Tag Archives: emotion

Cranky Misogynists and the Pain of Being Demoted to Equal

I’m in Salon today responding to the “men’s rights activists” who spammed Occidental College’s anonymous sexual assault reporting form this week.  I, um, compare them to myself as a child:

I thought I failed fourth grade.  It’s funny now that I’m a tenured professor at an elite college, but it wasn’t funny then.  I lived a 45 minute walk from school and I ran home that day, tears in my eyes, clutching my unopened report card in my fist.  I don’t remember much from my childhood, but I remember sitting on my front stoop and opening that horrible envelope.  All Es for “excellent.”  Huh.

Looking back I realize that my sense that I’d failed was based on how my teacher treated me.  She was the first adult who didn’t talk to me in a baby voice like I was the most specialest little girl in the whole world.  She treated me like a small adult instead of kissing my ass.  But it was terrifying because my ass had been kissed by everyone around me my whole life and, when I was demoted to “regular person” without any special privileges, it felt terrible and unfair.  I was being persecuted.

See how special I was? I’m the one with the inflated sense of self.

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The men attacking Occidental’s survivors are feeling something similar to me in fourth grade.  They’re angry that “women are being listened to… They’re mad because they’re not the only ones that matter anymore.”  They’re no longer being treated like they’re the most specialest little girl in the whole world.

It hurts when privileges are taken away, no matter how unearned.  But that doesn’t make it okay to be an asshole.  Just sayin’.

PS – Thanks Ms. Singh!

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.

Kennedy and a Case of Emotional Contagion

The Kennedy assassination was my first clear lesson in the sociology of emotions, though I didn’t know it at the time.  I was in Japan, living with a Japanese family in a small town in the mountains of Nagano prefecture. I had been there less than two months, my knowledge of the language was barely rudimentary. There were no other Americans. I was the first Westerner many people in the town had ever seen in the flesh. (Everyone had seen gaijin on TV since the Japanese networks ran many American shows.)

When I came to breakfast that Saturday morning, and even before I had taken my place the tatami floor with the others,  my Japanese family desperately tried to tell me the news. At first all I could understand was that it had something to do with Kennedy. The Japanese words for shoot or kill were not part of my tiny vocabulary. I knew the word for dead, but when the father of the family used it, I assumed I was hearing one of the many homophones. The television was on, but I certainly could not understand what the news readers were saying. Finally, the father, still seated, acted it out. He fired his index-finger pistol. Then pointing to himself and saying, “Kennedy,” he clutched his hands to his chest and canted his body over as if falling to the floor.  The gravest event translated into a simplified charade – it would have seemed ludicrous had it not been so serious.

I understood, but I was still incredulous. In the next few days, I learned more, mostly from the one person in the town who spoke fluent English (he had just come back from a year in Kansas), and from the English language daily, the Japan Times, my only outside source of information. I remained isolated from other Americans. If emotions are contagious, I had been quarantined.

It was only much later, when I was back in the US that I learned of what it was like to be here then. When I heard people describing where they were; or on anniversaries like today, when the media hauled out their archival footage – only then did I sense the emotion that so many Americans felt.

Most people, if asked, would probably have said that their grief was caused entirely by a personal sense of loss perhaps and the symbolic meaning they assigned to Kennedy – the president who, in is youth and vibrancy, represented hope for the future, etc.

I had felt none of that. I was stunned of course. In the world I had taken for granted, presidents did not get assassinated.  Now that assumption was shattered.  But the Kennedy in my mind was still the same person, politician, and president that he had been before the assassination. So I missed out on feeling of grief and great loss. And I think the reason that I did not feel those emotions is not that I was young and callow (though I was that too) but that I was so isolated. Had I been in the US, engaged in the flood of constant talk, both in person and in the media, I would probably have felt those feelings more intensely.

When something so unusual and traumatic happens, we search for a way to make sense of it – our old sociological friend, a “definition of the situation.”  In that search, we look to others, and the definition we learn from others – what this thing is and what it means – is not just information and explanation. We learn the emotions that are part of this definition. We have a fairly large repertoire of emotions that we can experience, and in a sympathetic-vibration-like process, the emotions we see all around us evoke the same emotion in us.  We experience that emotion as personal.  But in an important way, it is also social.

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.

Doing Gender with Wallets and Purses

I once heard a transgender woman give a talk about the process of socially transitioning to being recognized as a woman. She discussed various decisions she made in taking some final critical steps toward the social identity of woman.  She talked at length about her hair. She asked, “What kind of woman am I and how is my haircut going to indicate that?”  She talked about being preoccupied with her hair for a long time as she attempted to figure out a cut and style that “felt right.” But what struck me the most was her discussion of carrying a purse.

She said that getting used to carrying a purse everywhere was one of the more challenging elements of the transition.  If asked what I thought would be a significant everyday challenge if I were a woman, I don’t think purse would have been high on my list.  But, it was high on hers.  She discussed remembering to bring it, how to carry it, norms surrounding purse protection in public, but also more intimate details like: what belongs in a purse?

Purses and wallets are gendered spaces.  There’s nothing inherent in men’s and women’s constitutions that naturally recommends carrying money and belongings in different containers.  Like the use of urinals in men’s restrooms, wallets and purses are a way of producing understandings of gender difference rather than as a natural consequence of differences.

I got the idea for this post after reading Christena Nippert-Eng’s book, Islands of Privacy — a sociological study of privacy in everyday life.  One chapter deals specifically with wallets and purses.  In it, Nippert-Eng discusses one way she interviewed her participants about privacy.  She used participants’ wallets and purses as a means of getting them to think more critically about privacy.  Participants were asked to empty the contents of their wallets and purses and to form two piles with the contents: “more private” and “more public.”  As they sifted through the contents of their wallets and purses, they talked about why they carried what they carried as well as how and why they thought about it as public or private.

After collecting responses, she documented all of the contents and created categories and distinctions between objects based on how people thought about them as public or private.  One question that was clearly related to privacy was whether the objects were personally meaningful to the participant.  Invariably, objects defined as more personally meaningful were also considered more private.

Another question that routinely arose as participants made sense of the objects they carry around everyday was how damaging it might be for participants if a specific object was taken.  Based on this findings, she creates a useful table delineating participants concerns surrounding and understandings of the objects they carry with them (see left).

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Just for clarification, there’s sort of a sliding scale of privacy going from most to least private as one proceeds from the bottom left cell to the top right cell.  Thus, items classified by participants in the lower left cell (1) are the most private objects.  Here, participants identified things like prescription medications, letters from friends, and a variety of personally meaningful objects that were thought of as completely private and carried only for the self.

Other items were still considered private, but “less private” than objects in cell 1 because they were shared selectively.  Consider cell 2.  While credit cards, bank cards, memberships, credit cards and money were all classified as “private,” individual’s also thought of them as “more public” than object in cell 1 because they were required to share these objects with institutions throughout their lives.

Similarly, some objects were thought of as “private,” but were also carried to share with certain others, such as photographs of children (cell 4).  Finally, items classified in the top right cell (3) are the most public objects in wallets and purses—carried for the self and, potentially, “anyone” else.  Items here include things like tissues, lip balm, money classified as “extra,” gum, breath mints, etc.

Objects from most of the cells exist in both wallets and purses, but not all of them.  The contents of cell 3 (containing the “most public” objects in wallets and purses) are inequitably distributed between wallets and purses.  As Nippert-Eng writes, “This is the one category of objects that is overwhelmingly absent for participants who carry only wallets, yet universally present for those who carry purses” (here: 130).  She also found that some of her participants only carried objects all fitting the same cell in the above table.  These participants — universally “wallet carriers” in her sample — carry only objects necessary for institutional transactions (cell 2).

This is, I believe, a wonderful analysis of one of the more subtle ways in which gender is accomplished in daily life. Certain objects are simply more likely to be carried in purses.  Interestingly, this class of “feminine” objects are also objects that play a critical role in social interactions.  Indeed, many of us are able to travel without these objects because we can “count on” purse-carriers as having them.  Things like packs of gum, tissues, breath mints and more might seem like inconsequential objects.  But, they play a crucial role in social interactions, and many of us count on purse-carriers to provide us with these objects when we are “in need.”  It’s an aspect of care work by which some (those carrying purses) care for others (those without purses).  And if they’re any good at it, the caring goes virtually unacknowledged, though potentially highly acknowledged when these objects are absent in purses.  Children routinely ask their mothers for objects they presume they’ll be carrying in their purses.  Indeed, these objects may be carried in anticipation of such requests.  It’s a small aspect of doing gender, but a significant element of social interactions and life.

When I was learning about interviewing and ethnography, I was told to always carry a pack of gum, a pack of cigarettes (something “lite”), and a lighter.  My professor told me, “It opens people up.  It’s a small gesture that comforts people–puts them at ease.”  These are the ways you might want people to feel if you’re asking them to “open up” for you.  I still remember my first foray into “the field.”  I bought my gum and cigarettes (objects I don’t typically carry) and the first thought I had was, “Where the heck am I going to keep these things?”  What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was asking an intensely gendered question.

Tristan Bridges is a sociologist of gender and sexuality at the College at Brockport (SUNY).  Dr. Bridges blogs about some of this research and more at Inequality by (Interior) Design.  You can follow him on twitter @tristanbphd.

The Re-Victimization of Homosexual Targets of the Nazi Regime

A hundred thousand men and women identified as homosexuals were imprisoned during the Nazi regime. They were detained under a law known as “paragraph 175,” which made sodomy illegal.  Up to 15,000 were sent to concentration camps instead of prisons.  Nearly 2/3rds would die there.  The last surviving victim is believed to have died in 2011.

These men and women were not only victims of Nazi Germany, surviving torture in concentration camps, they were also denied validation as victims of the Third Reich.  They were classified as criminals upon release and included on lists of sex offenders.  Some were re-captured and imprisoned again.

The world went on to mourn the inhumanity of the Holocaust, but not for them.  Because they were designated as non-victims, and also because they were stigmatized sexual minorities, they were largely excluded from the official history of Hitler’s Germany.

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Seeking to give these men and women a voice, historian Klaus Müller interviewed several gay men and one lesbian around the year 2000.  At the time, there were fewer than 10 left alive.  Not one of the men and women imprisoned for being homosexual — alive or dead — had ever been officially identified as a victim of the Nazi regime.

The documentary, titled Paragraph 175, is one of the most heart-wrenching I’ve ever seen.  For some, it sounds as if this is the first time anyone — even members of their own family — has ever asked them about what happened.  Re-telling the stories of death and torture is obviously incredibly painful, as it would be for any survivor.

On top of this, however, is anger at their extended invisibility and continued oppression.  Many seem opposed to talking about it at all, saying that it’s too painful to re-live, but it is as if they can’t help it; they are at the end of their lives and facing, perhaps, their first and last chance to do so.  In the interviews, the anger, pain, survivor guilt, and relief mix together. It’s excruciating.

I was riveted, even as I desperately wanted to look away so as to avoid the emotions it brought out in me.  I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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.

The Revenge Fantasy: Django Unchained vs. 12 Years a Slave

Many critics are praising 12 Years a Slave for its uncompromising honesty about slavery. It offers not one breath of romanticism about the ante-bellum South.  No Southern gentlemen getting all noble about honor and no Southern belles and their mammies affectionately reminiscing or any of that other Gone With the Wind crap, just an inhuman system. 12 Years depicts the sadism not only as personal (though the film does have its individual sadists) but as inherent in the system – essential, inescapable, and constant.

Now, Noah Berlatsky at The Atlantic points out something else about 12 Years as a movie, something most critics missed – its refusal to follow the usual feel-good cliche plot convention of American film:

If we were working with the logic of Glory or Django, Northup would have to regain his manhood by standing up to his attackers and besting them in combat.

Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy. In the typical version, our peaceful hero is just minding his own business when the bad guy or guys deliberately commit some terrible insult or offense, which then justifies the hero unleashing violence – often at cataclysmic levels – upon the baddies. One glance at the poster for Django, and you can pretty much guess most of the story.

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It’s the comic-book adolescent fantasy – the nebbish that the other kids insult when they’re not just ignoring him but who then ducks into a phone booth or says his magic word and transforms himself into the avenging superhero to put the bad guys in their place.

This scenario sometimes seems to be the basis of U.S. foreign policy. An insult or slight, real or imaginary, becomes the justification for “retaliation” in the form of destroying a government or an entire country along with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of its people. It seems pretty easy to sell that idea to us Americans – maybe because the revenge-fantasy scenario is woven deeply into American culture –  and it’s only in retrospect that we wonder how Iraq or Vietnam ever happened.

Django Unchained and the rest are a special example of a more general story line much cherished in American movies: the notion that all problems – psychological, interpersonal, political, moral – can be resolved by a final competition, whether it’s a quick-draw shootout or a dance contest.  (I’ve sung this song before in this blog, most recently here after I saw Silver Linings Playbook.)

Berlatsky’s piece on 12 Years points out something else I hadn’t noticed but that the Charles Atlas ad makes obvious: it’s all about masculinity. Revenge is a dish served almost exclusively at the Y-chromosome table.  The women in the story play a peripheral role as observers of the main event – an audience the hero is aware of – or as prizes to be won or, infrequently, as the hero’s chief source of encouragement, though that role usually goes to a male buddy or coach.

But when a story jettisons the manly revenge theme, women can enter more freely and fully.

12 Years a Slave though, doesn’t present masculinity as a solution to slavery, and as a result it’s able to think about and care about women as people rather than as accessories or MacGuffins.

Scrapping the revenge theme can also broaden the story’s perspective from the personal to the political (i.e., the sociological):

 12 Years a Slave doesn’t see slavery as a trial that men must overcome on their way to being men, but as a systemic evil that leaves those in its grasp with no good choices.

From that perspective, the solution lies not merely in avenging evil acts and people but in changing the system and the assumptions underlying it, a much lengthier and more difficult task. After all, revenge is just as much an aspect of that system as are the insults and injustices it is meant to punish. When men start talking about their manhood or their honor, there’s going to be blood, death, and destruction – sometimes a little, more likely lots of it.

One other difference between the revenge fantasy and political reality: in real life results of revenge are often short-lived. Killing off an evildoer or two doesn’t do much to end the evil. In the movies, we don’t have to worry about that. After the climactic revenge scene and peaceful coda, the credits roll, and the house lights come up. The End. In real life though, we rarely see a such clear endings, and we should know better than to believe a sign that declares “Mission Accomplished.”

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.

Apple’s Seductive Brand Promise: Cultural Capital & Social Mobility

Screenshot_1This is the fourth post in a four part series.  Start at the beginning with: Whimsical Branding Obscures Apple’s Troubled Supply Chain.

Despite the recent scandals regarding Apple’s business practices, it has succeeded at cultivating a brand to which we feel positive emotional attachment. In three previous posts, I showed that the company accomplishes this with commercials that associate its products with playfulness, sentimentality, and cool youthfulness.  The most prominent theme, however, and I suspect the most powerful aspect of the company’s emotional branding strategy, is the hope it cultivates in each of us of who we could be by virtue of using the company’s products.

Taken together, the whole of Apple’s advertising campaigns suggest that, if we use their products, we will be our hippest, coolest, most creative, intelligent, adventurous, socially engaged, and admired selves. The idea of Apple users as standouts from the masses was introduced in the company’s first commercial that aired only once, during the 1984 Super Bowl broadcast:

In this commercial Apple attacks the “boring” IBM and its “mindless” users controlled by a televised ruler in an Orwellian dystopia.  It also suggests that there is something special about the company and its products that will allow it, with the help of its customers, to change the course of history. A commodification of the counter-cultural ethos of the 1960s and ‘70s, this theme was prominent in the first few years of the company’s advertising, but went dormant during Steve Jobs’ 12-year hiatus. It was resurrected in 1997 when Jobs returned to the helm of the company. The now iconic and much revered commercial titled “The Crazy Ones” launched the company’s slogan “Think Different” into our vocabulary, and helped reposition the company, then floundering, onto its path to meteoric financial growth:

With ads like these, Apple doesn’t suggest that one will become Mahatma Ghandi, Amelia Earhart, or Pablo Picasso per se, but that daring to be different (by purchasing an Apple product) opens up the possibility for one to do great things.

This trend continues today in commercials that appeal to our desire to be valued and admired as artistically creative, culturally relevant, and intellectually engaging. Apple’s commercial for the iPhone 4S and Siri, titled “Rock God”, aired in 2012 and exemplifies this trend:

Others, like the “iPad is Amazing” commercial that introduced the device in 2010, speak to how iPad users will be intellectually, culturally, and professionally engaged and valuable people for using the device:

Commercials like these emphasize that Apple products are tools for self-development. By providing the opportunity to learn, create, and share, Apple products facilitate the expression of one’s unique, individual, and socially valued identity. In today’s digitally mediated world where social networking is the norm, the promise of such narcissistic pursuits and outcomes is a key part of Apple’s brand strategy. “Be your best 21st century you!”, recent ads seem to shout.

In this sense, Apple products offer consumers the opportunity to increase their cultural capital. Social theorist Pierre Bourdieu defined cultural capital broadly as one’s accumulated knowledge and skills. Commercials like those above for the iPhone and iPad suggest that Apple helps its customers bolster their cultural capital and raise their social standing. In a time when we are all tasked with marketing and selling ourselves to make it in the world, commercials like these amount to a message about personal and financial success. This is a powerfully seductive promise.

Is it any wonder that news of worker abuse, poisoning, and workplace suicide fails to compromise the company’s financial standing? In fact, in the immediate aftermath of negative reports about its Chinese supply chain in early 2012, Apple went on to post record sales of iPhones and iPads. Most recently, a report by China Labor Watch that documents unlawful, unsafe, and abusive work conditions at Pegatron facilities throughout China has been popularly interpreted by the tech community and mainstream journalists as exciting news that a “cheap iPhone” is on its way. As I pointed out in my first post  in this series, Apple’s ability to obscure with its brand promise the environmental degredation and human rights abuses within its supply chain is commodity fetishism at both its best and its worst. Behind that beautiful fetish of aluminum and glass lies the reality of globalization.

Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D. is a lecturer in sociology at Pomona College. She studies the connections between consumer culture, labor, and environmental issues in global supply chains. You can follwer her at 21 Century Nomad, visit her website, and learn more about her research into Apple here.

Be Young, Be Cool, Be Happy…as an Apple Consumer

Screenshot_1This is the third post in a four part series.  Start at the beginning with: Whimsical Branding Obscures Apple’s Troubled Supply Chain.

I cannot watch this 2003 Apple iPod commercial without shaking my hips, even in the midst of delivering a lecture or conference presentation. In fact, I struggle deeply to refrain from jumping around in an ecstatic dance of joy.

This commercial moves me. But, why? Yes, it has rocking music and popping colors. But, I suspect, more importantly, it has hip young things gyrating to the music, lost in the euphoria provided by an iPod and earbuds, with seemingly no cares in the world. For four years Apple aired a string of these, which became known as the “Silhouette” commercials, each featuring a different soundtrack and style of dance. In my previous posts, I’ve focused on two important elements of Apple’s brand promise: whimsicality and  sentimentality. In this post I spotlight another key finding from our research: the association of Apple products with coolness, hipness, youth, and a carefree attitude.

This trend was introduced into the brand by the iPod commercial above, and it continues to be an important part of Apple’s brand promise today. Similar qualities are present in this ad from early 2012, titled “Road Trip,” which showcases the utility of the voice-activated assistant, Siri, on the iPhone 4S:

And, early this summer, Apple released this commercial that emphasizes the musical enjoyment that an iPhone can provide:

This ad, which seems a re-imagining of the “Silhouette” campaign, depicts these young, fit, and beautiful iPhone owners as indulgent in their passions, carefree, too cool to care about dancing in public, and thus hip, energetic, and fun to be around.

These three ads and the many like them in Apple’s oeuvre suggest that the product makes users spontaneous, proud to embrace their unique individuality, and happy to “let their freak flag fly,” so to speak. In this case, the brand promises uninhibited enjoyment. With their bouncing, lithe bodies and shiny, happy faces, these Apple users are the epitome of cool in today’s American culture.

Like the promise of playfulness, and sentimental connection to others, this aspect of Apple’s brand promise acts as a powerful fetish, in the Marxist sense, that obscures the troubling labor conditions and environmental pollution in the company’s Chinese supply chain. Who has the presence of mind to think about global social, economic, and environmental problems when they are busy rocking out, road-tripping, and dancing in the shower?

Next: Apple’s Seductive Brand Promise of Cultural Capital & Social Mobility.

Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D. is a lecturer in sociology at Pomona College. She studies the connections between consumer culture, labor, and environmental issues in global supply chains. You can follwer her at 21 Century Nomad, visit her website, and learn more about her research into Apple here.

Sentimental Consumerism, the Apple Way

Screenshot_4This is the second post in a four part series. Start at the beginning with: Whimsical Branding Obscures Apple’s Troubled Supply Chain.

In a recent post on the Apple brand and its cultural significance, I drew on my study with Gabriela Hybel of over 200 Apple television commercials aired between 1984 and the present to argue that Apple excels at what branding experts refer to as “emotional branding.” I pointed out that Apple commercials cultivate happiness through whimsical depictions of products and their users. In this post I focus on another key finding from this research, which is the prominence of sentimentality in Apple commercials. Both of these things — whimsicality and sentimentality — are key parts of the promise that Apple makes to its customers.

To this end, an important part of the promise that Apple makes to its customers is that using their products will strengthen the customer’s relationships with loved ones, and that the customer will experience positive emotions because of this. This trend, like playfulness, can be traced back to a commercial for the iMac and iMovie that aired in 2000:

Sentimentality features heavily in commercials for iPads and iPhones that have aired over the last few years. In the “I’ll be home for Christmas” ad for the iPad and iPad Mini, which aired in 2012, Apple technology provides the platform for the development of a seemingly long-distance relationship between a young girl and her grandfather:

A commercial that debuted just a month ago drips of sentimentality as it illustrates how Apple products strengthen our relationships with loved ones, near and far. But, also, and importantly, the commercial emphasizes the experiential aspect of the brand in a way that appeals to our desire to feel positive emotions:

With its subtly slowed motion, time and experience are stretched out in this commercial.  Regarding the company signature that appears on products, the narrator states, “You may rarely look at it, but you’ll always feel it. This is our signature. And it means everything” (emphasis added).

Apple product users are living in the moment, soaking up all the sentimental experiences of pleasure, love, satisfaction, and jubilation that the brand promises, and that the products appear to deliver upon. This promise is what sells Apple products. It shows us what we can have if we make the purchase, and in doing so, convinces us to turn a blind eye to the labor and environmental abuses in the company’s Chinese supply chain.

Next:  Be Young, Be Cool, Be Happy…as an Apple Consumer.

Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D. is a lecturer in sociology at Pomona College. She studies the connections between consumer culture, labor, and environmental issues in global supply chains. You can follwer her at 21 Century Nomad, visit her website, and learn more about her research into Apple here.