Catfights and the Catwalk

A Project Runway winner, Christian Siriano has gone on to fashion acclaim. Photo via NolitaHearts.com.
A Project Runway winner, Christian Siriano quickly rose to fashion fame. Photo via NolitaHearts.com.

 

Red Carpet season has come and gone, and with it the sky-high stilettos and elegant evening gowns that elicit the standard, “Who are you wearing?” Fashion denotes status and femininity on the red carpet, daily life, and even in the music world (remember Kreayshawn’s catchy rap “Gucci Gucci”?).

Despite this emphasis on female consumers and on fashion being a “women’s world,” Allyson Stokes finds it’s gay men who excel in the industry, taking the majority of fashion awards and titles as elite designers. This makes fashion a realm of role reversal: men who work in these feminized professions more easily achieve higher status than their female colleagues, the opposite of what happens when women enter predominantly male professions.

Using content analysis of 157 entries in Vogeupedia (the canon of elite designers) and articles about designers in broader fashion media, Stokes researched how the fashion industry legitimates designers to understand why gay male designers steal the spotlight. Entries and articles about gay men often discuss themes like value and legitimacy, which Stokes argues “constructs a gendered image of the ideal cultural producer.” Stokes uses the metaphor of the glass ceiling (err, runway) to explain how the industry valorizes gay male designers as the artists and tastemakers of the fashion world. In the spotlight of a “woman’s world,” they receive the lion’s share of legitimation, authority, and legendary status.

Descriptions in Voguepedia and fashion articles more generally tend to depict gay male designers as artists more often than women; in contrast to women who design clothes to accommodate consumer to consumers’ tastes, gay men are noted for created original “art.” Gay male designers receive praise for their work in fashion, while the media focus on female designers revolves around their families and other aspects of their lives unrelated to their creative processes. When the question of gender inequality comes up in the broader fashion media, articles follow two major patterns in their responses: 1. They justify the inequalities or 2. They criticize them, but using essentialist ideas that men and women are inherently different.

Stokes’s glass runway metaphor nicely complements the glass escalator, which uses the image of an invisible moving staircase to show how men entering sectors of “women’s work” find themselves quickly elevated to the top. As discrimination in other sectors increased the prevalence of gay men in fashion, a more LGBTQ-friendly atmosphere, it has also reinforced a “normal”/queer dichotomy. So while gay men find themselves at an advantage compared to female designers, sexuality-based discrimination still complicates their strut down the glass runway. It’s a far experience than straight men’s glass escalator.

Held Back

Photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr.
Photo by woodleywonderworks via Flickr.

In Social Forces, Megan Andrew examines how being held back in grade school affects kids’ high-school completion, college entry, and college completion. Students can be held back for a variety of reasons, many of which are well intentioned. But as Andrew shows, such jarring incidents and processes can be “scarring,” leaving lasting impacts on young people’s lives, moreso depending on its timing.

Andrew uses two national, longitudinal studies in her work: the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 and the National Educational Longitudinal Study 1988. Each consists of repeated surveys of thousands of students from grade-school into adult life. Even when she uses a method called “sibling fixed-effects” to control for family, birth-cohort, and demographic characteristics within families, retention still has clear consequences for high-school completion. Andrew finds that any grade-school retention greatly decreases a child’s odds of high school completion; however, the effect is dampened when the retention occurs earlier rather than later. That is, repeating the second grade isn’t as harmful as being held back in the eighth grade. Luckily, once Andrew controls for high school completion, the scarring effect seems to go down; if kids graduate high school, a past retention has less impact on their college entry and completion.

Drawing on sociological understandings of performance and self-esteem, Andrew theorizes that stigma and students’ doubts about their capabilities (raised by being held back) explain the scarring effects. So when educators and parents hope to better prepare students for transitions to junior high or high school with an extra year of grade school, the move can paradoxically lower a child’s chances of educational success. Now teachers and parents can better address children’s needs with the knowledge that, if it is necessary to hold a child back in school, it’s far better to do so earlier rather than later in the educational process.

Drinking and Dating as Serious Business: Post-Recession Performances of Global Masculinity

Photo by Angelina Early via Flickr.
Photo by Angelina Early via Flickr.

Men display their success by spending on women: not a new idea. (Cue “Another Saturday Night.”) What’s new is which men in the world have the dough to get the date, argues Kimberly Hoang in a piece published recently in Social Problems. Studying hostess bars in Vietnam, Hoang illustrates how Asian economies’ strength and Western markets’ financial dive after the 2008 recession have affected global gender and racial hierarchies. Before this, non-Western men were disparaged as unable to provide for women, whether as lovers or as businessmen. But as Hoang observed, newly wealthy Asian businessmen and Asians working overseas upended these tropes through their consumption of liquor and ladies at hostess bars. These men demonstrated their success as many in the West lost jobs and fortunes. These Asian men’s ability to flash a lot of cash—through bottle service and lavish, visible tipping of hostesses—signals a challenge to a global hierarchy of men that imagines white Western businessmen at the top.

Hoang conducted 22 months of ethnographic fieldwork at four different hostess bars, working before and after the 2008 financial crisis. This allowed her to examine shifts in the number of bars catering to different clientele, including the emergence of spots serving newly wealthy Vietnamese businessmen. Men’s use of women in these bars is more than simply symbolic. Hoang found that the sex industry is a central space in which Vietnamese businessmen demonstrate their power to other Asian businessmen involved in foreign direct investment. Spending time together at such bars is necessary to “facilitate relations of trust in a country where investors do not have faith in legal contracts,” Hoang writes.

For Western men, hostess bars are where they seek Vietnamese women as sexual partners, girlfriends, or wives, thus asserting their masculinity, especially after the financial crisis. They capitalize on the lower cost of living in Vietnam and hew to an outdated vision of Western superiority and power over “Third World women.” This vision is out of touch with the growth of Vietnam’s economy and women’s own agency. For example, Hoang highlights how some women in these bars take control by bolstering Western men’s sense of national superiority, telling them tall tales about their impoverished village roots to spur a sense of superiority and charity that compels the men to part with large sums of money.

Men position themselves in a global hierarchy through drinking, tipping, and claiming women in these hostess bars. According to Hoang, these acts—usually understood as off-the-clock and inconsequential—are significantly related to financial markets and business deals. Hostess bars help signal rising and falling fortunes for individuals, countries, and regions of the world.

Caught in the Culture Wars Crossfire

Many observers of American politics argue that since the mid 1980s, the increasing salience of so-called “social issues,” like abortion and same-sex marriage, has broken up coalitions of voters with common economic interests and has moved American politics to the right. They suggest moral issues have displaced class politics and that public opinion has grown more polarized as a result. Indeed, political elites package clearly defined positions on economic and social issues together into ideologies we call conservative and liberal.

If all that’s true, are people who are identify as socially liberal, economically conservative, or vice versa out of touch with mainstream politics? Or is the general public just less polarized than political leaders and the media? Moreover, what has party-line ideological packaging meant for electoral outcomes?

In the American Journal of Sociology, Delia Baldassarri and Amir Goldberg use 20 years of data (1984–2004) from the National Election Studies to show that many Americans have consistent and logical political ideas that don’t align with either major party’s ideological package. These voters, whom the authors call alternatives, are socially liberal and economically conservative (or vice versa), and their positions remain steady over time. Thus, as Democratic and Republican Party positions have become more polarized, alternatives’ views have grown more distinct from them. Alternatives have no obvious home in either party.

Though it’s intuitive, the study makes it clear that the ties between economic and social issues made by the left and the right, which many people see as normal or natural, represent just two among the many belief systems that Americans actually hold. Alternatives’ positions are logical, reasoned, and consistent—but unrepresented by either of the dominant ideologies. It is interesting, then, that alternatives usually vote Republican. The authors write that the most conservative among the alternatives’ views tend to hold sway when it comes to picking a party.

Two major findings emerge: 1) Beneath the ideologically divided rhetoric that is so prominent in American culture lies a public that is politically astute but unaligned. 2) The salience of moral issues is not the primary reason for Republicans’ electoral success. Instead, for as-yet unknown reasons, alternative voters follow their more conservative leanings at the ballot, whether economic or social.

Rating Your Corporate Peers

Certification programs have become a common way to assess corporate social and environmental responsibility, but do these third-party rating programs actually change business practices?

Amanda Sharkey and Patricia Bromley investigated how involvement in an environmental evaluation program, the quality of a firms’ rating, and the ratings of peer firms are associated with actual pollution levels. They found that ratings programs affect the individual companies involved as well as their wider network of peer companies. Just as there are social pressures and norms to be environmentally friendly in communities and friend groups, firms also seem to bow to peer pressure.

Sharkey and Bromley collected data on thousands of public companies using KLD Research and Analytics, Inc. (an influential leader in socially responsible investing) evaluations and EPA data on toxic pollution emissions. They found that corporations with more “rated” peer companies are more likely to reduce their own emissions and that the impact depends on the degree of competition and regulatory oversight in the industry. The ratings numbers also mattered, as firms with higher positive peer ratings had greater emissions reductions.

In short, private third-party rating programs can tangibly improve environmental and social outcomes, so long as organizations anticipate the ratings will impact their competitive edge, profit margins, and corporate culture. While Sharkey and Bromley caution that monitoring and rating can’t replace laws and regulation, the ratings may still play an important role in bringing about social and environmental change.

Misdemeanors as a Form of Social Control

A lot of ink has been spilled investigating “mass incarceration,” the massive expansion in the scope of punishment and its subsequent social consequences. However, the largest arrest categories are for crimes below a felony level, which do not elicit a prison sentence. These “lower-level” criminal justice encounters involve misdemeanors or infractions of noncriminal codes. Issa Kohler-Hausmann, using over 2 years of field work in a New York City criminal court, investigates how “misdemeanor justice” – the criminal justice processing of lower level offenses – represents a form of social control, even though the majority of these sub-felony cases do not result in either a finding of guilt or a formal punishment.

Kohler-Hausmann argues that the criminal justice system extends its net of control through misdemeanor level cases through three techniques: marking, procedural hassle, and performance. The first procedure, marking, is an official mark on the defendant, most often in the form of a temporary rap sheet (which can be dismissed after a period of time). The mark allows the authorities to keep temporary “tabs” on the defendant, and restricts the defendant’s travel and immigration. Further, all open criminal matters in New York are accessible to the public through an online database. This can increase the stigmatizing reach of the criminal mark, as employers and landlords can access this data.

The second form of misdemeanor control, procedural hassle, involves the institutional “hurdles” necessary to obtain the dismissal of the mark. Defendants have to conform to the institutional demands of the court, for example, a mandatory court appearance (or a number of them) is accompanied by stress, lost work, child care costs, and often the neglect of other opportunities in order to comply with court dates. Additionally, the time from arrest to dismissal is defined by numerous encounters with state authority, which demand a level conformity and obedience.

The final penal technique offered by Kohler-Hausmann is performance. The threat of a lasting criminal mark and the demands of criminal justice procedures require the defendants to comply with the demands placed on them. For example, the performance of community service is a common prerequisite for a case dismissal. Overall, these techniques allow the criminal justice system to track and discipline alleged low-level offenders without the formal punishment of parole, prison, or jail, widening the system’s net of control.

Egalitarian Dreams, Unequal Marriages

In the United States, men and women tend to make decisions about how to divide unpaid work in their household and whether and what kind of work to do without the sorts of work-family supportive policies found in many other countries. This leads to gendered patterns of paid and family work and contributes to gender inequality (although these patterns also vary by education and social class). If people weren’t constrained by the lack of policy supports, would they choose egalitarian spousal relationships? A new paper shows most young people would.

David Pedulla and Sarah Thébaud use a survey experiment to query a sample of young, unmarried, men and women in the U.S. They ask how respondents would like to structure their future relationships as a way to study egalitarian attitudes without confounding the results with the current circumstances of older or married respondents.

When forced to choose among these three ways to structure future work and family life without an egalitarian option, women with any college and men with a high school degree or less are most likely to choose a neotraditional relationship structure:

  • Self-Reliant: “I would like to maintain my personal independence and focus on my career, even if that means forgoing marriage or a lifelong partner.”
  • Neotraditional (Men), Counter-Normative (Women): “I would like to have a lifelong marriage or committed relationship in which I would be primarily responsible for financially supporting the family, whereas my spouse or partner would be primarily responsible for managing the household (which may include housework and/or childcare).”
  • Counter-Normative (Men), Neotraditional (Women): “I would like to have a lifelong marriage or committed relationship in which I would be primarily responsible for managing the household (which may include housework and/or childcare), whereas my spouse or partner would be primarily responsible for financially supporting the family.”

In the absence of an egalitarian option, many college educated men choose a neotraditional relationship structure; about the same amount prioritize their own independence and career over that of a potential spouse, even if it means foregoing such a relationship. Perhaps reflecting the instability and inadequacy of their own jobs or that of potential spouses, women with a high school degree primarily choose relationship structures that prioritize their own careers, either as self-reliant or counter-normative.

Things change when respondents are given the option of choosing an egalitarian relationship structure where responsibility for household work and paid work are shared between spouses:

  • Egalitarian: “I would like to have a lifelong marriage or committed relationship where financially supporting the family and managing the household (which may include housework and/or childcare) are equally shared between my spouse or partner and I.”

Once the egalitarian option is added, it is the predominant relationship structure chosen, across gender and education categories. The authors find no evidence that the odds of desiring an egalitarian relationship vary by gender or education in a meaningful way.

The patterns are similar when a prompt about supportive work-family policies is added; the percentage choosing egalitarian relationships is higher in this condition for all groups except high school educated men, but differences are not significant for men. Models show that with supportive policies, women are much more likely to prefer an egalitarian relationship and much less likely to prefer a neotraditional relationship, regardless of education.

The experimental evidence in this paper paper supports the qualitative findings about young adults in the U.S. described in Kathleen Gerson’s (2010) book The Unfinished Revolution: How A New Generation is Reshaping Family, Work, and Gender in America.

If so many young people desire an egalitarian relationship with their spouse before they get married, why doesn’t it work out that way if and when they get married? Pedulla and Thébaud suggest that public policy guaranteeing access to subsidized childcare, paid parental and family medical leave, and flexible scheduling for all employees could be an important part of reducing gender inequality. But when an equal division of paid and unpaid work is not feasible, policies are likely insufficient to counteract the history of gendered “fallback” plans—even in those countries with more supportive policies, gendered patterns are found. For gender equity at home and work, gender norms must change first.


See also Pedulla and Thébaud, “Can we finish the gender revolution if we change workplace policies?”; “The benefits to a paid family leave law nobody is talking about”; and “Men and Women Prefer Egalitarian Relationships—If Workplace Policies Support Them.”

Talking Trash: High-Status Explanations for Watching Low-Brow TV

Not all TV shows are created equal, so why do we still watch the bad ones? Charles Allan McCoy and Roscoe Scarborough ask this question in their study of television watchers’ perceptions of “bad” television and how they justify watching programs even they dismiss as “trashy.” The authors’ focus is not what bad television is or what sorts of people watch stereotypically bad programs, but how viewers engage with what they define as bad television.

McCoy and Scarborough conducted interviews with residents of a mid-sized, Mid-Atlantic city. The participants in the study, on average, had more education and knowledge about art and high culture than the average American citizen, which seemingly contributed to their need to “justify” watching shows like Jersey Shore or Real Housewives. Three major patterns emerged in the interviews, and participants often switched between the viewing patterns. First, some participate in “ironic consumption,” meaning that when they watch what they consider trashy TV, they condemn the show by making fun of the show and its actors. By ridiculing the shows and other people who enjoy them, viewers create a sense of superiority and separate themselves from those who enjoy “low-culture.”

Often, ironic consumption takes the form of “hate watching” with friends or family. As one interviewee said, “There is an incredible pleasure in mocking bad films, but it’s only fun if you are doing it with somebody else, because part of it is, honestly, showing off that you are both funny. But if you are by yourself, there is no point in making all these witty comments because nobody is there to hear you.” Other interviewees described lots of laughter over the content of the shows when watching with others.

The second pattern the researchers found is that some viewers enjoy bad television for its “campiness.” The viewer is sympathetic of poor production value and the aspects of the show that make it “bad.” Sometimes, they even admire the shows because they identify with the creators and their failures.

Finally, McCoy and Scarborough found a third pattern: “the guilty pleasure.” Those who consider a program a guilty pleasure genuinely enjoy the show, but also find it offensive or distasteful. This creates tension. Many in this group justify viewing by saying they can’t stop watching the disaster take place, sometimes comparing the show to watching a train wreck. They often go on to dismiss the show as “mindless” or “frivolous,” and therefore harmless.

The viewer of “bad TV,” the authors conclude, is in a state of constant contradiction. When engaging with low-culture, high status individuals feel the need to explain and justify their viewing choices in a way that separates them from the shows and the people in them. This leads to the three main ways people engage with low-brow entertainment…and explains why they don’t change the channel.

The KKK's Living Legacy

Americans these days like to think of the Ku Klux Klan—if they think of the KKK at all—as a white supremacist abomination whose time has come and gone. That is, its presence was deplorable but its impact minimal. A new article from Rory McVeigh, David Cunningham, and Justin Farrell paints a different picture, arguing that the very visible demonstrations of the extremist organization have played a lasting role in shaping the American electorate as we know it today.

The 1960s saw a major shift in the Southern United States where mostly white voters, motivated by their opposition to Civil Rights policies, shifted their support from Democrats to Republicans. The authors argue the Klan was a major player in this shift, but not because it recruited a wide swath of voters to their cause. Instead, KKK activism, in its extremism, drew attention to how the civil rights movement was challenging long-held “links between movement goals and positions taken by political candidates” (1148), thus turning white voters against the Democratic party.

McVeigh, Cunningham, and Farrell base their argument on findings from two sets of tests. First, using data from the National Consortium on Violence Research, House UnAmerican Activities Committee data on Klan organization from 1967, they measure Klan activism within counties in ten southern states through the 1960s. Counties marked by KKK activism were significantly more likely to vote for Republican Presidential candidates. And this effect carried past the ‘60s. Repeated tests comparing 1960 to 1972, 1980, 1992, and even 2000 show that the effect holds over time. There is also a geographic effect; counties that bordered centers of Klan activism had weaker, but significant shifts toward Republican voting as well.

A second analysis using 1992 Southern Focus Poll data shows a similar pattern among individual voters. Those more in favor of segregation were more likely to vote Republican; however, this was only if they lived in counties that had documented Klan activism back in the 1960s.

The authors are careful to point out these results do not mean the Klan has directly influenced voters over the last 50 years. Instead, this is a story about the unintended, yet long-lasting consequences of a radical group that “dislodge[s] voters from preexisting party loyalties” and reshapes the field of public opinion (1161). In short, the Klan changed the political culture and produced a system of party allegiances that remained in place long after their activism diminished.

The Social Costs of Punishment, From Prisoners to Pupils

The United States has seen a steady increase in the policing and mass incarceration of its citizens in the last few decades. The increased surveillance and imprisonment, primarily of poor and minority populations, has been called by social scientists a “culture of control.” This culture of control harms not only the individual, but also their community, since highly policed communities have worse health outcomes and less economic stability than their less-policed counterparts. In their study of the effects of out-of-school suspension on academic achievement, Brea Perry and Edward Morris find that the cultural mindset of control—and its consequences— has now found its way into the halls of America’s schools.

Using three years of data from over 15,000 students in a public school district in Kentucky, Perry and Morris report that higher levels of “exclusionary discipline” (out-of-school suspension rates) lead to lower math and science test scores even among non-suspended students. The increased use of suspension as a punishment for individuals, that is, reduces academic achievement outcomes for the student body as a whole.

To test for reverse causation—the possibility that the effects are working in the opposite way—the authors looked at test scores over three years and used suspensions at the beginning of a given semester to predict test scores at the end of that semester. Their analyses confirm that increased suspension leads to lower test scores, rather than lower test scores leading to more suspensions.

Like the destabilizing consequences of mass incarceration for communities, exclusionary discipline in public schools ultimately undermines rather than supports academic performance. Schools with highly punitive environments create anxiety and distrust, heightening tensions for both students and teachers.

The authors emphasize that their findings are presented as an addition to existing critiques of the overuse of exclusion as a means of social control. They conclude, “Punishment is not a discrete response to certain transgressions, but a system of social order that produces wider meanings and consequences.”