Tag Archives: consumption

Working Conditions in Modern Agriculture

If you are worried about the abuse and exploitation of non-human animals, you can become a vegetarian or a vegan. But if you worry about the abuse and exploitation of humans, there is no morally upright consumer choice you can make, short of growing 100% of your food yourself.

This is the main message of journalist Eric Schlosser in this 4min video produced by BigThink. In it, he summarizes the extent of the exploitation of poor people, mostly immigrants, in the restaurant industry, the meatpacking industry, and the production of fresh fruits and vegetables in the U.S.

Especially for the people who pick our produce, he insists, the working conditions “are more reminiscent of the mid-nineteenth century than they are with the twenty-first century.” It is “literally slavery.”

Watch here:

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.

Dog Movies Powerfully Influence Dog Ownership

Most Americans, when asked if they are affected by advertising, will say “not really.” They think other people are influenced by cultural messages, but that they are somehow immune.

Whether people are shaped by the media they consume seems to be a perpetual question. The fact that billions of dollars are spent every year attempting to influence us is probably a sign that advertisers know it works. Scientists get in on the action, asking pressing questions like: Do violent video games increase violence in real life? Do sexy, thin models hurt girls’ self-esteem? We do the studies and the answers are often inconclusive, probably because of how complicated the relationships are.

Psychologist Stefano Ghirlanda and his colleagues asked a slightly simpler question: Do celebrity dogs influence the popularity of dog breeds? They looked at 100 movies with prominent dog characters from 1939 to 2003 and compared the release date to breed registrations. The answer seems to be: with the exception of box office flops, yes.

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Given that many dog movies are made for kids, I’d be interested in the mediating role of parenthood. Companies that make children’s products like sugary cereal know that they can get the parent to buy their product if the kid is annoying enough about it. So, they market to children directly. I’d love to see if people with and without small children were equally affected by the breed of dog in this year’s movie.

The researchers method of popularity, moreover, was registration with the American Kennel Club. Pure bred dogs are expensive. So, I wonder if the power of these trends varies by social class. If a family can’t afford a “Beethoven,” they may be more likely to just adopt a mutt from a neighbor’s litter.

In any case, though, this seems like incontrovertible evidence that we’re influenced by mass media. But you already knew everyone else was, didn’t 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.

Five Reasons Why Gendered Products are a Problem

Our Pointlessly Gendered Products Pinterest board is funny, no doubt. When people make male and female versions of things like eggs, dog shampoo, and pickles, you can’t help but laugh. But, of course, not it’s not just funny. Here are five reasons why.

1. Pointlessly gendered products affirm the gender binary.

Generally speaking, men and women today live extraordinarily similar lives. We grow up together, go to the same schools, and have the same jobs. Outside of dating — for some of us — and making babies, gender really isn’t that important in our real, actual, daily lives.

These products are a backlash against this idea, reminding us constantly that gender is important, that it really, really matters if you’re male and female when, in fact, that’s rarely the case.

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But if there were no gender difference, there couldn’t be gender inequality; one group can’t be widely believed to be superior to the other unless there’s an Other. Hence, #1 is important for #3.

Affirming the gender binary also makes everyone who doesn’t fit into it invisible or problematic. This is, essentially, all of us. Obviously it’s a big problem for people who don’t identify as male or female or for those whose bodies don’t conform to their identity, but it’s a problem for the rest of us, too. Almost every single one of us takes significant steps every day to try to fit into this binary: what we eat, whether and how we exercise, what we wear, what we put on our faces, how we move and talk. All these things are gendered and when we do them in gendered ways we are forcing ourselves to conform to the binary.

2. Pointlessly gendered products reinforce stereotypes.

Pointlessly gendering products isn’t just about splitting us into two groups, it’s also about telling us what it means to be in one of those boxes. Each of these products is an opportunity to remind us.

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3. Pointlessly gendered products tell us explicitly that women should be subordinate to or dependent on men.

All too often, gender stereotypes are not just about difference, they’re about inequality. The products below don’t just affirm a gender binary and fill it with nonsense, they tell us in no uncertain terms that women and men are expected to play unequal roles in our society.

Girls are nurses, men are doctors:

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Girls are princesses, men are kings:

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4. Pointlessly gendered products cost women money.

Sometimes the masculine and feminine version of a product are not priced the same. When that happens, the one for women is usually the more expensive one. If women aren’t paying attention — or if it matters to them to have the “right” product — they end up shelling out more money.  Studies by the state of California, the University of Central Florida, and Consumer Reports all find that women pay more. In California, women spent the equivalent of $2,044 more a year (the study was done in 1996, so I used an inflation calculator).

This isn’t just something to get mad about. This is real money. It’s feeding your kids, tuition at a community college, or a really nice vacation. When women are charged more it harms our ability to support ourselves or lowers our quality of life.

5. Pointlessly gendered products are stupid. There are better ways to deliver what people really need.

One of the most common excuses for such products is that men and women are different, but most of the time they’re using gender as a measure of some other variable. In practice, it would be smarter and more efficient to just use the variable itself.

For example, many pointlessly gendered products advertise that the one for women is smaller and, thus, a better fit for women. The packaging on these ear buds, sent in by LaRonda M., makes this argument.

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Maybe some women would appreciate smaller earbuds, but it would still be much more straightforward to make ear buds in different sizes and let the user decide which one they wanted to use.

Products like these make smaller men and larger women invisible. They also potentially make them feel bad or constrain their choices. When the imperative for women is to be small and dainty, how do women who don’t use smaller earbuds feel?  Or, maybe the small guy who wants to learn how to play guitar never will because men’s guitars don’t fit him and he won’t be caught dead playing this:

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In sum, pointlessly gendered products aren’t just a gag. They’re a ubiquitous and aggressive ideological force, shaping how we think, what we do, and how much money we have. Let’s keep laughing, but let’s not forget that it’s serious business, too.

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.

Why You Should Shut Up When Poor People Buy New Nikes

Flashback Friday.

When it comes to forming an opinion on poverty, some Americans just can’t seem to understand why poor people can’t just stop being poor. One of the things that gets harped on is the idea that poor people spend money on frivolous things; somehow some people believe that, if the poor just gave up their cell phone and Nikes, they would pop up into the middle class.

What these people don’t realize is the extent to which being poor is living a life of self-denial.  To be poor is to be forced to deny oneself constantly. The poor must deny themselves most trappings of:

  • an adult life (their own apartment, framed pictures on the walls, matching dishes);
  • a comfortable life (a newish mattress, a comfy couch, good shoes that aren’t worn out);
  • a convenient life (your own car, eating out);
  • a self-directed life (a job you care for, leisure time, hobbies, money for babysitters);
  • a life full of small pleasures (lattes, dessert, fresh cut flowers, hot baths, wine);
  • a healthy life (fresh fruits and vegetables, health care, time for exercise);
  • and so, so many more things that don’t fit into those categories (technological gadgets, organic food, travel, expensive clothes and accessories).

They have to actively deny themselves these things every day. And, since most poor people remain poor their whole lives, they must be prepared to deny themselves (and members of their families) these things, perhaps, for the rest of their lives.

So when someone sees someone (they think is) poor walking down the street with a brand new pair of Nikes, perhaps what they are seeing is someone who decided (whether out of a moment of weakness or not) to NOT deny themselves at least one thing; perhaps they are seeing someone who is trying to hold on to some feeling of normalcy; perhaps what they are seeing is a perfectly normal person who just wants what they want for once.

I was thinking about this today when I saw a postcard at Post Secret (which, to be fair, may or may not have been submitted by someone who struggles financially).  The postcard, featuring a PowerBall receipt, reads “It’s the only time I feel hopeful”:

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For many poor people, hope and the absence of fear and worry are also luxuries they live without.

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.

SI Review: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

Sure to be a classic!

The tale begins with a baby calf named Rudolph born to what is assumed to be a typical reindeer family.  Immediately we recognize that this is no typical Hollywood tale. As we all know, male reindeer lose their antlers in late fall, but female retain throughout the Christmas season. By making Rudolph, Donner (the head of the family), and all of Santa’s reindeer female, the film makes a strong departure from the androcentric status quo.

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The new baby girl fills the house with joy until the parents discovered the calf to be quite queer—Rudolph had a red nose that glowed. Initially ashamed, Donner drew on a very functional and literal cover-up of mud and clay to hide the nose. It is believed this was for the good of the calf as this story was set in a pretty cruel place—a place where even Santa was unkind and unaccepting of differences.

Spring training comes along with masculinity classes for Rudolph. This was a highlight of the story for me. It was nice to see time was taken to demonstrate that gender is socially constructed and masculinity is learned. Girls can do anything that boys can do and our young protagonist was exceptional, even best in the class.

However, the mud and clay would be an impermanent fix. Rudolph’s glowing nose was revealed during play and the names and bullying began. In fact the bullying was even legitimated by the coach. With such an unaccepting family and community, Rudolph runs away.

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Meanwhile, in (one of) Santa’s workshops, an elf named Hermey was having a Jerry McGuire day. Hermey, perhaps the most relatable character to mainstream American society, was questioning the system. Hermey wanted to do what made him happy. He wanted to be a dentist. Working in an assembly line factory with long hours and no dental was not living the dream. Hermey decides he is a Dentist and also sets out alone.

Unsurprisingly, Rudolph and Hermey run into each other on the path out of town, also called loneliness. After a day in the polar wilderness they meet another queer named Yukon Cornelius who is always in search of gold or silver.

The three misfits then encounter the abominable snow monster. “Mean and nasty,” he “hates everything about Christmas.” Clearly, his teeth and wide reaching claws are designed to compel compliance with the social order.  White, male, and against magic for the masses, this character is clearly intended to represent the kyriarchy, the system meant to uphold the intersecting oppressions of class, race, and gender. The movie’s central challenge is set: smash the kyriarchy.

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The group initially retreats, only to find themselves on The Island of Misfit Toys where they are greeted by a flamboyant Charlie-in-the-box. It is here Hermey and Rudolph begin to dream of having an accepting place and we see the strong desire for a community. Surely, if dolls with low esteem, pink fire trucks, and trains with square wheels can be free of oppression, they can too.

Emboldened, the trio now returns to kill the kyriarchy. Using the never fail logic that bacon trumps all meats, Hermey makes like a pig to get the abominable snow monster’s attention. Once the snow monster steps out of the cave, Yukon knocks him out by dropping a boulder on his head; Hermey pulls out all his teeth in a symbolic and literal de-fanging.

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Yukon pushes the monster off a cliff, but he falls, too. This is the most symbolic part of the tale, as the group has bonded together to kill the kyriarchy but not without some loss. The message is clear: if we build alliances, we can take down the power elite, but there will be sacrifices.

I will not ruin the end of the tale for you, only to say that Rudolph does in fact save Christmas, but it is by demonstrating value to the man—Santa. Once Santa sees Rudolph and his misfit friends as an asset he de-identifies at least slightly with the kyriarchy. For now, Christmas town was a cheerful place. A small battle had been worn.

Overall, Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer gets two thumbs up!

It is sure to become a classic tale of systems of oppression and privilege, stigma, and the struggle for self-acceptance. In Rudolph, difference can be good. It was quite progressive with its message advocating inclusivity, alliance, and dissent against systems of power. I love the commentary on the lack of queer community organizing and the role of misfits in fighting capitalism and the power elite. It took on some hot button issues in nuanced ways, especially the policing various classes of citizens and the importance of open carry laws.

It also took some big risks related to casting. It was gender progressive and, outside of the binary, we have at least two characters that blur sex categories. Clarice, for example, presents as feminine and female pronouns are employed with her, yet she has no antlers in late winter. While Hermey dresses like the male elves, but he has swooping blonde hair and a small nose like the female elves.

For years to come, Rudolph will no doubt be a wonderful conversation starter for both awkward and fun winter gatherings alike.

D’Lane R. Compton, PhD is a lover of all things antler, feather, and fur. An associate professor of sociology at the University of New Orleans with a background in social psychology, methodology, and a little bit of demography, she is usually thinking about food, country roads, stigma, queer nooks and places, sneakers and hipster subcultures. You can follow her on twitter.

Conspicuous Pollution: Rural White Men Rollin’ Coal

Conspicuous consumption refers to the practice of ostentatiously displaying of high status objects.  Think very expensive purses and watches.  In the last few decades, as concern for the environment has become increasingly en vogue, it has become a marker of status to care for the earth.  Accordingly, people now engage in conspicuous conservation, the ostentatious display of objects that mark a person as eco-friendly.

Driving a Prius and putting solar panels on visible roof lines, even if they aren’t the sunniest, are two well-documented examples.  Those “litter removal sponsored by” signs on freeways are an example we’ve featured, as are these shoes that make it appear that the wearer helped clean up the oil spill in the gulf, even though they didn’t.

Well, welcome to the opposite: conspicuous pollution.

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Elizabeth Kulze, writing at Vocativ, explains:

In small towns across America, manly men are customizing their jacked-up diesel trucks to intentionally emit giant plumes of toxic smoke every time they rev their engines. They call it “rollin’ coal”…

It’s a thing. Google it!

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This is not just a handful of guys.  Kulze links to “an entire subculture” on Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram. “It’s just fun,” one coal roller says. “Just driving and blowing smoke and having a good time.”

It isn’t just fun, though. It’s a way for these men — mostly white, working class, rural men — to send an intrusive and nasty message to people they don’t like. According to this video, that includes Prius drivers, cops, women, tailgaters, and people in vulnerable positions. “City boys” and “liberals” are also targeted:

Kulze reports that it costs anywhere between $1,000 and $5,000 to modify a pickup to do this, which is why the phenomenon resonates with conspicuous consumption and conservation.  It’s an expensive and public way to claim an identity that the owner wants to project.

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.

Eating Meat is Funny and Sexy. Don’t Stop Eating Meat.

Activist Carol Adams has famously argued that the common phenomenon of sexualizing meat products is designed to make us feel better about eating animals. One of the ways it does this is by making it funny.  She explains:

Uneasiness becomes sexual energy… and everybody knows what to do about sexual energy.  You can laugh at it, you can talk about it, it reduces whoever is presented to an object.  And so it makes it okay again.

Sexualizing meat also turns the object of consumption, the animal, into a willing participant.  Sex takes two and, even when one partner is objectified, there is a desire.  If not “want,” it’s a “want to be wanted.”

If the meat wants you to want it, then you don’t have to feel bad about eating it.  As I’ve written before, “this works best alongside feminization, as it is women who are typically presented as objects of a lustful male gaze.”

This ad, in which roosters flock to Carl’s Jr to ogle and lust over chicken “breasts,” is a disturbing example.

Thanks to @wegotwits for the link!

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.

One Hundred Years of the Fridge

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Since their invention in 1913, and since this Kelvinator ad first ran in 1955, refrigerators became bigger, better, and went from a luxury to a necessity. It’s nearly impossible to imagine life today without having somewhere to store your vegetables and a place to keep your leftovers: in the one hundred years it’s been around, the fridge altered our grocery shopping habits and our attitudes towards food.

Appliance companies and advertisers worked hard to transform refrigerators from “a brand new concept in luxurious living” to an everyday household object. They succeeded in the 1960s, after years of fine-tuning its features to appeal to the middle-class housewife, writes historian Shelley Nickles. Besides ensuring the fridges were spacious, easy to clean, and had adjustable shelving, designers even took care of minutiae such as including warmer compartments – so that the butter kept in them would be easier to spread. Having attracted the housewives’ attention and become affordable with ideas such as government-sponsored fridges floating around, the appliances made their way into middle-class homes.

Buying too many perishable items suddenly became a minor concern. Buy one, get one free! Get more value for your money – purchase a bigger container! As the number of fridge compartments increased, so did the number of refrigeration-dependent foods and “supersize” deals offered in stores (or the other way around). Ultimately, grocery shoppers – mainly women – returned home with more food than they otherwise would have. Fridges enabled families to stock up, and the major weekend grocery haul was born. Now we have this:

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But while having a fridge to store all the groceries made it possible to save more on “deals” at the supermarket, it also enabled us to waste more later on. That is because the fridge operates much like a time machine, but not without its limits. Sociologists Elizabeth Shove and Dale Southerton describe freezers as appliances that allow us to manage time: in addition to no longer having to shop multiple times per week, we can now prepare our meals in advance. The same holds for refrigerators.

Food has its own rhythm, however, and a fridge can only delay the inevitable for so long. Leftovers simultaneously get pushed down in the hierarchy of what we’d like to eat, and pushed back on refrigerator shelf, only to be forgotten and perhaps rediscovered when it’s already too late. An exotic fruit rots in the produce compartment after its exciting novelty wore off, and we were no longer sure what to do with it. And so they all end up in the trash. Domestic food waste only represents part of all the food thrown away in the U.S. today – about a third of all that is produced – but the way fridges altered out food purchasing and consumption habits is partly to blame.

Not all is bad, however. Fridges not only allow us to eat a greater variety of foods and be more efficient in our everyday lives, we use them as centers of communication and managing household life. And as they become smarter, more energy-efficient, and with some individuals refusing to use them altogether, these cultural objects will doubtless have more stories to tell in the next hundred years.

Teja Pristavec is a graduate student in the sociology department, and an IHHCPAR Excellence Fellow,  at Rutgers University. She blogs at A Serving of Sociology, where this post originally appeared.