Tag Archives: activism/social movements

How to Change the World One Shrug at a Time

This is, by far, the best response to inquiries about male -bodied cross-dressing that I have ever heard. If you don’t already love Eddie Izzard, you might now.  Asked why he wears “women’s dresses,” this non-cisgendered man responds, in a nutshell: “I’m not wearing women’s dresses. I’m wearing my dresses. I bought them. They are mine and I’m a man. They are very clearly a man’s dresses.”

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Johnny Depp does a similarly good job of refusing to take the bait in this clip from the Late Show with David Letterman. Letterman queries his rationale for wearing a women’s engagement ring. Depp just plays dumb and ultimately says that it didn’t fit his fiancée, but it did fit him. So… shrug.

The phenomenon of being questioned about one’s performance of gender is called “gender policing.” Generally there are three ways to respond to gender policing: (1) apologize and follow the gender rules, (2) make an excuse for why you’re breaking the rules (which allows you to break them, but still affirms the rules), or (3) do something that suggests that the rules are stupid or wrong.  Only the last one is effective in changing or eradicating norms delimiting how men and women are expected to behave.

In these examples, both Izzard and Depp made the choice to disregard the rules, even when being policed. It seems like a simple thing, but it’s very significant. It’s the best strategy for getting rid of these rules altogether.

Thanks to Dmitriy T.C. for the links!

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

Where Did “Hispanics” Come From?

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U.S. Army celebrates “Hispanic Month” (source: wikimedia)

One may well wonder where the term “Hispanic,” and for that matter, “Latino,” came from. The press and pundits are all abuzz about the Hispanic vote, Hispanic organizations, and Hispanic cultural influences. Back in the mid-twentieth century, however, they wrote about Mexicans or Puerto Ricans or Guatemalans, not about Hispanics. Of course, people of Latin American origin have become far more numerous in the United States since then and the immigration itself brings more attention. Nonetheless, the labels have changed. Starting in the 1970s, the media rapidly adopted the “pan-ethnic” term Hispanic, and to a lesser degree, Latino, and slowed down their use of specific national labels.*  So did, organizations, agencies, businesses, and “Hispanics” themselves.

As recounted in her important new book, Making Hispanics, sociologist (and my colleague) G. Cristina Mora tells the story of how people as diverse as Cuban-born businessmen in Miami, undocumented Mexican farm workers in California, and third-generation part-Puerto Ricans in New York who do not even understand Spanish were brought together into one social category: Hispanic-Americans.

Politics, Business, and Government

Mora describes an alliance that emerged in the 1970s among grassroots activists, Spanish-language broadcasters, and federal officials to define and promote “Hispanic.”

Activists had previously stressed their national origins and operated regionally – notably, Mexicans in the southwest (where the term “Chicano” became popular for a while) and Puerto Ricans in the northeast. But the larger the numbers they could claim by joining together, the more political clout, the more governmental funds, and the more philanthropic support they could claim. Pumping up the numbers was particularly important given their latent competition with African-American activists over limited resources and limited media attention. Some pan-ethnic term promised to yield the biggest count.

Spanish-language television broadcasters, notably Univision, looked to expand their appeal to advertisers by delivering them a national market. Although the broadcasters faced obstacles in appealing to Spanish-language viewers across the country differing significantly in programming tastes and dialects, they managed to amalgamate the audiences by replacing content imported from abroad with content developed in the United States. They could then sell not medium-to-small Mexican-, Cuban-, or Puerto Rican-American audiences to advertisers, but one huge Hispanic-American audience.

Making the term official as a census category helped both activists and entrepreneurs. Previously, the Bureau of the Census classified Latin Americans as whites with distinct national origins, usually poorly measured. The activists pressed the census bureau, as did some politicians, to provide as broad a label as possible and count everyone who might conceivably fit the category, including, for example, the African-origin Dominicans (although not the French-speaking Haitians nor the Portuguese-speaking Brazilians). This pressure led to the 1980 formulation, used ever since, in which the census asks Americans whether or not they are “Hispanic” separately from whether they are white, black, Asian, or Indian.

Univision social media ad (source):

Univision-Social Media Ad

The three interest groups worked together to publicize and promote the idea and the statistical category of “Hispanic.” As Mora explains, leaving the label’s meaning somewhat ambiguous was useful in both expanding the numbers and in selling the category – as a large needy population to the government and as numerous, affluent consumers to advertisers. The three parties also campaigned to get other institutions, such as state vital statistics bureaus and big businesses to adopt Hispanic as an official category. Many so-called Hispanics preferred and still prefer to call themselves by their national origins; Mora quotes a 1990s bumper sticker, “Don’t Call Me Hispanic, I’m Cuban!” But the term has taken over.

And, so Hispanic-Americans matter a lot now.

Identities

Categories of people that we take to be fixed – for example, our assumptions that people are old or young, black or white, male or female – often turn out to be not fixed at all. Social scientists have documented the way the definition of Negro/African American/black has shifted over the generations. There was a time, for example, when the census bureau sought to distinguish octoroons and a time when it could not figure out how to classify people from the Indian subcontinent. In Making Hispanics, Mora lets us see close up just how this new category, Hispanic, that we now take to be a person’s basic identity, was created, debated, and certified.

Direct Marketing Ad

One lesson is that it could have been otherwise. If the pace and sources of migration had been different or if the politics of the 1970s had cut differently, maybe we would be talking about two separate identities, Chicano and “Other Spanish-speaking.” Or maybe we would be classifying the darker-skinned with “Blacks” and lighter-skinned with “Whites.” Or something else. Making Hispanics teaches us much about the social construction of identity.

* Based on my analysis of statistics on New York Times stories and the nGram data on words in American books. Use of “Chicano” surged in 1960s and 1970s, but then faded as “Latino” and, especially, “Hispanic” rose.

Claude S. Fischer is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character.  This post originally appeared at his blog of the same name.

Clownifying Ads: A Good Laugh at Their Expense

We’re previously featured great examples of resistance to sexist advertising, but this example takes it up a level.  Clownify describes itself as a “street art project to turn everyday ads into ads for clowns.” I’m not sure what political message they intend to send, but what I see is a super easy, I would even say graceful, way of knocking us into consciousness. If advertisements typically occupy our lives as a taken-for-granted source of psychological coercion, this campaign reminds us to (1) actually look at what we’re seeing and (2) remember not to take ads, their messages, or their products too seriously.

Here are four examples, but there are lots more at the site:

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H/t copyranter.

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

What Kind of Work Does Women’s History Month Value?

1 (2) - CopyAmelia Earhart, aviator. Wilma Rudolph, athlete. Sally Ride, astronaut. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, activist. Josephine Baker, performer. Virginia Woolf, novelist. Rosie the Riveter, archetype. Alice Paul, suffragist. Frida Kahlo, artist. Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State.

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What do these women have in common? They are the 10 iconic women featured this year by womenshistorymonth.gov, the official website of Women’s History Month in the United States. A rotating banner across the top of the page shows a photo of each woman, her name, and a one word description, presumably the reason she is worthy of celebration.

Unfortunately, the women singled out for recognition at the site appear to be considered notable mainly because they excelled at what are generally thought to be “masculine” pursuits. This is androcentric, meaning that it values masculinity over femininity. Traits that have been traditionally conceptualized as masculine (such as being a leader and good at sports and math) are now seen as valuable for girls to develop, while boys are often still discouraged from do things traditionally conceptualized as feminine (such as nurturing, cooking, and cleaning).

I am all for questioning the idea that certain jobs are “men’s jobs,” but we also need to challenge the idea that only women can do “women’s jobs.” If we do not, the belief that women should do “women’s work” and, more importantly, that women’s work is not worth celebrating, is left unquestioned.

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Women’s History Month tends to follow this trend. None of the women we typically recognize at this time of year, for example, are noted for being good cooks, care givers, or educators of children, nor are they lauded for their nurturing of others, emotional openness, kindness, or compassion — all traditionally “feminine” traits. Caring for others and teaching youth are wonderful things that everyone should be encouraged to do. Our history books should be filled with people of all genders who were exceptional in these areas. But, these traditionally feminine pursuits are not what earns one accolades during Women’s History Month, or any other time. As a consequence, people are not taught to value such jobs or the people who do them. This one-sided celebration is unlikely to solve the very problem that Women’s History Month is ostensibly designed to combat: gender inequality.

“To all the women who quietly made history” (source):

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Laurel Westbrook is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Grand Valley State University. Her research focuses on gendered violence, social movements, and the inner workings of the sex/gender/sexuality system.

Rethinking a Zero Tolerance Approach to “Female Genital Mutilation”

I’ve written extensively — not here, but professionally — on the ways in which Americans talk about the female genital cutting practices (FGCs) that are common in parts of Africa.  I’ve focused on the frames for the practice (common ones include women’s oppression, child abuse, a violation of bodily integrity, and cultural depravity), who has had the most power to shape American perceptions (e.g., journalists, activists, or scientists), and the implications of this discourse for thinking about and building gender egalitarian, multicultural democracies.

Ultimately, whatever opinion one wants to hold about the wide range of practices we typically refer to as “female genital mutilation,” it is very clear that the negative opinions of most Westerners are heavily based on misinformation and have been strongly shaped by racism, ethnocentrism, and a disgust or pity for an imagined Africa.  That doesn’t mean that Americans or Europeans aren’t allowed to oppose (some of) the practices (some of the time), but it does mean that we need to think carefully about how and why we do so.

One of the most powerful voices challenging Western thinking about FGCs is Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, a Sierra Leonan-American anthropologist who chose, at 21 years old, to undergo the genital cutting practice typical for girls in her ethnic group, Kono.

She has written about this experience and how it relates to the academic literature on genital cutting.  She has also joined other scholars — both African and Western — in arguing against the zero tolerance position on FGCs and in favor of a more fair and nuanced understanding of why people choose these procedures for themselves or their children and the positive and negative consequences of doing so.  To that end, she is the co-founder of African Women are Free to Choose and SiA Magazine, dedicated to “empowering circumcised women and girls in Africa and worldwide.”

You can hear Ahmadu discuss her perspective in this program:

Many people reading this may object to the idea of re-thinking zero tolerance approaches to FGCs.  I understand this reaction, but I urge such readers to do so anyway.  If we care enough about African women to be concerned about the state of their genitals, we must also be willing to pay attention to their hearts and their minds.  Even, or especially, if they say things we don’t like.

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

Sunday Fun: Historically Accurate Disney Princess

Thank you Rachel Bloom for this cringe-worthy, plague-ridden parody of the Disney princess franchise!

And thanks to @AJP_lighthouse for sending it in!

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

“Shed Your Weight Problem”

Our recent post collecting examples of creative resistance to sexually objectifying advertising was a big hit, which makes me think y’all are going to love this one.  The National Eating Disorder Information Center paid to put up a creative ad/trash can.  It reads “Shed your weight problem here” and encourages passers-by to dispose of their fashion magazines.

2 3Another great example of how organizations can creatively push back against the harmful messages spread by corporations for profit.

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

Mother, Sex Object, Worker: The Transformation of the Female Flight Attendant

While the first flight attendants were male and many early airlines had a ban on hiring women, flight attending would eventually become a quintessentially female occupation.  Airline marketers exploited the presence of these female flight attendants.  Based on my reading — especially Phil Tiemeyer‘s Plane Queer and Kathleen Barry’s history of flight attendants’ labor activism – there seem to have been three stages.

First, there was the domestication of the cabin.  As air travel became more comfortable (e.g., pressurized cabins and quieter rides), airlines were looking to increase their customer base.  Female “stewardesses” in the ’40s and ’50s were an opportunity to argue that an airplane was just like a comfortable living room, equally safe for women, children, and men alike.  Marketing at the time presented the flight attendant as if she were a mother or wife:

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Twenty years later, air travel was no longer scary, so airlines switched their tactics. They sexualized their flight attendants in order to appeal to businessmen, who still made up a majority of their customers. Here’s a ten-second Southwest commercial touting the fact that their stewardesses wear “hot pants”:

The intersection of the labor movement and women’s liberation in the ’60s and ’70s inspired women to fight for workplace rights. Flight attendants were among the first female workers to organize on behalf of their occupation and among the most successful to do so.  Their work won both practical and symbolic victories, like the discursive move from “stewardess” to “flight attendant” that transformed women in the occupation from sex objects to workers.  A quick Google Image search shows that the association — stewardess/sex object vs. flight attendant/worker — still applies. Notice that the search for “stewardess” includes more sexualized images, while the one for “flight attendant” shows more images of people actually working.

“Stewardess”:

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“Flight attendant”:Screenshot_2My impression is that today’s marketing tends to feature flight attendants in all three roles — domestic, sex object, worker — echoing each stage of the transformation of the occupation in the public imagination.

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post, Pacific Standard, and Work in Progress.

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