The joke about the woman who sued McDonald’s after spilling hot coffee in her lap has become a cultural lightening rod, mocked in sitcoms and used to argue in favor of reforming the law that guides civil lawsuits. In fact, the coffee was served 30 degrees higher than coffee made at home. When it spilled between 79-year-old Stella Liebeck’s legs and pooled in her seat, she went into shock. She was burned over 16% of her body, 6% of the burns were 3rd degree. She spent a week in the hospital and had to have skin grafts. When she asked McDonald’s to pay her hospital bills, they refused. Later it came out that the restaurant had gotten many complaints about the temperature of their coffee.
This New York Timesvideo reviews the case, described as the “most widely misunderstood story in America.” From a sociological perspective, it’s a great example of how stories can bounce around in the media echo chamber, constrained by the need for sound bites, and become a cultural touchstone.
Cats and dogs are gendered in contemporary American culture, such that dogs are thought to be the proper pet for men and cats for women (especially lesbians). This, it turns out, is an old stereotype. In fact, cats were a common symbol in suffragette imagery. Cats represented the domestic sphere, and anti-suffrage postcards often used them to reference female activists. The intent was to portray suffragettes as silly, infantile, incompetent, and ill-suited to political engagement.
Cats were also used in anti-suffrage cartoons and postcards that featured the bumbling, emasculated father cruelly left behind to cover his wife’s shirked duties as she so ungracefully abandons the home for the political sphere. Oftentimes, unhappy cats were portrayed in these scenes as symbols of a threatened traditional home in need of woman’s care and attention.
While opposition to the female vote was strong, public sentiment warmed to the suffragettes as police brutality began to push women into a more favorable, if victimized, light.
As suffragettes increasingly found themselves jailed, many resisted unfair or inhumane imprisonment with hunger strikes. In response, jailers would often force-feed female prisoners with steel devices to pry open their mouths and long hoses inserted into their noses and down their throats. This caused severe damage to the women’s faces, mouths, lungs, and stomachs, sometimes causing illness and death.
Not wanting to create a group of martyrs for the suffragist cause, the British government responded by enacting the Prisoner’s Act of 1913 which temporarily freed prisoners to recuperate (or die) at home and then rearrested them when they were well. The intention was to free the government from responsibility of injury and death from force feeding prisoners.
This act became popularly known as the “Cat and Mouse Act,” as the government was seen as toying with their female prey as a cat would a mouse. Suddenly, the cat takes on a decidedly more masculine, “tom cat” persona. The cat now represented the violent realities of women’s struggle for political rights in the male public sphere.
The longevity of the stereotype of cats as feminine and domestic, along with the interesting way that the social constructions flipped, is a great example of how cultural associations are used to create meaning and facilitate or resist social change.
Ms. Wrenn is an instructor of Sociology with Colorado State University, where she is working on her PhD. She is a council member of the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section and has published extensively on the non-human animal rights movement.
What separates those with a criminal record from the rest of the population? According to lawyer Emily Baxter, not a whole lot. Baxter’s new project “We Are All Criminals” examines the illegal activities committed by people without a criminal record. In Minnesota, 1 out of 4 residents has a criminal record, but Baxter’s project, she says on her website, is about the 75% that “got away, and how very different their lives may have been had they been caught.”
By emphasizing the crimes of the unconvicted, Baxter blurs the lines between criminal and noncriminal and draws attention to the detrimental effects that a criminal record has on the lives of those who are convicted. Many of the undocumented and unpunished transgressions confessed through her project were committed when the perpetrators were juveniles, many of whom are now lawyers, doctors, and professionals.
Executive director of the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis Michael Friedman is intrigued by the project, saying:
“I don’t think I’ve come across anybody who has not committed crimes as a juvenile,” Friedman said. “Allowing society to use juvenile criminal records as a marker for someone’s potential success, or risk for employment or opportunity, is not scientific. It’s dangerous and discriminatory.”
The most intriguing part of her project lies in its look at society as a whole. Imagine if we had all been prosecuted for every crime we committed, even as a juvenile. What would the crime rate look like then?
The author, Kat Albrecht, is an editorial assistant for The Society Pages. She is currently an undergraduate student in the department of sociology at the University of Minnesota. The artist, Emily Baxter, is the Director of Public Policy and Advocacy at the Council on Crime and Justice. Cross-posted at Citings and Sightings.
We don’t prohibit all dangerous behavior, or even behavior that endangers others, including people’s own children.
Question: Is the limit of acceptable risks to which we may subject our own children determined by absolute risks or relative risks?
Case for consideration: Home birth.
Let’s say planning to have your birth at home doubles the risk of some serious complications. Does that mean no one should do it, or be allowed to do it? Other policy options: do nothing, discourage home birth, promote it, regulate it, or educate people about the risks and let them do what they want.
Here is the most recent result from a large study reported on the New York TimesWell blog, which looks to me like it was done properly, from the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology. Researchers analyzed about 2 million birth records of live, term (37-43 weeks), singleton, head-first births, including 12,000 planned home births.
The planned-home birth mothers were generally relatively privileged, more likely to be White and non-Hispanic, college-educated, married, and not having their first child. However, they were also more likely to be older than 34 and to have waited to see a doctor until their second trimester.
On three measures of birth outcomes, the home-birth infants were more likely to have bad results: low Apgar scores and neonatal seizures. Apgar is the standard for measuring an infant’s wellbeing within 5 minutes of birth, assessing breathing, heart rate, muscle tone, reflex irritability and circulation (blue skin). With up to 2 points on each indicator, the maximum score is 10, but 7 or more is considered normal and under 4 is serious trouble. Low scores are usually caused by some difficulty in the birth process, and babies with low scores usually require medical attention. The score is a good indicator of risk for infant mortality.
These are the unadjusted rates of middle- and low-Apgar scores and seizure rates:
These are big differences considering the home birth mothers are usually healthier. In the subsequent analysis, the researchers controlled for parity, maternal age, race/ethnicity, education, gestational age at delivery, number of prenatal care visits, cigarette smoking during pregnancy, and medical/obstetric conditions. With those controls, the odds ratios were 1.9 for Apgar<4, 2.4 for Apgar<7, and 3.1 for seizures. Pretty big effects.
Two years ago I wrote about a British study that found much higher rates of birth complications among home births when the mother was delivering her first child. This is my chart for their findings:
Again, those were the unadjusted rates, but the disparities held with a variety of important controls.
These birth complication rates are low by world historical standards. In New Delhi, India, in the 1980s 10% of 5-minute-olds had Apgar scores of 3 or less. So that’s many-times worse than American home births. On the other hand, a number of big European countries (Germany, France, Italy) have Apgar<7 rates of 1% or less, which is much better.
A large proportional increase on a low risk for a high-consequence event (like nuclear meltdown) can be very serious. A large absolute risk of a common low-consequence event (like having a hangover) can be completely acceptable. Birth complications are somewhere in between. But where?
Seems like a good topic for discussion, and having some real numbers helps. Let me know what you decide.
As far back as the 1970s, family researchers began noticing that… [b]oys from broken homes were more likely than their peers to get suspended and arrested… And justice experts have long known that juvenile facilities and adult jails overflow with sons from broken families. Liberals often assume that these kinds of social problems result from our stingy support system for single mothers and their children. But the link between criminality and fatherlessness holds even in countries with lavish social welfare systems.
Ah, the link between criminality and fatherlessness again. So ingrained is the assumption that crime rates always go up that conservatives making this argument do not even see the need to account for the incredible, world-historical drop in violence that has accompanied the collapse of the nuclear family. I know Kay Hymowitz knows this, because we’ve argued about it before. But if her editors and readers don’t, why should she make a big deal out of it?
I’m not arguing about whether boys living without fathers are more likely to commit crimes. I’m just saying that this is very unlikely to be the major cause of male juvenile violent crime if the trends can move so drastically in opposite directions at the same time. These aren’t little fluctuations. Even if you leave out the late-80s-early-90s spike in crime, arrests fell about 40% from 1980 to 2010 while father-absent boys increased almost 50%.
If you are going to argue for a strong association — which Hymowitz does — and use words like “tide,” you should at least acknowledge that the problem you are trumpeting is getting better while the cause you are bemoaning is getting worse.
In 1999 Jackson Katz headlined a documentary that powerfully revealed the mask of masculinity, a pretense of stoicism and readiness for violence that many men feel compelled to put on, at least part of the time. The film, Tough Guise: Violence, Manhood, and American Culture, became a staple in classes on gender across the country.
Today marks the release of Tough Guise 2 and SocImages was given the honor of debuting an exclusive clip from the new film. In the segment below, Katz explains that men aren’t naturally violent but, instead, often learn how to be so. Focusing on socialization, however, threatens to make invisible the socialization agents. In other words, Katz argues, men don’t just learn to be more violent than they otherwise would be, they are actively taught.
He begins with the fact that the video game and film industries both take money from companies that make firearms to feature their products. The U.S. military then uses the video game Call of Duty for recruitment and training. It’s no use arguing whether the media, the military, or the gun industry are responsible for rates of violence, he observes, since they’re in cahoots. These extreme examples intersect with the everyday, mundane lessons about the importance of being “real men” that boys and men receive from the media and their peers, parents, coaches, and more.
This update of the original will tell the compelling story about manhood and violence to a new generation and remind older ones of the ongoing crisis of masculinity in America.
Trigger warning: Graphic descriptions of sexual assault. Note: The opinions expressed in this post belong to Sezin Koehler alone and should not be attributed to anyone involved with Project Unbreakable.
Robin Thicke’s summer hit Blurred Lines addresses what he considers to be sounds like a grey area between consensual sex and assault. The images in this post place the song into a real-life context. They are from Project Unbreakable, an online photo essay exhibit, and feature images of women and men holding signs with sentences that their rapist said before, during, or after their assault. Let’s begin.
I know you want it.
Thicke sings “I know you want it,” a phrase that many sexual assault survivors report their rapists saying to justify their actions, as demonstrated over and over in the Project Unbreakable testimonials.
You’re a good girl.
Thicke further sings “You’re a good girl,” suggesting that a good girl won’t show her reciprocal desire (if it exists). This becomes further proof in his mind that she wants sex: for good girls, silence is consent and “no” really means “yes.”
Calling an adult a “good girl” in this context resonates with the the virgin/whore dichotomy. The implication in Blurred Lines is that because the woman is not responding to a man’s sexual advances, which of course are irresistible, she’s hiding her true sexual desire under a facade of disinterest. Thicke is singing about forcing a woman to perform both the good girl and bad girl roles in order to satisfy the man’s desires.
Thicke and company, as all-knowing patriarchs, will give her what he knows she wants (sex), even though she’s not actively consenting, and she may well be rejecting the man outright.
Do it like it hurt, do it like it hurt, what you don’t like work?
This lyric suggests that women are supposed to enjoy pain during sex or that pain is part of sex:
The woman’s desires play no part in this scenario – except insofar as he projects whatever he pleases onto her — another parallel to the act of rape: sexual assault is generally not about sex, but rather about a physical and emotional demonstration of power.
The way you grab me.
Must wanna get nasty.
This is victim-blaming. Everybody knows that if a woman dances with a man it means she wants to sleep with him, right? And if she wears a short skirt or tight dress she’s asking for it, right? And if she even smiles at him it means she wants it, right? Wrong. A dance, an outfit, a smile — sexy or not — does not indicate consent. This idea, though, is pervasive and believed by rapists.
And women, according to Blurred Lines, want to be treated badly.
Nothing like your last guy, he too square for you.
He don’t smack your ass and pull your hair like that.
In this misogynistic fantasy, a woman doesn’t want a “square” who’ll treat her like a human being and with respect. She would rather be degraded and abused for a man’s gratification and amusement, like the women who dance around half naked humping dead animals in the music video.
The piècede résistance of the non-censored version of Blurred Lines is this lyric:
I’ll give you something to tear your ass in two.
What better way to show a woman who’s in charge than violent, non-consensual sodomy?
Ultimately, Robin Thicke’s rape anthem is about male desire and male dominance over a woman’s personal sexual agency. The rigid definition of masculinity makes the man unable to accept the idea that sometimes his advances are not welcome. Thus, instead of treating a woman like a human being and respecting her subjectivity, she’s relegated to the role of living sex doll whose existence is naught but for the pleasure of a man.
In Melinda Hugh’s Lame Lines parody of Thicke’s song she sings, “You think I want it/ I really don’t want it/ Please get off it.” The Law Revue Girls “Defined Lines” response to Blurred Lines notes, “Yeah we don’t want it/ It’s chauvinistic/ You’re such a bigot.” Rosalind Peters says in her one-woman retort, “Let’s clear up something mate/ I’m here to have fun/ I’m not here to get raped.”
There are no “blurred lines.” There is only one line: consent.
“Next to being a Hollywood movie star, nothing was more glamorous.” This breathless statement, quoted in Femininity in Flight, was uttered by a flight attendant in 1945. At the time being a stewardess was quite glamorous. Like motion pictures do today, airlines trafficked in “the business of female spectacle.” They hired only women who they believed to represent ideal femininity. Chosen for their beauty and poise, and only from among the educated, and slender, they were as much of an icon as Miss America. And they were almost all White.
Victoria Vantoch tells the story of the first African American flight attendants in a chapter of her new book, The Jet Sex. Patricia Banks was one of the first Black women to sue an airline for racial discrimination. She graduated from flight attendant training school at the top of her class and applied to several airlines. But it was 1956 and the U.S. airlines had never hired a Black woman. After 10 months of trying, an airline recruiter pulled her aside and admitted that it was because of her race. Which, of course, it was; airlines disqualified any applicants that had broad noses, full lips, coarse hair, or a “hook nose” (to weed out Jews).
Banks sued. After four years of litigation, Capital Airlines was forced to hire her. She postponed her marriage and took the job (airlines only hired single women as flight attendants). When she put on her uniform for the first time, she said:
After all I had gone through, I couldn’t believe I was finally wearing the uniform. I had made it. I was going to fly. It was such an accomplishment.
Individual women weren’t the only ones pushing to integrate the flight attendants corps. International surveys showed that citizens of other countries knew that America had a “race problem” and this was a problem for then-President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson. They needed to do something flashy and they turned to flight attendants to do it. If they could make Black women the face of such an iconic and high-profile occupation, they thought, it would help restore America’s reputation. According to Vantoch, Johnson “made stewardess integration his personal cause.”
That was 1961; in 1964 Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act mandating equal treatment in the workplace. The following year, in response to even more lawsuits, approximately 50 Black women were hired by airlines. This would make them 0.33% of the workforce.
Patricia Banks and her fellow first African American flight attendants, including Mary Tiller and Marlene White, would continue to face racism, now from co-workers, passengers, and supervisors. Banks would quit after one year, citing exhaustion in the face of emotionally draining feminine work and a constant onslaught of racism. She was a great flight attendant, though, and proud to show the world that a Black woman could shine in the occupation.