Tag Archives: children/youth

Why I Called it “The Family” and What That Has To Do with Cosby

First, a note on language

In American English books from 1910 to 1950, about 25% of the uses of “family” were preceded by “the.” Starting about 1950, however, “the family” started falling out of fashion, finally dropping below 16% of “family” uses in the mid-2000s. This trend coincides with the modern rise of family diversity.

In her classic 1993 essay, “Good Riddance to ‘The Family’,” Judith Stacey wrote,

no positivist definition of the family, however revisionist, is viable. … the family is not an institution, but an ideological, symbolic construct that has a history and a politics.

The essay was in Journal of Marriage and the Family, published by the National Council on Family Relations. In 2001, in a change that as far as I can tell was never announced, JMF changed its name to Journal of Marriage and the Family, which some leaders of NCFR believed would make it more inclusive. It was the realization of Stacey’s argument.

I decided on the title very early in the writing of my book: The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change. I agreed with Stacey that the family is not an institution. Instead, I think it’s an institutional arena: the social space where family interactions take place. I wanted to replace the narrowing, tradition-bound term, with an expansive, open-ended concept that was big enough to capture both the legal definition and the diversity of personal definitions. I think we can study and teach the family without worrying that we’re imposing a singular definition of what that means.

It takes the unique genius that great designers have to capture a concept like this in a simple, eye-catching image. Here is how the artists at Kiss Me I’m Polish did it:

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What goes in the frame? What looks like a harmless ice-breaker project — draw your family! — is also a conceptual challenge. Is it a smiling, generic nuclear family? A family oligarchy? Or a fictional TV family providing cover for an abusive, larger-than-life father figure who lectures us about morality while concealing his own serial rape behind a bland picture frame?

Whose function?

Like any family sociologist, I have great respect for Andrew Cherlin. I have taught from his textbook, as well as The Marriage Go-Round, and I have learned a lot from his research, which I cite often. But there is one thing in Public and Private Families that always rubbed me the wrong way when I was teaching: the idea that families are defined by positive “functions.”

Here’s the text box he uses in Chapter 1 (of an older edition, but I don’t think it’s changed), to explain his concept:

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I have grown more sympathetic to the need for simplifying tools in a textbook, but I still find this too one-sided. Cherlin’s public family has the “main functions” of child-rearing and care work; the private family has “main functions” of providing love, intimacy, and emotional support. Where is the abuse and exploitation function?

That’s why one of the goals that motivated me to finish the book was to see the following passage in print before lots of students. It’s now in Chapter 12: Family Violence and Abuse:

We should not think that there is a correct way that families are “supposed” to work. Yes, families are part of the system of care that enhances the lived experience and survival of most people. But we should not leap from that observation to the idea that when family members abuse each other, it means that their families are not working. … To this way of thinking, the “normal” functions of the family are positive, and harmful acts or outcomes are deviations from that normal mode.

The family is an institutional arena, and the relationships between people within that arena include all kinds of interactions, good and bad. … And while one family member may view the family as not working—a child suffering abuse at the hands of a trusted caretaker, for example—from the point of view of the abuser, the family may in fact be working quite well, regarding the family as a safe place to carry out abuse without getting caught or punished. Similarly, some kinds of abuse—such as the harsh physical punishment of children or the sexual abuse of wives—may be expected outcomes of a family system in which adults have much more power than children and men (usually) have more power than women. In such cases, what looks like abuse to the victims (or the law) may seem to the abuser like a person just doing his or her job of running the family.

Huxtable family secrets

Which brings us to Bill Cosby. After I realized how easy it was to drop photos into my digital copy of the book cover, I made a series of them to share on social media — and planning to use them in an introductory lecture — to promote this framing device for the book. On September 20th of this year I made this figure and posted it in a tweet commemorating the 30th anniversary of The Cosby Show:

huxtables-myfamilyphoto

Ah, September. When I was just another naïve member of the clueless-American community, using a popular TV family to promote my book, blissfully unaware of the fast-approaching marketing train wreck beautifully illustrated by this graph of internet search traffic for the term “Cosby rape”:

cosbyrapetraffic

I was never into The Cosby Show, which ran from my senior year in high school through college graduation (not my prime sitcom years). I love lots of families, but I don’t love “the family” any more than I love “society.” Like all families, the Huxtables would have had secrets if they were real. But now we know that even in their fictional existence they did have a real secret. Like some real families, the Huxtables were a device for the family head’s abuse of power and sexuality.

So I don’t regret putting them in the picture frame. Not everything in there is good. And when it’s bad, it’s still the family.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Chart of the Week: Gender Segregation of Toys Is On the Rise

Some nice news has come out lately that the occasional toy store is taking the words boy and girl off of their aisle signs — mostly in Sweden, I say half-jokingly — but Google ngrams suggests that we’re nowhere near backing off of separating children’s toys by sex.

Sociologist Philip Cohen graphed the frequency of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” relative to “toys for children.” This is just language, and it’s just American English, but it’s one indication that the consciousness raising efforts of organizations like Let Toys Be Toys is still on the margins of mainstream society.

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As you can see from the graph, the extent to which children are actively talked about as gendered subjects varies over time.

One explanation for why companies resist androgynous toys and clothes for children — an arguably adults, too — has to do with money. If parents with a boy and a girl could get away with one set of toys, they wouldn’t need to buy a second. And if they could hand down clothes from girls to boys and vice versa, they would buy less clothes. The same could be said for borrowing and trading between family members and friends.

It would really cut into the profits of these companies if we believed that all items for children were interchangeable. They work hard to sustain the lie that they are not.

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.

Tropicana Ad Says That Girls Should Be “Easy”

Flashback Friday.

Sally R. sent in this two-page Tropicana ad she found in her morning newspaper.  The ad features, as Sally puts it, a “hard (bad) surly girl in pants and [an] easy (nice) girl in a dress with a flowery gift and passive smile…”  The first is labeled “hard to handle” and the second “easy to handle.”  The new orange juice container is supposed to be more like the “easy” girl.

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On the face of it, this ad is about parenting.  But there is so much more going on that makes the ad work.

Notice how easyness is communicated with symbols of femininity.  The message is that girls are, ideally, accommodating and passive.  Girls should be like objects, easy to “handle.”  Would the ad work quite the same way if the child was a boy?  Do we hope/expect that our boys will be completely passive and convenient to handle?

Sally also notes the “double meaning of easy” which, combined with the girl’s coy pose and smile, sends a sexual message.  The sexual promise that the ad makes (it/she is “easy to handle”) works despite (or because of?) her age.  Consider how similar the image is to these examples in which women and girls are simultaneously sexualized and infantilized with the use of passive poses and symbols of youth.

This conflation of object status, femininity, being female, and being well-behaved is obnoxious. It’s insulting to both boys and girls and affirms the false gender binary. It’s dangerous, too. It contributes to the idea that girls are objects to take advantage of who are misbehaving if they assert themselves. It’s disturbing to see it reproduced for something as trivial as an orange juice carton.

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.

Chart of the Week: Rich Kids More Likely to be Working for Dad

A new paper by Martha Stinson and Christopher Wignall found that 9.6% of working-age men were working for their dad in 2010. The likelihood of nepotistic opportunism was related to class, generally climbing with the father’s income.

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This is just a “snapshot,” writes Matt O’Brien for The Washington Post. It’s just one year. If we consider whether men have ever worked for their dads, the numbers get much higher. More than a quarter of men spend at least some time working for the same company as their fathers before their 30th birthday. O’Brien also cites a study by economist Miles Corak revealing that 70% of sons of the 1% in Canada have worked at the same place as their dad.

As O’Brien says: “The easiest way to get your foot in the door is for your dad to hold it open for you.”

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.

Theories of the First Topsy-Turvy Doll

Lisa Hix has written a really nice story, “Why Black Dolls Matter,” for Collectors Weekly. The history of the topsy-turvy doll really caught my interest. The one below is characteristic. Believed to be from the 1870s, it is the head and torso of a black and a white doll, sewed together in the middle with a long skirt. The doll can be flipped from one side to the other.

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The general consensus seems to be that these dolls were primarily for enslaved children, but the purpose of the dolls isn’t clearly understood.

Hix quotes one of the founders of the National Black Doll Museum, Debra Britt, who says that the dolls enabled enslave children to have something forbidden: a doll that looked like them. “When the slave master was gone,” she explained, “the kids would have the black side, but when the slave master was around, they would have the white side.”

At wikipedia, though, the entry for the dolls cites the author of American Folk Dolls, who makes the opposite claim.

It has recently been suggested that these dolls were often made for Black children who desired a forbidden white doll (a baby like the ones their mothers cared for); they would flip the doll to the black side when an overseer passed them at play.

Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, author of Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory, suggests that the dolls might not have been disallowed at all. Since enslaved black women often cared for their own children and the children of their white captors, perhaps the doll was designed to socialize young enslaved girls into their future roles as mothers to children of both races. According to Historical Folk Toys, the black doll sometimes was dressed in a headscarf and the white doll in antebellum-style dress, supporting Wallace-Sanders’ theory that the idea was to socialize girls into their role.

And, of course, we have even less of an idea of how the children themselves thought of these dolls or where their imagination led them.

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.

The Case of the Cursing Princess

Last week we saw a range of responses break out in reaction to this video: “F-Bombs for Feminism: Potty-Mouted Princesses Use Bad Word for Good Cause.”

Some commenters fell immediately into the “cursing = bad” camp and are offended by the language, but for those not turned off, the other initial reaction seems to be glee.  There’s an “I can’t believe they’re saying that!” kind of catharsis that accompanies watching little girls drop f-bombs all over the place and show some righteous rage over the injustices they are bound to face due to gender inequity.  What seems less present in the general reaction, and concerns me the most, is how these girls — and these causes — are fundamentally being leveraged by a T-shirt company.

For years I’ve written about what I call “fauxpowerment” — the “rah-rah, you go girl,” feel-good phrases and gestures that are meant to pump girls up with confidence or a newly varnished sense of self-esteem (often enough through a makeover) but, in fact, undermine any real confidence building as these messages reinforce that girls’ looks are paramount or that a quick, pink band-aid slapped over a deep wound makes everything better.  For those in the Girls’ Studies community or who work at well-developed programs designed just for girls, these attempts are not only insultingly facile, they are understood to be downright harmful and counterproductive. Worst of all is seeing corporations leverage girls for commercial purposes, a tradition, maddeningly, that seems ongoing.  That’s the category in which I would put the “Potty-Mouthed Princesses” advertisement — what it fundamentally is.

FCKH8, the company behind the ad, initially responded positively to my queries about their intentions, what charities they are donating proceeds of each sale to, and if the girls in the video were tightly scripted or had any input into the video, but I have not heard back again.  I hope to update this post if I do.  On their home page they cite their mission as being a “for-profit T-shirt company with an activist heart and a passionate social change mission: arming thousands of people with pro-LGBT equality, anti-racism and anti-sexism T-shirts that act as ‘mini-billboards’ for change.”

Their T-shirt slogans are meant to be provocative, and in some cases, it seems, also plagiarized, as the Feminist Majority Foundation has had an ongoing “This is What A Feminist Looks Like” campaign since 2003, with President Obama in the shirt on their 2009 cover.  More recently, FCKH8 came under fire for allegedly exploiting the events in Ferguson to sell their antiracism gear.

A quick look on the FCKH8 website reveals they barely sell T-shirts in children’s sizes.  So, why use child-models in what is essentially an ad? The answer seems painfully obvious.  Anxiety about girls is pervasive in American society, if manifested through various channels.  The value of seeing girls, in princess costumes no less, letting loose about the gendered inequities they face, never mind parade across the screen asking which one of them will inevitably be raped in her lifetime, is designed to shock.  FCKH8 is tapping into a cultural zeitgeist by putting girls in princess costumes and then breaking with stereotype by having them swear up a storm and shout out their fury, complete with very adult-like, fed-up gestures and the waved middle finger.

The reaction FCKH8 has carefully cultivated is the drama that results from presenting such high contrasts — furious princesses calling out the system in which they are entrapped, flipping off the patriarchy, and angrily speaking out.  The power of seeing this dramatized speaks to how coded and closed these systems are — “little girls” under most circumstances would hardly be allowed to swear with such abandon, if they even wanted to.

Is there something cathartic about hearing these injustices called out and denounced with anger? There is.  For those furious about gender inequality it can be gratifying hearing these issues called out — when the adult women in the ad step forward. This isn’t how most girls under 10 would speak and the girls used, albeit likely paid models or actresses taking on a role, are props.  While many commenters reported that their (usually teenage) daughters expressed delight at seeing girls let loose with things they cannot say — again a moment that reveals how girls are stifled — there is hardly any empowerment when the girls didn’t write these scripts themselves and are, fundamentally, co-opted into a purportedly radical company’s for-profit campaign through their “walking billboards” which work to questionable effect.

I‘ve always loved Peggy Orenstein’s coined phrase “empowertainment” — a moment when companies use a generic sense of “sisterhood” or a cheery pro-girl message to essentially sell products. The criticism of this practice is (necessarily) ongoing and FCKH8, a company that I’m certain will defend its practices as radical and empowering, is doing exactly this.  In Andi Zeisler’s excellent round-up of the history of “femapowerment” or, as she coins it, “empowertising,” she calls out the companies that, beyond girls, are co-opting feminism — or their brand of it — to essentially sell products.

Criticism of the company has been swift, and wide, but the click-bait appeal of this video will probably outnumber its detractors.  A few years back the video “Riley on Marketing” went viral as the outraged Riley decried the limitations imposed upon her by gendered marketing.  There was nary an f-bomb in the mix.  This was a real girl, speaking out unscripted about the injustices she knows.  The authenticity in her voice and in her message garnered almost 5 million YouTube views and carries far more power than FCKH8′s gimmicky, egregious act.

Elline Lipkin is a scholar, poet, and nonfiction writer. She is the author of two books: The Errant Thread and Girls’ Studies. This post originally appeared at Girl w/ Pen.

Voters are Reasonably Disappointed in the Democratic Party

Electing Republicans will certainly not improve things, but it is hard to blame people for feeling that the Democratic Party has abandoned them.

President Obama had hoped that recent signs of economic strength would benefit Democrats in the recently completed election.  Job creation has picked up, the unemployment rate is falling, and growth is stronger. Yet, most Americans have not enjoyed any real gains during this so-called expansionary period.

The following two charts highlight this on the national level.  The first shows how income gains made during the expansion period have been divided between the top 1% and everyone else.   There is not a lot to say except that there is not a lot of sharing going on.

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The second shows trends in real median household net worth.  While declines in median net worth are not surprising in a recession, what is noteworthy is that median net worth has continued to decline during this expansion.  Adjusted for inflation the average household is poorer now than in 1989.

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Oregon provides a good example of state trends.  The chart below shows that the poverty rate in Oregon is actually higher now than it was during the recession.

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The poverty rate for children is even higher. In 2013, 21.6 percent of all Oregon children lived in families in poverty.

And, not surprisingly, communities of color experience poverty rates far higher than non-Hispanic whites.

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More promising is movement building to directly advance community interests.  One example: voters in five states passed measures to boost minimum wages.   Another was the successful effort in Richmond, California to elect progressives to the city council over candidates heavily supported by Chevron, which hoped to dominate the council and overcome popular opposition to its environmental and health and safety policies.

Originally posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

How Fetal Photography Changed the Politics of Abortion

Flashback Friday.

You have likely seen photographs of fetus’ that seem to float in a dark womb.  The first of these were taken by Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson. One of his photographs graced the cover of Life magazine in April of 1965.

Nilsson’s images forever changed the way that people think about pregnancy, mothers, and fetuses.  Before Nilsson, the visual of a fetus independent from a mother was not widespread. His pictures made it possible for people to visualize the contents of a woman’s womb independently of her body.  Suddenly, the fetus came to life.  It was no longer just something inside of a woman, no longer even in relationship to a woman; it was an individual with a face, a sex, a desire to suck its thumb.

Once the fetus could be individualized, the idea that a woman and her fetus could have contrasting interests was easier to imagine. In many countries even today, the idea that helping pregnant women is helping fetuses and helping fetuses means helping pregnant women is still the dominant way of thinking about pregnancy. Pro-choice and other fetus-defenders, such as those who want it to be illegal to smoke during pregnancy, used these images to disentangle the interests of the woman and the fetus. The vulnerability of Nilsson’s subjects, free-floating in space, made it easier to portray fetuses as in danger.

There is power in visualization and its technological advance and these images were a boon to the pro-life cause. Ironically, it was abortion that made these images possible. Nilsson posed the fetuses to look alive, and gives no indication otherwise, but they are actually photographs of aborted fetuses.

Although claiming to show the living fetus, Nilsson actually photographed abortus material obtained from women who terminated their pregnancies under the liberal Swedish law. Working with dead embryos allowed Nilsson to experiment with lighting, background and positions, such as placing the thumb into the fetus’ mouth.

– Quote from the University of Cambridge’s history of the science of fetal development

Liberal abortion rights laws resulted in a product that was used to mobilize anti-abortion sentiment.  Today it is par for the course to have been exposed to images like this. And the rest is history.

Originally posted in 2009.

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.