This vintage ad for a cockroach racing game is a great reminder that what seems normal isn’t necessarily natural or inevitable. Most Americans today would grimace at the idea of playing with cockroaches, as the insect is held up as an icon of filth and disease. But sometime in the ’40s, someone at the International Mutoscope Reel Company thought this was a good idea! Or, then again, maybe times haven’t changed so much; the company went bankrupt in 1949.
We all-too-often take for granted that photographs like this one, revealing the impact of an oil pipeline leak on Mayflower, Arkansas, will be able to inform us about the state of the world. In fact, such images are taken by actual human photojournalists whose rights of access are protected by the First Amendment establishing the freedom of the press.
This is a real thorn in the side of both corporations and governments that might prefer to control media’s access to embarrassing or illegal activities. So, often they try to strong arm journalists, co-opt local officials, or pass (likely illegal) legislation designed to protect them from the free press’ gaze. Here are two current examples.
First, Mother Jonesreports that Exxon officials are making efforts to limit reporter access to the oil pipeline leak in Mayflower, Arkansas. This is happening in at least two ways. First, Exxon representatives and local law enforcement are blocking journalists from accessing the spill site, threatening ”arrest for criminal trespass.” Second, BoingBoing reports that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has instituted a temporary “no-fly zone” in the area of the spill. Here’s a screenshot from the FAA’s website:
Second, in the last two years Americans have shuddered in response to the release of undercover video revealing the abuse of animals on industrialfarms and the torture of Tennessee Walking horses. These have resulted in convictions, but they’ve also raised the hackles of the agricultural industry. The New York Timesreports that, in an effort to limit their risk, they’ve sponsored bills (proposed or enacted in about a dozen state legislatures) making it illegal to videotape animals on their property without their permission and requiring all prospective employees to reveal associations with animal rights groups.
These examples remind us how important it is that journalists have the freedom to do their job. They also remind us that we must vigilantly protect that freedom. Corporations, and governments too, have an incentive to limit the freedom of the press. These are powerful entities, often in cahoots, that can and will ignore the First Amendment when they can get away with it.
Larry Harnisch, of the Los Angeles Times blog The Daily Mirror, sent in this image, published in The Mirror in 1959, that illustrated how women’s bodies were judged in the Miss Universe contest:
ALL FIGURED OUT–This chart is used by judges as [a] guide in picking Miss Universe. First six show figure flaws, seventh is perfectly proportioned. (1) Shoulders too square. (2) Shoulders too sloping. (3) Hips too wide. (4) Shoulder bones too pronounced. (5) Shoulders and back hunched. (6) Legs irregular, with spaces at calves, knees, thighs. (7) The form divine, needs only a beautiful face.
(I had no idea that I have irregular legs until I saw figure 6. My self esteem is taking quite the hit. I can’t tell if there’s anything wrong with my shoulders, though–I’ll have to ask someone else for an opinion.)
First, some people like to suggest that men are programmed by evolution to find a particular body shape attractive. Clearly, if judging women’s bodies requires this much instruction, either (1) nature has left us incompetent or (2) cultural norms defining beauty overwhelm any biological predisposition to be attracted to specific body types.
Second, the chart reveals the level of scrutiny women faced in 1959 (and I’d argue it’s not so different today). It made me think of my years in 4-H. I was a farm kid and I showed steers for several years and also took part in livestock and meat judging competitions. I was good at it, just so you know. Anyway, what the beauty pageant image brought to mind was the handouts we’d look at to learn how to judge livestock. Here are some examples, from Kansas State University’s 4-H judging guide (pdf here):
This poor pig has a low-set tail–how dreadful:
It’s almost as if, like superior livestock, beautiful women are a desired cultural product in which we should all invest and be invested. You might compare these to some of the images in our post about sexualizing food that come from Carol Adams’s website.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
In her classic article, Teddy Bear Patriarchy, Donna Haraway examined the arrangement of the taxidermied animals in the American Museum of Natural History mammal hall in the first half of the 1900s. She observed that the dioramas consistently featured nuclear families with strong fathers alert for dangers and nurturing mothers attending to their children.
This was a lie, of course. As we well know, the nuclear family is the exception, not the rule among mammals. Instead of science, it was our own beliefs about men, women, and gender roles that informed the curators of the exhibits… and left viewers with a sense that these arrangements were more natural and universal than they are.
I’m an animal lover and have a broad appreciation for science, so I particularly enjoy exposing this type of projection. Bee Movie was a particularly egregious case and we’ve written posts on nature documentaries that do this (on hyenas and flatworms). The latest case is a Geico commercial. See if you can catch it:
So, if you know anything about lions, you know that it’s unlikely that “Karl” is doing the hunting. Among lions, it is the females who specialize in hunting (and they usually do so in groups, for what it’s worth).
The commercial certainly coincides nicely with what many of us believe to be true about the natural role of human men, but it doesn’t reflect the reality of lion life at all.
Perhaps the people at Geico thought that a female huntress would confuse or distract the reader from their joke. Or perhaps everyone involved in the project didn’t know this fact about lions; their gender ideology would have masked their ignorance, such that it never occurred to them to look it up. Either way, contemporary ideas about gender shaped this “diorama” and it potentially reinforces similar beliefs among viewers.
For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012.
We often hear that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America, a word that erases the 50 million-plus inhabitants of the continent that were already here when his boat arrived. A person can’t discover something that another person already knows about. In the American telling of the story, however, the indigenous population don’t count as people. They’re knowledge isn’t real.
This dismissal of knowledge-of-a-thing until the “right” people know about it is a common tendency, and another example was sent in by Jordan G. last week. CNN, ABC, CBS, and the Los Angeles Times, among other news outlets, reported that a new species of monkey was “discovered.”
So where did they find this monkey? Tied to a post in a Congolese village; it was a pet.
And it was cuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuute!
So someone knew about these monkeys. It just wasn’t the rightkind of person. In this case, the right kind of person was a (bonafide) scientist (with credentials and institutional privileges not un-related to living in the West).
Now I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter that a trained scientist encountered the monkey and established it as a unique and previously undocumented species. The team did a lot of work to establish this. As the Times, which otherwise does a fine job on the story, explains:
Convinced the species was novel, team leader John Hart began an exhaustive three-year study to describe the monkey, and to differentiate it from its nearest neighbor, the owl face monkey. The study included geneticists and biological anthropologists, who helped confirm that the monkey was different from the owl face, though the two share a common genetic ancestor.
In other words, something significant happened because those scientists happened upon this monkey. But to say that they “discovered” it is to mischaracterize what occurred. The scientists write that it was “previously undescribed,” which is far more accurate. Their language also doesn’t erase the consciousness of the people of the Congo, where this monkey is “endemic.” In fact, they recommend the short-hand name “lesula,” “as it is the vernacular name used [by people who've known about it, probably for generations] over most of its known range.” In doing so, they acknowledge the species’ relationship to a population of human beings, making them visible and significant.
In the 1900s and 1910s, gun advertising frequently simply touted the benefits of the gun itself, ignoring completely any indication as to what the gun was for:
In the ’20s and ’30s, gun advertising more frequently involved a hunting or pest-reduction theme:
This theme continued through the 40s, but alongside a new theme, war (i.e., World War II):
Then, in the 1960s, the war theme disappeared and the hunting theme continued, this time with a new twist. Instead of just hunting for food (and sport) or to protect your property, ads included the hunting of exotic game solely for sport:
Over at the Ms. blog, Rachel Kassenbrock posted an adorable video of two Capuchin monkeys given unequal rewards for the same task. The monkey who gets the lesser reward displays her displeasure, in no uncertain terms.
The research, described by primatologist Frans de Waal, has been reproduced in chimps, dogs, and birds. It reveals an inherent sense of fairness, suggesting that social justice may not be a silly fantasy, but quite natural indeed.
Well, Adrienne H. sent in a particularly humorous example: an advertising image from Pajamagram, featuring “hoodie-footies” for the entire family. They are color-coded — pink for girls, blue for boys — all the way down to the dog and cat.