The joke about the woman who sued McDonald’s after spilling hot coffee in her lap has become a cultural lightening rod, mocked in sitcoms and used to argue in favor of reforming the law that guides civil lawsuits. In fact, the coffee was served 30 degrees higher than coffee made at home. When it spilled between 79-year-old Stella Liebeck’s legs and pooled in her seat, she went into shock. She was burned over 16% of her body, 6% of the burns were 3rd degree. She spent a week in the hospital and had to have skin grafts. When she asked McDonald’s to pay her hospital bills, they refused. Later it came out that the restaurant had gotten many complaints about the temperature of their coffee.
This New York Timesvideo reviews the case, described as the “most widely misunderstood story in America.” From a sociological perspective, it’s a great example of how stories can bounce around in the media echo chamber, constrained by the need for sound bites, and become a cultural touchstone.
Way back in 1978, Mark Fishman wrote an article titled “Crime Waves as Ideology.” It referred to the way in which TV news gets organized thematically in ways that make non-trends appear to be trends. Fishman pointed out that the news directors can unwittingly create media crime waves — sudden increases in the number of stories even as the the actual number of crimes remains unchanged. Once the theme is established, it’s just a matter of combing the city or the entire country for incidents that fit. Today we’re so used to it that when we watch the local news at eleven, we barely notice.
Now, thanks to hyperlinks, online news can do the same thematic grouping. Consider: on a recent Sunday, both New York tabloids put the same story on page one — the stabbing death of a woman and four children in their apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
Early word from the police was that “it’s looking a domestic violence case.” Apparently the killer knew the victims and may have been a relative.
What caught my attention was the “related” story that the Daily News linked to on its website version of the story. What kind of story might be related? A story about the family? About difficulties faced by Chinese immigrants or conflicts within an immigrant community? About mental illness and violence? About ethnic and demographic changes in Sunset Park? No. None of the above. The related story is actually an entirely unrelated story.
The story the Daily News chose as “related” concerns the “Green Gang goon who was caught on video slugging a female New England Patriots fan in the face after the Jets’ upset victory” a week earlier. It turns out that in a fight twenty years ago, when he was 17, he fatally stabbed another kid. He served three years.
How are these two stories related? There is no connection between the two killers or their victims. The incidents are separated by two decades. The motives and circumstances are entirely different. If the Jets fan had not been caught on camera punching the female Patriots fan, no journalist following the Sunday killing would have dug up information on this crime of twenty years ago in an attempt to elaborate on the Sunset Park killings. Knowing about that “related” crime gives us no better understanding of Sunday’s stabbing.
Instead, the two stories are related by a common theme — they are both about killing where the weapon is a knife. The Daily News seems to be taking a page from Amazon’s marketing strategy. “Readers who liked this story also liked . . .” or Netflix recommendations. Television news often groups stories thematically. A story about a commercial arson in one part of town will be followed by a story about an accidental fire in a house in a distant neighborhood. The circumstances, location, and causes of the two fires are completely different, and if the big fire had not occurred, that house fire might not have been newsworthy. But that night, it fit with the fire theme.
Here is another example in a screengrab from the Daily News website:
A stabbing at the University of Indiana. The related stories are a stabbing death of a teacher in Long Beach, California and of a teacher in a Texas high school.
So, students stabbing people at schools — is that a real trend? Probably not, but it is a news theme.
According to an article at the Wall Street Journal, the average income for the bottom 90% of families fell by over 10% from 2002 – 2012 while the average income for families in all the top income groups grew. The top 0.01% of families actually saw their average yearly income grow from a bit over $12 million to over $21 million over the same period. And that is adjusted for inflation and without including capital gains.
What was most interesting about the article was its discussion of the dangers of this trend and the costs of reversing it. In brief, the article noted that many financial analysts now worry that inequality has gotten big enough to threaten the future economic and political stability of the country. At the same time, it also pointed out that doing anything about it will likely threaten profits. As the article notes:
But if inequality has risen to a point in which investors need to be worried, any reversal might also hurt.
One reason U.S. corporate profit margins are at records is the share of revenue going to wages is so low. Another is companies are paying a smaller share of profits on taxes. An economy where income and wealth disparities are smaller might be healthier. It would also leave less money flowing to the bottom line, something that will grab fund managers’ attention.
Any bets how those in the financial community will evaluate future policy choices?
Cats and dogs are gendered in contemporary American culture, such that dogs are thought to be the proper pet for men and cats for women (especially lesbians). This, it turns out, is an old stereotype. In fact, cats were a common symbol in suffragette imagery. Cats represented the domestic sphere, and anti-suffrage postcards often used them to reference female activists. The intent was to portray suffragettes as silly, infantile, incompetent, and ill-suited to political engagement.
Cats were also used in anti-suffrage cartoons and postcards that featured the bumbling, emasculated father cruelly left behind to cover his wife’s shirked duties as she so ungracefully abandons the home for the political sphere. Oftentimes, unhappy cats were portrayed in these scenes as symbols of a threatened traditional home in need of woman’s care and attention.
While opposition to the female vote was strong, public sentiment warmed to the suffragettes as police brutality began to push women into a more favorable, if victimized, light.
As suffragettes increasingly found themselves jailed, many resisted unfair or inhumane imprisonment with hunger strikes. In response, jailers would often force-feed female prisoners with steel devices to pry open their mouths and long hoses inserted into their noses and down their throats. This caused severe damage to the women’s faces, mouths, lungs, and stomachs, sometimes causing illness and death.
Not wanting to create a group of martyrs for the suffragist cause, the British government responded by enacting the Prisoner’s Act of 1913 which temporarily freed prisoners to recuperate (or die) at home and then rearrested them when they were well. The intention was to free the government from responsibility of injury and death from force feeding prisoners.
This act became popularly known as the “Cat and Mouse Act,” as the government was seen as toying with their female prey as a cat would a mouse. Suddenly, the cat takes on a decidedly more masculine, “tom cat” persona. The cat now represented the violent realities of women’s struggle for political rights in the male public sphere.
The longevity of the stereotype of cats as feminine and domestic, along with the interesting way that the social constructions flipped, is a great example of how cultural associations are used to create meaning and facilitate or resist social change.
Ms. Wrenn is an instructor of Sociology with Colorado State University, where she is working on her PhD. She is a council member of the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section and has published extensively on the non-human animal rights movement.
What separates those with a criminal record from the rest of the population? According to lawyer Emily Baxter, not a whole lot. Baxter’s new project “We Are All Criminals” examines the illegal activities committed by people without a criminal record. In Minnesota, 1 out of 4 residents has a criminal record, but Baxter’s project, she says on her website, is about the 75% that “got away, and how very different their lives may have been had they been caught.”
By emphasizing the crimes of the unconvicted, Baxter blurs the lines between criminal and noncriminal and draws attention to the detrimental effects that a criminal record has on the lives of those who are convicted. Many of the undocumented and unpunished transgressions confessed through her project were committed when the perpetrators were juveniles, many of whom are now lawyers, doctors, and professionals.
Executive director of the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis Michael Friedman is intrigued by the project, saying:
“I don’t think I’ve come across anybody who has not committed crimes as a juvenile,” Friedman said. “Allowing society to use juvenile criminal records as a marker for someone’s potential success, or risk for employment or opportunity, is not scientific. It’s dangerous and discriminatory.”
The most intriguing part of her project lies in its look at society as a whole. Imagine if we had all been prosecuted for every crime we committed, even as a juvenile. What would the crime rate look like then?
The author, Kat Albrecht, is an editorial assistant for The Society Pages. She is currently an undergraduate student in the department of sociology at the University of Minnesota. The artist, Emily Baxter, is the Director of Public Policy and Advocacy at the Council on Crime and Justice. Cross-posted at Citings and Sightings.
NPR’s Linda Holmes wrote a great article about the gender dynamics in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and concluded, “…you could argue that Katniss’ conflict between Peeta and Gale is effectively a choice between a traditional Movie Girlfriend and a traditional Movie Boyfriend.” I do love the way Holmes puts this. Gender, it seems, is not what one is, but what one does. Different characteristics we associate with masculinity and femininity are available to everyone, and when Peeta embodies some characteristics we usually see only in women’s roles, Peeta becomes the Movie Girlfriend despite being a boy.
Though I find this compelling, I want to take a moment to focus on the other part of this sentence… the part when Holmes frames Katniss’ relationship to Peeta and Gale as a “conflict between” and a “choice.” I think that, in some ways, the requirement to choose one or the other forces Katniss’ to, not only “choose” a boyfriend, but also to choose gender—for herself.
Depending on whether she’s relating to Peeta or Gale, she is either someone who takes charge, is competent in survival, and protects her partner (traditionally the masculine role) or someone who lets another lead and nurtures instead of protects (the feminine role). As Candace West and Don Zimmerman suggested many years ago in their article “Doing Gender,” we do gender in relationship to other people. It’s a conversation or volley in which we’re expected to play the part to the way others are doing gender.
When Katniss is with Peeta, she does a form of masculinity in relationship and reaction to his behavior and vice versa. Because Peeta “calls out” protection, Katniss steps up. When Gale calls out nurturing, she plays the part. In other words, not only is gender a “doing” rather than a “being,” it is also an interactive process. Because Katniss is in relationship to both Peeta and Gale, and because each embodies and calls out different ways of doing gender, Katniss oscillates between being the “movie boyfriend” sometimes and the “movie girlfriend” other times and, it seems, she’s facile and takes pleasure in doing all of it. If Katniss has to “choose” Peeta or Gale, she will have to give up doing gender in this splendid, and, dare I say, feminist and queer way in order to “fit” into her and her “girlfriend’s” or “boyfriend’s” relationship.
Now imagine a world in which Katniss wouldn’t have to choose.
What if she could be in a relationship with Peeta and get her needs for being understood, nurtured, and protective while also getting her girl on with Gale? In other words, imagine a world without compulsory monogamy where having two or more boyfriends or girlfriends was possible.
I’m currently working on a book on monogamy and the queer potential for open and polyamorous relationships. I’m writing about the ways in which compulsory monogamy fits nicely into and perpetuates cultural ideas about masculinity and femininity and how different forms of non-monogamy might open up alternative ways of doing, not just relationships, but also gender.
Forcing Katniss to choose is forcing Katniss into monogamy, and as I suggested above, into doing gender to complement her partner. Victoria Robinson points out in her article, “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” that monogamy compels women to invest too much time, energy, and resources into an individual man and limits their autonomy and relationships with others. What Robinson doesn’t talk about is how it also limits women’s range of how they might do gender in relationship to others.
It also limits men’s range of doing gender in relationships. Wouldn’t it be nice if Peeta and Gale never felt the pressure to be something they are not? Imagine how Peeta’s and Gale’s masculinities would have to be reconfigured to accommodate and accept each other?
Elisabeth Sheff, in her groundbreaking research on polyamorous people, found that both women and men in polyamorous relationships say that the men have to rethink their masculinities to be less possessive, women have room to be more assertive about their needs and desires, and men are more accommodating.
What this suggests is that monogamy doesn’t just limit WHO you can do; it also limits WHAT you can do in terms of gender. Might I suggest that Katniss is such a well-rounded woman character precisely because she is polyamorous? She’s not just the phallic girl with the gun… or bow in this case… or the damsel in distress. She’s strong, vulnerable, capable, nurturing, and loyal, and we get to see all of it because she does gender differently with her boyfriends. And therein, I believe, is one way that polyamory has a queer and feminist potential. It can open up the field of doing gender within the context of relationships.
I don’t know how her story ends, but I for one, am hoping that, if there is a happily-ever-after for Katniss, it’s not because girl gets boy; its because girl gets both boys.
Fifty eight years ago today, Rosa Parks kicked off a plan to bring down Jim Crow segregation by refusing to move to the back of the bus. @ShawneeSoc sent us a link to the Washington Post, where they featured her original arrest documents. A very cool piece of history.
Bonus, here’s the law that Parks was arrested for violating and an explanation (thanks to Martín A. for the link):