Just a tablet

Before swallowing a tablet, we seldom see anything other than a small round pill. But medicines affect us in many ways – not all of them physical. Behind the tablets and vaccines we take lie expectations and, not least, marketing. Our medicines are pieces in a game that deals with feminine and masculine, and what the state and drug companies really consider these terms to mean. 

Rosa piller

Imagine a little pink Viagra tablet instead of the blue one. How masculine would that be? Would it strengthen the potency of the man who took it? The colour of the little blue tablet is one example of how medicines reinforce our ideas of masculine and feminine. 

Most of us have expectations about how our bodies will behave, and what they should or should not do. The male body, for example, is expected to be virile: when it isn’t, we treat it. So prescribing a medicine may achieve more than simply curing a disease. Medicines are loaded with ideas about how healthy people should be, how they should spend their days and their nights, how they should behave, feel and look. 

How drugs influence our ideas of male and female

In Gendering drugs, editor and LiU senior lecturer Ericka Johnson investigates how drugs reinforce various notions about gender. Together with her colleagues, she has investigated what is considered to be a healthy feminine or masculine body, and the role that marketing plays in creating these ideals.

“We wanted to investigate this question since whether or not to take a particular medicine is often seen as an individual decision. But behind this decision, there are always structures and social standards. In this book, we wanted to shift the focus from the individual, and examine more closely the structures in different countries,” says Ericka Johnson.

Ericka Johnson - editor of Gendering DrugsEricka Johnson, editor of Gendering drugs. Photo credit: Anna Nilsen

Targeted marketing of prescription drugs to the general public is forbidden in Sweden. People in Sweden can see advertisements for analgesics, anticongestant sprays and cough medicine, but not drugs for enlarged prostate, as in the US and the UK. The advertising that Ericka Johnson and her colleagues have studied has included the HPV vaccine against cervical cancer, hormone treatments to delay puberty, and treatment for benign prostate enlargement. 

“We see clearly that the advertising plays on different identities, such as masculine and feminine. It also plays on identities related to relationships. It is not seldom that a grandma or partner is present in the advert, with the message: ‘Do you want to spend quality time with your grandchildren or partner? If so, you should take our medicine.’”

By using relationships in advertising, pharmaceuticals companies can ensure that more people see it. The medicines are not just a prescription for a healthy life for the person taking them, they also create healthy relationships.

“The advertising says that drugs affect more than the person taking them. It is also the duty of a responsible loved one to make sure that they are taken,” says Ericka Johnson.

One example of this is the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. HPV is a very common virus spread by sexual intercourse. It can give rise to, among other things, condyloma (genital infection). Some types of HPV can cause cell changes and lead to cancer, mainly in the genitals of women, but also in men. 

Commercial advertising in Sweden for HPV vaccine has principally targeted mothers, who are encouraged to take responsibility for the future health of their daughters and help them avoid cervical cancer. It was clear that the intended takers of the HPV vaccine were to be young girls. But this is not the case everywhere. 

By studying vaccination campaigns for the HPV vaccine in Colombia, the UK, Sweden and Austria, the researchers could see how one medicine has completely different significances, depending on where it is marketed. 

“In Austria, the HPV vaccine does not have the same association with gender as it has in Sweden. Instead, all children, both boys and girls, are vaccinated as part of the school-based vaccination programme.” 

A tablet every day – is that healthy?

In a world in which we are living longer, taking medicines has become a more natural part of our everyday life, and small niggles, symptoms and even normal physical development can be treated. But if you have to take a medicine every day, can you call yourself “healthy”? Or should we change our ideas of what our bodies are capable of – as long as we are not fatally ill – and accept that they may not manage everything we demand of them, throughout the whole of life? Ericka Johnson suggests that this is a decision for each individual. 

“I am a social scientist and I can’t express an opinion about effects on individuals or particular medical effects. But no matter whether you take that tablet or not, you should think about the norms you have adopted without thinking about them, and who profits.” 


Johnson, Ericka (ed.) (2017) Gendering Drugs, Feminist Studies of Pharmaceuticals, Palgrave Macmillan


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