Works in Progress - Winter 2011

Rosie the Helpless Little Thing?

By Jennifer Henderson | June 24, 2013


Fists evoke power, resistance, even solidarity, and fist imagery has proliferated over the years. The Black Panther Party’s symbol connoted racial pride and political clout; the Obamas’ famous fist bump was an act of celebration; and Rosie the Riveter in a World War II poster flexed a bicep and clenched a fist, showing a can-do spirit that feminists have since appropriated. Current research, however, suggests that this last example may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

Thomas W. Schubert, a social psychologist and researcher at the Higher Institute of Labor and Social Enterprise in Lisbon, Portugal, wondered if a fist with no accompanying reference to force might influence someone’s perception of physical aggression. After all, he explains, a fist is just “the abbreviation of hitting someone or something; it implies the ability and determination that one will use bodily force.” In three related experiments, Schubert got participants to make a fist with their nondominant hand while identifying words, moods, and actions affiliated with power or aggression; he never uttered fist because he considered the word loaded. Compared to those who held neutral hand positions, men who made a fist while completing various tasks felt more powerful and women who tightened their grip felt less so.

Schubert’s findings confirm previous research. “Men,” he says, “associate bodily force with gain- ing power, whereas women associate bodily force with expressing loss of power.” For women, the gesture may evoke feelings of powerlessness. “This,” he says, “creates a compatibility that strengthens the dominance of [men] and weakens opposition by women.”

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