Tag Archives: history

    An Optimistic Read of the Sexist Snickers Ad

    Advertisements echo with many reverberations and overtones. Different people hear different things, and with all the multiple meanings, it’s not always clear which is most important.

    This week Lisa Wade posted this Snickers ad from Australia. Its intended message of course is “Buy Snickers.” But its other message is more controversial, and Lisa and many of the commenters (more than 100 at last count) were understandably upset.

    The construction workers (played by actors) shout at the women in the street (not actors). “Hey,” yells a builder, and the woman looks up defensively. But then instead of the usual sexist catcalls, the men shout things like,

    I appreciate your appearance is just one aspect of who you are.

    And

    You know what I’d like to see? A society in which the objectification of women makes way for gender neutral interaction free from assumptions and expectations.

    The women’s defensiveness softens.  They look back at the men. One woman, the surprise and delight evident in her smile, mouths, “Thank you.”

    But, as the ad warned us at the very beginning, these men are “not themselves.”

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    Hunger has transformed them. The ad repeats the same idea at the end.

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    Here’s Lisa’s conclusion:

    The twist ending is a genuine “fuck you” to the actual women who happened to walk by and become a part of the commercial… I bet seeing the commercial would feel like a betrayal. These women were (likely) given the impression that it was about respecting women, but instead it was about making fun of the idea that women deserve respect.

    I suspect that Lisa too feels betrayed.  She has bought her last Snickers bar.

    My take is more optimistic.

    In an earlier generation, this ad would have been impossible. The catcalls of construction workers were something taken for granted and not questioned, almost as though they were an unchangeable part of nature.* They might be unpleasant, but so is what a bear does in the woods.

    This ad recognizes that those attitudes and behaviors are a conscious choice and that all men, including builders, can choose a more evolved way of thinking and acting.  The ad further shows, that when they do make that choice, women are genuinely appreciative. “C’mon mates,” the ad is saying, “do you want a woman to turn away and quickly walk on, telling you in effect to fuck off? Or would you rather say something that makes her smile back at you?”  The choice is yours.

    The surface meaning of the ad’s ending is , “April Fools. We’re just kidding about not being sexists.” But that’s a small matter. Not so far beneath that surface progressive ideas are having the last laugh, for more important than what the end of the ad says is what the rest of the ad shows – that ignorant and offensive sexism is a choice, and that real women respond positively to men who choose its opposite.

    * Several of the comments at Sociological Images complained that the ad was “classist” for its reliance on this old working-class stereotype.

    Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

    Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

    Chicago’s Disappearing Middle Class

    By now most readers are likely familiar with the idea that the American middle class is shrinking.  Most income and wealth gains over the past 40 or so years have gone to the richest Americans, while poverty is spreading and getting deeper.  As a result, the percent of Americans who can reasonably claim to be middle class is shrinking.

    I found a fantastic animation illustrating this process in the neighborhoods of the city of Chicago.  Borrowing data from education scholar Sean Reardon and sociologist Kendra Bischoff, Daniel Hertz calculated where the  median family income of each Census tract fell relative to the entire metropolitan area.  Orange tracts are ones where the median family income is 0-45% of the median for Chicago as a whole (struggling families), dark green tracts are ones where the median is 200% or more (resource rich families).  Grey is, literally, middle class.

    For simplicity’s sake, here is 1970 and 2012 right next to one another.  Notice that the 1970 map involves a lot more grey (middle class) and the 2012 map involves a lot more green (rich) and especially orange (poor).

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    Here’s the animation:

    1For another interesting measure of the shrinking middle class, see our post showing increases in high paying and low paying jobs, but decreases in jobs that pay middle income wages.

    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.

    Is Sugar a Diet Aid? The Answer Depends on the Decade

    Last week NPR reported that scientists now trace some of the rise of American obesity to the fear of fat.  Beginning in the 1970s, nutritionists began warning Americans to consume less fat.  This initiated the “low fat” and “fat free” crazes that still linger.

    Yet, it now seems that people who followed the advice of nutritionists at the time — to eat less cheese, milk, and meat and more pasta, potatoes, and rice — were likely to get fatter, not skinnier.  The closer a person stuck to the dietary guidelines, the more weight they would gain and, the more weight they gained, the more others would pressure them to stick to the dietary guidelines.  The phrase “cruel irony” only begins to capture it.

    The ad below, from 1959, is a peek into another era.  Just a few years before the fear of fat began, the sugar industry was plausibly suggesting that eating more sugar was the best way to stay slim.  This was industry association propaganda, but no doubt the potato and pasta industries contributed to the story in the ’70s just as the meat and dairy industries are in on it today.

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    The revision of our nutritional guidelines reminds us to be skeptical of the conventional wisdom.  Moreover, it should inspire us all to check our tendency to judge others.  We don’t have perfect knowledge that allows us perfect control over our bodies.  Scientists are doing the best they can — and hopefully not taking too much funding from for-profit food industries — and individuals are restricted by whatever knowledge and resources they have.

    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.

    Where Did “Hispanics” Come From?

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    U.S. Army celebrates “Hispanic Month” (source: wikimedia)

    One may well wonder where the term “Hispanic,” and for that matter, “Latino,” came from. The press and pundits are all abuzz about the Hispanic vote, Hispanic organizations, and Hispanic cultural influences. Back in the mid-twentieth century, however, they wrote about Mexicans or Puerto Ricans or Guatemalans, not about Hispanics. Of course, people of Latin American origin have become far more numerous in the United States since then and the immigration itself brings more attention. Nonetheless, the labels have changed. Starting in the 1970s, the media rapidly adopted the “pan-ethnic” term Hispanic, and to a lesser degree, Latino, and slowed down their use of specific national labels.*  So did, organizations, agencies, businesses, and “Hispanics” themselves.

    As recounted in her important new book, Making Hispanics, sociologist (and my colleague) G. Cristina Mora tells the story of how people as diverse as Cuban-born businessmen in Miami, undocumented Mexican farm workers in California, and third-generation part-Puerto Ricans in New York who do not even understand Spanish were brought together into one social category: Hispanic-Americans.

    Politics, Business, and Government

    Mora describes an alliance that emerged in the 1970s among grassroots activists, Spanish-language broadcasters, and federal officials to define and promote “Hispanic.”

    Activists had previously stressed their national origins and operated regionally – notably, Mexicans in the southwest (where the term “Chicano” became popular for a while) and Puerto Ricans in the northeast. But the larger the numbers they could claim by joining together, the more political clout, the more governmental funds, and the more philanthropic support they could claim. Pumping up the numbers was particularly important given their latent competition with African-American activists over limited resources and limited media attention. Some pan-ethnic term promised to yield the biggest count.

    Spanish-language television broadcasters, notably Univision, looked to expand their appeal to advertisers by delivering them a national market. Although the broadcasters faced obstacles in appealing to Spanish-language viewers across the country differing significantly in programming tastes and dialects, they managed to amalgamate the audiences by replacing content imported from abroad with content developed in the United States. They could then sell not medium-to-small Mexican-, Cuban-, or Puerto Rican-American audiences to advertisers, but one huge Hispanic-American audience.

    Making the term official as a census category helped both activists and entrepreneurs. Previously, the Bureau of the Census classified Latin Americans as whites with distinct national origins, usually poorly measured. The activists pressed the census bureau, as did some politicians, to provide as broad a label as possible and count everyone who might conceivably fit the category, including, for example, the African-origin Dominicans (although not the French-speaking Haitians nor the Portuguese-speaking Brazilians). This pressure led to the 1980 formulation, used ever since, in which the census asks Americans whether or not they are “Hispanic” separately from whether they are white, black, Asian, or Indian.

    Univision social media ad (source):

    Univision-Social Media Ad

    The three interest groups worked together to publicize and promote the idea and the statistical category of “Hispanic.” As Mora explains, leaving the label’s meaning somewhat ambiguous was useful in both expanding the numbers and in selling the category – as a large needy population to the government and as numerous, affluent consumers to advertisers. The three parties also campaigned to get other institutions, such as state vital statistics bureaus and big businesses to adopt Hispanic as an official category. Many so-called Hispanics preferred and still prefer to call themselves by their national origins; Mora quotes a 1990s bumper sticker, “Don’t Call Me Hispanic, I’m Cuban!” But the term has taken over.

    And, so Hispanic-Americans matter a lot now.

    Identities

    Categories of people that we take to be fixed – for example, our assumptions that people are old or young, black or white, male or female – often turn out to be not fixed at all. Social scientists have documented the way the definition of Negro/African American/black has shifted over the generations. There was a time, for example, when the census bureau sought to distinguish octoroons and a time when it could not figure out how to classify people from the Indian subcontinent. In Making Hispanics, Mora lets us see close up just how this new category, Hispanic, that we now take to be a person’s basic identity, was created, debated, and certified.

    Direct Marketing Ad

    One lesson is that it could have been otherwise. If the pace and sources of migration had been different or if the politics of the 1970s had cut differently, maybe we would be talking about two separate identities, Chicano and “Other Spanish-speaking.” Or maybe we would be classifying the darker-skinned with “Blacks” and lighter-skinned with “Whites.” Or something else. Making Hispanics teaches us much about the social construction of identity.

    * Based on my analysis of statistics on New York Times stories and the nGram data on words in American books. Use of “Chicano” surged in 1960s and 1970s, but then faded as “Latino” and, especially, “Hispanic” rose.

    Claude S. Fischer is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character.  This post originally appeared at his blog of the same name.

    What Kind of Work Does Women’s History Month Value?

    1 (2) - CopyAmelia Earhart, aviator. Wilma Rudolph, athlete. Sally Ride, astronaut. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, activist. Josephine Baker, performer. Virginia Woolf, novelist. Rosie the Riveter, archetype. Alice Paul, suffragist. Frida Kahlo, artist. Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State.

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    What do these women have in common? They are the 10 iconic women featured this year by womenshistorymonth.gov, the official website of Women’s History Month in the United States. A rotating banner across the top of the page shows a photo of each woman, her name, and a one word description, presumably the reason she is worthy of celebration.

    Unfortunately, the women singled out for recognition at the site appear to be considered notable mainly because they excelled at what are generally thought to be “masculine” pursuits. This is androcentric, meaning that it values masculinity over femininity. Traits that have been traditionally conceptualized as masculine (such as being a leader and good at sports and math) are now seen as valuable for girls to develop, while boys are often still discouraged from do things traditionally conceptualized as feminine (such as nurturing, cooking, and cleaning).

    I am all for questioning the idea that certain jobs are “men’s jobs,” but we also need to challenge the idea that only women can do “women’s jobs.” If we do not, the belief that women should do “women’s work” and, more importantly, that women’s work is not worth celebrating, is left unquestioned.

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    Women’s History Month tends to follow this trend. None of the women we typically recognize at this time of year, for example, are noted for being good cooks, care givers, or educators of children, nor are they lauded for their nurturing of others, emotional openness, kindness, or compassion — all traditionally “feminine” traits. Caring for others and teaching youth are wonderful things that everyone should be encouraged to do. Our history books should be filled with people of all genders who were exceptional in these areas. But, these traditionally feminine pursuits are not what earns one accolades during Women’s History Month, or any other time. As a consequence, people are not taught to value such jobs or the people who do them. This one-sided celebration is unlikely to solve the very problem that Women’s History Month is ostensibly designed to combat: gender inequality.

    “To all the women who quietly made history” (source):

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    Laurel Westbrook is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Grand Valley State University. Her research focuses on gendered violence, social movements, and the inner workings of the sex/gender/sexuality system.

    A History and Account of Daylight Savings

    12In just 6 1/2 minutes, CGP Gray offers a humorous and info-packed account of Daylight Savings.  He tackles the historical rationale, the role of the equator, the contemporary debate, and the wildly wacky situations it causes today, including health problems and loss of productivity.  It’s all even wackier than you probably already imagine. Enjoy:

    Also from CGP Gray:

    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.

    Intimate Inequality at the Woolworth’s Lunch Counter, 1960

    Ed, at Gin & Tacos, made a fantastic observation about this photo of a 1960 lunch counter sit-in at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, NC, protesting the exclusion of black customers.

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    “The most interesting thing about it,” he writes:

    …is that the employee behind the Whites Only lunch counter is also black. That’s curious, since on the scale of intimate social contact one would think that having someone handle your food ranks above sitting next to a fully clothed stranger on adjacent stools.

    This, he observes, tells us something important about prejudice.

    When I first saw this picture and learned about this period in our history… I thought that racism was about believing that another race is inferior. Like most people I got (slightly) wiser with age and eventually figured out that racism is about keeping someone else beneath you on the social ladder… If you actually thought black people were dirty savages you wouldn’t eat anything they handed you. But of course it has nothing to do with that. You’re fine being served food because servility implies social inferiority. And you don’t want to sit next to them simply because it implies equality.

    When we observe efforts to uphold unequal social conditions, it’s smart to think past notions of hatred and fear (like the term homophobia unfortunately implies) and instead about how the privileged are benefiting and what they would lose along with their superordinate status.  Hate may be useful for justifying inequality, but at its root it’s about power and resources, not emotions.

    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 Baby Dolls of Mardi Gras

    Prostitutes have often been at the forefront of challenges to gender conventions. Already at the fringes of “respectable society,” by choice or circumstance, these women often have less to lose than others.

    The Mardi Gras Baby Dolls are an excellent example.  NPR’s Tina Antolini writes that the baby doll tradition began in 1912.  That year a group of African American sex workers dressed up like baby dolls and took to the streets to celebrate Mardi Gras.

    Baby dolls, 1930s (CNN):

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    Baby dolls, 1942:
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    Calling your lover “baby” had just become part of the English language.  Meanwhile, actual baby dolls, the toy, were rare.  By dressing up this way, they flouted both gender and race rules.  Women were largely excluded from masking for Mardi Gras and African Americans were still living under Jim Crow.  Black women, by virtue of being both Black and female, were particularly devalued, sex workers ever more so.  Asserting themselves as baby dolls, then, was a way of arguing that they were worth something.

    “[I]t had all that double meaning in it,” explains historian Kim Vaz, “because African-American women weren’t considered precious and doll-like.”

    It was a bold thing to do and the Baby Dolls carried walking sticks with them to beat off those who accosted them.

    Today, honoring those brave women that came before, the tradition lives on in a city with the richest and most creative and unique traditions I have ever encountered.  Happy Mardi Gras, Baby Dolls!  Have a wonderful day tomorrow!

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    For more, visit They Call Me Baby Doll.  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.