Tag Archives: gender: children/youth

Teenage Pregnancy as Moral Panic

Teen pregnancy, like obesity, is often framed as an “epidemic.”  As such, both the “epidemic” of teen pregnancy and the “epidemic” of obesity can be understood through the lens of what sociologist Stanley Cohen popularized as a “moral panic.” In Cohen’s words, moral panics are “condensed political struggles to control the means of cultural reproduction”; additionally “successful moral panics owe their appeal to their ability to find points of resonance with wider anxieties.”

“The Real Cost of Teen Pregnancy” — a public health information campaign launched by the Mayor and Human Resources Administration of New York City in March 2013 — features babies and toddlers, primarily children of color, chastising their teenage mothers. Launched at a time when teen pregnancies have actually declined, primarily due to the availability of safe and affordable reproductive health care, the accusatory “shame and blame” narrative of these images is not only out of proportion to the “problem” it seeks to address, but is weighed down by its obvious cultural narratives about teens of color, poverty, gender and sexuality.

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Having a pensive toddler of color next to the slogan “Honestly Mom… chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” and a weeping boy of color next to the words “I’m twice as likely not to graduate high school because you had me as a teen,” serves to re-stigmatize single teen mothers, encouraging wider social senses of moral outrage, hostility and volatility toward young, predominantly impoverished girls of color. Not unlike cultural narratives about “welfare queens,” the campaign plays into racist and classist fears about sexually active girls of color and teenage mothers who use social services. The message just under the surface here is about the need for social control of “unruly bodies.”

These 4,000 posters, put up in buses and subways, cost a reported $10,000 per year for the city, and have already drawn harsh critique from many. Haydee Morales, vice president for education and training at Planned Parenthood of New York City, for instance, has reportedly suggested the campaign has got it backward. In her words, “It’s not teen pregnancies that cause poverty, but poverty that causes teen pregnancy.”

According to Samantha Levine, a spokesperson for New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, “it’s well past the time when anyone can afford to be value neutral when it comes to teen pregnancy.” Public health campaigns are never value neutral. They communicate social beliefs about normalcy, productivity, desirability, and cultural worth.

An additional cost of the unexamined acceptance of this new teen pregnancy campaign is accepting yet another narrative about individual choice over systemic change. Placing responsibility on the shoulders of the individual, such campaigns silence more complex conversations about accessible and affordable reproductive health care, anti-poverty campaigns, and gender and social justice work. Instead of buying into the “moral panic” of teen pregnancy, perhaps the mayor’s office might look into more long lasting and less stigmatizing possibilities of structural change to improve the lives of young women in New York City.

“Shame and blame” has rarely gotten public health anywhere. In the words of researcher and speaker Brené Brown, “Shame diminishes our capacity for empathy. Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”

Sayantani DasGupta is a faculty member in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. She is the editor of Stories of Illness and Healing: Women Write their Bodies,  co-authored The Demon Slayers and Other Stories: Bengali Folktales, and authored Her Own Medicine: A Woman’s Journey from Student to Doctor.

Shaming, Threats, and Insults: How Not to Reduce Teen Pregnancy

I first posted these posters on SocImages in 2008. They are designed to scare teenagers into taking precautions against pregnancy by demonizing teenagers who get (someone) pregnant. The way in which teens are portrayed in these images — labeled cheap, dirty, rejects, pricks, and nobodys — suggests that the organization, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, doesn’t care about teenagers, only in controlling their behavior.

This is the sentence that runs along the left vertical with the word “reject” extracted in bold: “I had sex so my boyfriend wouldn’t REJECT me. Now, I have a baby. And no boyfriends.”

“Now that I’m home with a baby, NOBODY calls me anymore.”

“All it took was one PRICK to get my girlfriend pregnant. At least that’s what her friends say.”

“Condoms are CHEAP. If we’d used one, I wouldn’t have to tell my parents I’m pregnant.”

“I want to be out with my friends. Instead, I’m changing DIRTY diapers at home.”

In response to ads like these, sociologist Gretchen Sisson has started a tumblr of examples of anti-teen pregnancy PSAs that use fear, shame, and threats as motivators, sent to me by @annajobin.  Here’s the one I found most stunning; I think it goes something like don’t-drink-and-party-or-you’ll-get-raped-and-pregnant-and-your-life-will-be-horrible-and-oh-your-child-will-become-a-rapist-too:

Here are a set of ads that try to convince women not have (unprotected) sex with their male peers by suggesting that the men showing interest in them are bad guys who will inevitably abandon them:

1 2 3And here are a set that use simple threats to get across their message:

1 2 3About her tumblr, Sisson writes:

Public service announcements that claim to be about “preventing teen pregnancy” are more frequently about shaming and stigmatizing young parents. This is not a way to encourage young people to take control of their reproductive lives, and it’s certainly not a way to support young families.

Nor is it a way to support teenagers who are negotiating complicated interpersonal terrain and making difficult decisions.  These ads are about getting teenagers to do what we want, not helping them figure out what’s best for them.  They caricature the actual lives of teenagers and make early parenthood into a comical boogeyman.  Moreover, they send a clear message to the teenagers that do get pregnant: “you’re a slut/idiot and your life is over.”  This is not good for young parents and it sets them up to fail.

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.

Variation and Universality in Children’s Play

UBC Sociology student Pat Louie tweeted us a touching set of photographs by artist Gabriele Galimberti.  Each image is a child with his or her favorite toys.

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Chiwa – Mchinji, Malawi

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Stella – Montecchio, Italy

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Pavel – Kiev, Ukraine

The photographs reveal a universality — pride in favorite toys and the love of play — but, writes Ben Machell at Galimberti’s website, “how they play can reveal a lot.”  The children’s life experiences influenced their imaginative play:

…the girl from an affluent Mumbai family loves Monopoly, because she likes the idea of building houses and hotels, while the boy from rural Mexico loves trucks, because he sees them rumbling through his village to the nearby sugar plantation every day.

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Watcharapom – Bangkok, Thailand

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Arafa & Aisha – Bububu, Zanzibar

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Orly – Brownsville,Texas

Galimberti, interviewed by Machell, also observed class differences in entitlement to ownership:

The richest children were more possessive. At the beginning, they wouldn’t want me to touch their toys, and I would need more time before they would let me play with them. In poor countries, it was much easier. Even if they only had two or three toys, they didn’t really care. In Africa, the kids would mostly play with their friends outside.

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Julia – Tirana, Albania

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Botlhe – Maun, Botswana

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Cun Zi Yi – Chongqing, China

These photographs are reminiscent of another wonderful photography project featuring kids and their toys.  JeonMee Yoon photographed boys with all their blue stuff and girls with all their pink stuff.  The results are striking.  Likewise, there’s a wonderful set of photographs by James Mollison, counterposing portraits with children’s sleeping arrangements across cultures.  These are all wonderful projects that powerfully illustrate global and class difference and inequality.

Images borrowed from Feature Shoot.

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.

The Truth About Gender and Math

New data about the science aptitude of boys and girls around the world inspires me to re-post this discussion from 2010.
Math ability, in some societies, is gendered.  That is, many people believe that boys and men are better at math than girls and women and, further, that this difference is biological (hormonal, neurological, or somehow encoded on the Y chromosome).

But actual data about gender differences in math ability tell a very different story.  Natalie Angier and Kenneth Chang reviewed these differences in the New York Times.  They report the following (based on the US unless otherwise noted):

•  There is no difference in math aptitude before age 7.  Starting in adolescence, some differences appear (boys score approximately 30-35 points higher than girls on the math portion of the SAT).  But, scores on different subcategories of math vary tremendously (often with girls outperforming boys consistently).

•  When boys do better, they are usually also doing worse.   Boys are also more likely than girls to get nearly all the answers wrong.  So they overpopulate both tails of the bell curve; boys are both better, and worse, than girls at math.

•  That means that how we test for math ability is a political choice.  If you report who is best at math, the answer is boys.  If you report average math ability, it’s about the same.

•  How you decide to test math ability is also political.  Even though boys outperform girls on the SAT, it turns out those scores do not predict math performance in classes.  Girls frequently outperform boys in the classroom.

•  And, since girls often outperform boys in a practical setting, math aptitude (even measured at the levels of outstanding instead of average performance) doesn’t explain sex disparities in science careers (most of which, incidentally, only require you to be pretty good at math, as opposed to wildly genius at it).   In any case, scoring high in math is only loosely related to who opts for a scientific career, especially for girls. Many high scoring girls don’t go into science, and many poor scoring boys do.

Now, let’s look at some international comparisons:

•  Boys do better in only about ½ of the OECD nations. For nearly all the other countries, there were no significant sex differences. In Iceland, girls outshine boys significantly.

•  In Japan, though girls perform less well than the boys, they generally outperform U.S. boys considerably.  So finding that boys outperform girls within a country does not mean that boys outperform girls across all countries.

•  Still, even in Iceland, girls overwhelmingly express more negative attitudes towards math.

So what’s the real story here?  Well, one study found that the gender gap in math ability and the level of gender inequality in a society were highly correlated. That is, “…the gender gap in math, although it historically favors boys, disappears in more gender-equal societies.”

Part of the problem, then, is simply that  girls and boys internalize the idea that they will be bad and good at math respectively because of crap like the “Math class is tough!” Barbie (sold and then retracted in 1992):

However, girls’ insecurity regarding their own math ability isn’t just because they internalize cultural norm, their elementary school teachers, who are over 90% female, sometimes do to and they teach math anxiety by example.  A recent study has shown that, when they do, girl students do worse at math.  From the abstract (this is pretty amazing):

There was no relation between a teacher’s [level of] math anxiety and her students’ math achievement at the beginning of the school year.  By the school year’s end, however, the more anxious teachers were about math, the more likely girls (but not boys) were to endorse the commonly held stereotype that “boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading” and the lower these girls’ math achievement.  Indeed, by the end of the school year, girls who endorsed this stereotype had significantly worse math achievement than girls who did not and than boys overall.

So, with only the possible exception of genius-level math talent, men and women likely have equal potential to be good (or bad) at math.  But, in societies in which women are told that they shouldn’t or can’t do math, they don’t.  And, as Fatistician said, “math is a skill.”  People who think practicing it is pointless won’t practice it.  And those who don’t practice, won’t be any good at it… Y chromosome or no.

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.

Transnational Data on Gender and Science Aptitude

In 2009, 470,000 15-year-olds in 65 developed nations took a science test.  Boys in the U.S. outperformed girls by 14 points: 509 to 495.  How does the U.S. compare to other countries?

The figure below — from the New York Times — features Western and Northern Europe and the Americas (in turquoise), Asia and the Pacific Islands (in pink), and the Middle East and Eastern and Southern Europe (in yellow).  The line down the middle separates societies in which boys scored higher than girls (left) and vice versa (right).

Notice that the countries in which boys outscore girls are overwhelmingly Western and Northern Europe and the Americas.

This data tells a similar story to the data on gender and math aptitude.  Boys used to outperform girls in math in the U.S., but no longer.  And if you look transnationally, cultural variation swamps gender differences.  Analyses have shown that boys outperforming girls in math is strongly correlated with the degree of inequality in any given society.

One lesson to take is this: any given society is just one data point and can’t be counted on to tell the whole story.

Via The Global Sociology Blog.

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.

Male as the Neutral Default

A new example prompts us to re-post this fun one from 2010.

We’ve posted in the past about the way in which “male” is often taken to be the default or neutral category, with “female” a notable, marked, non-default one. For instance, the Body Worlds exhibit, “regular” t-shirts are men’s, Best Buy assumes customers are male, stick figures on signs are generally male, and default avatars tend to be male.

We’ve collected several more examples of the tendency to present men as the norm, while women are a marked, non-default category. @LydNicholas tweeted us this example of a LEGO product advertised on their website.  Notice that the blue version is a LEGO Time-Teach Minifigure Watch and Clock, while the pink version specifies that it’s for girls:

 

Jessica J. noticed that Wal-Mart Target helpfully lets you know where to find both neutral, plain old deodorant and women’s deodorant:

Jane G. sent us this photo of t-ball sets, one for girls and the other with no sex specified:

Aline, in Brazil, found these two wall painting kits.  One is just a painting kit and the other is specifically “for women” (“para mulheres”).  The latter, she said, claims to be a special offer, but is actually about $2 U.S. dollars more.

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Eric Stoller pointed out that ESPN differentiates between college basketball and “women’s” basketball:

Lindsay H. pointed out that when you go to the U.S. Post Office’s website to forward your mail, it offers you the chance to subscribe to magazines. Those aimed at women (Cosmopolitan, First for Women, etc.) are in the category “Women,” while equivalent magazines for men (Esquire, Maxim) are not in a category titled “Men” but, rather, “Lifestyle”:

And Jane V.S. noticed that REI has various types of marked, “non-standard” sleeping bags, including those for tall people and women:

Renée Y. sent along another example, bike helmets:

 Jessica B. spotted this pair of sibling outfits, coming in “Awesome Girl” and “Awesome Kid”:

E.W. searched Google for men’s specific road bikes and Google asked, “Don’t you mean women’s specific road bikes”?  Because there are road bikes for people and road bikes for women.

Ann C. sent a screenshot of bubblebox, a site for children’s games.  Notice that along the top there are seven options.  The last is “girls,” suggesting that all the rest are for boys.

So, there you have it.  In this world, all too often, there are people and there are women and girls.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Women, Sexuality, and the HPV Vaccine

Cross-posted at Sociology Lens.

A number of researchers suggest that the marketing and advertising of Gardasil has been aimed at girls and women instead of boys and men. In this post I discuss two contradictory messages aimed at women through these advertisements.

The first type of ad focused around the protection of young girls. The makers of Gardasil imply that being a good parent means vaccinating your daughter and therefore protecting her from cervical cancer (an observation also made here at Sociological Images). For example, one advertisement read, “How do you help your daughter become one less life affected by cervical cancer?” Another advertisement had a similar sentiment, stating “Your daughter can’t possibly know the importance of the cervical cancer vaccine, but thankfully, she has her mother” (source).

This narrative of protectionism is not surprising. In other contexts, like sex education debates, the discourse about adolescent sexuality, and in particular, girls’ sexuality, reveals a desire to protect their “innocence.”

The other type of ad moves away from the narrative of protectionism and focuses on empowerment and choice. One ad stated, “I chose to get vaccinated after my doctor to me the facts” (source). Another ad read, “I chose to get vaccinated because my dreams don’t include cervical cancer” (source).

Instead of focusing on the ways in which girls and women can be protected, the ads suggest that girls and women need to protect themselves. It seems like the advertising department at Merck (the makers of Gardasil) recognize that they needed another strategy if they wanted to appeal to young women who feel empowered about their sex lives.

These two strategies are opposed to one another. One strategy suggests that girls and women need to be protected, while the other strategy relies on the ability of girls and women to be active and educated decision makers. Merck is tapping into two gendered narratives in order to sell to as many people as possible. This is, of course, the way that advertising works. But it does reveal the different, and sometimes contradictory, cultural ideas about women’s sexuality, ideas that advertisers will draw on in order to make a profit.

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Cheryl Llewellyn is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Stony Brook University.  She writes for Sociology Lens, where you can read her post about the feminization of the Gardasil.

Teaching Infant and Toddler Girls to Beautify

Cross-posted at Jezebel.

I’d love to draw your attention to The Alpha Parent, a blogger who has collected a stunningly large number of toys for infants that socialize girls into preening.

Some of the toys are purses/handbags that include pretend lipsticks, compacts, and related-items.  My Pretty Learning Purse includes a toy lipstick and a mirror; the Gund Sesame Street Abbey Purse Playset includes a compact and powder brush; the Lilliputiens Liz Handbag includes an eye shadow compact complete with three shades and an eye shadow applicator.

In case you were wondering if this is a trend, the Alpha Parent post features TWENTY examples of purses filled with such toys.

It also includes examples of toy make-up bags. Going beyond the inclusion of beauty items in infant toys, these make beauty the sole point of the play.  Here are just two of the NINE pretend make-up bags she collected, the Oskar & Ellen Beauty Box and the Learn and Go Make-Up and Go:

Since we wouldn’t want a baby to miss the point, companies also produce and sell vanities for infants. The Alpha Parent’s post included FOUR; here’s two, the Perfectly Pink Tummy Time Vanity Mirror and the Fisher Price Laugh and Learn Magical Musical Mirror:

The Alpha Parent goes on to cover real nail polish made for infants, beauty-themed clothes for little girls, and a common category of dress up: beautician outfits.  I counted a surprising ELEVEN of these:

The latter reverses into a nurse’s uniform.

The Alpha Parent concludes:

Makeup toys prime girls for a lifetime of chasing rigid norms of physical attractiveness through the consumption of cosmetics and fashionable accessories.

They are also generally non-sex-transferable, meaning that parents are often loath to allow their boys to play with girl toys.  Gendered toys, then, increase the rate of toy purchasing, since parents of a boy and a girl have to buy special toys for each.

It’s a win-win for corporate capitalism.  Socialize the girls into beauty commodities by buying these toys now, plan on reaping the benefits with the real thing later.  Brainwash the boys in an entirely different way (the Alpha Parent notes tools and electronics), do the same with them simultaneously.

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.