We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in. Enjoy!
As children, many of us encountered Richard Scarry’s book, What Do People Do all Day? A classic kid’s book, it uses animals to represent the division of labor that exists in “Busytown.” The book is an example of a brilliant piece of analysis by sociologist John Levi Martin.
To oversimplify greatly: Martin analyzes nearly 300 children’s books and finds that there is a marked tendency for these texts to represent certain animals in particular kinds of jobs. Jobs that allow the occupant to exercise authority over others tend to be held by predatory animals (especially foxes), but never by “lower” animals (mice or pigs).
Pigs in particular are substantially over-represented in subordinate jobs (those with low skill and no authority), where their overweight bodies and (judging from the plots of these books) congenital stupidity seems to “naturally” equip them for subservient jobs. Here, see this additional image from Scarry’s book, showing construction work being performed by the above-mentioned swine.
In effect, Martin’s point is that there is a hidden language or code inscribed in children’s books, which teaches kids to view inequalities within the division of labor as a “natural” fact of life – that is, as a reflection of the inherent characteristics of the workers themselves. Young readers learn (without realizing it, of course) that some species-beings are simply better equipped to hold manual or service jobs, while other creatures ought to be professionals. Once this code is acquired by pre-school children, he suggests, it becomes exceedingly difficult to unlearn. As adults, then, we are already predisposed to accept the hierarchical, caste-based system of labor that characterizes the American workplace.
Steven Vallas is a professor of sociology at Northeastern University. He specializes in the sociology of work and employment. His most recent book, Work: A Critique, offers an overview and discussion of the sociological literatures on the topic. You can follow Steven at the blog Work in Progress.
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.
Here’s an interesting example of the triumph of ideology over simple fact. Fia K. sent in a link to a costume sold at Amazon titled “Tiny Boy’s Costume.” The costume is a green pterodactyl. There is no equivalent Tiny Girl’s Costume. When I search for that phrase, the search engine deletes the word “girl” and sends me back to here.
This is more than just an instance of associating boys with dinosaurs and excluding girls, although that would be problematic enough. No, the costume is called “Tiny” because it’s associated with a cartoon character with that name from the show Dinosaur Train.
Funny thing is, Tiny is female (note the eyelashes, you can always tell by the eyelashes).
This is evidence of how powerful gender ideology can be. Tiny’s actual fictional femaleness is less powerful than the ideological association of boys and dinosaurs. Hence, a Tiny Boy’s Costume.
Last month I had the pleasure of writing a really fun essay about sexual dimorphism for Salon. The phrase refers to the degree to which males and females of a species are different. I offered a bunch of fun examples of strong dimorphism and imagined what humans would be like if we were like those animals.
Men would be 11 feet tall, for example, if we were as dimorphic as the elephant seal; they’d be the size of a walnut if we were like the blanket octopus. And don’t we all think that glistening iridescent skin, like the feathers on male birds, would make men more fabulously attractive? It’s a no-brainer.
In any case, coincidentally the New York Times put together an animated video about one of my favorite examples: the green spoonworm. The male spoonworm is very small compared to the female, equivalent to a human male being about the size of a breath mint. And he lives his entire life inside of the female’s digestive tract. Now that’s sexual dimorphism! Enjoy:
I recently across two examples of cross-species education. Both illustrate that what we often consider instinctual must also often be learned, revealing that nature and nurture are not competitive forces, but deeply interconnected. The first is adorable to the point of making me cry from laughter, the second is so sad I can hardly stand it.
Here’s the first. A sheep tries to teach a young bull how to head butt. Words don’t do justice to the care and patience shown by this teacher.
Perhaps the bull just isn’t ever going to understand, but the fact that the sheep seems to understand that the bull doesn’t understand, and then thinks of an idea of how to fix that, is amazing to me. Presumably, he would take as much care with a young sheep who would be predispositioned for head-butting, but might still benefit from some instruction.
Here’s the second. Remember the movie Free Willy, where the captive killer whale is freed by a little boy? Well, in true Hollywood irony, the whale that played Willy, Keiko, wasn’t freed at the end of the movie, of course.
After the movie was released in 1993, however, people joined in a movement to free him. After 22 years in captivity, humans — who count as animals in this story – spent a decade and 20 million dollars trying to rehabilitate him to the wild, attempting to teach him how to feed himself and bond with wild whales. He continued to seek out humans, even after he was left to fend for himself, and died in 2003 from pneumonia.
There are lots of lessons to take from this story. One is the importance of nurture in making us what nature intended us to be. Keiko was a social individual who learned how to be a captive killer whale. Given the opportunity, he never could be the wild killer whale he once had the potential to be. Or, at least, we’ll never know if he could.
Whenever we talk about human biological imperatives, we should remember the patient sheep and the friendly killer whale. We need each other to become human, and we can become human in many different ways, depending on what is demanded of us. Nature never works alone. Without each other, we simply don’t become recognizably human at all — as one of the worst cases of child neglect taught us only too well — regardless of our biological potential.
We all know — because we are being constantly reminded — that we are, collectively, getting fat. Americans are at the forefront of the trend, but it is a transnational one. Apparently, it is also transspecies: pets, wild animals, and laboratory animals are also gaining weight. Here’s some country-level data from the New York Times:
In an excellent review of the existing literature, David Berreby at Aeon skewers the idea that a simple, victim-blaming “calories in, calories out” model can explain this extraordinary transnational, transspecies rise in overweight and obese individuals. I won’t summarize his argument here, except to simply list the casual contenders for which there is good evidence:
Famine in previous generations
If you ever want to have an opinion on fat again, read Berreby now.
by Lisa Wade & Gwen Sharp, Jun 7, 2013, at 12:00 pm
Originally posted in 2012; re-posted because tomorrow is the 145th Belmont Stakes, the 3rd and final leg of the Triple Crown in thoroughbred horse racing. This is the dark side of the sport.
In humans you never see someone snap their leg off running in the Olympics. But you see it in horse racing.
These words, spoken by the equine medical director for the California Racing Board, summarize the truly terrifying absurdity that is horse racing today. A team of investigative reporters at the New York Times has found that over 1,200 horses die at race tracks every year in the U.S. Many of them die immediately after a race, euthanized after their bodies literally crumble underneath them. Their legs break, unable to withstand the forces that the horses exert upon their bodies. People in the industry call it, euphemistically, a “break down.” It occurs 1 out of every 200 times a horse starts a race.
All of these horses are being ridden by a jockey who is pitched off when the horse falls. Moving at upwards of 50 miles an hour, and in the midst of many other horses running at top speed, jockeys are often seriously injured and sometimes killed. Currently there are over 50 permanently disabled jockeys receiving financial assistance from their professional trade association. Jacky Johnson, for example, was paralyzed from the neck down after his horse, Phire Power, broke its leg during a race. He will need a respirator for the rest of his life; Phire Power was euthanized on the track.
Why is this happening?
Because we are making it so.
First, race horses are bred in order to run as fast as possible. Short legs and thick bones slow a horse down, while longer, more delicate legs give them longer strides. Breeders, then, have an incentive to build horses who are both faster and more fragile.
Second, owners may be putting these horses on the track too young. Horses typically start getting raced at 2 to 3 years old, very young for an animal with a lifespan of 30 years. Some argue that the bodies of young horses are not ready to handle the physical demands of racing. This 2-year-old horse, Teller All Gone, broke its leg during a race; it is about to be euthanized:
The owners dumped his body at a junkyard:
Third, there is the drug problem. Many trainers illegally give their horses performance-enhancing drugs. Many of them are experimental and are not yet or cannot be tested for. These include “chemicals that bulk up pigs and cattle before slaughter, cobra venom, Viagra, blood doping agents, stimulants and cancer drugs.”
Built for speed and not safety, on the track too young, and amped up on steroids and other performance-enhancers, these horses are pushed to their limits. Just this week Doug O’Neill, the trainer of I’ll Have Another, the horse set to win this year’s Triple Crown, was fined after his horse tested positive for performance enhancing drugs.
Even more problematic than the doping is the legal practice of giving horses pain-relieving drugs, including cocaine. These mask the pain signals that would otherwise tell a horse to slow down or be careful on the track and also increase that chances that the track veterinarian will miss an injury when clearing the horse to race. The NYT reports that “[a]s many as 90 percent of horses that break down had pre-existing injuries” and they argue pain-masking drugs “pose the greatest risk to horse and rider.” The Louisiana Racing Commission call it “a recipe for disaster.”
The drugs detailed below are what were given to Coronado Heights in the week before he collapsed and was euthanized on the track:
Horse racing is subject to regulation, but these vary by state and are typically very poorly enforced, bringing us to the fourth reason why we see so much tragedy on race tracks. The punishment for violations is insignificant, sometimes only a warning:
Trainers in New Mexico who overmedicate horses with Flunixin get a free pass on their first violation, a $200 fine on the second and a $400 fine on the third, records show… [the state also] wipes away Flunixin violations every 12 months… To varying degrees, the picture is similar nationwide. Trainers often face little punishment for drug violations, and on the rare occasions when they are suspended, they are allowed to turn their stables over to an assistant.
When it comes down to it, many owners and trainers are willing to risk a horse’s life for the chance at the prize money and the less likely a horse is to win, the less they’re worth to the owner, so the harder they’re willing to push it.
The economic incentive to run horses till they die may seem to apply to the highest stakes racing but, in fact, it’s at the lowest end that we see the most disregard for the safety of horses and their jockeys. In the backyards of those casinos where racetracks are now part of the attraction (often referred to as “racinos”), horses and jockeys are a dime a dozen, and the money gives people a reason to break the rules. Meanwhile, the casino tracks are low profile, so they receive even less regulatory attention.
The use of the phrase “break down” to describe a horse who has snapped its own bones in the process of entertaining and enriching human beings is an indication of how nonchalantly industry figures approach this problem. It suggests that these animals, and perhaps their jockeys as well, have been thoroughly objectified: cars break down, air conditioners break down, we break down boxes. The language entirely fails to capture what is happening to these horses. It may very well, however, describe what has happened to the industry and to the basic humanity of its most culpable beneficiaries.
Death at the Track:
Visit the New York Times to watch “The Rise of the Racinos” and “A Jockey’s Story.”