Tag Archives: globalization

New Documentary: The Illusionists

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Writer and director Elena Rossini has released the first four minutes of The Illusionists.  I’m really excited to see the rest.  The documentary is a critique of a high standard of beauty but, unlike some that focus exclusively on the impacts of Western women, Rossini’s film looks as though it will do a great job of illustrating how Western capitalist impulses are increasingly bringing men, children, and the entire world into their destructive fold.

The first few minutes address globalization and Western white supremacy, specifically.  As one interviewee says, the message that many members of non-Western societies receive is that you “join Western culture… by taking a Western body.”  The body becomes a gendered, raced, national project — something that separates modern individuals from traditional ones — and corporations are all too ready to exploit these ideas.

Watch for yourself (subtitles available here):

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.

Liberation and the Sanitary Napkin: One Man’s Journey

1A touching BBC story describes a new documentary, Menstrual Man, that chronicles the trials and tribulations of a humble man in India who sought to offer his wife a sanitary napkin.  After marrying, he discovered that his wife kept from him a secret: the rags she used and re-used to collect menstrual blood.

Only 12% of women in India used pads; they were simply too expensive for most to buy. Nearly three-quarters of all reproductive diseases were caused by poor menstrual hygiene.  A combination of high cost and embarrassment kept women from developing a safe method of managing menstruation.  Nearly a quarter of girls dropped out of school when they started their periods.

Arunachalam Muruganantham was driven to offer women a solution.  He was going to design a machine that would produce low cost menstrual pads.  He asked his wife to serve as an experimental subject, but one woman menstruating once a month wasn’t enough of a sample.  He asked medical students to participate, but the responses were slim.  He fashioned a fake uterus and collected goat blood, trying to experiment himself.

“Everyone thought he’d gone mad.”

His wife left, his mother left, his friends avoided him; it was suspected he was some kind of diseased or possessed sexual pervert, collecting menstrual blood to do god-knows-what.

Figuring out how to make highly absorptive cotton was a significant challenge.  He finally tricked a  multinational company into sending him samples of the raw material: cellulose from the bark of the tree.  Now he just had to design a cheap machine that would turn the raw material into pads.

Four-and-a-half years later, he was producing affordable menstrual pads for Indian women on a cheaply made machine.  He won an award.  His wife came back.

He built 250 machines, which he then took to the poorest areas of Northern India.  He gave them to women, at no profit, who could then produce the pads and sell them to local women.  Each woman now runs her own business.  ”Over time the machines spread to 1,300 villages in 23 states.”

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He is now looking to expand to 106 more countries.

About his success, Muruganantham said:

Anyone with an MBA would immediately accumulate the maximum money. But I did not want to. Why? Because from childhood I know no human being died because of poverty — everything happens because of ignorance…. I have accumulated no money but I accumulate a lot of happiness.

Watch the trailer here.

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.

Rethinking a Zero Tolerance Approach to “Female Genital Mutilation”

I’ve written extensively — not here, but professionally — on the ways in which Americans talk about the female genital cutting practices (FGCs) that are common in parts of Africa.  I’ve focused on the frames for the practice (common ones include women’s oppression, child abuse, a violation of bodily integrity, and cultural depravity), who has had the most power to shape American perceptions (e.g., journalists, activists, or scientists), and the implications of this discourse for thinking about and building gender egalitarian, multicultural democracies.

Ultimately, whatever opinion one wants to hold about the wide range of practices we typically refer to as “female genital mutilation,” it is very clear that the negative opinions of most Westerners are heavily based on misinformation and have been strongly shaped by racism, ethnocentrism, and a disgust or pity for an imagined Africa.  That doesn’t mean that Americans or Europeans aren’t allowed to oppose (some of) the practices (some of the time), but it does mean that we need to think carefully about how and why we do so.

One of the most powerful voices challenging Western thinking about FGCs is Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, a Sierra Leonan-American anthropologist who chose, at 21 years old, to undergo the genital cutting practice typical for girls in her ethnic group, Kono.

She has written about this experience and how it relates to the academic literature on genital cutting.  She has also joined other scholars — both African and Western — in arguing against the zero tolerance position on FGCs and in favor of a more fair and nuanced understanding of why people choose these procedures for themselves or their children and the positive and negative consequences of doing so.  To that end, she is the co-founder of African Women are Free to Choose and SiA Magazine, dedicated to “empowering circumcised women and girls in Africa and worldwide.”

You can hear Ahmadu discuss her perspective in this program:

Many people reading this may object to the idea of re-thinking zero tolerance approaches to FGCs.  I understand this reaction, but I urge such readers to do so anyway.  If we care enough about African women to be concerned about the state of their genitals, we must also be willing to pay attention to their hearts and their minds.  Even, or especially, if they say things we don’t like.

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.

Sure, There’s a Thing Called “Reverse Racism”

SureYou absolutely must find three minutes to watch Aamer Rahman defend the idea of reverse racism. Yes, he says, of course reverse racism is possible: “All I would need is a time machine…”  The rest is glorious.

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.

Does Europe Have a Sex Selection Problem?

Excess under age-60 female mortality in less developed countries is estimated to add up to 3.9 million missing women worldwide (World Bank, 2011).  A large proportion of this is due to sex-selective abortion practices.  The practice occurs most commonly among poorer families in societies where boy children are given greater economic and social status than girl children. In such a context, the transition to smaller families can lead parents to choose boys over girls. Notably, female fetuses are most likely to be aborted when the first child born is a girl.

The table below shows the countries with the most skewed ratios at birth in the world. While there is naturally a slightly higher sex ratio of boys to girls — between 1.04-1.06 — ratios above that are considered to be altered by technology due to gender preferences for boy children.

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The reason we find this newest 2013 data of particular interest is that, despite the popular Western focus on Asia, the practice occurs in more European countries. Perhaps most striking is the central European country that ranks at the top of the list—Liechtenstein. This strikes us as odd, given that Liechtenstein has never made this list in the past. Perhaps this is a data collection error (in very small populations, as also in Curacao, the results can be skewed). But we are surprised that no journalists have picked up on the fact that the worst offending son-preference country in the world is now, allegedly, a European country.  We contacted the CIA to ask them about this possible data anomaly but have not yet heard back.*

On the other hand, if the Liechtenstein data is accurate, this would be a very interesting story indeed, especially since Liechtenstein has the most restrictive laws against abortion in Europe.  A quick scan of gender equity policies in Liechtenstein shows that women there were not legalized to vote until 1984, indicating that it is not the most gender egalitarian of European countries.

In any case, whether Liechtenstein’s inclusion in this disreputable list is a data error or not, the other European countries on the list are legitimate.  They have been high for many years, and a recent report on Armenia, for example, documents longstanding norms in gender preference.  The disproportionate focus on birth sex ratios in China and India no doubt reflects their status as the #1 and #2 most populous countries, which means a much greater overall impact in sheer numbers.  Nevertheless, our point stands.  Why has the disproportionate inclusion of non-Asian countries on the above-list gone virtually unmentioned by journalists?

Do Developed Western Countries Prefer Boys?

Americans often think of parental sex preference as a thing of the past, or a problem in developing countries. After all, the U.S. sex ratio at birth falls in the normal range, at 1.05. This is in spite of the curious American cottage industry in sex-identification home use kits, such as the Intelligender, the GenderMaker and the Gender Mentor.

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In surveys, American parents report an ideal of two children and equal preference for boys and girls. However, American gender preferences manifest themselves in more sneaky ways. A 2011 Gallup poll showed that, if they were only able to have one child, the highest preference was for a boy.  These results are little changed from the same Gallup question asked of Americans in 1941.

To return to a point made in an earlier post on skewed sex ratios, Americans may not be so different, after all, in their gender preferences from the countries in the above table.  The crucial difference, she noted, is that some Asian countries are more enabled to act on their boy preference than others. It appears we should now be including some European countries in that “enabled” group as well.

* Neither the United Nations, Population Reference Bureau, nor the World Bank have published 2013 statistics yet for comparison to the CIA data.

Jennifer Lundquist is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst who specializes in stratification and social demography.
Eiko Strader is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst who studies inequality in labor markets and the welfare state.

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.