Just for Fun: Santa on Sociologists

He doesn’t trust us.  And fairly so.


Real breaking news. False headline by nicrobe.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Between Protesters and Police: How a Photojournalist Got “The Shot”

Iconic images — such as a single student standing stoic before Red Army tanks in Tiananmen Square, a protester leaning forward to put a flower into the barrel of a soldier’s gun, or two African-American athletes raising black-gloved fists on the Olympic victory podium — often seem to shape much of what we “know” about various historical events or social movements. In our social media, mass culture world, images and interpretations spread fast. But where do these images come from? How and by whom are they produced?

Last week, wire services photographer Noah Berger found himself behind the lens of a photograph that has the potential to become such an image. In it, a white, plain-clothes police officer in Oakland, CA, aims his gun at protesters and reporters, while his black partner holds down a black protester. At a historical moment when protests are sweeping the country, bringing issues of police violence and the unequal treatment of minorities into public consciousness with slogans like “Black Lives Matter,” it is perhaps not surprising that the photo seems to have gone viral.

Sociologist Joshua Page reached out to Berger to discuss the photographer’s experience in creating this powerful image. In an interview, the two talked about the social logistics of photographing protests, the life of a “stringer,” and the struggle to capture the essence—even the sociological significance—of events that have complex backstories and often conflicting meanings in single, silent photographs.

1aREUTERS/Noah Berger

1. The Photo.

Page: Why was the police officer pointing his gun at people?

Berger: In basic, loose terms, what happened on the night that the plain-clothes officer pulled his gun on the protesters began with protests on the Berkeley campus, about 7:00pm. They disrupted a lecture by, I think, one of the founders of Paypal, but they marched peacefully for a couple of hours. It was about 150 people, and they marched all the way from the Berkeley campus to downtown Oakland—about three miles.

When it reached downtown Oakland, at 14th and Broadway, which is sort of “protest central,” it started getting a little bit edgier. You could just feel it in the crowd… Pretty soon after that, the first window got smashed. Then the cell phone store got looted. I watched that happen. I couldn’t take any pictures, but I did watch it.

So, the protesters kept marching, banging on windows. There was some minor vandalism, and, according to the California Highway Patrol [CHP], when the cell phone store was looted, that was when two officers who had been in a car behind the protest group got out and started walking with the group. This is all according to the CHP.

I noticed the officers in the crowd, and I actually thought they looked kind of scary. I made a mental note to stay away from them. They didn’t strike me as cops, they just looked kind of scary. But as far as I saw, they just walked along with the crowd. There have been some reports of them doing other things… but all I saw them doing was walking along with the group.

About 20 to 30 minutes after the first vandalism started, a group of roughly 60 people were walking, and someone just turned on these two guys and started yelling that they were cops. Kind of taunting them. More people joined in. At that point, the San Francisco Chronicle photographer tells me, somebody ran up behind the cops and pulled the hat off one of the guys, threw it on the ground. Apparently another person hit one of the officers on the back of the head. This is according to the Chronicle.

At that point, one of the officers in the crowd and a guy just started scuffling. It just turned into a brawl, and the crowd started advancing on these two officers. At that point, one of the officers pulled out a baton, which you can see in some of the pictures, and he also pulled out his firearm. He kind of aimed at the crowd and swung it around, saying something to the effect of, “Stay back! Back off.” He held them off for about 30 seconds until the regular, uniformed officers swooped in from the end of the block. They formed a protective semi-circle around these two guys and the protesters they were detaining, and pushed the other protesters backwards to secure the area.

Page: At what point did he point the gun at the Chronicle’s photographer?

Berger: I very much doubt that the cop knew the guy was press and was specifically pointing at him. He was holding the crowd back. It was more general, to everybody, “Stay back.” And in the picture, his hand isn’t on the trigger. So, I don’t think he was specifically targeting the press. It was just that we were close to him.

Page: Have you been surprised at how widely that image has been circulated and the ways people have interpreted it on Facebook and elsewhere?

Berger: Very much so. Michael Short, the Chronicle photographer and I, when we talked about it right after it happened, we thought the story was gonna be, “How crazy is this that a group of protesters knowingly attacked undercover officers?” That’s what we thought was the amazing part of the moment!

But after that picture came out, it conveyed a different perspective: “How crazy is it that this undercover cop would pull his weapon on protesters?” It’s a really good case of the picture not showing the whole story. It’s not a lie. It definitely is part of the story, but it’s not the whole occurrence.

It’s led to a cascade of interest that I’ve never really seen before, which was weird and mostly good. Not all good, but mostly good.

2. The job.

Page: So, what is your job title?

Berger: I’m a freelance photographer, a “stringer.”

Page: Do you see yourself as a photojournalist?

Berger: Yeah, I kind of wear two hats. It changes depending on the season, but I spend about 60% of my time on the news and about 40% in corporate or government work. But when I’m out during the protests, I certainly consider myself a photojournalist.

Page: Are there particular assignments you like to take?

Berger: Definitely the protests, the edgier protests are high on my list. That, and wildfires. My favorite assignments are protests and wildfires.

King Fire Photo Copyright Noah BergerThe King Wildfire, 2014. © Noah Berger

Page: What is it you like about them?

Berger: The wildfires are great, because you’re in these volatile, somewhat dangerous situations, but no one’s aiming for you, unlike in the protests. You’re out in the woods, trying to get your shot, and you’re not dealing with the public relations side or negotiating society. You’re just on your own.

The protests, it’s just interesting to see when there are clashes and when the emotions and violence flare up. And on another side, it’s just interesting to see that side of life. It’s something a lot of people don’t witness.

Page: Are there particular types of images you’re looking for when shooting a protest?

Berger: Sure. Working for the wire services like the AP or Reuters, I try to keep in mind one image that sums up an event. I’m not just looking for one image from the night, but I like my images to say something. When you’re working for a wire service, it’s more important to consider an audience outside the local area and know that you’re looking for images that sum up the event.

Page: Those tend to be more dramatic images.

Berger: “Dramatic,” like for the police protests, obviously would be something that might have a policeman and a protester in it, and some interaction. But it doesn’t need to be. Reuters, another photographer, got a shot of this guy with fire around him and a sign that said “Black Lives Matter.” There’s no other context, but it just had a great feeling. So it doesn’t need to be both sides, but I think the photo needs to speak to the whole issue.

Page: How do you know when the picture represents what’s going on?

Berger: You just kind of know when it happens, I guess…

Page: Another shot you had the other day, of the freeway stopped in both directions, was just amazing.

Berger: That’s actually a little different than I normally shoot; it doesn’t tell the story as quickly as the images I would normally look for. It took me longer to warm to that photo, because it was harder to “read.” You need more context [to know that these are protesters stopping traffic on a freeway].

Page: What’s your process for shooting a protest? How do you know where to go?

Berger: Well, there are a couple different ways. To find out where the protest is gonna be, there’s a website that lists the bigger ones. Twitter has become huge. A lot of these protests are just organized a couple hours before by someone saying, “Hey, let’s meet at 7:00 at the corner of _______ and _______,” and that just creates the protest. So, Twitter’s good.

I also use a police scanner, and I’ll have that on, depending on what the protest is. Like, if there are multiple protest groups roaming the streets, that’s really useful…. The other way is following, if there are multiple groups, following where the police helicopters are. You can look up and kind of figure that out. But the scanner’s a really useful tool.

3. Interactions: Protesters, Police, and the Press Corps.

Page: Do you ever get pushback from protesters, get hassled?

Berger: All the time. When I’m out there, my primary concerns are staying safe from protesters, staying safe from the police projectiles or clubs, and just keeping my gear safe.

Page: I’m sure there must be times when the idea of a protest is to get the images out there and spread the word. Are there times when your relationship with the protesters is more collaborative than antagonistic?

Berger: It’s not necessarily true, actually, that they want the word out. There’s definitely a large group that does want the world to know what’s going on here… but a lot of people seem to want to be out there pushing the boundaries of police and society and don’t want it documented.

Page: Is there a sense in some protests that the press is part of the “system” people are protesting to begin with?

Berger: You do hear that. I’ve had a lot of people that are well meaning come up and say, “The mainstream media isn’t covering this.” And I’m like, “I’m working for the AP right now. It doesn’t get much more mainstream than that!” …I am a fairly big believer that the mainstream press tries to convey objective, unbiased accounts of what’s going on. We don’t always get it perfectly right, but I think the effort is there. That’s the intent.
Page: What does it look like when a protester harasses you?
Berger: It can be different forms. The other night, during the looting at the cell phone store, a woman and a man came up to me and just held their cameras up to me and held their middle fingers up and said, “You’re not gonna take pictures of this. You’re not gonna take pictures of this.” And just followed me wherever I moved. That’s kind of a normal tactic. One of the other photographers, they tried to grab his memory card. There are more threatening forms, where people are just lurking behind you saying, “No photographs. No photographs.” It’s hard to watch stuff happening and not be able to shoot, but it’s just one of those times you have to let your camera down.
Page: What about the police?
Berger: For the most part, the police do a fairly good job at respecting the press out there…. There are definitely cases where the police are caught up in the moment and go after you—maybe knowing you’re press, maybe not—but I think they kind of respect the boundary. I have been batoned a lot, but it’s when I put myself between the front line of the protesters and the front line of the police. That’s where you can get the dramatic shots, but you’re kind of asking for it in that spot. It’s a risk of going up there: that you’re gonna catch a baton… I mean, you can always drop back a little bit. If you drop back from the front line of protesters, you can have a few minutes to collect.
Page: How do you interact with other photographers when you’re covering these events?
Berger: We definitely work together. We’re very actively backing each other up. Just before this protest, a Reuters photographer got pepper-sprayed by the police and, when he put his gear down, someone who wasn’t part of the protest came and took his gear. Ran off with thousands and thousands of dollars of camera equipment, and another photographer tried to chase them down, unsuccessfully. But anyway, we do stick together. We’ll talk beforehand about who’s going out, sometimes ride in a car together, and we’ll decide together when something’s not safe enough to cover.
We have a great community of photojournalists. We really do look out for each other. There’s definitely an element of competition—we all want to get the best shot! But the overarching feeling is that we want to keep each other safe.

4. Framing and Representation.

Page: Do you think about potential public or political reactions to the images when you’re shooting them?

Berger: Yeah. And I have a strong belief that we’re showing the world what’s happening in any given situation. I mean, that moment with the handgun coming up, you’re not gonna see that otherwise. There were, plus or minus, three mainstream journalists there, and we’re really the eyes of “truth” in the bigger, somewhat objective reality that’s being conveyed to the world.

Page: Do you think about how certain images would support particular narratives?

Berger: Sure. I think there’s an inherent bias toward, in protests, the sparky, edgy action shot. It’s not because we want to show protesters [as violent], but it makes for more dramatic pictures… I don’t ever go into it going, “I’m gonna take a shot that makes this side look like this,” but sometimes when you’re editing, you can see that. “Oh, this shot really conveys this.”

Page: You’re aware that certain images support certain perspectives, and recognize that sometimes you’re emphasizing the edgier side of a protest when a lot of it is peaceful. Like you were saying, all the way from Berkeley to downtown Oakland…

Berger: I am very conscious of that: one image can convey something that isn’t the whole truth. I try, when I write my caption, to reflect that. When I covered Occupy, if there was a protest where 1,500 people shut down a port and then 100 people broke windows, in my caption I’d say, “After a largely peaceful protest of 1,500 people…” There is definitely a responsibility beyond the image.

Page: So, what is your view of the current wave of protests? Do you think they’re effective? Justified?

Berger: I definitely don’t feel comfortable speaking to whether they’re justified… I don’t think any mainstream journalist trying to report from an objective position should put out their opinion on an issue they’re covering…. Our job is to stay, to try to stay as objective and neutral and balanced as we can. Telling our opinion would fall outside those boundaries, so it’s not something I’m comfortable talking about. …You could definitely be looking at a group on any side of an issue and think… “That’s kind of wacky,” but it’s still your job to stay objective and present all sides to an issue.

5. Letting Go.

Page: It must be really interesting to shoot the images, put them out there, and see how people respond to them and use them. I’ve seen this undercover cop photo turned into a meme. Do you pay attention to how they get written up and used?

Berger: On this story, I have been, definitely, but not always. I mean, there are all kinds of ironic things. This one was used as a protest poster for this coming weekend’s protest. I’m sure some of the people, maybe even the people designing the poster, are gonna be out there blocking my camera! Usually, the photos just sort of go off into the media world, and they’re gone for me.

Joshua Page, PhD, is a professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, where he specializes in crime and deviance. He is the author of The Toughest Beat: Politics, Punishment, and the Prison Officers Union in California. This post originally appeared at The Society Pages.

From Our Archives: Christmas

2The History of Christmas

Christmas Across Cultures

The Economics of Christmas

Racializing Christmas

Christmas and Gender

Gift Guides and the Social Construction of Gender

Sexifiying Christmas

Christmas Marketing

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Sexy Women as Food: A Collection

Flashback Friday.

In her now-classic books The Sexual Politics of Meat and The Pornography of Meat, Carol Adams analyzes similarities in the presentation of meat products (or the animals they come from) and women’s bodies.

She particularly draws attention to sexualized fragmentation — the presentation of body parts of animals in ways similar to sexualized poses of women — and what she terms “anthropornography,” or connecting the eating of animals to the sex industry. For an example of anthropornography, Adams presents this “turkey hooker” cooking utensil:

Adams also discusses the conflation of meat/animals and women–while women are often treated as “pieces of meat,” meat products are often posed in sexualized ways or in clothing associated with women. The next eleven images come from Adams’s website:

For a more in-depth, theoretical discussion of the connections between patriarchy, gender inequality, and literal consumption of meat and symbolic consumption of women, we highly encourage you to check out Adams’s website.

This type of imagery has by no means disappeared, so we’ve amassed quite a collection of our own here at Sociological Images.

IndianFeminist sent in this example from India for a Mango flavored drink called Slice. “The brand ambassador,” our reader writes, “is Katrina Kaif, undoubtedly India’s most popular actress.” The ad puts her inside the bottle and merges her with the liquid, then offers her as a date.

3 17_27 Banner

An ad I found for I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter turns Spraychel into a female politician:

Blanca pointed us to Skinny Cow ice cream, which uses this sexualized image of a cow (who also has a measuring tape around her waist to emphasize that she’s skinny):

For reasons I cannot comprehend, there are Skinny Cow scrapbooking events.

Mustard and ketchup make up a “sexy” woman (from Las Vegas Living):

Are you hungry for some lovin’, er, lunchin’? Do you have an all-American appetite for chick(en)s? Or are you secretly ravenous for pig? We think we might have just the thing to satisfy your lust for breast, thigh, and rump:

(These ads were designed by a marketing firm in Thailand. Found via copyranter.)

Denia sent in this image of “Frankfurters” with sexy ladies on them. The text says “Undress me!” in Czech.

Finally, Teresa C. of Moment of Choice brought our attention to Lavazza coffee company’s 2009 calendar, shot by Annie Liebowitz (originally found in the Telegraph):

And this, of course:

Spanish-language ads for Doritos (here, via Copyranter):



Amanda C. sent in this sign seen at Taste of Chicago:


Dmitiriy T.M. sent us this perplexing Hardee’s French Dip “commercial.”  It’s basically three minutes of models pretending like dressing up as French maids for Hardees and pouting at the camera while holding a sandwich is a good gig:

Dmitriy also sent us this photo of Sweet Taters in New Orleans:


Jacqueline R. sent in this commercial for Birds Eye salmon fish sticks:

Crystal J. pointed out that a Vegas restaurant is using these images from the 1968 No More Miss America protest in advertisements currently running in the UNLV campus newspaper, the Rebel Yell. Here’s a photo from the protest:


And here’s the ad:

RY grind burger

Edward S. drew our attention to this doozy:

Dmitriy T.M. sent us this example from Louisiana:

Haven’t had enough?  See this post, this post, and this post, too.

Originally posted in 2008.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Why I Called it “The Family” and What That Has To Do with Cosby

First, a note on language

In American English books from 1910 to 1950, about 25% of the uses of “family” were preceded by “the.” Starting about 1950, however, “the family” started falling out of fashion, finally dropping below 16% of “family” uses in the mid-2000s. This trend coincides with the modern rise of family diversity.

In her classic 1993 essay, “Good Riddance to ‘The Family’,” Judith Stacey wrote,

no positivist definition of the family, however revisionist, is viable. … the family is not an institution, but an ideological, symbolic construct that has a history and a politics.

The essay was in Journal of Marriage and the Family, published by the National Council on Family Relations. In 2001, in a change that as far as I can tell was never announced, JMF changed its name to Journal of Marriage and the Family, which some leaders of NCFR believed would make it more inclusive. It was the realization of Stacey’s argument.

I decided on the title very early in the writing of my book: The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. I agreed with Stacey that the family is not an institution. Instead, I think it’s an institutional arena: the social space where family interactions take place. I wanted to replace the narrowing, tradition-bound term, with an expansive, open-ended concept that was big enough to capture both the legal definition and the diversity of personal definitions. I think we can study and teach the family without worrying that we’re imposing a singular definition of what that means.

It takes the unique genius that great designers have to capture a concept like this in a simple, eye-catching image. Here is how the artists at Kiss Me I’m Polish did it:


What goes in the frame? What looks like a harmless ice-breaker project — draw your family! — is also a conceptual challenge. Is it a smiling, generic nuclear family? A family oligarchy? Or a fictional TV family providing cover for an abusive, larger-than-life father figure who lectures us about morality while concealing his own serial rape behind a bland picture frame?

Whose function?

Like any family sociologist, I have great respect for Andrew Cherlin. I have taught from his textbook, as well as The Marriage Go-Round, and I have learned a lot from his research, which I cite often. But there is one thing in Public and Private Families that always rubbed me the wrong way when I was teaching: the idea that families are defined by positive “functions.”

Here’s the text box he uses in Chapter 1 (of an older edition, but I don’t think it’s changed), to explain his concept:


I have grown more sympathetic to the need for simplifying tools in a textbook, but I still find this too one-sided. Cherlin’s public family has the “main functions” of child-rearing and care work; the private family has “main functions” of providing love, intimacy, and emotional support. Where is the abuse and exploitation function?

That’s why one of the goals that motivated me to finish the book was to see the following passage in print before lots of students. It’s now in Chapter 12: Family Violence and Abuse:

We should not think that there is a correct way that families are “supposed” to work. Yes, families are part of the system of care that enhances the lived experience and survival of most people. But we should not leap from that observation to the idea that when family members abuse each other, it means that their families are not working. … To this way of thinking, the “normal” functions of the family are positive, and harmful acts or outcomes are deviations from that normal mode.

The family is an institutional arena, and the relationships between people within that arena include all kinds of interactions, good and bad. … And while one family member may view the family as not working—a child suffering abuse at the hands of a trusted caretaker, for example—from the point of view of the abuser, the family may in fact be working quite well, regarding the family as a safe place to carry out abuse without getting caught or punished. Similarly, some kinds of abuse—such as the harsh physical punishment of children or the sexual abuse of wives—may be expected outcomes of a family system in which adults have much more power than children and men (usually) have more power than women. In such cases, what looks like abuse to the victims (or the law) may seem to the abuser like a person just doing his or her job of running the family.

Huxtable family secrets

Which brings us to Bill Cosby. After I realized how easy it was to drop photos into my digital copy of the book cover, I made a series of them to share on social media — and planning to use them in an introductory lecture — to promote this framing device for the book. On September 20th of this year I made this figure and posted it in a tweet commemorating the 30th anniversary of The Cosby Show:


Ah, September. When I was just another naïve member of the clueless-American community, using a popular TV family to promote my book, blissfully unaware of the fast-approaching marketing train wreck beautifully illustrated by this graph of internet search traffic for the term “Cosby rape”:


I was never into The Cosby Show, which ran from my senior year in high school through college graduation (not my prime sitcom years). I love lots of families, but I don’t love “the family” any more than I love “society.” Like all families, the Huxtables would have had secrets if they were real. But now we know that even in their fictional existence they did have a real secret. Like some real families, the Huxtables were a device for the family head’s abuse of power and sexuality.

So I don’t regret putting them in the picture frame. Not everything in there is good. And when it’s bad, it’s still the family.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Medicare vs. National Health Care: How U.S. Seniors Do in Cross-National Perspective

“We need to get rid of Obamacare,” says Ed Gillispie in a NYT op-ed. The reason: Obamacare’s “gravitational pull toward a single-payer system that would essentially supplant private insurance with a government program.”

Gillespie, who lays out his credentials at the start of the article – he ran for Senate in Virginia and lost – notes that Obamacare is unpopular. But he omits all mention of a government-run single-payer system that happens to be very popular – Medicare. No Republican dare run on a platform of doing away with it. Gillespie himself accused Obamacare of cutting Medicare, a statement that Politifact found “Mostly False.”

So how are seniors doing? Compared to their pre-Medicare counterparts, they are  probably healthier, and they’re probably shelling out less for health care. But compared to seniors in other countries, not so well. A Commonwealth Fund survey of eleven countries finds that seniors (age 65 and older) in the U.S. are the least healthy – the most likely to suffer from chronic illnesses.* 

Over half the U.S. seniors say that they are taking four or more prescription drugs; all the other countries were below 50%:

And despite Medicare, money was a problem. Nearly one in five said that in the past year they “did not visit a doctor, skipped a medical test or treatment that a doctor recommended, or did not fill a prescription or skipped doses because of cost.” A slightly higher percent had been hit with $2,000 or more in out-of-pocket expenses. 

In those other countries, with their more socialistic health care systems, seniors seem to be doing better, physically and financially.  One reason that American seniors are less healthy is that our universal, socialized medical care doesn’t kick in until age 65. People in those other countries have affordable health care starting in the womb. 

Critics of more socialized systems claim that patients must wait longer to see a doctor. The survey found some support for that. Does it take more than four weeks to get to see a specialist? U.S. seniors had the highest percentage of those who waited less than that. But when it came to getting an ordinary doctor’s appointment, the U.S. lagged behind seven of the other ten countries.

There was one bright spot for U.S. seniors. They were the most likely to have developed a treatment plan that they could carry out in daily life. And their doctors  “discussed their main goals and gave instructions on symptoms to watch for” and talked with them about diet and exercise.

Gillespie and many other Republicans want to scrap Obamacare and substitute something else. That’s progress I suppose. Not too long ago, they were quite happy with the pre-Obamacare status quo. Throughout his years in the White House, George Bush insisted that “America has the best health care system in the world.” Their Republican ideology precludes them from learning from other countries. As Marco Rubio put it, we must avoid “ideas that threaten to make America more like the rest of the world, instead of helping the world become more like America.”

But you’d think that they might take a second look at Medicare, a program many of them publicly support.

* Includes hypertension or high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, lung problems, mental health problems, cancer, and joint pain/arthritis.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

The Paradox of Women’s Sexuality in Breast Feeding Advocacy and Breast Cancer Campaigns

My sister-in-law Charlotte was recently loudly admonished by a flight attendant on an international flight for allowing her “breast to fall out” after she fell asleep while nursing her baby. A strong advocate for breastfeeding, Charlotte has shared with me her own discomfort with public breastfeeding because it is considered gross, matronly, and “unsexy.”

I heard this over and over again from women I have interviewed for my research:  Women who breastfed often feel they have to cover and hide while breastfeeding at family functions. As one mom noted, “Family members might be uncomfortable so I leave room to nurse—but miss out on socializing.”  This brings on feelings of isolation and alienation. Because of the “dirty looks” and clear discomfort by others, women reported not wanting to breastfeed in any situation that could be considered “public.”

Meanwhile, I flip through the June 2012 issue of Vanity Fair and see this ad:


We capitalize on the sexualization of the breast to raise awareness about breast cancer. Yet, we cringe at the idea of a woman nursing her child on an overnight flight.

What’s happening here? These campaigns send contradictory messages to women about their breasts and the way women should use them, but they have something in common as well: both breastfeeding advocacy and breast cancer awareness-raising campaigns tend to reduce women to body parts that reflect the social construction of gender and sexuality.

Breast cancer awareness campaigns explicitly adopt a sexual stance, focusing on men’s desire for breasts and women’s desire to have breasts to make them attractive to men. Breast milk advocates focus on the breast as essential for good motherhood. Breastfeeding mothers sit at the crossroads: Their breasts are both sexualized and essential for their babies, so they can either breastfeed and invoke disgust, or feed their child formula and attract the stigma of being a bad mother.

Both breastfeeding advocacy programs and breast cancer awareness-raising campaigns demonstrate how socially constructed notions of ownership and power converge with the sexualization and objectification of women’s breasts. And, indeed, whether breast feeding or suffering breast cancer, women report feeling helpless and not in control of their bodies. As Jazmine Walker has written, efforts to “help” women actually “[pit] women against their own bodies.”

Instead, we need to shift away from a breast-centered approach to a women-centered approach for both types of campaigns. We need to, as Jazmine Walker advocates, “teach women and girls how to navigate and control their experiences with health care professionals,” instead of pushing pink garb and products and sexualizing attempts to raise awareness like “save the ta-tas.”  Likewise, we need to support women’s efforts to breastfeed, if they choose to, instead of labeling “bad moms” if they do not or cannot. Equipped with information and bolstered by real sources of support, women will be best able to empower themselves.

Jennifer Rothchild, PhD is in the sociology and gender, women, & sexuality studies departments at the University of Minnesota, Morris. She is the author of Gender Trouble Makers: Education and Empowerment in Nepal and is currently doing research on the politics of breastfeeding.

Inequality in the Skies: Applying the Gini Index to Airplanes

I’m on a plane right now, flying from Sacramento back to Albany. And sitting here I’m reminded of how air travel itself reflects the growing inequality of society in a trivial, but suggestive, way.

Planes have always had first-class and passenger cabins, at least as far as I know. If the Titanic had this distinction, I’m guessing it was in place from the beginning of commercial aviation.

But for most of my adult life, planes — at least the ones I usually fly on, from one U.S. city to another — looked something like this:

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Just roughing it out here, this means that 7% of the passengers used about 15% of the room, with the other 93% using 85% of the cabin space. Such a plane would have a Gini index of about 8. The Gini index is measure of inequality, a fancy statistical way of representing inequality in the income distribution of a country’s population. For reference, the U.S. Gini is about 48, and the global one is around 65.

Domestic airlines have pretty much moved to a three-tier system now, in which the traditional first-class seating is supplemented by “Economy Plus,” in which you get an extra three or four inches of legroom over the standard “Economy” seats. I, as usual, am crammed into what should really be called “Sardine Class” — where seats now commonly provide a pitch of 31”, a few inches down from what most planes had a decade ago.

In today’s standard U.S. domestic configuration, the 12% of people in first class use about 25% of the passenger space, the 51 people in Economy Plus use another 30%, leaving the sardines — the other 157 people — with 45%. That gives us a Gini index of about 16.

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Transatlantic flights, however, are increasingly taking this in-the-air distinction to new heights. Take, for example, the below United configuration of the Boeing 777. It boasts seats that turn into beds on which one can lie fully horizontal. United calls this new section of bed-seats “BusinessFirst.”

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Unsurprisingly, though, these air-beds take up even more space than a nice comfy first class seat. So if we look again at how the space is distributed, we now have 19% of the people using about 35% of the plane, 27% using another 25%, and the final 52% using the last 40%. The Gini index has now increased to 25.

It’s not often you see such a clear visual representation of our collective acceptance of the right of a small fraction of people to consume a very disproportionate percentage of resources. I wonder how much of the shift is actually driven by increased inequality, as opposed to improved capacity for price discrimination.

And it’s also worth noting that the plane above, while unequal relative to the old-fashioned three-rows-of-first-class-and-the-rest-economy layout, is still nowhere near the inequality of the U.S., or the world.

Elizabeth Popp Berman, PhD is an associate professor of sociology at the University at Albany.  She is the author of Creating the Market University: How Academic Science Became an Economic Engine and regularly blogs at OrgTheory, where this post originally appeared.