This has been a hard week. Another young, unarmed black man was killed by police. The Root added Michael Brown’s face to a slideshow of such incidents, started after a black man named Eric Garner died after being put in a chokehold by officers less than one month ago. This week’s guilty verdict in the trial of the man who shot Renisha McBride left me feeling numb. Nothing good could come of it, but at least I didn’t feel worse.
The shooting of Michael Brown, however, is still undergoing trial by media and the verdict is swayed by the choices made by producers and directors as to how to portray him. When Marc Duggan was killed by police earlier this year, they often featured pictures in which he looked menacing, including ones that had been cropped in ways that enhanced that impression.
Left: Photo of Duggan frequently used by media; right: uncropped photo in which he holds a plaque commemorating his deceased daughter.
As the media coverage of Brown’s death heated up, the image that first circulated of Brown was this:
Reports state that this was his current Facebook profile picture, with the implication that media actors just picked the first or most prominent picture they saw. Or, even, that somehow it’s Brown’s fault that this is the image they used.
Using the image above, though, is not neutrality. At best, it’s laziness; they simply decided not to make a conscious, careful choice. It’s their job to pick a photograph and I don’t know exactly what the guidelines are but “pick the first one you see” or “whatever his Facebook profile pic was on the day he died” is probably not among them.
There are consequential choices to be made. As an example, here are two photos that have circulated since criticism of his portrayal began — the top more obviously sympathetic and the bottom more neutral:
Commenting on this phenomenon, Twitter user @CJ_musick_lawya released two photos of himself, hashtagged with #iftheygunnedmedown, and asked readers which photo they thought media actors would choose.
Top: Wearing a cap and gown with former President Clinton; bottom: in sunglasses posing with a bottle and a microphone.
The juxtaposition brilliantly revealed how easy it is to demonize a person, especially if they are a member of a social group stereotyped as violence-prone, and how important representation is. It caught on and the imagery was repeated to powerful effect. A summary at The Root featured examples like these:
The New York Timesreports that the hashtag has been used more than 168,000 times as of August 12th. I want to believe that conversations like these will educate and put pressure on those with the power to represent black men and all marginalized peoples to make more responsible and thoughtful decisions.
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.
Somewhere we got the idea that “caveman” courtship involved a man clubbing a woman over the head and dragging her by the hair to his cave where he would, presumably, copulate with an unconscious or otherwise unwilling woman. This idea, as these two products show, is generally considered good for a chuckle.
(tray for sale at the Rose Bowl Flea Market, photo by me)
Of course, we have little to no knowledge of the social lives of early humans. First, long buried bodies and archeological dig sites simply can’t tell us much about how men and women interacted. Second, to speculate about early humans based on humans today is to project the present onto the past. To speculate about early humans based on today’s apes is (at least) as equally suspect. Ape behavior varies tremendously anyway, even among our closest cousins. Which type do we choose? The violent and hierarchical chimp or the peace-loving Bonobos who solve all social strife with sex?
In other words, the caveman-club-’er-over-the-head-and-drag-her-by-the-hair narrative is pure mythology. The mythology, nonetheless, affirms the idea that men are naturally coercive and violent by suggesting that our most natural and socially-uncorrupted male selves will engage in this sort of behavior. Rape, that is.
The idea also affirms the teleological idea that society is constantly improving and, therefore, getting closer and closer to ideals like gender equality. If it’s true that “we’re getting better all the time,” then we assume that, whatever things are like now, they must have been worse before. And however things were then, they must have been even worse before that. And so on and so forth until we get all the way back to the clubbing caveman.
Thinking like this may encourage us to stop working to make society better because we assume it will get better anyway (and certainly won’t get worse). Instead of thinking about what things like gender equality and subordination might look like, then, we just assume that equality is, well, what-we-have-now and subordination is what-they-had-then. This makes it less possible to fight against the subordination that exists now by making it difficult to recognize.
The idea of caveman courtship, in other words, seems silly and innocuous. But it actually helps to naturalize men’s aggressive pursuit of sex with women. And that naturalization is part of why it is so difficult to disrupt rape myths and stop rape.
At the end of last year, Robin Thicke took a lot of heat for both the lyrics of his song, Blurred Lines, and the accompanying video. The latter is a transparent instance of a very common strategy for making men look cool: surround them with beautiful and preferably naked women.
It seems especially effective if the men in question act unimpressed and unaffected by, or even disinterested in, the women around them. It’s as if they are trying to say, “I am so accustomed to having access to beautiful, naked women, I don’t even notice that they’re there anymore.” Or, to be more vulgar about it, “I get so much pussy, I’ve become immune.”
This is all to introduce a satirical series of photographs featuring performance artist Nate Hill who, on the mission page of his “trophy scarves” website (NSFW), writes: “I wear white women for status and power.” And, so, he does. Here are some maybe safe-for-work-ish examples:
There are more, definitely NSFW examples, at his site (and thanks to German C. for sending the link).
Hill brilliantly combines a tradition of conspicuous consumption – think mink stoles – with a contemporary matrix of domination in which white women are status symbols for men of all races. It’s not irrelevant that he’s African-American and the women he chooses are white and, yes, it is about power. We know it is because women do it too and, when they do, they use women below them in the racial hierarchy. Remember Gwen Stefani’s harajuku girls? And consider this FHM Philippines cover:
I’m amazed at the ubiquitousness of this type of imagery and our willingness to take it for granted that this is just what our visual landscape looks like. It’s social inequality unapologetically laid bare. We’re used to it.
Somebody — lots of somebodies, I guess — sat around the room and thought, “Yeah, there’s nothing pathetic or problematic about a music video in which absolutely nothing happens except naked women are used to prop up our singer’s masculinity.” The optimist in me wants to think that it’s far too obvious, so much so that the producers and participants would be embarrassed by it. Or, at least, there’d be a modicum of sensitivity to the decades of feminist activism around the sexual objectification of women.
The cynic in me recognizes that white supremacy and the dehumanization of women are alive and well. I’m glad Hill is here to help me laugh about it, even if nervously. Gallows humor, y’all. Sometimes it’s all we got.
The Nation sparked a robust discussion last week with its incisive online conversation, Does Feminism Have a Class Problem? The panelists addressed the “Lean In” phenomenon, articulating how and why Sheryl Sandberg’s focus on self-improvement – rather than structural barriers and collective action to overcome them – angered quite a few feminists on the left.
While women of different economic backgrounds face many different realities, they also share similar work-life balance struggles. In that vein, the discussants argue that expanding family-friendly workplace policies – which would improve the lives of working women up and down the economic ladder – could help bridge the feminist class divide.
A growing body of research indicates that there are few other interventions that improve the economic prospects and work-life balance of women workers as much as unions do. A new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), which I co-authored with my colleagues Janelle Jones and John Schmitt, shows just how much of a boost unions give to working women’s pay, benefits and workplace flexibility.
For example, all else being equal, women in unions earn an average of 13 percent – that’s about $2.50 per hour – more than their non-union counterparts. In other words, unionization can raise a woman’s pay as much as a full year of college does. Unions also help move us closer to equal pay: a study by the National Women’s Law Center determined that the gender pay gap for union workers is only half of what it is for those not in unions.
Unionized careers tend to come with better health and retirement benefits, too. CEPR finds that women in unions are 36 percent more likely to have health insurance through their jobs – and a whopping 53 percent more likely to participate in an employer-sponsored retirement plan.
Unions also support working women at those crucial times when they need time off to care for themselves or their families. Union workplaces are 16 percent more likely to allow medical leave and 21 percent more likely to offer paid sick leave. Companies with unionized employees are also 22 percent more likely to allow parental leave, 12 percent more likely to offer pregnancy leave, and 19 percent more likely to let their workers take time off to care for sick family members.
Women make up almost half of the union workforce and are on track to be in the majority by 2025. As women are overrepresented in the low-wage jobs that are being created in this precarious economy – they are 56.4% of low-wage workers and over half of fast food workers – unions are leading and supporting many of the campaigns to improve their situations. In an important sense, the union movement already is a women’s movement.
Education and skills can get women only so far. It’s a conundrum that women have surpassed men when it comes to formal schooling, yet women have made little progress catching up on pay. Many women who do everything right — getting more education and skills — still find themselves with low wages and no benefits.
With unions already playing a central role in helping to meet the needs working women and their families in the 21st century economy, anyone concerned about the well-being of women should also care about unions.
Earlier this year, Barbie posed for Sports Illustrated, triggering a round of eye-rolling and exasperation among those who care about the self-esteem and overall mental health of girls and women.
Barbie replied with the hashtag #unapologetic, arguing in an — I’m gonna guess, ghostwritten — essay that posing in the notoriously sexist swimsuit issue was her way of proving that girls could do anything they wanted to do. It was a bizarre appropriation of feminist logic alongside a skewering of a feminist strawwoman that went something along the lines of “don’t hate me ’cause I’m beautiful.”
Barbie is so often condemned as the problem and Mattel, perhaps tired of playing her endless defender, finally just went with: “How dare you judge her.” It was a bold and bizarre marketing move. The company had her embrace her villain persona, while simultaneously shaming the feminists who judged her. It gave us all a little bit of whiplash and I thought it quite obnoxious.
But then I came across Tiffany Gholar’s new illustrated book, The Doll Project. Gholar’s work suggests that perhaps we’ve been too quick to portray Barbie as simply a source of young women’s self-esteem issues and disordered eating. We imagine, after all, that she gleefully flaunts her physical perfection in the face of us lesser women. In this way, Mattel may be onto something; it isn’t just her appearance, but her seemingly endless confidence and, yes, failure to apologize, that sets us off.
But, maybe we’re wrong about Barbie?
What if Barbie is just as insecure as the rest of us? This is the possibility explored in The Doll Project. Using a mini diet book and scale actually sold by Mattel in the 1960s, Gholar re-imagines fashion dolls as victims of the media imperative to be thin. What if Barbie is a victim, too?
Excerpted with permission:
Forgive me for joining Mattel and Gholar in personifying this doll, but I enjoyed thinking through this reimagining of Barbie. It reminded me that even those among us who are privileged to be able to conform to conventions of attractiveness are often suffering. Sometimes even the most “perfect” of us look in the mirror and see nothing but imperfection. We’re all in this together.
Below is a remarkable commercial in which a white woman is told that if she buys Pampers, the company will donate vaccines to children in other countries. Thanks to Kenjus W. for the submission.
It is an example of “activism by purchase,” which we have discussed at length on this blog. Apparently Pampers will only help keep babies alive if you buy their product. How nice of them.
It’s also a fascinating example of the way in which white Westerners are seen as rescuing the rest of the world. This white mother with her white baby represent the West (erasing the diversity of people who live there). And she and her baby are counterposed to all the other mothers and their babies representing different racial groups (which are assumed to be coherent categories, even continents).
In the narrative of this commercial, all women are bonded by virtue of being natural nurturers of babies (and I could take issue with that, too), but the white Western woman is the ultra-mother. They may be sisters, but there are big and little sisters in this narrative. The babies run to her as if drawn to her ultra-motherhood and she treats them all, just for a moment, as if they were her very own.
Pampers wants you to think, of course, that when you buy a pack of Pampers, you are “helping” Other mothers and can save those Other babies.
This is just another manfestation of an old colonial belief, the white man’s burden, or the belief that white men had to take care of the rest of the world’s people because they were incapable of taking care of themselves.
Great find, Kenjus!
This post originally appeared in 2008.
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.
by Lisa Wade PhD and Gwen Sharp PhD, May 20, 2014, at 09:00 am
Happy Graduation, Seniors! Congratulations! What’s next? Below is some sociologically-inspired, out-of-the-box advice on work, love, family, friendship, and the meaning of life. For new grads from the two of us!
1. Don’t Worry About Making Your Dreams Come True
College graduates are often told: “follow your passion,” do “what you love,” what you were “meant to do,” or “make your dreams come true.” Two-thirds think they’re going find a job that allows them to change the world, half within five years. Yikes.
This sets young people up to fail. The truth is that the vast majority of us will not be employed in a job that is both our lifelong passion and a world-changer; that’s just not the way our global economy is. So it’s ok to set your sights just a tad below occupational ecstasy. Just find a job that you like. Use that job to help you have a full life with lots of good things and pleasure and helping others and stuff. A great life is pretty good, even if it’s not perfect.
2. Make Friends
Americans put a lot of emphasis on finding Mr. or Ms. Right and getting married. We think this will bring us happiness. In fact, however, both psychological well-being and health are more strongly related to friendship. If you have good friends, you’ll be less likely to get the common cold, less likely to die from cancer, recover better from the loss of a spouse, and keep your mental acuity as you age. You’ll also feel more capable of facing life’s challenges, be less likely to feed depressed or commit suicide, and be happier in old age. Having happy friends increases your chance of being happy as much as an extra $145,500 a year does. So, make friends!
This might be you. Research shows that young people’s expectations about their marital status (e.g., the desire to be married by 30 and have kids by 32) have little or no relationship to what actually happens to people. So, go with the flow.
And, if you’re single, you’re in good company. Single people spend more time with friends, volunteer more, and are more involved in their communities than married people. Never-married and divorced women are happier, on average, than married women. So, don’t buy into the myth of the miserable singleton.
4. Don’t Take Your Ideas about Gender and Marriage Too Seriously
If you do get married, be both principled and flexible. Relationship satisfaction, financial security, and happy kids are more strongly related to the ability to adapt in the face of life’s challenges than any particular way of organizing families. The most functional families are ones that can bend. So partnering with someone who thinks that one partner should support their families and the other should take responsibility for the house and children is a recipe for disaster. So is being equally rigid about non-traditional divisions of labor. It’s okay to have ideas about how to organize your family – and, for the love of god, please talk about both your ideals and fallback positions on this – but your best bet for happiness is to be flexible.
5. Think Hard About Whether to Buy a House
Our current image of the American Dream revolves around homeownership, and buying a home is often taken for granted as a stage on the path to full-fledge adulthood. But the ideal of universal home ownership was born in the 1950s. It’s a rather new idea.
With such a short history, it’s funny that people often insist that buying a house is a fool-proof investment and the best way to secure retirement. In fact, buying a house may not be the best choice for you. The mortgage may be less than rent, but there are also taxes, insurance, and the increasingly common Home Owners Association (HOA) fees. You may someday sell the house for more than you bought it but, if you paid interest on a mortgage, you also paid far more than the sale price. You have freedom from a landlord, but may discover your HOA is just as controlling, or worse. And then there’s the headache: renting relieves you from the stress of being responsible for repairs. It also offers a freedom of movement that you might cherish.
So, think carefully about whether buying or renting is a better fit for your finances, lifestyle, and future goals. This New York Timesrent vs. buy calculator is a good start.
6. Think Even Harder about Having Kids
One father had this to say about children: “They’re a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to shit.” In fact, having children correlates with both an increased sense of purpose in life and a long-lasting decrease in individual and marital happiness. Having kids means spending a lot of your short life and limited income on one source of joy. It’s not a bad decision. But it’s also not the only good decision you can make. We want to think we can “have it all” but, in fact, it’s a zero sum game. You have only so much time and money and there are lots of ways to find satisfaction, pleasure, and meaning in this life. Consider all your options.