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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Joel Best, the sociologist famous for debunking the myth that your children might receive Halloween candy impregnated with poison and razor blades, wishes you a “Happy Halloween” and nothing but the Best candy:
Yesterday I wrote about how the money spent on adult Halloween revelry now rivals, or even exceeds, that spent on kids. This may seem like a surprising shift, but it turns out it’s the focus on children that’s new. Halloween as the kid holiday we know it in the U.S. today was really invented in the 1950s.
This, and more fun facts about the history of Halloween, in this two-minute History Channel summary:
The National Retail Federation estimates that Americans will spend $7.4 billion dollars celebrating Halloween this year. In total, 74% of households will buy something for Halloween and, among those, the average will spend $125.
A full two-thirds of the population will buy a costume, spending an average of $77.52 each. That’s a record in terms of both spending and the sheer number of costumes sold.
Interestingly, the holiday has evolved from primarily a children’s holiday to one celebrated by adults, especially millenials. Less than half of the money spent on costumes is going to costumes for children. Adults dress up (to the tune of $1.4 million) and their dress up their pets ($350 million). They also throw parties for other adults and patronize bars and clubs, which increasingly feature Halloween-themed events, food, and drinks.
One of my favorite examples of social construction is that we eat hot links for breakfast and pork chops for dinner. Both pig, but morning sausage seems odd in the evening and pork chops for breakfast would be a decidedly deviant sunrise treat.
A pretty set of photos at The New York Times illustrates this social construction of breakfast food by highlighting the first meal of the day for children in seven parts of the world. It would be fun — for those of you teaching classes — to show some of them to students and ask them to guess (1) the meal of the day and (2) the age of the eater.
Chitedza, Malawi: cornmeal porridge with soy and groundnut flour; deep-fried cornmeal fritters with onions, garlic and chiles; boiled sweet potato and pumpkin; juice of dried hibiscus and sugar.
São Paulo, Brazil: ham and cheese, bread with butter, coffee.
Tokyo, Japan: stir-fried green peppers with dried fish, soy sauce, and sesame seeds; raw egg and soy sauce poured over rice; lotus root, burdock root, and carrot sautéed with a rice wine; miso soup; fruit; milk.