Stereo-Typed by Design
by Isabel Mager & Gabriel .A. Maher
In the foreground, a desk; subframe and legs in square tubular steel, standard height, 720mm, front facing. Table top — 25mm thick — supports one FACIT T2 typewriter, centre aligned, in action, carriage paused to the right, paper loaded. A paper tray sits parallel to an adjustable desk lamp clamped to the right side of the table. Positioned behind these objects is a single seated figure, arranged on an adjustable office chair. The placement of the FACIT T2 and the line of the table top visually divides the figure in two, placing individual emphasis on the upper torso, shoulders and face, and the legs below the table top.
In a sleeveless, canary yellow turtleneck pencil dress, the figure is pronounced — matching with the seat upholstery — to unite in a monochrome focal point. Slim-fitting apparel with a narrow cut. The hem falls to the knee and is tailored for a close fit, the dress clearly influences movement and impacts posture. As a seated figure in this garment, legs are in effect bonded together. The legs skew to the left, producing the only dynamic of movement in the composition while also revealing the adjustment handle on the chair.
A muted photo-studio background in off-white puts visual emphasis on the metal and the mechanical in the image: the typewriter, the steel frame, the elevated legs of the chair base, the tray and clamp-lamp. These materials are contrasted by the presence of the figure and the tactile materiality of the dress and the upholstery. The ‘secretary’ meets our gaze and holds it, as if paused momentarily from the task at hand.This is a staged and stylised ‘workspace’ tableaux from the 1960s, photographed for the product catalogues of the Swedish industrial corporation and manufacturer of office products, FACIT. Representations of the body are very present in these catalogue images. They are particularly present in articulating the role of ‘secretaries’ in situ, surrounded by objects that represent and confirm the social and spatial conditions of this role at the time. In these images, the role of the secretary is performed and enacted by anonymous subjects who model specific relationships to objects and furniture and demonstrate symbolic actions of ‘office work’ through posture and gesture.
These images are inherently performative, and appropriate an enduring mediated narrative of secretarial roles in western society in the mid-late 20th Century. In this essay we will focus on the performativity of these images and the mediation or representational classification of the secretaries role. Performativity functions both as a metaphor and an analytical tool for framing the cultural phenomena of the ‘secretary’ in these images. We will unpack the design elements in these images and consider how they frame the historical, material, and social context of femininity in the office as well as the gendered conditions of labour. In this way, design is re-read in sexual terms and sexuality is seen as a direct link to how people communicate in society. As Beatriz Colomina outlines, “the body has to be understood as a political construct, a product of systems of representation” 
By way of these mediated images, objects and people become interchangeable, and together, they produce meaning. The typewriter, the desk, the chair, the arrangement of office furniture and office products cannot simply be read as objects. They do more as they unite with representations of the body in order to communicate higher aspirations of cultural meaning. The mediated body of the secretary in these images intends to link these basic objects with a type of desirable femininity. By default, design and media systems collaborate to materialise the role of the secretary under specific conditions. These conditions mark the body of the secretary within the social constructs of femininity of the time.
The repetitiveness of these staged and photographed situations involving secretaries, their colleagues, their bosses, their typewriters and office furniture arrangements prevails throughout the FACIT publicity images. This catalogue of images exemplifies how pervasively the secretarial position was re-designed throughout history, from an originally male (women were restricted to domestic or blue-collar positions) to a stereotypically female gendered role. While such images are today read as stereotypical, this depiction of ‘secretary-ness’ — as desirable femininity (or as a feminine role in general) — has persisted. The notion of the secretary might have shifted in practice, the mediated persona however, explicitly maintains itself in current google searches, digital archives, stock photography and perhaps also our ‘collective unconscious’. Given the constancy of this media narrative, Danielle Levitt poses the question, can these roles “transcend the notion of the stereotype to instead move into the realm of the archetype ...?”  The mediated image of the secretary produces a lasting ‘female archetype’ and reveals how cultural meanings and stereotypes have built up over time and can be difficult to change. As such, She pronouns are still synonymous with this role.
While gender reality is created through sustained social performances, images allow for the documentation and aestheticisation of these performances. These images contribute to the establishment and reinforcement of gender norms, on a conceptual level whilst also reproducing categories of identity and the body — the reproductions of which are in many ways embodied in society.
The secretarial position became accessible to women in the 1950s, early in the Cold War era. From previous blue collar positions within factories, women could now perform service oriented roles within the Cold War offices. Employment as a secretary was one of the later named ‘pink-collar jobs’, a tag that includes the service roles of librarian, teacher, nurse and retail positions. Women of the 1950s—1970s in Western countries could study, but in the workforce, female roles were still dependent on the husband’s approval and limited to low skilled and low wage positions without prospects.
The figure of the female secretary next to the typewriter is the recurring theme within the FACIT imagery from the 1950s—1970s. She is happy at work with the typewriter, she is seated in a rigid posture behind the typewriter in a sleek modern office arrangement, she reaches out for something while seated at the desk — everything is at arm's length — and she instructs with her fingers on how to use the machines, replace the ink tape, and load the paper.
This instructive imagery places the secretary with the typewriter in all her interactions. Within the new gendered dynamics of the early 1950s and 1960s offices, the typewriter became a tool to mediate and construct the performance of the new secretarial workforce. From the blue-collar positions within factories and their highly mechanic tasks, the typewriter role became a blend of these mechanic factory tasks combined with the more domestic and clean office spaces. The typewriter, which had existed in offices since the late 1800s, also became a mediating object to shape this newly gendered secretarial position.
The typewriter is her companion — a machine for building text from single letters stamped in a sequential and prescribed order. Like a printing press, the typewriter removes the individuals identity from the produced visual language. Not meant for reproduction of the content itself, the typewriter instead allows its user to compose letters and layouts customised to each new task.
The nature of knowledge production and authorship within the new offices was funnelled through the hands of secretaries, who process this knowledge — without authorship. The secretarial role is embedded in a position of informal power due to her informal control over information flow — bound by rules of confidentiality. As is outlined in the first chapter of The Secretary Grid — an American Management Association publication — as cited by Daphne Spain.
“The secretaries position at the centre of the information network raises the issue of privileged communications and how best to handle it (...) ‘Who owns the information?’ The answer is, ‘The boss does.’ (...) The secretaries position with regard to this information is that of a hotel desk clerk to the contents of the safety deposit box that stores the guest’s valuables. She doesn’t own it, but she knows what it is and what is in it. The root of the word secretary is, after all, secret: something kept from the knowledge of others.” 
We see a maintenance of control over this elusive ‘secretarial power’ through the design, order and arrangement of the space surrounding the secretarial role. The secretary is without a space of her own. She is instead, concisely placed in a serial arrangement within an open plan office — no hiding and no secrets. The spatial boundaries of the secretary limit access to knowledge and decision making processes. The spatial conditions captured in these images, position secretarial work within the office landscape and indicate gendered spatial dynamics.
1. Beatriz Colomina, Sexuality & Space (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), p. 2.
2. Danielle Levitt, Female Archetypes: On Fashion Storytelling and the Collective Unconscious (Issue 4). Vestoj On Power, 2014, p. 83.
3. Robert Blake et al, The Secretary Grid (New York: Amacom Books, 1983), pp. 4–5, emphasis in original.
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