Tag Archives: culture

Pac-Man and Mr. Pac-Man: Flipping the Script

Anita Sarkeesian is back with a new installment in her feminist analysis of video games. This one is a 25 minute discussion of the Ms. Male Character Trope, the phenomenon in which video games spice up their characters by including a female modeled off of the original male character.  It’s a good example of the way in which males are centered, while females, if included at all, are seen as a non-normative kind of human, animal, or thing.

She starts with the classic example of Pac-Man and Mrs. Pac-Man, observing that only Mrs. is marked with symbols of femininity; Pac-Man, who’s not even called Mr. Pac-Man, has no markers at all.  This is typical.  This is how maleness is made simultaneously invisible and front-and-center, while femaleness is othered.  Like this:

Pacman and Mrs Pacman

A fan sent her an example of what a reverse world would look like, where women were the default and men were marked and othered.  Awesome:

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Here’s the whole video:

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Surprise! Your Flight Attendants are All Strangers

We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in.  Enjoy!

Flight attendants are not only friendly with their passengers, they’re also often super friendly with each other.  This may be because especially gregarious people go into the profession, but it’s also an adaptation to a surprising structural feature of their job. It turns out that, on any given flight anywhere in the world, most flight attendants are meeting their co-workers for the very first time.

There are about 100,000 flight attendants in the U.S. alone and they get their flights through a process of bidding, one month at a time, one month ahead.  Most really do “see the world,” as the old glamorized image of the intrepid stewardess suggests, instead of working the same route over and over again.  As a result, explains Drew Whitelegg in Working the Skies, they rarely run into the same flight attendant twice.

This means that flight attendants must get to know one another quickly once they get on board.  They need to do so to make food and beverage service efficient, to coordinate their actions in the tight galleys in which they work and, most importantly, so that they will trust one another if they are called upon to do what they are really there for: acting in an emergency, one that could theoretically happen within seconds of take-off.  There’s no time to lose. “[F]rom the moment they board the plane,” writes Whitelegg, “these workers — even if complete strangers — begin constructing bonds.”

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Image credit: National Library of Australia

 

Their instant bonding is facilitated by their shared experiences and their “peculiar identity,” Whitelegg explains — few people understand their job and the airline industry deliberately misportays it – and also by a culture of confession.  The galley has its own rules to which new flight attendants are socialized.  So, even though the workers are always new, the workplace is predictable.  Whitlegg describes how galley conversations during downtime tend to be extremely, sometimes excruciatingly personal.  ”The things you hear,” laughs Clare, a flight attendant for Continental, “I could write a book. The things you hear at 30,000 feet.”  It’s the odd combination of a habit of bonding and the anonymity of strangers.

So, if you have the pleasure of taking a flight, spend a few minutes watching the surprising coordination of strangers who seem like old friends, and take a moment to appreciate the amazing way these workers have adapted to their very peculiar position.

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post, Pacific Standard, and Work in Progress.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

From the Mouths of Rapists: The Lyrics of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines

We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in.  The original of this post can be found here.

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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The pièce de 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?

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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.

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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.

And the absence of consent is a crime.

Sezin Koehler is an informal ethnographer and novelist living in Florida. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.  

What Are Rappers Really Saying about the Police?

We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in.  Enjoy!

Hip-hop music is frequently described as violent and anti-law enforcement, with the implication that its artists glorify criminality.  A new content analysis subtitled “Hip-Hop Artists’ Perceptions of Criminal Justice“, by criminologists Kevin Steinmetz and Howard Henderson, challenge this conclusion.

After an analysis of a random sample of hip-hop songs released on platinum-selling albums between 2000 and 2010, Steinmetz and Henderson concluded that the main law enforcement-related themes in hip-hop are not pleasure and pride in aggressive and criminal acts, but the unfairness of the criminal justice system and the powerlessness felt by those targeted by it.

Lyrics about law enforcement, for example, frequently portrayed cops as predators exercising an illegitimate power.  Imprisonment, likewise, was blamed for weakening familial and community relationships and described a modern method of oppression.

Their analysis refutes the idea that hip-hop performers are embracing negative stereotypes of African American men in order to sell albums.  Instead, it suggests that the genre retains the politicized messages that it was born with.

Steinmetz and Henderson offer Tupac’s “Crooked Nigga Too” (2004) as an example of a rap that emphasizes how urban Black men are treated unfairly by police.

Yo, why I got beef with police?
Ain’t that a bitch that motherfuckers got a beef with me
They make it hard for me to sleep
I wake up at the slightest peep, and my sheets are three feet deep.

The authors explain:

Police action perceived as hostile and unfair engenders an equally hostile and indignant response from Tupac, indicating a tremendous amount of disrespect for the police.

Likewise, Jay-Z, in “Pray” (2007), raps about cops who keep drugs confiscated from a dealer, emphasizing a “power dynamic in which the dealer was unfairly taken advantage of but was unable to seek redress”:

The same BM [‘‘big mover’’—a drug dealer] is pulled over by the boys dressed blue
they had their guns drawn screaming, “just move or is there something else you suggest we can do?”
He made his way to the trunk
opened it like, “huh?”
A treasure chest was removed
cops said he’ll be back next monthwhat we call corrupt, he calls payin’ dues

Henderson offers Jay-Z’s “Minority Report” as a great overall example:

Of course, the rappers — in their collective wisdom — are absolutely correct to suspect that the treatment that their communities receive from the police, corrections, and courts are unfair.  People of African descent are routinely targeted by police (see the examples of New York City and Toronto), even though racial profiling doesn’t work; Blacks are are more likely to be arrested and sentenced than Whites, regardless of actual crime rates; schools and juvenile detention systems are increasingly intertwined in inner citiesimprisonment tears families apart, disproportionately harming families of color; and even Black children don’t trust the police.

Steinmetz and Henderson conclude:

We actually found that the overwhelming message in hip-hop wasn’t that the rappers disliked the idea of justice, but they disliked the way it was being implemented.

These communities, then, have a strong sense of justice… rooted in the sense that they’re not getting any.

Cross-posted at Racialicious and PolicyMic.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Children’s Books and Segregation in the Workplace

We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in.  Enjoy!

As children, many of us encountered Richard Scarry’s book, What Do People Do all Day?  A classic kid’s book, it uses animals to represent the division of labor that exists in “Busytown.”  The book is an example of a brilliant piece of analysis by sociologist John Levi Martin.

To oversimplify greatly: Martin analyzes nearly 300 children’s books and finds that there is a marked tendency for these texts to represent certain animals in particular kinds of jobs. Jobs that allow the occupant to exercise authority over others tend to be held by predatory animals (especially foxes), but never by “lower” animals (mice or pigs).

Pigs in particular are substantially over-represented in subordinate jobs (those with low skill and no authority), where their overweight bodies and (judging from the plots of these books) congenital stupidity seems to “naturally” equip them for subservient jobs. Here, see this additional image from Scarry’s book, showing construction work being performed by the above-mentioned swine.

In effect, Martin’s point is that there is a hidden language or code inscribed in children’s books, which teaches kids to view inequalities within the division of labor as a “natural” fact of life  – that is, as a reflection of the inherent characteristics of the workers themselves.  Young readers learn (without realizing it, of course) that some species-beings are simply better equipped to hold manual or service jobs, while other creatures ought to be professionals. Once this code is acquired by pre-school children, he suggests, it becomes exceedingly difficult to unlearn.  As adults, then, we are already predisposed to accept the hierarchical, caste-based system of labor that characterizes the American workplace.

Steven Vallas is a professor of sociology at Northeastern University.  He specializes in the sociology of work and employment.  His most recent book, Work: A Critique, offers an overview and discussion of the sociological literatures on the topic.  You can follow Steven at the blog Work in Progress.

Cross-posted at Work in Progress.

Jewish Christmas — The Chinese Connection

My friend Andy Markovits passed along to me a very funny YouTube video that has been making the rounds. It touches on an intriguing aspect of American social history — the curious affinity of Jews for Chinese food. Ever since Eastern European Jewish immigrants began arriving here in large numbers about a century ago, they showed a special inclination to go to Chinese restaurants whenever they went out to eat non-Jewish food.

There was always something a little odd about this, since many of them normally avoided non-kosher food, and Chinese food is anything but kosher — certainly no more kosher than, say, Italian or Irish or generic-American food. (In recent years some Chinese restaurants have adapted by going kosher, but such cases used to be vanishingly rare.) Perhaps the sauces that smothered and disguised the food, which also tended to be finely chopped up, made a certain degree of denial easier? (Through most of the 20th century, the kind of Chinese food that American Jews were eating was usually some version of gloppy American-Cantonese.) And perhaps the special attractiveness of Chinese restaurants had something to do with the fact that Chinese — unlike a number of other ethnic groups in the U.S. — had no history of, or reputation for, anti-semitism? One can only speculate.

Here are some informed socio-historical speculations by two Jewish sociologists, Gaye Tuchman and Harry Levine, in “‘Safe Treyf’: New York Jews and Chinese Food“ (for those of you who come from the dominant culture, “treyf” or “treif” means non-kosher):

Three themes predominate. First, Chinese food is unkosher and therefore non-Jewish. But because of the specific ways that Chinese food is prepared and served, immigrant Jews and their children found Chinese food to be more attractive and less threatening than other non-Jewish or treyf food. Chinese food was what we term “safe treyf.” Chinese restaurant food used some ingredients that were familiar to Eastern European Jews. Chinese cuisine also does not mix milk and meat; indeed it doesn’t use dairy products at all. In addition, anti-Semitism, anti-Chinese racism, and the low position of the Chinese in American society also (perhaps paradoxically) made Jews feel safe and comfortable in Chinese restaurants.

Second, Jews construed Chinese restaurant food as cosmopolitan. For Jews in New York, eating in Chinese restaurants signified that one was not a provincial or parochial Eastern European Jew, not a “greenhorn” or hick. In New York City, immigrant Jews, and especially their children and grand-children, regarded Chinese food as sophisticated and urbane.

Third, by the second and third generation, Jews identified eating this kind of non-Jewish food — Chinese restaurant food — as something that modern American Jews, and especially New York Jews, did together. “Eating Chinese” became a New York Jewish custom, a part of daily life and self-identity for millions of New York Jews.

Whatever the reasons, this connection between American Jews and Chinese food has long been a solidly established social fact. (I don’t know whether this has also been true for Jews in Montreal and Toronto, or whether there are any parallels outside North America.) And I am told by people who know about such things (not just professionally, but from relevant sociological research) that this connection has long been a self-conscious part of Chinese-restaurant lore as well. If someone wanted to start a Chinese restaurant, the best bet was to have a Chinese community nearby — but, failing that, everyone knew that the second-best situation was to open the restaurant near a supply of Jewish customers.

As part of this pattern of ethnic symbiosis, one special Christmas custom (we might almost call it a tradition) that emerged among American Jews was to go out to a Chinese restaurant for Christmas. Again, the explanation is no doubt complex. Since most Chinese didn’t celebrate Christmas as a religious or family holiday, Chinese restaurants were likely to be open when other restaurants were closed. I would also guess that it’s easy to get a reservation at your favorite Chinese restaurant when the goyim are mostly having Christmas dinner at home. And the movie theaters are often emptier, too — so why not go to the movies while you’re at it?

For a celebration of this Jewish Christmas tradition, click HERE.  For a nice video on the subject from the Forward, see Jews and Chinese Food: A Christmas Story.

Jeff Weintraub is a social and political theorist, cultural and political sociologist, and democratic socialist who has been teaching most recently at the University of Pennsylvania and Bryn Mawr College. (Also an Affiliated Professor with the University of Haifa in Israel and an opponent of academic blacklists.)  This post originally appeared at his blog, Commentaries and Controversies.

If There’s a War, We’re Losing It: “Merry Christmas” vs “Happy Holidays”

1I would guess that most of us were unaware of the war on Christmas raging all around us until Bill O’Reilly started reporting from the front. He has since been joined by seasoned war reporters like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. I get the sense that they don’t really take themselves very seriously on this one – their war cries often sound like self-parody – and I guess that this attitude gives them license to say much that is silly and incorrect. Which they do.

Still, these Christian warriors may be right about the general decline of Christian hegemony in American culture.  What’s curious is how that historical trend seems out of sync with the historical trend in the war on Christmas. In fact, it looks like there was a similar war on Christmas 60-70 years ago, a war that went unnoticed.

O’Reilly’s war has two important battlegrounds – legal challenges to government-sponsored religious displays, and people saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”   He sets the start of the current war in the early years of this century. From Fox News Insider:

“Everything was swell up until about 10 years ago when creeping secularism and pressure from groups like the ACLU began attacking the Christmas holiday. They demanded the word Christmas be removed from advertising and public displays.”

Many people caved in to their demands, creating what O’Reilly has dubbed as the “Happy Holidays” syndrome.

If pushed, O’Reilly might trace the origins of the war back further than that – to the 1960s.  That’s when the secularists and liberals started fighting their long war, at least according to the view from the right.  It was in the 1960s that liberals started winning victories and when the world as we knew it started falling apart. In the decades before that, we took it for granted that America was a White Christian nation.  We all pulled together in World War II without questioning that dominance. And our national religion continued to hold sway in the peaceful and prosperous 1950s. We even added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.  And of course, we all celebrated Christmas and said, “Merry Christmas,” no questions asked.

But then came drugs, sex, rock ’n’ roll, protests against an American war, and “God is Dead” on the cover of Time. Worse yet, in 1963 the Supreme Court ruled that the establishment clause of the First Amendment meant that public schools (i.e., government-run schools) could not impose explicitly sectarian rituals on children.  No Bible reading, no Christmas pageants.

The trouble is that even if this history is accurate, it doesn’t have much to do with the War on Christmas, especially “the Happy Holidays syndrome.”  I checked these two phrases at Google Ngrams – a corpus of eight million books.

The first big rise in “Happy Holidays” comes just after the end of World War II.

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From about 1946 to 1954, it increases sixfold. It goes out of fashion as quickly as it came in, and even in the supposedly secular 1960s, it rarely turned up (at least in the books scanned by Google).  The next rise does not begin until the late 1970s, continues through the Reagan and Clinton years.

But just when O’Reilly says the War started, “Happy Holidays” starts to  decline.

And what about “Merry Christmas”?  According to the War reporters, the new secularism of the last ten years has been driving it underground.  But Ngrams tells a different story.

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If there was a time when “Happy Holidays” was replacing “Merry Christmas,” it was in the Greatest Generation era of the 1940s.  Since the late 1970s, when “Happy Holidays” was rising, so was “Merry Christmas.” Apparently, there was just a lot more seasonal spirit to go around.

Perhaps the best way to see the relative presence of the two phrases is to look at the ratio of “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays.”

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In 1937, there were 260 of the religious greeting for every one of the secular.  In the 1940s the ratio plummeted; by the late 1950s it had fallen to about 40 to one.  In the Sixties, “Merry Christmas” makes a slight comeback, then declines again.

By the turn of the century, the forces of “Merry Christmas” are ahead by a ratio of “only” about 18 to one.  Since then – i.e., during the period O’Reilly identifies as war time – the ratio has increased slightly in favor of “Merry Christmas.”

O’Reilly may be right that at least in public greetings – by store clerks, by public officials, and by television networks (even O’Reilly’s Fox) – the secular “Happy Holidays” is displacing the sectarian “Merry Christmas.”  But that still doesn’t explain a similar shift over a half-century ago, another war on Christmas that nobody seemed to notice.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Disguising the Gift of Money

Princeton sociology professor Viviana Zelizer wrote a wonderful succinct editorial for the New York Times about the idea of giving money as a gift.  Money, she explains, is used in the most impersonal of transactions (even antagonistic ones, as someone who recently paid a parking ticket recalls), so giving money to loved ones can be seen as crass, tasteless, or thoughtless.

Zelizer explains that cultural elites have been worrying about this since the early 1900s.  The solution: “camouflage money inside a traditional gift.”  Offering some examples, Zelizer writes:

In the December 1909 Ladies’ Home Journal, for instance, the writer Lou Eleanor Colby said she had found a way to “disguise the money so that it would not seem just like a commercial transaction.” She explained how she had incorporated $10 for her mother into artwork. She inserted dollar bills into two posters; one showed five sad bills not knowing where to go, and the other depicted the happy ending: “five little dollars speeding joyfully” toward her mother’s purse.

Housewives hid gold coins in cookies and boxes of candies; dollar bills could decorate belt-buckles or picture frames. Women boasted when the recipient failed to realize that the actual present was money. Men also disguised the money they gave to their wives as gifts, to distinguish it from their allowances. If you give her a check, The Ladies’ Home Journal advised, “put it in an embroidered purse, or a leather sewing basket or a jewel box which will be a little gift in itself.” The better the disguise, the more successful the gift.

Today these tokens are probably familiar to many of you.  One site suggests making the money into a gift basket:

Another suggests that you give the gift of (money) origami:

Soon, Zelizer explains, companies figured out how to cash in on this cashing out, inventing the idea of decorated money orders and telegrams:

…in 1910, American Express began advertising money orders as an “acceptable Christmas gift.” Western Union improved on the idea by creating distinctive telegrams for sending money for special occasions, while greeting card companies started selling decorative money holders for birthdays and holidays.

Thus the “money holder” card was born:

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And what do you think these really are?

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While it may seem obvious to many of us now that gift certificates and money holders exist, Zelizer shows that these objects have a cultural history, devised to solve a particular problem that emerged with the spread of a wage-based economy.

Via Kieran at OrgTheory.  Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.