits on women’s activities, roles and rights. But just changing brands or styles of dress did not change the world. Some scholars and activists have concluded that the real problem is in the structure of consumer society itself. Others hold out for the prospect of personal transformation and a change in consciousness.


If the connection between gender and consumption is so clear, why has it taken so long for scholars and cultural critics to take the topic seriously? Good question. You could even ask why it has taken so long for IU faculty to teach a course on the topic. As far as I know this is the first time a course like this has been taught at IU, and I have found very few similar courses at other universities around the country. Certainly the time is ripe – there is a good deal of solid research and many good books to draw on, but there are still many new unexplored topics for research projects.


Course Structure


This class is a bit too large to run as a seminar, with discussion based on a sequence of readings. I want to experiment with a new method of interactive teaching this semester called “just in time.” The way this works is that every weekend I will post some questions, based on reading assignments, class discussions, a website, a news story, or a topic we will soon be discussing. Before class, I read your answers, and I build the classes for that week around them. I will print some of your answers out on an overhead (WITHOUT your name attached) and bring them to class, to put up onscreen for discussion.


You will be graded on your answers – you need to show you have done the reading and thought about the questions. But the just in time questions only count for 10% of your grade. You can miss a few of them without flunking the class.


Because consumer culture and gender are so much a part of our everyday lives, a good deal of this course will be aimed at getting you involved in looking around you, at other people, at advertising, and different kinds of material culture. Once you open your eyes to the gendered nature of objects, you will find complex and fascinating stories in even the most mundane objects like matches, scissors, shoes and furniture. Each of you will be involved in an individual or group research project this semester.




The flow of the class is structured around our main text – Susan Willis’ book “A Primer for Daily Life.” It has unfortunately gone out of print, but we secured permission to copy it. Additional readings will come from the collection put together by Jennifer Scanlon, called “The Gender and Consumer Culture Reader.”


There has been a recent explosion of new books on gendered aspects of consumption. I have ordered six of the most interesting ones I could find as optional readings for the class. During the first two weeks of the semester you should pick one of these books and buy it. You will then meet with the other students in the class who chose that book. I will give you a set of discussion questions. You will each write your own book review, but your group will collaborate to put together a 20-minute class presentation on the book. Instead of a mid-term we will have three class sessions devoted to these presentations.


The optional texts are:


S. Pink Home Truths 2004 Berg

M. Nichter Fat Talk  2000 Harvard

A. Robertson Life Like Dolls 2004 Routledge

B. Osgerby  Playboys in Paradise 2001 Berg

M. Storr Latex and Lingerie 2003 Berg

C. Suthrell Unzipping Gender 2004 Berg


These cover a wide range of topics, but if none of them are to your taste, I will be handing out an extended reading list and you can choose something from that list and work on your own.

There is also a supplementary reading list online, which will be useful in writing your final paper.



Your final course grade will be based on the following percentages:


*      10%   Just-in-time online responses

*      30%   Book review

*      50%   Final Project

*      10%   Oral presentations and participation in class discussion


You will receive a separate handout on the final project.


Lateness and other policies


I am not sympathetic to work that is handed in late. As a rule I take 5% off the grade for each weekday that a paper is overdue. I do not accept verbal excuses – bring me a note from a doctor, or some other kind of notice if it is a family emergency.


If you run into trouble and fall behind, come in and talk to me during office hours or make an appointment. I will try to work with you to catch up and finish the course.  Don't wait until the very end of the semester to discuss problems. Email is a good way to start.


I hate giving incompletes. If you cannot finish the coursework during the semester, its better to turn in partially finished work than to ask me for an incomplete. You must contact me two weeks before the last class if you plan to ask for an incomplete.


I consider it my obligation to listen carefully to your questions with respect and empathy and to respond carefully and without bias. I also feel obligated to present material in an interesting and understandable way: if you don't understand what I am saying speak up! I will try again. Finally, I am obligated to be fair and explicit about grades, and about what you should expect from the class.


The other side of the story is your obligation as a student to me and to the other students in the class. The most important is not to disrupt the class by your behavior; try to get there on time, or make a quiet entrance if you are late. Getting up and leaving in the middle of class is also disruptive. Don't distract other students by talking during the class or films. You are also obligated to think ahead about grades and papers; if you are having difficulty with any aspect of the class, it is your responsibility to talk to us so we can work with you. Finally, you are obligated to attend class regularly; showing up and listening is a basic form of respect for the content of the education you are paying for!


All cases of cheating will be handled according to the rules stated in the University Bulletin. In particular, in this course you must provide original work on all assignments - you are not allowed to work together with other students in writing the assignment, unless you are expressly asked to do so. All written work must be your own, and should not be copied or paraphrased from other sources.