Assignments: Batch Two: Assignment 14

What are handbags for? Offer a critical semiotic analysis of how handbags signify.


For general guidance about what is expected in your essays for this module, see the general criteria.

What Key Features Do I Look For?

  • Familiarity with relevant texts
  • Evidence - the stronger the better
  • Argument - coherent and balanced
  • Theoretical discussion - relation to relevant theories
  • Understanding of relevant concepts
  • Reflexivity - reflections on methodology
  • Examples - insightfully analysed
  • Style - readability and effective presentation

Please remember to avoid footnotes and to include an alphabetical list of 'References' which have been cited in the text (not a Bibliography of anything you have read for the essay). This list should include author's names, date, book titles (in italics), place of publication and publisher. Within the text always cite author's surname, date and page number. Double-space your text and number your pages. For more detailed notes on writing essays in this department, click here.

Advice for this particular assignment: Identify basic types and sub-types, for which you are welcome to seek assistance from friends. If you use Google images you can easily find hundreds of images of handbags which you can try to group on the basis of visual similarities (including fabrics, colours and shapes). You should include a chart with labels indicating the basic types you have identified. Do such types relate in any way to class, age, formality or subcultures? Consider the general symbolism of handbags as well as the signification of different types. Why are they distinctively feminine? How close can the design of a man's bag get to a woman's handbag without becoming one? Solicit the comments of any friends who have several handbags. What significance to handbags have for their owners? Do they feel that their bags say something about them?


Remember that quotation from Nancy Henley in Lecture 2: ‘The function of the purse [handbag] as women’s albatross makes it a symbol of ridicule; many caricatures of women (by both females and males) utilize a purse as a comic focus, and impersonations of male homosexuals likewise use a purse as a sort of badge of shame. (Obviously, its psychoanalytic implications as a "vessel", a treasure chest that may be opened or closed, are not lost in these interpretations)’ (Henley 1977, p. 90). How do handbaggers react to that? Don't get too sidetracked into Freudian symbolism, however.

You are expected to demonstrate your understanding of relevant semiotic concepts. These are likely to include codes, paradigms, oppositions, markedness and the commutation test. Wayne Dynes (personal correspondence, 8/2/2013) offered this suggestion for a structuralist analysis:


Of course, if you use this kind of approach you might choose different binaries, such as functional vs. decorative and/or subtle vs. strident. Perhaps such concepts can be derived from the ways in which handbag users themselves talk about them. Alternatively, you can explore the way in which such products are 'positioned' in the market in relation to price and innovation.

In discussing sex and gender, remember the distinction: 'sex' being a biological category and 'gender' a cultural category. If you are talking about males and females then you refer to sex (as in 'the two sexes'); if you are talking about masculinity and femininity then you refer to (constructions of) gender (see Chandler & Munday 2011). The concept of 'the opposite sex' only makes sense symbolically, but in our constructions of social reality such symbolism is fundamental. Do not assume that women will naturally share certain preferences just because they are women (that is called naive gender essentialism). Avoid generalizations such as 'all women...', 'women naturally...', 'female preferences...' or 'the female mind...'.

A quick trawl of the web uncovered this forum on the semiotics of handbags:

Note also that this is an assignment for which the inclusion of relevant pictorial illustrations is essential. If you take photographs yourself and your photographs include people's faces these should be pixelated unless have a signed consent form from them. Remember to include a list labelled either Figures or Image sources after your list of References.

Only some of the books on the suggested reading are explicitly semiotic and you may need to recast their insights within a semiotic framework.

Some suggested reading

Note: Treat with extreme caution sources labelled with this symbol!

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