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Stand Your Ground Increases Racial Bias in “Justifiable Homicide” Trials

We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most read posts from 2013.

Today a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder. It is widely argued that Florida’s stand your ground statute, which was considered by the defense, and which Zimmerman previously studied in a criminal litigation course, was at play. The statute allows people to use proportionate force in the face of an attack without first trying to retreat or escape. More than 20 other states have such laws.

At MetroTrends, John Roman and Mitchell Downey report their analysis of 4,650 FBI records of homicides in which a person killed a stranger with a handgun. They conclude that stand your ground “tilts the odds in favor of the shooter.”  In SYG states, 13.6% of homicides were ruled justifiable; in non-SYG states, only 7.2% were deemed such.  This is strong evidence that rulings of justifiable homicide are more likely under stand your ground.

But which homicides?

Ones similar to the one decided in favor of George Zimmerman today.  A finding of “justifiable homicide” is much more common in the case of a white-on-black killing than any other kind including a white and a black person.  At PBS’s request, Roman compared the likelihood of a favorable finding for the defendant in SYG and non SYG cases, consider the races of the people involved.  The data is clear, compared to white-on-white crimes, stand your ground increases the likelihood of a not-guilty finding, but only when a person is accused of killing a black person.

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Notice, however, that white people who kill black people are far more likely to be found not-guilty even in states without SYG and black people who kill whites are less likely to be found not-guilty regardless of state law.

It’s simple: We are already biased in favor of the white defendant and against the black victim. Stand your ground laws give jurors more leeway to give defendants the benefit of the doubt.  This increase even further the chances that a white-on-black homicide will be considered justifiable because jurors will likely give that benefit of the doubt to certain kinds of defendants and not others. Stand your ground may or may not be a good law in theory but, in practice, it increases racial bias in legal outcomes.

It is contested whether stand your ground played a role in this case, Media Matters offers strong evidence to suggest that it did. Cross-posted at Ms., PolicyMic, Pacific Standard, and Global Policy TV.

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.

Re-Touching the Consequences of Extreme Thinness

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

A former editor at Cosmopolitan, Leah Hardy, recently wrote an exposé about the practice of photoshopping models to hide the health and aesthetic costs of extreme thinness. Below is an example featuring Cameron Diaz:


The story about Diaz, in The Telegraph, includes the following description of the image’s manipulation:

  • Face: Cheeks appear filled out
  • Bust: Levelled
  • Thighs: Wider in the picture on the right
  • Hip: The bony definition has been smoothed away
  • Stomach: A fuller, more natural look
  • Arms: A bit more bulk in the arms and shoulders

Another example was posted at The Daily What. Notice that her prominent ribcage has been photoshopped out of the photograph on the right, which ran in the October 2012 issue of  Numéro.

Hardy, the editor at Cosmo, explains that she frequently re-touched models who were “frighteningly thin.”  Others have reported similar practices:

Jane Druker, the editor of Healthy magazine — which is sold in health food stores — admitted retouching a cover girl who pitched up at a shoot looking “really thin and unwell”…

The editor of the top-selling health and fitness magazine in the U.S., Self, has admitted: “We retouch to make the models look bigger and healthier”…

And the editor of British Vogue, Alexandra Shulman, has quietly confessed to being appalled by some of the models on shoots for her own magazine, saying: “I have found myself saying to the photographers, ‘Can you not make them look too thin?’”

Robin Derrick, creative director of Vogue, has admitted: “I spent the first ten years of my career making girls look thinner — and the last ten making them look larger.”

Hardy described her position as a “dilemma” between offering healthy images and reproducing the mythology that extreme thinness is healthy:

At the time, when we pored over the raw images, creating the appearance of smooth flesh over protruding ribs, softening the look of collarbones that stuck out like coat hangers, adding curves to flat bottoms and cleavage to pigeon chests, we felt we were doing the right thing… We knew our readers would be repelled by these grotesquely skinny women, and we also felt they were bad role models and it would be irresponsible to show them as they really were.

But now, I wonder. Because for all our retouching, it was still clear to the reader that these women were very, very thin. But, hey, they still looked great!

They had 22-inch waists (those were never made bigger), but they also had breasts and great skin. They had teeny tiny ankles and thin thighs, but they still had luscious hair and full cheeks.

Thanks to retouching, our readers… never saw the horrible, hungry downside of skinny. That these underweight girls didn’t look glamorous in the flesh. Their skeletal bodies, dull, thinning hair, spots and dark circles under their eyes were magicked away by technology, leaving only the allure of coltish limbs and Bambi eyes.

Insightfully, Hardy describes this as a “vision of perfection that simply didn’t exist” and concludes, “[n]o wonder women yearn to be super-thin when they never see how ugly [super-]thin can be.”

UPDATE:  A comment has brought up the point that it’s bad to police people’s bodies, no matter whether they’re thin or fat.  And this is an important point (made well here) and, while I agree that some of the language is harsh, that’s not what’s going on here.  The vast majority of the models who need reverse photoshopping aren’t women who just happen to have that body type.  They are part of an social institution that demands extreme thinness and they’re working hard on their bodies to be able to deliver it.  This isn’t, then, about shaming naturally thin women, it’s about (1) calling out an industry that requires women to be unhealthy and then hides the harmful consequences and (2) acknowledging that even people who are a part of that industry don’t necessarily have the power to change it.

Cross-posted at Business Insider and The Huffington Post in Spanish, French, and German.

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.

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.

Most Women Would Rather Divorce Than Be a Housewife

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

Here’s some great news.  The vast majority of young people – about 80% of women and 70% of men across all races, classes, and family backgrounds — desire an egalitarian marriage in which both partners share breadwinning, housekeeping, and child rearing.  The data come from Kathleen Gerson‘s fabulous 2010 book, The Unfinished Revolution.

In practice, however, egalitarian relationships are difficult to establish.  Both work and family are “greedy institutions,” ones that take up lots of time and energy.  Many couples find that, once children arrive, it’s impossible for both to do both with equal gusto.

With this in mind, Gerson asked her respondents what type of family they would like if, for whatever reason, they couldn’t sustain an equal partnership.  She discovered that, while men’s and women’s ideals are very similar, their fallback positions deviate dramatically.

Men’s most common fallback position is to establish a neotraditional division of labor: 70% hope to convince their wives to de-prioritize their careers and focus on homemaking and raising children.  Women?  Faced with a husband who wants them to be a housewife or work part-time, almost three-quarters of women say they would choose divorce and raise their kids alone.  In fact, despite men’s insistence on being breadwinners, women are more likely than men to say they value success in a high-paying career.

Look at this absolutely stunning data (matching ideals on the left; clashing fallback positions on the right):

One of Gerson’s interviewees, Matthew, exemplifies the egalitarian willing to fallback on a neotraditional family form:

If I could have the ideal world, I’d like to have a partner who’s making as much as I am—someone who’s ambitious and likes to achieve.  [But] if it can’t be equal, I would be the breadwinner and be there for helping with homework at night.

And this is what women think of that:

My mother’s such a leftover from the fifties and did everything for my father. I’m not planning to fall into that trap. I’m really not willing to take that from any guy at all.

Alas, what appears to be a happy convergence between men’s and women’s ideals — both are egalitarians — can turn into an intractable situation: a man who won’t give up his role as the breadwinner and a woman who would rather do anything than be a housewife.

Cross-posted at Ms.PolicyMic, and The Huffington Post.

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.

On the Sexualized Insult (Not for the Faint of Heart)

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

Over at his blog, The Ethical Adman, Tom Megginson asks us to consider the “power symbolism of fellatio.”  His post was prompted by this sign for an Android store (next door to an Apple store) in China:

Get it? Apple is fellating Android, so Apple is inferior. <sarcasm> Obvious right? </sarcasm>

The variations on the insult “you suck” — “suck it,” “suck my balls,” “suck my dick,” “cocksucker,” and Tom’s colorful addition, “this sucks donkey balls!” — are so commonplace that it’s easy to forget where it comes from.  Like the sign implies, and the more elaborate insults make clear, “you suck” works as an insult by positioning the male or female receiver in a position in which they are sexually servicing a man.

This cultural association of power and sex is pervasive throughout our insult vocabulary.  ”Fuck you” is an excellent example, as is “fuck off,” “motherfucker,” and “go fuck yourself.”  Sexualized body parts used as insults are part of this too: “cunt,” “pussy,” “dick,” and “prick.”  ”Scumbag” is a word that originally meant condom and suggests that sperm is somehow contaminating; sexual partners who receive or are covered with sperm can be seen as exposed to a disgusting or filthy substance.  Even “douchbag” may fall into this category (think about it).

People get pretty creative (or not) with this stuff.  Here’s one of my very favorite pieces of hate mail (in response to this post):

Just a tipoff, to let you filthy feminazi CUNTS know that we are exposing you, you fucking pieces of shit… see [name and organization redacted], a leading men’s rights magazine site, and boy does it expose you and your fucking feminazi cunt blog for what you are…. nothing but awful screaming feminazi harpy cunts who need to suck a dick and calm down… you evil twats…

Aside from this tipoff, all I will say to such feminazi CUNTS like you is, suck my fucking dick you awful feminazi cunts. FUCK I HATE YOU, AND EVERYTHING YOU STAND FOR!!!!! DOWN WITH FEMINAZI COCKSUCKING CUNTS WHO I HOPE GET BREAST CANCER.

So it’s interesting, right, to notice how often attempts to hurt other people come in the language of sexuality.  This reveals why sex can be scary, especially for women who are so often positioned as the one who “gets fucked.”  And this, of course, is what rape is all-too-often about.  It’s also part of how we demean and marginalize gay and bisexual men.  In the language of sex/power, they’ve voluntarily made themselves into lesser human beings, making homophobes feel justified in denigrating or assaulting them.

For my part, I try to avoid all of this language and I encourage you to do so too.

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.

My Two Cents on Feminism and Miley Cyrus

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

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.

Cyrus in Wrecking Ball:

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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.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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.

Men and Women Use Uptalk Differently: A Study of Jeopardy!

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

What’s the big deal about uptalk? In The College of William & Mary’s Tom Linneman took a look at how women and men both use uptalk in his new study, “Gender in Jeopardy! Intonation Variation on a Television Game Show” in Gender & Society.

The punchline? Women use uptalk more frequently, but men use it as well. For men, however, uptalk signals something completely different.

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What is uptalk?

“Uptalk is the use of a rising, questioning intonation when making a statement, which has become quite prevalent in contemporary American speech,” explains Linneman. Uptalk in the U.S. is reported to have emerged in the 1980s among adolescent women in California, aka “Valley Girls,” and it has become more widely used by men and women since then. Uptalk has been associated with a way of talking that makes women sound less confident.

Jeopardy! was Linneman’s clever setting for observing how women and men use the speech pattern. The associate professor of sociology analyzed the use of uptalk by carefully coding 5,500 responses from 300 contestants in 100 episodes of the popular game show. He looked at what happened to speech patterns when contestants — from a variety of backgrounds — gave their answers to host Alex Trebek.  Although the contestants were asked to phrase their response in the form of a question, they used uptalk just over a third of the time.

How do men use uptalk? 

Linneman found that men use uptalk as a way to signal uncertainty.   Linneman explained, “On average, women used uptalk nearly twice as often as men. However, if men responded incorrectly, their intonation betrayed their uncertainty: Their use of uptalk shot up dramatically.”  On average, men who answered correctly used uptalk only 27% of the time. Among incorrect responses, men used uptalk 57% of the time.  In contrast, a woman who answered correctly used uptalk 48% of the time, nearly as often as an incorrect man.

Men’s uptalk increased when they were less confident, and also when they were correcting women — but not men. When a man corrected another man — that is, following a man’s incorrect answer with a correct one — he used uptalk 22% of the time. When a man corrected another woman, though, he used uptalk 53% of the time. Linneman speculates that men are engaging in a kind of chivalry: men can be blunt with another man in public, but feel obliged to use a softer edge with a woman.

How do women use uptalk?

As Linneman explains, “One of the most interesting findings coming out of the project is that success has an opposite effect on men and women on the show.”  Linneman measured success in two ways: He compared challengers to returning champions, and he tracked how far ahead or behind contestants were when they responded.  Linneman found that, “The more successful a man is on the show, the less he uses uptalk. The opposite is true for women… the more successful a woman is on the show, the more she uses uptalk.” Linneman suspects that this is “because women continue to feel they must apologize for their success.”

Probabilities of Uptalk by Certainty, Age, Race, and Gender

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Virginia Rutter is a professor of sociology at Framingham State University.  She is the author, with Pepper Schwartz, of The Gender of Sexuality and The Love Test.  You can follow her on Twitter and at Girl w/Pen.