Kids growing up in dense, urban environments often turn to basketball as their sport of choice. This is partly because it fits, in a physical sense. All things being equal, a basketball court takes up a lot less room than a football or soccer field. For the economically disadvantaged, it’s also relatively cheap to play. If you have a court available, you only need a pair of shoes and a ball. For this reason, whatever population finds itself in this type of environment tends to take up basketball.
That’s why the sport was dominated by Jews in the first half of the 1900s. Just like many African-Americans today, at that time many immigrant Jewish families found themselves isolated in inner cities. Basketball seemed like a way out. “It was absolutely a way out of the ghetto,” explained retired ball player Dave Dabrow. Basketball scholarships were one of the few ways low income urban Jews could afford college.
Today we refer to stereotypes about Black men to explain why they dominate basketball, but this is an after-the-fact justification. At the time, very different characteristics — stereotypes associated with Jews — were used to explain why they dominated professional teams. Paul Gallico, sports editor of the NY Daily News in the 1930s, explained that “the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness.” All stereotypes about Jews. Moreover, he argued, Jews were rather short and so had “God-given better balance and speed.” Yep. There was a time when we thought being short was an advantage in the sport of basketball.
Never underestimate the power of institutions and how much things can change.
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).
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.
Here’s an interesting example of the triumph of ideology over simple fact. Fia K. sent in a link to a costume sold at Amazon titled “Tiny Boy’s Costume.” The costume is a green pterodactyl. There is no equivalent Tiny Girl’s Costume. When I search for that phrase, the search engine deletes the word “girl” and sends me back to here.
This is more than just an instance of associating boys with dinosaurs and excluding girls, although that would be problematic enough. No, the costume is called “Tiny” because it’s associated with a cartoon character with that name from the show Dinosaur Train.
Funny thing is, Tiny is female (note the eyelashes, you can always tell by the eyelashes).
This is evidence of how powerful gender ideology can be. Tiny’s actual fictional femaleness is less powerful than the ideological association of boys and dinosaurs. Hence, a Tiny Boy’s Costume.
Thanks to a tweet from sociologist Sarah Sobieraj, we learned of a powerful campaign to raise awareness about gender inequality from the arm of the United Nations dedicated to empowering women. The designers of the ads did Google searches, allowing the auto-complete to fill in word stems with the most commonly searched phrases. The results are eyebrow-raising.
I was curious to find out what my personal Google machine would spit out and, also, what the equivalent searches for men would return. Below, I reproduce the ads, followed by my own results. Eyebrow-raising. As a bonus, I did the searches for feminists.
Oddly, three high profile female musicians find themselves in a public debate about what it means to be a feminist. We can thank Miley Cyrus for the occasion. After claiming that the video for Wrecking Ball was inspired by Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares to You, O’Connor wrote an open letter to the performer. No doubt informed by Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs, she argued that the music industry would inevitably exploit Cyrus’ body and leave her a shell of a human being. Amanda Palmer, another strong-minded female musician, responded to O’Connor. She countered with the idea that all efforts to control women’s choices, no matter how benevolent, were anti-feminist.
I keep receiving requests to add my two cents. So, here goes: I think they’re both right, but only half right. And, when you put the two sides together, the conclusion isn’t as simple as either of them makes it out to be. Both letters are kind, compelling, and smart, but neither capture the deep contradictions that Cyrus – indeed all women in the U.S. – face every day.
O’Connor warns Cyrus that the music industry is patriarchal and capitalist. In so many words, she explains that the capitalists will never pay Cyrus what she’s worth because doing so leaves nothing to skim off the top. The whole point is to exploit her. Meanwhile, her exploitation will be distinctly gendered because sexism is part of the very fabric of the industry. O’Connor writes:
The music business doesn’t give a shit about you, or any of us. They will prostitute you for all you are worth… and when you end up in rehab as a result of being prostituted, “they” will be sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling your body…
Whether Cyrus ends up in rehab remains to be seen but O’Connor is, of course, right about the music industry. This is not something that requires argumentation, but is simply true in a patriarchal, capitalist society. For-profit industries are for profit. You may think that’s good or bad, but it is, by definition, about finding ways to extract money from goods and services and one does that by selling it for more than you paid for it. And media companies of all kinds are dominated at almost all levels by (rich, white) men. These are the facts.
Disagreeing, Palmer claims that O’Connor herself is contributing to an oppressive environment for women. All women’s choices, Palmer argues, should be considered fair game.
I want to live in a world where WE as women determine what we wear and look like and play the game as our fancy leads us, army pants one minute and killer gown the next, where WE decide whether or not we’re going to play games with the male gaze…
In Palmer’s utopia, no one gets to decide what’s best for women. The whole point is to have all options on the table, without censure, so women can pick and choose and change their mind as they so desire.
This is intuitively pleasing and seems to mesh pretty well with a decent definition of “freedom.” And women do have more choices – many, many more choices – than recent generations of women. They are now free to vote in elections, wear pants, smoke in public, have their own bank accounts, play sports, go into men’s occupations and, yes, be unabashedly sexual. Hell they can even run for President. And they get to still do all the feminine stuff too! Women have it pretty great right now and Palmer is right that we should defend these options.
So, both are making a feminist argument. What, then, is the source of the disagreement?
O’Connor and Palmer are using different levels of analysis. Palmer’s is straightforwardly individualistic: each individual woman should be able to choose what she wants to do. O’Connor’s is strongly institutional: we are all operating within a system – the music industry, in this case, or even “society” – and that system is powerfully deterministic.
The truth is that both are right and, because of that, neither sees the whole picture. On the one hand, women are making individual choices. They are not complete dupes of the system. They are architects of their own lives. On the other hand, those individual choices are being made within a system. The system sets up the pros and cons, the rewards and punishments, the paths to success and the pitfalls that lead to failure. No amount of wishing it were different will make it so. No individual choices change that reality.
So, Cyrus may indeed be “in charge of her own show,” as Palmer puts it. She may have chosen to be a “raging, naked, twerking sexpot” all of her own volition. But why? Because that’s what the system rewards. That’s not freedom, that’s a strategy.
In sociological terms, we call this a patriarchal bargain. Both men and women make them and they come in many different forms. Generally, however, they involve a choice to manipulate the system to one’s best advantage without challenging the system itself. This may maximize the benefits that accrue to any individual woman, but it harms women as a whole. Cyrus’ particular bargain – accepting the sexual objectification of women in exchange for money, fame, and power – is a common one. Serena Williams, Tila Tequila, Kim Kardashian, and Lady Gaga do it too.
We are all Miley, though. We all make patriarchal bargains, large and small. Housewives do when they support husbands’ careers on the agreement that he share the dividends. Many high-achieving women do when they go into masculinized occupations to reap the benefits, but don’t challenge the idea that occupations associated with men are of greater value. None of us have the moral high ground here.
So, is Miley Cyrus a pawn of industry patriarchs? No. Can her choices be fairly described as good for women? No.
That’s how power works. It makes it so that essentially all choices can be absorbed into and mobilized on behalf of the system. Fighting the system on behalf of the disadvantaged – in this case, women – requires individual sacrifices that are extraordinarily costly. In Cyrus’ case, perhaps being replaced by another artist who is willing to capitulate to patriarchy with more gusto. Accepting the rules of the system translates into individual gain, but doesn’t exactly make the world a better place. In Cyrus’ case, her success is also an affirmation that a woman’s worth is strongly correlated with her willingness to commodify her sexuality.
Americans want their stories to have happy endings. I’m sorry I don’t have a more optimistic read. If the way out of this conundrum were easy, we’d have fixed it already. But one thing’s for sure: it’s going to take collective sacrifice to bring about a world in which women’s humanity is so taken-for-granted that no individual woman’s choices can undermine it. To get there, we’re going to need to acknowledge the power of the system, recognize each other as conscious actors, and have empathy for the difficult choices we all make as we try to navigate a difficult world.
This week I had the pleasure of being a part of Take Part Live’s discussion of “pinktober.” Here’s a really interesting piece of research that I didn’t get a chance to talk about, sent in by Lindsey B.
A paper in the Journal of Marketing Research suggesting that the current approach to raising awareness of breast cancer hurts more than helps. You might have noticed, just maybe, I mean if you’ve been paying attention, that breast cancer awareness has become associated with the color pink.
Stefano Puntoni and his colleagues found that when women were exposed to gender cues, like the color pink, they were less likely than women who had not been primed with a gender cue to think that they might someday get breast cancer and to say that they’d be willing to donate to the cause. Pink, in other words, decreased both their willingness to fund research and the seriousness with which women took the disease.
Puntoni explains this finding with a common psychological tendency. When people are faced with a personal threat, they tend to subconsciously go on the defensive. In this case, when women are exposed to information about breast cancer at the same time that they are reminded that they, specifically, are vulnerable to it, they subconsciously try to push away the idea that they’re vulnerable and that breast cancer is something that they, or anyone, needs to worry about it.
Originally posted in 2010, with an extended version appearing at Ms.
*trigger warning for sexual violence; not safe for work*
In a wonderful article called It’s Only a Penis, anthropologist Christine Helliwell talks of how her time with the Dayak community of Gerai in Indonesian Borneo changed her perceptions of the sexual body. She writes of a time when a man crept through a window and into the bed of a sleeping woman. She continues:
[She] awoke, in darkness, to feel the man inside her mosquito net, gripping her shoulder while he climbed under the blanket… He was whispering, “be quiet, be quiet!” She responded by sitting up in bed and pushing him violently, so that he stumbled backward [and] became entangled with her mosquito net… His hurried exit through the window, with his clothes now in considerable disarray, was accompanied by a stream of abuse from the woman and by excited interrogations from wakened neighbors in adjoining houses.
The next morning:
I awoke… to raucous laughter on the longhouse verandah outside my apartment where a group of elderly women gathered… They were recounting this tale loudly, and with enormous enjoyment… one was engaged in mimicking the man climbing out the window, sarong falling down, genitals askew… both men and women shrieked with laughter.
Helliwell was appalled. It sounded to her Western ears like a case of attempted rape. It was frightening, not funny. But, when she explained to the local women that what he did was bad, one replied, “No, no bad, simply stupid.” Helliwell turned to the woman who had been approached by the man and said, “He was trying to hurt you.” She replied, “It’s only a penis. How can a penis hurt anyone?” The Gerai had no word for “rape.”
I often think of this story when observing the way that women’s and men’s genitals are represented in Western culture. I find the Gerai’s perspective intuitively pleasing. Penises are, in fact, very sensitive dangly bits imbued with much importance. I can imagine a culture in which their vulnerability was front-and-center, so to speak. I’m reminded of an observation made by my colleague Caroline Heldman regarding the seemingly secret pact of all men not to fight “below the belt” so as to never draw attention to men’s obvious and uniquely male physical weakness.
Yet, in Western cultures, we do imagine the penis to be a potentially threatening piece of anatomy. In contrast, Helliwell writes, the vagina is often “conceived of as a delicate, perhaps inevitably damaged and pained inner space.” Accordingly, we have collectively agreed to somehow believe that penises are potentially brutalizing and vaginas easily brutalized.
Where do these ideas come from? Well, here’s a clue: the frequency with which penises are represented, literally, as weapons. Kira recently sent in this example: a lubricant with the name “Gun Oil” advertised in the San Jose Mercury News (this is also going straight to our pointlessly gendered products page).
A while back, we received this safer sex ad from Germany:
While I am all for encouraging sexual pleasure and safer sex, I would prefer that such efforts not conflate the penis with a weapon. Doing so only contributes to the idea that the penis is inherently useful for enacting violence and women’s bodies naturally vulnerable to violation from men. Moreover, Helliwell’s experience suggests that this isn’t simply imaginary, but may also contribute to the enactment of violence or lack thereof.
Compared to some European countries, the United States has a weak tradition of labor-based activism. All too often, this leads to the invisibility of labor issues. Take for example, this commercial for Simply Orange® brand orange juice. In an attempt to present their product as a natural alternative to other brands, Simply Orange juxtaposes images of natural orange growth with common phrases relating to the structure of a manufacturing organization. The tree is their “plant” (a marvelous pun), the orange blossoms are the “workers” that produce the fruit, and the sun itself becomes “upper management.”
Even though this commercial is humorously centered on the process of producing orange juice, there is not a single human being present in any of the images. It is a story about making a product in which nobody actually makes anything! This message cleverly sells the product, but it also obscures the real labor that went into growing, picking, and juicing the oranges and downplays the contributions to the process made by real people. All that productive effort is condensed into the image of an orange blossom, as if it can be assumed that such production will just naturally occur like an annual blooming.
The reality of orange juice production is much less sunny. According to statistics recently compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are roughly 20,000 undocumented workers in Florida that are subjected to harsh working conditions as growers compete with imported oranges in a “race to the bottom” for a cheaper production process. The illegal status of many of these workers makes them easily exploited for substandard wages, because they are often afraid to challenge the policies of their employers.
In a Marxist theoretical perspective, the way that these workers are rendered invisible by the public image of the commercial is a prime example of alienation: a tension in modern capitalism in which the workers in a mass-producing industry are separated from the fruits of their labor. Where at first it was merely the physical product that was taken from those who produced it to be sold in the market, now the credit for even participating in the process is being abstractly torn away.
This commercial also challenges the realities of the labor process, associating modern concepts of work organization such as “the plant” and “upper management” with images of natural growth. These associations allow the commercial to imply that their methods of labor organization are somehow rooted in a simpler way of doing things that is more harmonious with the natural order. By hearkening back to these roots, the organization is rendered harmless, as if to say the complexities of modern labor relations do not apply to the simple production of orange juice. All together, the choice to portray the associations in this commercial serves to hide the realities of agricultural production in the United States and limit the viewer’s potential curiosity about the way the process really works.