This 1 minute commercial for Pantene, running in the Philippines, is getting a lot of praise. It does a powerful job of pointing out the way that women are disadvantaged in corporate contexts. The men and women in the ad are portrayed similarly, but the women are judged for the behavior while the men are praised.
But then the end. Oh Pantene. The answer to this systemic double bind that damns women if they do and damns them if they don’t is, apparently, to “be strong and shine.”
I suppose we shouldn’t expect much more from a shampoo ad, but I lament the ending anyway. It resonates with a wider cultural trend in which feminist empowerment has been conflated with individual gain within a patriarchal system, not a collective effort to end patriarchy once and for all.
This is the lesson of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: the system’s all set up to fuck you over, she acknowledges, but then she whispers: I will try to help you get to the top anyway. No matter if you have to step all over lots of other women on the way. That’s not feminism, that’s self-interest. And it’s certainly not progressive change.
Sociologists observe that cultures are centered around some people and not others such that members of some groups just seem like people and others are perceived as deviations from that presumed norm.
Names are part of how we divide the world into the normals and the deviants. Illustrating this, the sketch comedy duo Key and Peele are super creative in this 3 minute skit. They reverse the white-teacher-goes-into-the-inner-city trope and put a non-white teacher into a suburban school. As he calls roll, the skit center HIS reality instead of that of the white, middle class kids. He pronounces their names like stereotypically black names, confusing the heck out of the kids, and never considering the possibility that the names he’s familiar with isn’t how all names really are.
It’s not a safe skit — it potentially reinforces the conflation of non-white and urban and the stereotypes of inner city students and the names low-income black parents give their kids — but it does a great job of playing with what life might be like if we shifted the center of the world.
“The United States is one of few advanced nations where schools serving better-off children usually have more educational resources than those serving poor students,” writes Eduardo Porter for the New York Times. This is because a large percentage of funding for public education comes not from the federal government, but from the property taxes collected in each school district. Rich kids, then, get more lavish educations.
This means differences in how much we spend per student both across and within states. New York, for example, spends about $19,000 per student. In Tennessee they spend $8,200 and in Utah $5,321. Money within New York, is also unequally distributed: $25,505 was spent per student in the richest neighborhoods, compared to $12,861 in the poorest.
This makes us one of the three countries in the OECD — with Israel and Turkey — in which the student/teacher ratio is less favorable in poor neighborhoods compared to rich ones. The other 31 nations in the survey invest equally in each student or disproportionately in poor students. This is not meritocracy and it is certainly not equal opportunity.
According to an article at the Wall Street Journal, the average income for the bottom 90% of families fell by over 10% from 2002 – 2012 while the average income for families in all the top income groups grew. The top 0.01% of families actually saw their average yearly income grow from a bit over $12 million to over $21 million over the same period. And that is adjusted for inflation and without including capital gains.
What was most interesting about the article was its discussion of the dangers of this trend and the costs of reversing it. In brief, the article noted that many financial analysts now worry that inequality has gotten big enough to threaten the future economic and political stability of the country. At the same time, it also pointed out that doing anything about it will likely threaten profits. As the article notes:
But if inequality has risen to a point in which investors need to be worried, any reversal might also hurt.
One reason U.S. corporate profit margins are at records is the share of revenue going to wages is so low. Another is companies are paying a smaller share of profits on taxes. An economy where income and wealth disparities are smaller might be healthier. It would also leave less money flowing to the bottom line, something that will grab fund managers’ attention.
Any bets how those in the financial community will evaluate future policy choices?
A new study has discovered that 48% of the nation’s 50 million public school students are in poverty, as measured by whether they qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches. In 17 states, the majority of schoolchildren are poor. Poverty rates are led by Mississippi, where 71% of children are in poverty.
While the statistics are the worst for states in the South and the West, the percent increase in poor children was the highest in the Midwest (up 40% since 2001, compared to 33% in the South, 31% in the West, and 21% in the Northeast). All, of course, extraordinary increases.
Kids growing up in dense, urban environments often turn to basketball as their sport of choice. This is partly because it fits, in a physical sense. All things being equal, a basketball court takes up a lot less room than a football or soccer field. For the economically disadvantaged, it’s also relatively cheap to play. If you have a court available, you only need a pair of shoes and a ball. For this reason, whatever population finds itself in this type of environment tends to take up basketball.
That’s why the sport was dominated by Jews in the first half of the 1900s. Just like many African-Americans today, at that time many immigrant Jewish families found themselves isolated in inner cities. Basketball seemed like a way out. “It was absolutely a way out of the ghetto,” explained retired ball player Dave Dabrow. Basketball scholarships were one of the few ways low income urban Jews could afford college.
Today we refer to stereotypes about Black men to explain why they dominate basketball, but this is an after-the-fact justification. At the time, very different characteristics — stereotypes associated with Jews — were used to explain why they dominated professional teams. Paul Gallico, sports editor of the NY Daily News in the 1930s, explained that “the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness.” All stereotypes about Jews. Moreover, he argued, Jews were rather short and so had “God-given better balance and speed.” Yep. There was a time when we thought being short was an advantage in the sport of basketball.
Never underestimate the power of institutions and how much things can change.
Sociologists like to say that gender identities are socially constructed. That just means that what it is, and what it means, to be male or female is at least partly the outcome of social interaction between people – visible through the rules, attitudes, media, or ideals in the social world.
And that process sometimes involves constructing people’s bodies physically as well. And in today’s high-intensity parenting, in which gender plays a big part, this includes constructing – or at least tinkering with – the bodies of children.
Today’s example: braces. In my Google image search for “child with braces,” the first 100 images yielded about 75 girls.
Why so many girls braced for beauty? More girls than boys want braces, and more parents of girls want their kids to have them, even though girls’ teeth are no more crooked or misplaced than boys’. This is just one manifestation of the greater tendency to value appearance for girls and women more than for boys and men. But because braces are expensive, this is also tied up with social class, so that richer people are more likely to get their kids’ teeth straightened, and as a result richer girls are more likely to meet (and set) beauty standards.
Hard numbers on how many kids get braces are surprisingly hard to come by. However, the government’s medical expenditure survey shows that 17 percent of children ages 11-17 saw an orthodontist in the last year, which means the number getting braces at some point in their lives is higher than that. The numbers are rising, and girls are wearing most of hardware.
A study of Michigan public school students showed that although boys and girls had equal treatment needs (orthodontists have developed sophisticated tools for measuring this need, which everyone agrees is usually aesthetic), girls’ attitudes about their own teeth were quite different:
Clearly, braces are popular among American kids, with about half in this study saying they want them, but that sentiment is more common among girls, who are twice as likely as boys to say they don’t like their teeth.
The same pattern is found in Germany, where 38 percent of girls versus 30 percent of boys ages 11-14 have braces, and in Britain – both countries where braces are covered by state health insurance if they are needed, but parents can pay for them if they aren’t.
Among American adults, women are also more likely to get braces, leading the way in the adult orthodontic trend. (Google “mother daughter braces” and you get mothers and daughters getting braces together; “father son braces” brings you to orthodontic practices run by father-son teams.)
Teeth and consequences
Caption: The teeth of TV anchors Anderson Cooper, Soledad O’Brien, Robin Roberts, Suzanne Malveaux, Don Lemon, George Stephanopolous, David Gregory, Ashley Banfield, and Diane Sawyer.
Today’s rich and famous people – at least the one whose faces we see a lot – usually have straight white teeth, and most people don’t get that way without some intervention. And lots of people get that.
Girls are held to a higher beauty standard and feel the pressure – from media, peers or parents – to get their teeth straightened. They want braces, and for good reason. Unfortunately, this subjects them to needless medical procedures and reinforces the over-valuing of appearance. However, it also shows one way that parents invest more in their girls, perhaps thinking they need to prepare them for successful careers and relationships by spending more on their looks.
When they’re grown up, of course, women get a lot more cosmetic surgery than men do – 87 percent of all surgical procedures, and 94% of Botox-type procedures – and that gap is growing over time.
As is the case with lots of cosmetic procedures, people from wealthier families generally are less likely to need braces but more likely to get them. But add this to the gender pattern, and what emerges is a system in which richer girls (voluntarily or not) and their parents set the standard for beauty – and then reap the rewards (as well as harms) of reaching it.
If the past few months in the music industry have left you demoralized — what with the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and all — Lily Allen might make you feel better, emphasis on might. Her single, with the sarcastic refrain “It’s hard out here for a bitch,” satirizes all of it and takes some ugly missteps along the way. In doing so, she reinvigorates an important conversation about satire, race politics, and feminism.
2. She points to the extreme standards of beauty for pop stars, singing the lyrics “You should probably lose some weight/’Cause we can’t see your bones” and beginning the video in surgery alongside a discussion about her “terrifying” post-baby body:
Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you? Have you thought about your butt? Who’s gonna tear it in two?
This is a retort to Thicke’s line, “I’ll give you something to tear your ass in two.”
4. She refers to the Sinead O’Connor/Amanda Palmer debate about whether women in the music industry have agency. Breaking the fourth wall, the video features a middle-aged, white male executive in a suit telling her to treat a banana like a penis and showing her and her dancers how to twerk.
5. Finally, she goes after materialism and product placement:
Her final lines:
Inequality promises that it’s here to stay Always trust injustice/in justice ’cause it’s not goin’ away
Interestingly, I’m not sure if the lyric is “injustice” or “in justice.” Or both!
What to Make of It All?
Not everyone is loving this video. Some are arguing that she is using her race and class privilege to take advantage of the debate; her use of women of color as props, for example, is no different than Cyrus’. Even if the frame is satire, the visual is the same.
Some of her lyrics mock rap and hip hop generally, making it a racialized scapegoat for everything that’s wrong in the world, which happens. She sings, “I won’t be bragging about my cars/Or talking about my chains.” In one scene she washes rims surrounded by champagne, in another she mocks the car culture associated with hip hop.
Even if her satire were straight on, there’s always the risk that people won’t get it, despite the fact that she refers to it directly. This is a serious risk as indicated by the fact that a significant proportion of politically conservative viewers of The Colbert Reportdon’ t know he’s kidding.
I’ll be interested to see the conversation about the song and video as it plays out. In the meantime, I’m pleased for the reminder that the music industry isn’t monolithic.
First, there are people in the industry that object to racism, sexism, and materialism: Lily Allen, I think, but also likely many of the people who worked with her to make this song and video happen.
Second, there’s money in fighting back. This highly produced single and video would not be here if executives didn’t think it would be profitable. They think there are people out there who are sick of exploitation in the music industry… and they’re right.
Alternatively, this is just a modified version of the same exploitation that Cyrus is guilty of: a feminism that serves white women well, but continues to marginalize women of color.