Prostitutes have often been at the forefront of challenges to gender conventions. Already at the fringes of “respectable society,” by choice or circumstance, these women often have less to lose than others.
The Mardi Gras Baby Dolls are an excellent example. NPR’s Tina Antolini writes that the baby doll tradition began in 1912. That year a group of African American sex workers dressed up like baby dolls and took to the streets to celebrate Mardi Gras.
Calling your lover “baby” had just become part of the English language. Meanwhile, actual baby dolls, the toy, were rare. By dressing up this way, they flouted both gender and race rules. Women were largely excluded from masking for Mardi Gras and African Americans were still living under Jim Crow. Black women, by virtue of being both Black and female, were particularly devalued, sex workers ever more so. Asserting themselves as baby dolls, then, was a way of arguing that they were worth something.
“[I]t had all that double meaning in it,” explains historian Kim Vaz, “because African-American women weren’t considered precious and doll-like.”
It was a bold thing to do and the Baby Dolls carried walking sticks with them to beat off those who accosted them.
Today, honoring those brave women that came before, the tradition lives on in a city with the richest and most creative and unique traditions I have ever encountered. Happy Mardi Gras, Baby Dolls! Have a wonderful day tomorrow!
In 1979 the New Orleans police department went on strike, using the powerful leverage of Mardi Gras to push for an improvement in their working conditions. The city held fast and the celebration was cancelled. Ish. Some parades moved just out of town. Most tourists stayed away, fearful of unregulated reveling. But lots of locals went forward with the holiday, partying in the streets without the influx of tourists that accompany a typical Fat Tuesday.
The National Guard was called in to ensure a semblance of order, but they ignored vice, intervening only against violence. According to Wikipedia, many French Quarter locals decided it was the best Mardi Gras ever. Photographer Robbie McClaran was there. Here are some of his photographs of the day:
Of the last photo, McClaran writes: “I remember this scene like it was yesterday, it was the moment when I thought to myself Mardis Gras had reached a level of surreality I had never experienced before. Homeless woman dancing with a man in a tutu while Uncle Sam looks on and salutes.”
Sociologists who study inequality distinguish between individualbias, negative beliefs about a group held by individual persons, and systemic inequality, unequal outcomes built into our institutions that will produce inequality even in the absence of biased individuals.
A good example is K-12 education in the United States. School funding is linked, in part, to the taxes collected in the neighborhood of each school. So, schools in rich neighborhoods, populated by rich kids, have more money to spend per student than schools in poor neighborhoods. This system privileges young people who win the birth lottery and are born into wealthier families, but it also benefits whites and some Asians, who have higher incomes and greater wealth, on average, than Latinos, African Americans, American Indians, and less advantaged Asian groups.
Now, teachers and school staff might be classist and racist, and that will make matters worse. But even in the absence of such individuals, the laws that govern k-12 funding will ensure that rich and white children will be given a disproportionate amount of the resources we put towards educating the next generation. That’s f’d up, by the way, in a society that tells itself it’s a meritocracy.
Sociologists who spend time in classrooms know that young people coming into college are much more familiar with the idea that individuals are biased than they are with the idea that our societies are designed to benefit some and hurt others. This is a problem because, in the absence of an understanding that we need to change law, policy, and practice — in addition to changing minds — we will make limited headway in reducing unfair inequalities.
But where do people get their ideas about what causes inequality?
One source is the mass media and, thanks to Race Forward, we now have a portrait of media coverage of one type of inequality and the extent to which it addresses individual and systemic biases. They measured the degree to which news and TV coverage of issues were systemically aware (discussing policies or practices that lead or have led to inequality) or systemically unaware (fails to discuss such policies, explicitly denies them, or refuses to acknowledge racism of any kind).
First, they found that news outlets varied in their systemic awareness, with MSNBC a clear stand out on one end and Fox News a clear stand out on the other. On average, about 2/3rds of all media coverage failed to have any discussion of systemic causes of inequality. Articles or op-eds that robustly discussed policy problems or changes were extraordinarily rare, “never constitut[ing] more than 3.3% of any individual news outlet’s coverage of race…”
Second, they found that systemic awareness varied strongly by the topic of the coverage, with the economy and criminal justice most likely to receive systemically aware coverage:
What this means is that whether any given person understands racism to be a largely one-on-one phenomenon that can be solved by reducing individual bias (or waiting for racists to move on to another realm) or a systemic problem that requires intervention at the level of our institutions, depends in part on what media outlets they consume and what they’re interested in (e.g., sports vs. economics).
There’s lots more to learn from the full document at Race Forward.
The term secularization is typically used to describe the process by which something becomes increasingly distant from, irrelevant to, or uninfluenced by religion. But what about religions themselves? Can religions undergo secularization?
Sociologist Jeremy Thomas tested this proposition, looking at changes in how authors writing for the popular magazine Christianity Today frame their opposition to the use of pornography between 1956 and 2010 (article, summary). He compared three anti-pornography frames:
religious (e.g., against the bible, a sin),
harm to others (e.g., performers), and
harm to self (e.g., porn addiction, marital troubles).
Thomas found that the last frame — harm to self — had increasing come to dominate the discussion at Christianity Today. This figure shows the proportion of paragraphs that make each argument. The last frame clearly dominates.
Thomas calls this “outsourcing moral authority”: religious leaders are relying on other authorities to back up their points of view. This suggests that even religion is undergoing secularization.
Haley Morris-Cafiero is an artist, a photographer, and a scorned body. Aware that her appearance attracts disgust and mockery from some, she decided to try to document people’s public disdain. The result is a series of photographs exposing the people who judge and laugh at her. She chose to publish several at Salon:
Dmitriy T.C. was the last of many who’ve suggested I write about this. I’ve decided against it in the past because I anticipated a critique, one that dismissed the project on the argument that we can’t really know what is going through these people’s minds. Maybe that cop is just a jerk and he does that to everyone? Maybe the gawkers are looking at someone or something on the other side of her? Where’s the proof that these are actually instances of cruel, public anti-fat bias?
In some cases, Morris-Cafiero has a story to go along with the photo. The girl waiting to cross the street with her, she said, was slapping her stomach. In another instance, she overheard a man say “gorda,” fat woman. This type of context makes at least some of the photographs seem more “legit.”
But, as I’ve thought more about it, I actually think the project’s strength is in its ambiguity. The truth is that Morris-Cafiero often does not know what’s going on in the minds of her subjects. Yet, because she carries a body that she knows is disdained by many, it is perfectly reasonable for her to feel like every grimace, look of disgust, laugh, shared whisper, and instance of teasing is a negative reaction to her body. In fact, this is how many fat people experience being in public; whether they’re right about the intent 100% of the time is irrelevant to their lived experience.
And this is how people of color, people who speak English as a second language, disabled people and others who are marginalized live, too. Was that person rude because I speak with an accent? Did that person say there was no vacancies in the apartment because I’m black? Was I not chosen for the job because I’m in a wheelchair? Privilege is being able to assume that the person laughing behind you is laughing at something or someone else, that the scowl on someone’s face is because they’re having a bad day, and that there must have been a better qualified candidate.
For many members of stigmatized groups, it can be hard not to at least consider the possibility that negative reactions and rejections are related to who they are. Morris-Cafiero’s project does a great job of showing what that looks like.
Philosopher Judith Butler has been influential across many disciplines, and sociology is no stranger to her works. She first drew widespread attention with her book Gender Trouble. In it, Butler questioned the supposed naturalness of both the male/female sex binary and the differences between men and women. Not natural at all, she argued, gender is performed. Butler has written over a dozen books and is a great scholar to be able to quote at parties if you want to impress upon others that you know your shit.