Darren, a charismatic program facilitator, scrawls masculinity themes across the white board. The youth, as they get called collectively, fidget in their chairs and rumble with ideas. They are from high schools scattered across this East Coast city, all Black and Latino, and have become friends in this grant-funded program. They call out things they’d like to address in a skit they will perform – “fatherhood,” “dominance,” “violence.” We take a break and the youth retreat into their screens. Ray kicks back, heels up on Shawna’s lap, laughing at a video his friend sent of a scuffle from school that day. “That doesn’t seem like healthy behavior, does it?” I ask. Ray laughs, “Naw. It’s stupid funny though” and he flashes a wide smile. “Does that count as attitudinal change?” I turn to ask Darren.
When we hear about feminist men, we almost inevitably hear the story of how and why they came to identify with feminism. A friend of mine, borrowing language from superhero comics, once called this ritual narrative an origin story. While these stories can be repetitive and self-centered, I understand why men recount them over and over. When men talk about how they became feminists they are, in essence, explaining how they came to identify with a movement of people who work to reduce men’s privileges, their own privileges. Today, for some men their origin involves a washed-out community room, a binder with a violence prevention curriculum inside and a low-paid facilitator.
Scholars have examined men’s pathways into feminism and other forms of gender justice work and found patterns. Often, it is a two-part reaction, some kind of “sensitizing experience” in childhood and a radical spark in young adulthood. While this pattern is no doubt very common, by telling the stories this we way can obscure the larger social and historical architecture in which they occur, and miss the work it takes to grapple with the implications of feminism over the long haul.
In our book, Some Men: Feminist Allies and the Movement to End Violence Against Women, my co-authors and I look at the life histories of feminist men with a wide angle lens as we try to bring into view the institutional structure and cultural system of the feminist movement at the historical moment at which men became engaged. In short, not only do men’s sensitizing experiences and radical sparks take dramatically different forms depending on the historical moment, but which men are sensitized and sparked also shifts.
Today, in a startling number of ways, feminism is in the water, but more specifically it is in organizations. The White House has a campaign against sexual violence called It’s On Us. During the Super Bowl, a coalition of corporations and organizations, called No More, ran an ad calling attention to sexual and domestic violence against women. The NBA has been running a “Lean In Together” commercial, with star WNBA and NBA players encouraging men to support women’s equality. In the wake of the Ray Rice assault, the NFL brought on Beth Ritchie and has promised more prevention programs. Public health departments and foundations now fund violence prevention programs in many urban communities. If these campaigns provide sensitization or spark, it looks dramatically more mainstream, straightforward and diverse than it did forty years ago.
Violence prevention programs, including those with high school youth, are rarely explicitly feminist. But the women and men who implement them often are. Many young feminist men of color who we interviewed for the book had come to identify as feminist through their work with boys and men of color around community violence or drug abuse and, often guided by women of color, found that feminism helped make sense of connections between power and violence in their lives. We call the perspective that these men provide “organic intersectionality” – a way of connecting violence against women with other systems of power and inequality that bubbles up out of lived experience. But most youth in these programs won’t take up careers in feminism or social justice. They will learn about hegemonic masculinity and empowerment and feminism and then the grant will run out or they will leave the program, and their formal education in this area will end. Their passions will change. Some men I know have left these programs and gone on to college, started a business or worked in a warehouse. How does feminism reverberate through their lives and politics?
The institutionalization of feminism into policies and organizations has opened up cracks for men to find their way to feminism in new ways. We must begin to understand how young men of color living in urban communities, as well as transmen, undocumented immigrant men and others make sense of allyship, consciousness-raising, and violence. Tomorrow’s feminist men are already out there – what stories will they tell?
Recently a video went viral depicting a woman named Toya Graham hitting, slapping and dragging her son from the streets of Baltimore with the goal of preventing him from participating in the civil unrest that began after the death of Freddy Gray. Mr. Gray was a young African American man who was dragged into police custody by six officers. News reports say that within an hour of his arrest he fell into a coma and was taken to the hospital where he died a week later. His name is now added to the list of countless African American boys and men who have died under questionable circumstances during interactions with law enforcement and private citizens. Gray’s death rightly sparked outrage, and in some instances convulsions of anger.
Many in the media have applauded the actions of Toya Graham who they describe as appropriately taking swift action to constrain her son’s participation in the public outcry—what some called a riot, and others a disorganized protest. Media and pundits seized on the video of Ms. Graham, announcing all could be resolved if we just “Send in the Moms”. However, this simple, dominant narrative is complicated by Ms. Graham’s stated reason for pulling her son from the streets of Baltimore: To prevent him from becoming “another Freddy Gray.” Let’s think about that statement. She feared that his public participation, his expression of justified discontent, could very well lead to his death at the hands of the police. While she may have seen her son participating in civil unrest that included instances of illegal conduct, throwing stones, etc., she believed that the likelihood of these instances being resolved professionally and without the use of deadly force with respect to African Americans, was unlikely. After the deaths of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddy Gray and many others, we would be hard pressed to deny the fact that African American parents have reasonable concerns about their sons’ safety during interactions with law enforcement, and indeed, in some instances, the broader society.
The media and pundits have played their trick of confounding the real issues of the day with a sensationalist theme: mothers taking a stand, demonstrating their strength and setting their children straight. Police officers killed yet another black male youth under questionable circumstances. Law enforcement and the media seem to view these young boys and men’s lives as disposable and lacking value. It is within this context that the Black Lives Matter movement has emerged with the purpose of reaffirming the value of African American lives. I am troubled by a media that praises the image of a young black man being beaten down, even by his mother, so that he accepts the untenable situation the Black Lives Matter movement seeks to address and refrains from expressing his version of discontent with the way society treats him. These young boys and girls and men and women have every right to be upset by the various systems that have failed them.
American society has a tendency to expect African Americans to be superhuman as they express their discontent. Indeed, the protests we are taught to remember from the 50s and 60s are of the courageous civil right leaders who were able to gain support by having their bodies bludgeoned in full view of American eyes and the world. These activists did not physically defend themselves because they knew any response would be used to justify the barbaric acts committed by their fellow white countrymen and women. These violent images also went viral and forced white Americans to confront the oppressive parts of their culture. As a benefactor of the civil rights movement, I know that one person or one version of activism did not achieve its accomplishments.
And we often forget about the other race riots that happened during the civil rights era. Those led by the white teens that went into the Woolworth Counter to torment and torture the nonviolent protesters simply seeking service. The race riots led by white adults who shouted racial epithets at the young Ruby Ridges who simply sought admission to an all white public school. We refuse to discuss the countless racially motivated killings used to terrorize the African American community. And, for the four little girls who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham Alabama. And, lastly we don’t discuss the immeasurable restraint the African American community has exhibited in the face of this racial terrorism, particularly after the recent shootings by white supremacist, Dylan Roof, who killed nine church members during bible study at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. There should not be a racial sliding scale of who gets to express their dissatisfaction with the state and how that dissatisfaction is received.
With the nearly daily stories of black male killings—our contemporary version of strange fruit—there is no wonder that mothers and parents are resorting to self-help measures to protect their children, and their sons in particular. In my own research examining African American middle and upper-middle-class mothers’ parenting approaches, ensuring the physical safety of their sons is a continuous and pervasive concern. Unfortunately, I believe Ms. Graham’s actions play an unfortunate part in reinforcing the idea that African Americans, and boys and men in particular, must behave differently in order for society to recognize their humanity. I disagree with the charge to “Send in the Moms” to tame the legitimate anger of their children about the continuous disgraceful and discriminatory treatment they confront from institutions and individuals within the broader American society. This broader society includes law enforcement officers, teachers, principals, shopkeepers and members of the general public- people that the average white child is taught to view as a source of support and protection. The mothers in my research who have far more resources than Ms. Graham are similarly worried about how their sons will be treated by this broader society. These mothers out of necessity teach their children to be fearful of and deferential to law enforcement officers who are meant to protect and serve us all but do so selectively. I understand Ms. Grahams’ fear for her son, her impetus to keep him out of harms way and her desire to prevent him from becoming “another Freddy Gray.” I am also afraid of the long-term consequences of preventing him and others like him from publicly expressing their discontent.
Dawn M. Dow is an assistant professor in the sociology department of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. Professor Dow earned a Ph.D. in sociology from University of California, Berkeley, a J.D. from Columbia University, School of Law and a B.A. in sociology from Bryn Mawr College. Professor Dow’s research focuses on the intersection of gender, race, and class within the context of the family, the workplace and the law. She is currently writing a book that examines the theoretical and practical implications of the structural, cultural, and economic exclusion of African-American mothers from dominant ideologies and practices of motherhood. She is a frequent presenter at academic conferences including the American Sociological Association, Eastern Sociological Society and the Pacific Sociological Association. Professor Dow’s work has been published in Sociological Perspectives and is forthcoming in the Journal of Marriage and Family.
A book should never be treated as a statement of some final Truth. Instead, a book is best put to use as moment of condensed insight that focuses and clarifies ongoing conversations. Still, when you are the author of a book, and engaging in such public conversations, you sometimes learn things in the give-and-take that you wish you had known while writing. This has been so in my recent talks with groups of feminist academics and antiviolence activists about Some men: Feminist allies and the movement to end violence against women, my recent book with Max Greenberg and Tal Peretz.
In my presentations, I outline a central story in Some Men: Inspired by the women’s movement, the field of men’s anti-violence work was constituted in the late-1970s primarily by white men (many of them Jewish), whose work with boys and men was limited by their white and middle class origins. As anti-violence work became increasingly institutionalized in the 1990s and beyond, women activists welcomed men’s growing participation, but the growing visibility of men in the field risked eclipsing feminism, and rendering women less visible. On the other hand, the field was expanding to include more men of color, in part due to a public focus on targeting anti-violence programming to “at-risk youth” (often code for boys of color). The young men of color bring to the field different experiences with race and social class, with man-on-man street violence, and with police and other institutional violence against men of color. As such, they introduce to gender-based violence prevention what we call “organic intersectionality,” an approach that helps to re-infuse social justice values into a field that has become increasingly flat in its politics.
On more than one occasion, African American women have asked questions that challenged the assumptions underlying my genealogy of the field of gender-based violence prevention. Following one talk, an anti-violence worker asked me if my historical outline included African American women who may have felt excluded from the feminist movement, and who defined themselves as Womanists? At another talk, a scholar asked me, “I wonder, how do you define ‘the field’? Women of color have been engaged with anti-violence activism since well before the 1970s.” She mentioned Jim Crow era anti-lynching activism, for instance, as resistance to race/gender-based violence. My mind immediately jumped to mid-Twentieth Century resistance against the forced sterilization of poor and incarcerated women in the U.S. and Puerto Rico as a form of resistance against state violence against the bodies of (primarily) women of color.
This same critic sharpened her point with a reference to a slide in my presentation: “You showed a slide that expressed your concern that men’s movement into anti-violence work might result in ‘feminism without women’. My concern is that your definition of ‘the field’ risks positing an ‘intersectionality without women of color’.”
I believe that my co-authors’ and my efforts to deploy an intersectional analysis in Some Men was successful—possibly even insightful—but only, I see now, within the parameters of how we defined “the field.” When we take into account this womanist critique, we can see how our very definition of “the field” had an unintended consequence. Of course, we duly noted the academic roots of intersectionality, citing foundational works of scholars like bell hooks and Maxine Baca Zinn. We quoted Patricia Hill Collins referring to violence as “a saturated site of intersectionality.” But our definition of “the field” also worked to elide activist work over decades (centuries?) by women of color as the front edge of resistance to interpersonal and institutional gender/race/class-based violence.
Our narrow definition of “the field”—likely grounded in our experiences as three white male feminist academics—is not unusual in feminist scholarship. Sociologist Benita Roth argues in her book Separate Roads to Feminism that the common story about second wave feminism—that white feminism emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, with women of color joining in the 1980s and adding race and class to feminism—is wrong. Roth shows that multiple feminist movements arose “roughly simultaneously,” including Black and Chicana feminisms that, even if not integrated organizationally with mostly-white feminist groups, were in critical dialogue with them. As Roth observes of conventional scholarship on the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, “…looking for feminists of color in white feminist organizations, not finding them, and then explaining their absence makes feminists of color invisible: Not only were they not in white feminist organizations; there is no sense in these explanations that they could have possibly been organizing on their own.” (p. 8).
Defining the parameters of a “field” is an issue in every academic book. However, one must also take pains to think about the implications of those decisions. In the case of Some Men, it would not have changed our book much to have included a short, critical-reflexive discussion of how we were defining “the field” of men’s work to stop sexual assault and domestic violence, and then pointing to what might be left out of this picture and how it might distort the historical story we were telling. The fact that we did not do this is ironic, especially given a central message we learned from many of our interview subjects—Being a man who is a feminist ally means, at base, listening to women. But the devil is often in the details; the question of which women to listen to can never be answered finally, with some set formula. Instead, it requires an ongoing process of reflexivity that includes interrogating the ways that one’s own privileged standpoint, however “progressive” or “intersectional” its intent, will retain some blind spots if it is not in continual dialogue with differently situated people.
We imagine most are now aware that the Duggar family of 19 Kids and Counting fame has come under criticism for their handling of their eldest son, Josh’s, behavior. According to police reports, Josh Duggar engaged in nonconsensual sexual contact with several younger female children, at least some of whom were his sisters. You can see the details here, here and here.
The Duggars have a record of anti-gay, anti-birth control, anti-choice and anti-trans stances. Michelle Duggar even recorded robo-calls for a discriminatory statute aimed at denying equal rights to trans citizens of her state. These public stances, along with their encouragement of sexual abstinence until marriage and a prohibition on cross-sex touching until engagement, seem incongruent with their public “forgiveness” of Josh for his sexual transgressions. Jessa Duggar’s father-in-law stated, to much condemnation:
Many times it is simply lack of opportunity or fear of consequences that keep us from falling into grievous sin even though our fallen hearts would love to indulge the flesh. We should not be shocked that this occurred in the Duggar’s home, we should rather be thankful to God if we have been spared such, and pray that he would keep us and our children from falling.
This seemingly quick forgiveness and “there but for the grace of god go I” attitude toward sexual sins appear incompatible with the family’s harsh stance regarding other sexual or gendered behavior they regard as sinful.
In response to the Duggar’s handling of Josh’s behavior, critics suggested all or some of the following: the family is a sex cult, hypocrisy is endemic to religious zealotry, and abstinence and strict sex practices are forms of sexual deviance just like child molestation. We would like to add to these analyses and provide a slightly different read by suggesting that the Duggars are not outliers—but perhaps illustrate best the argument that Kristin Luker made in her book When Sex Goes to School about sexual conservative and sexual liberals.
In investigating American adults’ views on sex education, Luker documents two camps that emerged after the sexual revolution of the 1960s: the sexual liberals and sexual conservatives. These liberal and conservative positions do not map neatly on to political perspectives, but are rather divided by their views of sex. Luker found that conservatives believe that sex is inherently sacred and meant for marriage. To keep sex within the confines of marriage, conservatives focus on rules and boundaries to control individuals’ out of control sexual natures. The assumption is that people are fallible and without these regulations they will fail. Sexual conservatives are very focused on the danger in “letting pleasure loose”. In the Duggar’s world, this letting loose could be something like holding hands before marriage. Liberals, however, view marriage as just one of many acceptable options for sexual activity. Sexual liberals focus on making good decisions. They believe that humans can make good decisions when they have the information they need to make that decision. In terms of sex, this means knowing about sex, its pleasures and its dangers.
In this sexual conservative perspective, there’s little to distinguish different forms of sexual “fallenness.” For instance, Sarah’s research among evangelical Christian men who were, like the Duggars, invested in sexual abstinence until marriage, indicates that masturbation, lust, pornography, and same-sex desire, are all sins that, to borrow Luker’s language, if “let loose”, can disrupt the goal of abstinence until marriage, thus also disrupting the notion that sexual pleasure is exclusive to heterosexual marriage. When the men in Sarah’s research were tempted by, or engaged in such sinful behavior, they were not met with scorn, hatred, or abandonment, but with understanding and recognition of the struggle they were enduring.
From this perspective, when a distant family member talks about Josh’s fallibility and indicates that without the proper social controls any of us could be in his position, this statement is congruent with the perspective of sexual conservatives. From the sexual conservative camp, the quick forgiveness of his actions is not incongruent or hypocritical when juxtaposed with the Duggar’s views on gay marriage or trans rights, but completely consistent as they are all examples of sexual fallenness. In other words, repentant pornographers, ex-gays, and apologetic adulterers are totally fine. Josh repented. The Duggars and their supporters are not being hypocritical, they are being consistent with views of sexual conservatives.
It is important to see the Duggars not necessarily as a “cult” or as sexual outliers, but as a very provocative example of the logic of sexual conservatism and all that entails. This episode represents a line of thought that is more common than it seems when we pathologize the Duggar’s behavior rather than investigating it.
The new Avengers movie just came out. I haven’t seen it yet. But I’m a fan of superhero movies. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of as a feminist. But I’ve been reading comic books since I was a kid and seeing some of those characters on the big screen brings back lots of memories and childhood fantasies about superpowers. The interwebs have been alight with discussions about women superhero characters in this movie and whether those of us who care about gender equality ought to be happy about them or not. Some have argued that Black Widow and the Scarlet Witch are feminist heroes we ought to celebrate. Others have been more critical. Regardless of which side you fall on, it’s hard to deny that the cast of superhero men standing alongside Scarlett Johansson (who plays Black Widow) casts her as a bit of a Smurfette.
Over at FiveThirtyEight.com, Walt Hickey has written a series of posts of gender representation in comic books (here) and comic book movie portrayals of (see here and here). In his initial post, Hickey collected data from DC and Marvel Wikia databases to get a sense of all of the characters each comic book publisher had produced.* More characters have been produced than you might imagine. DC has created just shy of 7,000 characters. The Marvel database includes more than 16,000. Using this data, Hickey made some basic claims about the entire comic book universes each publisher has produced. One fact we learned from this is that the ratio of women characters to men has been slowly improving. For instance, in 2013, the Marvel universe was about 23.3% women, while the DC universe was approximately 28.5% women. But, the graphs show that the ratios appear to be leveling out shy of 30%. Men are more likely to be deceased than women. Women characters in both universes are most likely “good” (as opposed to “neutral” or “bad”) characters, while there are more “bad” men than “good” ones in both comic book universes. While there are some signs of change in this data, it doesn’t come close to achieving gender parity.
Using Hickey’s data, I’ve graphed the proportions of women in each comic book universe along with the proportion of women in Congress over the same period of time (below). One fact immediately apparent is that superhero women seem to be faring a bit better than women in U.S. politics. In fact, the proportions of women in many of the “heroic” professions in the U.S. fall well below Marvel and DC’s universes. Women in the U.S. comprise less than 25% of federal law enforcement, less than 15% of local police and sheriff’s officers, and less than 10% of state police and highway patrol (here). Women comprise less than 4% of career firefighters in the U.S. (here). Similarly, women are less than 20% of the U.S. military as well (here). Virtually all of the jobs in the licit economy that involve higher than average work-related death rates are—perhaps unsurprisingly—dominated by men (here). Certainly, which occupations are deemed “heroic” in the first place is also important to consider. Indeed, the idea of a “hero” seems already gendered.
Superheroes are important for lots of reasons. The stories we celebrate tell us important information about the societies in which we live. The characters we celebrate and those we oppose provide us with information about what we value. As Arthur Berger writes, “There is a fairly close relationship, generally, between a society and its heroes” (here), to which Jon Hogan adds: “The superhero comic book is part of popular culture because it can help us better understand what traits we value and why we value them” (here). Berger and Hogan seem to be asking us to consider what comic books are doing, rather than what they should be doing.
I used to assign a short reading by Ursula K. Le Guin to students at the conclusion of a gender studies course I taught. Le Guin is a science fiction writer (a genre dominated by men). She’s perhaps best known for The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)—a story about an alien society without gender. The alien race in the story shares the biological and emotional characteristics of both sexes, only adopting sexed characteristics (both embodied and emotional) once a month. After writing the novel, Le Guin was often asked whether she believed we were headed for a post-gender society. She responded in the Introduction to subsequent editions:
Yes, the people in it are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I’m merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are. I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing. I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist’s way, which is by inventing elaborate circumstantial lies.
Perhaps when we celebrate comic book universes, we are not imagining future societies and futuristic possibilities. Perhaps they are best thought of as stories about who we are today and what our society actually looks like. Le Guin argues that science fiction is better understood as descriptive than predictive. Perhaps, in other words, comic books are “elaborate circumstantial lies” about who we actually are.
Beyond the numbers, however, there are also other features of gender that are difficult to ignore. Men and women superheroes are also depicted in patterned ways that reinforce problematic assumptions about gender. Artist Kevin Bolk re-imagined the poster for the original Avengers movie depicting Black Widow in a “masculine” pose and Hawkeye, Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and Hulk in stereotypical “feminine” poses. The image attests to the fact that the number of women is really only the tip of the iceberg when in comes to addressing gender inequality in comic books.
Comic book universes (particularly those that have become famous outside comic cons and fan circles) exaggerate and celebrate gender differences. There are writers and artists who push back against this tendency in the industry. And important strides have been made. Women writers and artists are receiving more recognition and support. Both DC and Marvel have introduced gender and sexual minority characters. But, which of these characters will achieve fame and fortune is more of a question. I don’t know of existing data on the comic book characters about which movies have been made, but my hunch is that that sample would include a higher proportion of men and fewer non-white characters than each universe boasts.
*The data are publicly available at Github if you’re interested in playing around with it. The data are only collected through 2013 and only for a single continuity for each publisher – Earth-616 (Marvel) and New Earth (DC).
Bailey and Harvey found that even men who fancy My Little Pony cartoon characters are likely to scrap with each other using similar terms and putdowns to “normal” men, even to the point of using the same terminology, such as “faggot,” to police their environment.
One particular incident was a putdown from one member to another in an online brony forum that read: “Go be normal somewhere else, faggot.” While we might expect “fag” to be lobbed at members of the group by outsiders, it might seem odd that (at least some) bronies use the term as well.
Contemporary Western masculinity is in many ways characterized by these seeming contradictions. Consider what happened when the University of Oregon defeated Florida State University at the Rose Bowl earlier this year (to which CJ would like to add: “Yeah we did! GO DUCKS!”). In the post-game revelry, some of the Oregon players began to chant “No means no!” to the tune of the (racist) “War Chant” regularly sung by FSU fans. As ThinkProgress reported,
The chant was almost certainly intended to target [Jameis] Winston [Florida State’s quarterback], who has been embroiled in a sexual assault scandal since 2012, when a female student accused him of raping her. He has not been officially charged or sanctioned for the incident, and won the Heisman Trophy amid the ongoing controversy.
Commentaries on this incident widely lauded it as a moment in which young men were collectively, publicly, shaming another man accused of sexual violence with a long time feminist slogan.
While on the surface these two events are incredibly different, elements connect the two. Among the bronies, a man chastised another as a “fag” in part to defend his own gender transgressive interest and identity and the community in which he participates. Among the Oregon Ducks, a group of men appear to be embracing the feminist principle that Sarah Silverman recently tweeted so eloquently (to the anger of at least a few men), “Don’t rape.” These examples involve men telling other men, “You are not masculine, and here is why… Oh, and I am (just in case that wasn’t clear).” The content of what makes someone masculine doesn’t actually matter nearly as much as the ability to deny that powerful social identity to others.
Now, don’t get us wrong; we are thrilled to see high profile athletes embracing the notion of consent and refuting sexual violence. Men publicly condemning sexual violence are important and can be extremely powerful. But, behind these statements is a protectionist ideology that involves men claiming to symbolically protect women from other “bad” and (importantly) “less” masculine men. The White House-sponsored “1 is 2 Many” public service announcement combats sexual violence using a similar tactic. In the PSA, a group of professional actors, along with Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama, call for an end to sexual violence and assault. Many say things like actor Daniel Craig, who says, “If I saw it happening, I’d never blame her. I’d help her.” Craig is probably most identifiable as having recently portrayed James Bond—a character who, among other things, is best known for having his way with any woman he chooses. But positioning sexual assault as something that other, bad, less masculine men do (like those, say, who lose football games) allows some men to say, “Real men don’t rape. And WE are real men.” But the “real men” discourse may be problematic in and of itself. (See the “My Strength is Not for Hurting” campaign for another example of this tactic).
What all of these instances illustrate and what draws us to them is that they seem to illustrate (positive) changes in contemporary masculinity—young men engaging in activities stigmatized as feminine, athletes shaming one of their own for sexual assault, male politicians and actors publicly espousing an end to sexual violence. If, as activists have argued, a problematic aspect of masculinity is the fact that it entails putting others down, distance from femininity, and sexually dominating women, then we should be unequivocally celebrating these changes.
However, as we have written about before, gendered change is complicated. These changes illustrate that masculinities are flexible—sometimes incredibly so. Masculinities can be prodded and reworked in ways that incorporate practices and symbols not historically associated with masculinity at all. But, in reworking them, masculinity reveals that depriving others of this powerful social identity is often the key ingredient of the social identity. These transformations hold incredible potential. But, whether that potential is realized is an entirely different question. And that, it seems, is the next project: realizing potential for gendered change that does not revolve around repudiating less socially desirable gendered identities or rely on the methods of dominance involved in sustaining some forms of social inequality in the first place.
Tristan Bridges, Kjerstin Gruys, and Christin Munsch and C.J. Pascoe on March 4, 2015
Not surprisingly, the new interactive chart Gendered Language in Teacher Reviews, drawn from RateMyProfessor.com (produced by Ben Schmidt—a history professor at Northeastern), has been the subject of a lot of conversation among sociologists, especially those of us who study gender. For example, it reminded C.J. of an ongoing conversation she and a former Colorado College colleague repeatedly had about teaching evaluations. Comparing his evaluations to C.J.’s, he noted that students would criticize C.J. for the same teaching practices and behaviors that seemed to earn him praise: being tough, while caring about learning.
We’ve long known that student evaluations of teaching are biased. A recent experiment made headlines when Adam Driscoll and Andrea Hunt found that professors teaching online received dramatically different evaluation scores depending upon whether students thought the professor was a man or a woman; students rated male-identified instructors significantly higher than female identified instructors, regardless of the instructor’s actual gender. Schmidt’s interactive chart provides a bit more information about exactly what students are saying when evaluating their professors in gendered ways. Thus far, most commentaries have focused on the fact that men are more likely to be seen as “geniuses,” “brilliant,” and “funny,” while women, as C.J. discovered, are more likely to be seen as “bossy,” “mean,” “pushy.” These discrepancies are important, but in this post, we’ve used the tool to shed light on some forms of gendered workplace inequality that have received less attention: (1) comments concerning physical appearance, (2) comments related to messiness and organization, and (3) comments related to emotional (as opposed to intellectual) work performed by professors.
The results from Schmidt’s chart are not universally “bad” or “worse” for women. For instance, the results for students referring to professors as “hot” and “attractive” are actually mixed. Further, in some fields of study, women are more likely to receive “positive” appearance-based evaluations while, in other fields, men are more likely to receive these evaluations. A closer examination, however, reveals an interesting pattern. Here is a list of the fields in which women are more likely to be referred to as “hot” or “attractive”: Criminal Justice, Engineering, Political Science, Business, Computer Science, Physics, Economics, and Accounting. And here is a list of fields in which men are more likely to receive these evaluations: Philosophy, English, Anthropology, Fine Arts, Languages, and Sociology.
Notice anything suspicious? Men are sexualized when they teach in fields culturally associated with “femininity” and women are sexualized when they teach in fields culturally associated with “masculinity.” Part of this is certainly due to gender segregation in fields of study. There are simply more men in engineering and physics courses. Assuming most students are heterosexual, women teaching in these fields might be more likely to be objectified. Similarly, men teaching in female-dominated fields have a higher likelihood of being evaluated as “hot” because there are more women there to evaluate them. (For more on this, see Philip Cohen’s breakdown of gender segregation in college majors.)
Nonetheless, it is important to note that sexual objectification works differently when it’s aimed at men versus women. Women, but not men, are systematically sexualized in ways that work to symbolically undermine their authority. (This is why “mothers,” “mature,” “boss,” and “teacher” are among men’s top category searches on many online pornography sites.) And, women are more harshly criticized for failing to meet normative appearance expectations. Schmidt’s chart lends support to this interpretation as women professors are also almost universally more likely to be referred to as “ugly,” “hideous,” and “nasty.”
Level of (Dis)Organization
Christin and Kjerstin are beginning a new research project designed to evaluate whether students assess disorganized or “absent-minded” professors (e.g., messy offices, chalk on their clothing, disheveled appearances) differently depending on gender. Schmidt’s interactive chart foreshadows what they might find. Consider the following: women are more likely to be described as “unprepared,” “late,” and “scattered.” These are characteristics we teach little girls to avoid, while urging them to be prepared, organized, and neat. (Case in point: Karin Martin’s research on gender and bodies in preschool shows that boys’ bodies are less disciplined than girls’.) In short, we hold men and women to different organizational and self-presentation standards. Consequently, women, but not men, are held accountable when they are perceived to be unprepared or messy. Emphasizing this greater scrutiny of women’s organization and professionalism is the finding that women are more likely than men to be described as either “professional” or “unprofessional,” and either “organized” or “disorganized.”
Finally, emotional (rather than intellectual) terms are used more often in women’s evaluations than men’s. Whether mean, kind, caring or rude, students are more likely to comment on these qualities when women are the ones doing the teaching. When women professors receive praise for being “caring,” “compassionate,” “nice,” and “understanding,” this is also a not-so-subtle way of telling them that they should exhibit these qualities. Thus, men may receive fewer comments related to this type of emotion work because students do not expect them to be doing it in the first place. But this emotional work isn’t just “more” work, it’s impossible work because of the competence/likeability tradeoff women face.
There are all sorts of things that are left out of this quick and dirty analysis (race, class, course topic, type of institution, etc.), but it does suggest we begin to question the ways teaching evaluations may systematically advantage some over others. Moreover, if certain groups—for instance, women and scholars of color (and female scholars of color)—are more likely to be in jobs at which teaching evaluations matter more for tenure and promotion, then unfair and biased evaluations may exacerbate inequality within the academy.
If women can kiss women and still be straight, what about men?
Some scholars have argued that female sexual desires tend to be fluid and receptive, while men’s desires – regardless of whether men are gay or straight – tend to be inflexible and unchanging. Support for this notion permeates popular culture. There are countless examples of straight-identified female actresses and pop stars kissing or caressing other women – from Madonna and Britney to Iggy and J-Lo – with little concern about being perceived as lesbians. When the Christian pop star Katy Perry sang in 2008 that she kissed a girl and liked it, nobody seriously doubted her heterosexuality.
The story is different for men. The sexuality of straight men has long been understood by evolutionary biologists, and, subsequently, the general public, as subject to a visceral, nearly unstoppable impulse to reproduce with female partners. Consequently, when straight men do engage in same sex contact, these encounters are viewed as incompatible with the bio-evolutionary coding. It’s believed to signal an innate homosexual (or at least bisexual) orientation, and even just one known same-sex act can cast considerable doubt upon a man’s claim to heterosexuality. For instance, in 2007, Republican Senators Larry Craig and Bob Allen were both separately arrested on charges related to sex with men in public bathrooms. While both men remained married to their wives and tirelessly avowed their heterosexuality, the press skewered them as closeted hypocrites.
Despite the common belief in the rigidity of male heterosexuality, historians and sociologists have created a substantial body of well-documented evidence showing straight men – not “closeted” gay men – engaging in sexual contact with other men. In many parts of the United States prior to the 1950s, the gay/straight binary distinguished between effeminate men (or “fairies”) and masculine men (“normal” men) – not whether or not a man engaged in homosexual sex. Historian George Chauncey’s study of gay life in New York City from 1890-1940 revealed that through much of the first half of the 20th century, normal (i.e., “straight”) working class men mixed with fairies in the saloons and tenements that were central to the lives of working men.
With sex-segregation the general rule for single men and women in the early 1900s, the private back rooms of saloons were often sites of sexual activity between normal men and fairies, with the latter perceived as a kind of intermediate sex – a reasonable alternative to female prostitutes. Public parks and restrooms were also common sites for sexual interaction between straight men and fairies. In such encounters, the fairy acted as the sole embodiment of queerness, the figures with whom normal (straight) men could have sex – just as they might with female sex workers. Fairies affirmed, rather than threatened, the heteromasculinity of straight men by embodying its opposite.
The notion that homosexual activity was not “gay” when undertaken by “real” (i.e. straight) men continued into the 1950s and 60s. During this period, the homosexual contact of straight men began to be undergo a transformation from relatively mundane behavior to the bold behavior of male rebels. The American biker gang The Hells Angels, which formed in 1948, serves as a rich example. There are few figures more “macho” than a heavily tattooed, leather-clad biker, whose heterosexuality was as much on display as his masculinity. Brawling over women, exhibiting women on the back of bikes, and brandishing tattoos and patches of women were all central to the subculture of the gang.
Yet as the journalist Hunter S. Thompson documented in his 1966 book Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, gang members also had sexual encounters with one another. One of their favorite “stunts” was to deeply French kiss one another – with tongues extended out of their mouths in a type of tongue-licking kiss often reserved for girl-on-girl porn. Members of the Hells Angels explained that the kissing was a defiant stunt that produced among onlookers the desired degree of shock. To them, it was also an expression of “brotherhood.”
Today, sexual encounters between straight-identified men take new but similarly “manly” forms. For instance, when men undergo hazing in college fraternities and in the military, there’s often a degree of sexual contact. It’s often dismissed as a joke, game, or ritual that has no bearing on the heterosexual constitution of the participants. As I document in my forthcoming book, fraternity hazing has included practices such as the “elephant walk,” in which pledges are required to strip naked and stand in a circle, with one thumb in their mouth and the other in the anus of the pledge in front of them.
Similarly, according to anthropological accounts of the Navy’s longstanding “Crossing the Line” initiation ceremony, new sailors crossing the equator for the first time have garbage and rotten food shoved into their anuses by older sailors. They’re also required to retrieve objects from one another’s anuses.
One relatively recent example of the pervasiveness of these kinds of encounters between straight men was revealed in a report by the US-based watchdog organization Project on Government Oversight. In 2009, the group released photos of American security guards at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul engaging in “deviant” after-hours pool parties. The photos show the men drunkenly urinating on each other, licking each other’s nipples, and taking vodka shots and eating potato chips out of each other’s butts.
Individuals often react to these examples in one of two ways. Either they jump to the conclusion that any straight-identified man who engages in sexual contact with another man must actually be gay or bisexual, or they dismiss the behavior as not actually sexual. Rather, they interpret it as an expression of dominance, a desire to humiliate, or some other ostensibly “non sexual” male impulse.
But these responses merely reveal our culture’s preconceived notions about men’s sexuality. Look at it from the other side of the coin: if straight young women, such as sorority pledges, were touching each other’s vaginas during an initiation ritual or taking shots from each other’s butts, commentators would almost certainly imagine these acts as sexual in some way (and not exclusively about women’s need to dominate, for instance). Straight women are also given considerable leeway to have occasional sexual contact with women without the presumption that they are actually lesbians. In other words, same-sex contact among straight men and women is interpreted through the lens of some well-worn gender stereotypes. But these stereotypes don’t hold up when we examine the range of straight men’s sexual encounters with other men.
It’s clear that straight men and women come into intimate contact with one another in a range of different ways. But this is less about hard-wired gender differences and more about broader cultural norms dictating how men and women are allowed to behave with people of the same sex. Instead of clinging to the notion that men’s sexuality is fundamentally inflexible, we should view male heterosexuality for what it is – a fluid set of desires that are constrained less by biology than by prevailing gender norms.
Jane Ward is an Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at The University of California, Riverside, where she teaches courses in feminist, queer, and heterosexuality studies. She has published on a broad range of topics including: feminist pornography; queer parenting; gay pride festivals; gay marriage campaigns; transgender relationships; the social construction of heterosexuality; the failure of diversity programs; and the evolution of HIV/AIDS organizations. This post is based on research for a forthcoming book with NYU Press–Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, writer and Teach For America alum Amanda Machado considered the difficulties of being an LGBT teacher in the contemporary US. Machado spoke to a number of teachers who struggle with how, when, or even whether to come out to their students and colleagues. Their stories closely mirror those of the gay and lesbian teachers I interviewed for my recent book, School’s Out: Gay and Lesbian Teachers in the Classroom. I interviewed 45 gay and lesbian teachers for the project; because I was interested in knowing how context matters for their experiences, about half of the interviews were with teachers in California, a state with multiple legal protections for LGBT teachers, and the other half in Texas, a state with none – LGBT teachers (and all non-federal employees, in fact) can be fired for their sexual identity in the state. In addition to varying the legal context, I also varied school level (elementary, middle, and high school), community (rural, suburban, and urban areas), and school size (small, medium, and large student populations). Across these varied settings, a common theme emerged—gay and lesbian teachers struggle to integrate the dictates of gay pride with the demands of teaching professionalism.
Some would argue that LGBT teachers who come out to students violate the expectations of teaching professionalism by exposing children to unnecessary displays of sexuality. Look no further than the comments on The Atlantic piece for ample evidence of this discourse! Of course, this position neglects the fact that heterosexual teachers put their own sexualities similarly on when they talk about or display pictures of their spouses and children. In the US, teachers have always faced intense levels of moral scrutiny. Gay and lesbian teachers feel even more under the microscope than others. As a result, they struggle with unsupportive administrators and fears of discrimination and harassment, just as Machado describes.
What Machado discusses less directly, however, is the countervailing pressure gay and lesbian teachers feel to live up to the expectations of gay pride. Today, LGBTs are expected to be “out and proud” at all times—this 2013 Huffington Post article by Margaret Cho explains why many feel so strongly about it. While there are compelling reasons to encourage coming out, as Cho enumerates, the insistence that coming out is a political responsibility for LGBTs has its drawbacks. Symbolically, it reinforces very black and white definitions of sexuality—the language of coming out suggests an “always was and always will be” model of sexual or gender identity, which may not be true for all people and limits the possibilities of sexual and gender fluidity. On a more practical level, the dictate to be out ignores the high risks associated with coming out for LGBTs disadvantaged by race, class, ability, health status, and a whole host of other factors. LGBT teachers weighing the costs and benefits of coming out consider much more than the psychological and pedagogical benefits of coming out that Machado describes in addition to the costs of potential discrimination. They must also consider the invisible cost of violating the ethic of gay pride. This added burden puts teachers in a no-win situation, stuck between twin uncompromising expectations of gay pride and teaching professionalism.
The lucky few teachers in my book who were out to their students and maintained a good reputation as educators had a number of characteristics in common—all but one worked in California (where the right to be out is legally protected), they were mostly white and thereby able to avoid the added burden of racial discrimination, and they were all partnered and conventionally gendered, meaning they weren’t easily read as gay or lesbian by their look or comportment. These commonalities point to both institutional and cultural factors that shape LGB teachers’ experiences. First, the fact that only one teacher in Texas in my study was out to his students suggests the power of the legal context to shape LGB teachers’ decisions about whether or not to be out. (Indeed, even that Texas teacher happened to work in one of the few counties in Texas that had local nondiscrimination protections at the time.) The other similarities amongst the out teachers—that they were white, gender normative, and partnered—reveals something troubling about the kind of LGB visibility that is achievable in schools. Just as with coming out, LGB visibility is shaped by pride and professionalism. Not only do schools exert pressure on teachers to meet narrow and normative standards of appearance and comportment, but so does the mainstream gay rights movement. In recent years, there’s been a notable turn toward what scholars call “homonormativity” within the LGBT movement, or the insistence that LGBTs look, act, and live just like their heterosexual counterparts. As a result, teachers who don’t fit the ideal archetype of the LGB teacher face the doubly constraining expectations of the teaching profession and of the LGBT movement.
To promote LGBT visibility for some at the expense of less privileged or normatively presenting others is not the sexual justice I envision for a more equitable future. But given these challenges, how can we get there? First, we need comprehensive, enforceable, and accessible nondiscrimination protections for all LGBTs. Not only were Texas teachers hindered by fears of termination and on-the-job harassment, but many California teachers were too, simply because they didn’t know about or understand the legal protections afforded them by the state! Accordingly, widening that safety net and making sure LGBT workers know about it is an important first step. But that’s just the beginning—the teachers in my study and in Machado’s article also contend with more subtle forms of exclusion and censure, including judgmental expectations of what an “acceptable” gay, lesbian, or bisexual teacher looks, sounds, and acts like—expectations that come not just from the school environment, but from the mainstream gay rights movement as well. Changes in the norms of teaching professionalism and gay pride are necessary to enable sexual justice in schools, for teachers and students alike.
Catherine Connell received her PhD in sociology from the University of Texas Austin in 2010 and is currently an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University. Her research focuses on the intersections of gender, sexuality, and work and occupations. She is the author of School’s Out: Gay and Lesbian Teachers in the Classroom (UC Press) and is currently beginning a research project on the legacy of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell within the US military.
“But can’t nobody protect our sons, not even the president.” While Mr. George, an African American resident of a large east coast city, uttered these words years ago, they seem oddly prescient given President Obama’s recent comments about the death of Michael Brown. Last summer, as Ferguson responded in protest to Darren Wilson’s murder of an unarmed African American young man, I gave the following comments on the book in which Mr. George appears, sociologist Alice Goffman’s, On The Run: Fugitive Life in an American City at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association. For a summary of the book (and the controversy that surrounds it) please see here, here, here and here. I am sharing my comments now, in the wake of the grand jury investigation and an emerging national discussion about racial inequality, because it is important to think seriously about the criminalization of young, black, poor, urban men. It is important to think seriously about how these young men are represented in academic research as well as popular culture. It is important because how we know what we know about race, gender, and class shapes solutions to inequality. These reflections are part of a way in to that conversation:
Comments* on Alice Goffman’s On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City Author Meets Critics, American Sociological Association Meeting, 2014
In honor of what I found to be one of the most compelling parts of On The Run – the raw, present, seemingly unfiltered voices of the residents of 6th Street, I’d like to start with a quote from Mr. George. He is someone Professor Goffman highlights as a “clean” resident of 6th street. In talking about his grandsons Mr. George says, “They say it’s changed now with Obama. It’s a new era. But can’t nobody protect our sons, not even the president. I’m telling you, if I was thirty years younger I’d be praying for girls. If I had a son I’d be done lost my mind now. I’d start mourning and praying the day he was born.” (80).
Professor Goffman spends On The Run detailing the lives of Mr. George’s grandsons and their friends, the 6th Street Boys. In many ways, the stories in On The Run validate Mr. George’s concerns, outlining the way in which the lives of young urban African American men are shaped by mass incarceration and state surveillance. The experiences of the young men of 6th street are deeply circumscribed by state surveillance and control – such that their lives are characterized by immobility even as they are on the run, a contradiction that defines their existence.
Professor Goffman’s fieldnotes are so vivid, the stories she shares so dramatic, that many readers may find themselves drawn in, as I was, to the lives of these young men – the dramatic, breathless escapes from the police, the games played with younger brothers to teach them necessary evasion skills, the dramatic and suspenseful wars between the 4th street boys and the 6th street boys, the adventure of the drives to visit friends and relatives in prison, the tediousness of waiting for loved one’s numbers to be called in state institutions. Indeed readers may feel, though many likely have never experienced first hand, the adrenaline rush of those escapes, the cockroaches crawling on one’s skin in a drug addicted mother’s house, the pain and fear of having ones body physically punished by police, the particular pacing of a day, a week, a life shaped by one’s son’s interactions with the criminal justice system. While we are reading the book we are all on 6th street. These dramatic, evocative and compelling stories, invite the reader to deeply feel what it is like to be “on the run” while simultaneously being immobilized, frozen in place by state surveillance…
…On the Run is one of those books that gives us the chance to have a dialogue about the role of ethnography, its relationship to social theory, and the position of the ethnographer in his or her research, reflexivity and relations with the researched…I suggest that the beauty of this book is in the details, and that linking these details more directly to social theory and empirical context would provide deeper, more contextualized understandings of these stories and fend off misinterpretations, readings of the data likely not intended by Professor Goffman.
…Take, for example the story about Tim catching a case. 13 year-old Tim left school in the middle of the school day. His teacher followed him out of school and on to the street. Tim threw rocks at the teacher, though none of them hit her, but she did apparently twist her ankle in pursuit. For this infraction Tim was not suspended, expelled, or given detention. He was charged with assault.
Like so many of the stories in On The Run this one appears in a larger narrative that brings the reader into the courtroom as well as to the post-courtroom celebration of the fact that Tim’s “victim” didn’t appear to press charges in court. We feel the tension, the boredom and the relief along with Tim’s community. I would like to suggest that this story, compelling as it is, is one of those stories that, much like a single brush stroke in an impressionist painting, needs context. That is, any particular dab of paint may be a color that touches one’s soul, but a viewer cannot comprehend that stroke as one of many that makes up a pond of water lilies until one steps back and looks at that particular point of color in the context of other brush strokes.
What other brush strokes might be important here? What sort of theoretical frame might shed light on Tim’s experience? What sort of empirical context could help us understand his story? I suggest we look to some of the ways scholars understand and analyze the experiences of young men of color in urban areas. For example, in his book Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, Victor Rios brings us a compelling analysis of the ways in which young men of color experience state surveillance. He argues that multiple institutions in these young men’s lives (schools, community organizations and of course the courts) collude in a process of criminalization, literally producing these young men as criminals regardless of their actual behavior. While Tim was pushed out of the school system of punishment and in to the criminal justice system for throwing a rock, the lives of young men of color in Punished indicate that even if their behavior is seemingly benign, it is difficult for young men to escape similar processes of criminalization – either formally (state level punishment) or informally (through labeling processes).
The case of Ronny in Punished exemplifies this informal process of criminalization. Ronny, a young African American man interviewed for a job and then declined to shake the hand of the white woman who was interviewing him. What was likely perceived as rude behavior by the white woman, to Ronny was logical, drawing on knowledge that white women see black men as physical and sexual threats. He didn’t get the job.
This model of criminalization takes into account both the behavior of those who are criminalized, the responses of those around them and the institutions in which they find themselves. According to this approach it would not really matter whether or not Tim caught a case for throwing rocks, because likely at some point he would be criminalized for something, even if that something was nothing.
To speak to this point, sociologist Ann Ferguson, in her seminal book Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity, describes a process she calls “adultification” distinctly related to intersections of age, gender and race in the criminalization of young men of color. She argues, writing about African American middle school boys, that their “transgressions are made to take on a sinister, intentional, fully conscious tone that is stripped of any element of childish naïveté” (83). Ferguson found that young black boys did not benefit from the “boys will be boys” frame often used to casually excuse white boys’ more socially undesirable behavior, an analysis that is born out by recent findings that African American young men are seen as more adult and dangerous by police (Goff et al 2014). Indeed, in my own research on young men and homophobia I found that African American boys were punished by school authorities for engaging in sexist and homophobic behavior regularly expressed by white boys who were never once punished for it.
Research on school punishment indicates that these gendered and raced processes are widespread, beyond ethnographic findings by Goffman, Ferguson and myself. In general African American students are disciplined more in schools. African American students are overrepresented in so-called “discretionary” expulsions, or expulsions for offenses that are subjectively, rather than objectively judged. Recently Hannon, Defina and Bruch indicated the centrality of intersections of race and gender to these punishment practices. Their research indicates that while skin tone plays a key role in the likelihood of suspension for black girls (i.e., girls with darker skin are suspended at significantly higher rates), African American boys are simply at a higher overall risk for suspension for any infraction regardless of skin tone.
Given that information, let’s pull back the lens on On The Run’s findings. What does it do when we place Tim’s experience in this theoretical and empirical context? It does a couple things.
First it may indicate that whether or not Tim throws a rock at a teacher while skipping school may be irrelevant. He would likely be drawn into the crimininalization process anyway. Focusing on the process of criminalization suggests that Tim’s violent behavior may be less important than the reaction of other actors and institutions which already frame young men of color as dangerous, predatory and criminal. Something that we perhaps saw play out devastatingly in Ferguson Missouri, with the murder of Michael Brown.
Second, placing the vivid and compelling stories in On The Run in theoretical and empirical context may also suggest slightly different interpretations of some of these stories. For instance, the problem of the “manly flaws” explanations provided by the men for their failings. Professor Goffman finds that the men of 6th street sometimes use an updated version of what Leibow termed “manly flaws” to explain their “personal inadequacies.” They could not be a good father, find a good job, finish a degree because they were wanted by the police. They were “on the run.” In this line of thinking, being “on the run” serves as a way to save face. But to return to Ronny’s story about shaking the hand of the white woman, or rather not shaking the hand, we can see a third explanation – the criminalization process. Whether one is actually under state control or not certainly isn’t the only factor that determines one’s ability to perform one’s social role successfully. One can be criminalized without actually being directly subject to state control. To suggest otherwise relies a bit heavily on individualized explanations at the cost of systemic and structural ones.
Finally, placing these stories in theoretical and empirical context raises questions about the nature of ethnography, the role of the researcher and how one writes up one’s ethnographic findings. As I said earlier, one of the strengths of this book is its immediacy. I’m sure I was not alone in the end as tears filled my eyes when Chuck passed away, his too short life a testament to the immorality and injustices of racism, policing, and poverty that defines contemporary America. The rage, helplessness and grief shared by Professor Goffman over her friend’s death immediately called to mind another ethnographer’s experience with death. Renato Rosaldo lost his wife Michelle Rosaldo while she was hiking members of the community they researched. A decade later he reflected on that experience, using psychoanalytic, sociological and anthropological theory to understand, explain his grief and range. The community he had been studying practiced headhunting, a ritual he had a hard time understanding, until he experienced his own personal tragedy. In analyzing his grief (and accompanying rage) years later he was able to understand the strange, the foreign, perhaps what seemed deeply immoral, as familiar, understandable, as perhaps, normal.
This of course, is the job and the challenge of the ethnographer – to render the strange, the foreign, the problematic as familiar. And the familiar – strange, problematic and foreign. What is the role of the evocative story in ethnographic research – the breathless escape from the police? The moment when the cop steps on your neck? The shooting of a friend? Can these stories be rendered in a way that underscores the persistence of inequality, racism, and institutional and personal violence while not reinforcing tropes of the savage, the lawless or the failed man?
Answering these questions suggests that linking ethnographic data to social theory is not merely an intellectual exercise. Rather theory provides context, deepens the analysis and can protect against interpretive distortions. Connecting the compelling evidence from 6th street more intimately to social theory as well as other empirical findings on racism, inequality and gender helps to underscore that these young men are not suffering from their own series of particularly poor choices, but because of their position in larger structural inequalities…
[On the Run] raises important questions about the role of ethnography in examining inequality, racism, punishment and surveillance practices. It highlights the multiple relationships between ethnography and theory. But most importantly, On the Run provides dramatic and compelling evidence for the daily interactional ways in which young urban men of color are surveilled, criminalized and punished.
*These comments are edited. Please email CJ Pascoe at firstname.lastname@example.org for the full text.
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Girl w/ Pen, founded by Deborah Siegel, publicly and passionately dispels modern myths concerning gender, encouraging other feminist scholars, writers, and thinkers to do the same.
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