Mobile devices were first created to serve a specific (and frankly obvious) function: telephony. In its infancy, the cell phone was merely a telephone that allowed one individual to call another and converse regardless of the caller’s geographic location. As mobile technologies have evolved over time, however, these devices now embody and represent much more than just a vocal communication tool. Users can now text message friends without having to orally communicate. They can snap pictures that can be shared almost instantly, and they can digitally manage all aspects of users’ personal lives without being constrained to calendars on a wall. These technological advances have created possibilities than were not even imaginable when mobile devices were developed. Interesting trends have emerged in the technological landscape since then: notions of gender and fashion have become intrinsically linked to mobile devices. These ideas are perceptible in one popular device that has permeated modern American culture: Apple’s iPhone.
In “Women on the move: the mobile phone as a gender technology,” Carla Ganito (2010) combines data from a variety of sources with similar conclusions to reinforce her idea that mobile phones are a “technology of gender” (p. 77), constructing and transforming this facet of identity. During feminism’s second wave, she explains, representations of women in the media came under scrutiny. The clichés of femininity that are popularized in the media shape the way women are perceived by others and the way they perceive themselves (p. 78). Ganito explains the arguments of feminists who believe that, like the media, technologies are shaped by the patriarchy and used to oppress women. The author asserts that she holds a contrasting view: technology is a “liberating tool for women” (p. 80) that can act as a source of empowerment. Though mobile technologies can reinforce traditional gender roles, such as the idea that males use these technologies to “explore new functionalities” (p. 81) and females use them as a “medium for personal and emotional exchange” (p. 81), they can also be used to construct new meanings. The various color options, capability for personalization, and allowance of a new way to negotiate spaces prompts mobile devices to “[transform] the way women deal with technology by levelling differences between sexes” (p. 85). These devices have simultaneously entwined themselves with aesthetics, becoming “fashion statements that convey a visual sense of identity” (p. 84).
Like Ganito (2010), James Katz and Satomi Sugiyama (2006) assert that mobile phones have become intrinsically linked to identity in the form of fashion and self-expression. In “Mobile phones as fashion statements: evidence from student surveys in the US and Japan,” Katz and Sugiyama explain the methods they employed and the results they retrieved while conducting a survey about the “relationship between fashion attentiveness and the acquisition, use, and replacement of the mobile phone” (p. 321). Copious research exists about technology’s role as a problem-solver in our daily lives, but the functions of these technologies are not the only factor consumers consider before purchasing them. Citing Silverstone and Haddon’s domestication theory, which “draws attention to the symbolic nature of goods” (p. 322), Katz and Sugiyama offer the idea of fashion as a primary purchasing motive. People use fashion “not only to express their identity, but to perceive and understand others” (p. 322). Technologies have become accessories to the way we present ourselves, allowing us to communicate symbolically (p. 323); strangers can get a sense of who we are by merely glancing at our mobile devices.
Comparing different cultures is useful in attempting to pinpoint the symbolic meanings of mobile devices because culture shapes the way we perceive others’ appearances. Katz and Sugiyama surveyed Japanese and American university students about the role fashion plays in their attitudes toward mobile technologies, intentionally focusing on two cultures that are quite different. They found that, despite the cultural differences between respondents, the feedback between the two nations converged. The findings suggested “fashion-attentive youths are keen to try new mobile communication technology and are willing to adopt it, use it often and are more likely to trade it in for newer models” (p. 328). Fashion even dominated function as Japanese heavy users indicated that the style of their device was more important than its battery life (p. 331). Katz and Sugiyama do admit that their survey was limited by the sample size with which they had to work; they were only able to survey the people who chose to take a specific course at a specific university. The result of this survey “merely scratches the surface of the issue” (p. 335).
Ganito (2010) and Katz and Sugiyama (2006)’s works explore the relationship between gender, fashion, and identity, agreeing that individual identity can be forged through the ways different segments of the population choose to use their devices. Apple’s iPhone exemplifies this point. A frequent discourse surrounding recent incarnations of the device is that a majority of consumers only purchase iPhones because “everyone else has them” (though as Kyle Wagner points out, this may not be such a bad thing). These consumers neglect to consider most of the functions that set the device apart from its competitors and instead focus only on how the physical appearance of the phone affects their own identity. This attitude has led a few people to the opinion that iPhones are inherently for women because of the product’s “pretty” appearance and advertising. Regardless of gender, iPhone users who value style want “mobiles to become a reflection of themselves, an expression of identity” (p. 83), as Ganito says. Possessing the phone, independent of knowing how to use it, acts as a status symbol and allows users to express themselves in a way that makes them feel important.
The newly introduced gold iPhone 5S, shown above, is perhaps the pinnacle of the mobile phone as status symbol. As Katz and Sugiyama state, the “mobile is an accessory that enriches those who wear it, because it shows just how much they are the object of communicative interest, and are thereby desired, on the part of others” (p. 324). As gold is often associated with wealth and opulence, the devices flew off the shelves upon their release, most likely because consumers wished to exude an identity of lavishness to others.
This example of the iPhone as a mobile device that has come to represent personal identity is only one of many. Mobile technologies in general are closely related to the concept of identity, especially in the realms of gender and fashion. Notions of femininity are both constructed and transformed through the use of mobile devices. Color, expression, and space are important aspects of transformation, and when combined these characteristics allow women to access technologies that, historically, have not always been available to them. Fashion, too, is linked to mobile technology, allowing users to display facets of their identities through their devices while simultaneously influencing their adoption and use. These devices act as immediately recognizable symbols that relate impressions about one’s personal image and function as markers of status. Gender and fashion have thus become cemented as integral considerations in the discourse surrounding mobile technology.
Ganito, C. (2010). Women on the move: the mobile phone as a gender technology. Comunicação & Cultura, 9, 77-88.
Goudreau, J. (2010). Is the iPhone for girls? Retrieved March 29, 2014, from: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jennagoudreau/2010/12/07/is-the-iphone-for-girls-apple-ipad-amazon-kindle-men-women-marketing
Katz, J. E. & Sugiyama, S. (2006). Mobile phones as fashion statements: evidence from student surveys in the US and Japan. New Media and Society, 8(2), 321-337.
[Untitled photograph of a gold iPhone 5S]. Retrieved March 29, 2014, from: http://www.minyanville.com/sectors/consumer/articles/Apple-Wont-Let-Developers-Use-the/10/31/2013/id/52502
Wagner, K. (2013). “Everyone else has one” is a perfectly good reason to buy an iPhone. Retrieved March 29, 2014, from: http://gizmodo.com/everyone-else-has-one-is-a-perfectly-good-reason-to-b-1333604115