Tag Archives: holidays

Banal Nationalism

Flashback Friday.  

In his book by the same name, Michael Billig coined the term “banal nationalism” to draw attention to the ways in which nationalism was not only a quality of gun-toting, flag-waving “extremists,” but was quietly and rather invisibly reproduced by all of us in our daily lives.

That we live in a world of nations was not inevitable; that the United States, or Sweden or India, exist was not inevitable.  I was born in Southern California.  If I had been born at another time in history I would have been Mexican or Spanish or something else altogether.  The nation is a social construction.

The nation, then, must be reproduced. We must be reminded, constantly, that we are part of this thing called a “nation.”  Even more, that we belong to it and it belongs to us.  Banal nationalism is how the idea of the nation and our membership in it is reproduced daily.  It occurs not only with celebrations, parades, or patriotic war, but in “mundane,” “routine,” and “unnoticed” ways.

The American flag, for example, casually hanging around in yards and in front of buildings everywhere:

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References to the nation on our money:

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The way that the news is usually split into us and everyone else:

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The naming of clubs and franchises, such as the National Football League, as specific to our country:

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The performance of the pledge of allegiance in schools and sports arenas:

Pledge of Allegiance

So, what?  What could possibly be the problem?

Sociologists have critiqued nationalism for being the source of an irrational commitment and loyalty to one’s nation, a commitment that makes one willing to both die and kill.  Billig argues that, while it appears harmless on the surface, “banal nationalism can be mobilized and turned into frenzied nationalism.”  The profound sense of national pride required for war, for example, depends on this sense of nationhood internalized over a lifetime.  So banal nationalism isn’t “nationalism-lite,” it’s the very foundation upon which more dangerous nationalisms are built.

You can download a more polished two-page version of this argument, forthcoming in Contexts magazine, here.  Images found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Commodification of Easter Festivities

Flashback Friday.

The word commodification refers to the process by which something that is not bought and sold becomes something that is.  As capitalism has progressed, more and more parts of our lives have become commodified.  Restaurants are the commodification of preparing and cleaning up meals; day care and nannying is the commodification of child raising; nursing homes is the commodification of caring for elders.

We sometimes post instances of commodification that tickle us.  Previously I posted about a company that will now put together and deliver a care package to your child at camp.  A parent just goes to the site, chooses the items they want included, and charge their credit card.  As I wrote in that post: “The ‘care’ in ‘care package’ has been, well, outsourced.”

I was equally tickled by a photograph, taken by sociologist Tristan Bridges, of pre-dyed Easter eggs:

This is a delicious example of commodification.  If you don’t have the time or inclination to dye eggs as part of your Easter celebration, the market will do it for you.  No matter that this is one of those things (e.g., a supposedly enjoyable holiday activity that promotes family togetherness) that is supposed to be immune to capitalist imperatives.

While we might raise our eyebrows at this example, newly commodified goods and services often elicit this reaction.  We usually get used to the idea and, later, have a hard time imagining life any other way.

For more on commodification, peruse our tag by that name. This post originally appeared in 2012.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. 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 co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Best Mardi Gras Ever: The 1979 Police Strike

In 1979 the New Orleans police department went on strike, using the powerful leverage of Mardi Gras to push for an improvement in their working conditions.  The city held fast and the celebration was cancelled.  Ish.  Some parades moved just out of town.  Most tourists stayed away, fearful of unregulated reveling.  But lots of locals went forward with the holiday, partying in the streets without the influx of tourists that accompany a typical Fat Tuesday.

The National Guard was called in to ensure a semblance of order, but they ignored vice, intervening only against violence.  According to Wikipedia, many French Quarter locals decided it was the best Mardi Gras ever.  Photographer Robbie McClaran was there.  Here are some of his photographs of the day:

Untitled - New Orleans 1979Vintage photography from the late 1970s Untitled - New Orleans 1979

Of the last photo, McClaran writes: “I remember this scene like it was yesterday, it was the moment when I thought to myself Mardis Gras had reached a level of surreality I had never experienced before. Homeless woman dancing with a man in a tutu while Uncle Sam looks on and salutes.”

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Le bon temps roule, everybody.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Buy Flowers or You’re a Dipshit

These four commercials for FTD Florists appear to be for (white) couples who hate each other, and for good reason.  I would argue that they traffic in unappealing gender stereotypes, but it’s much worse than that.  They suggest that people, in general, are just stupid and unlikeable.  I truly don’t know what marketers are thinking when they portray their own consumers in such a light.  Happy Valentine’s Day everyone.  

Via Copyranter.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Feminization of Love and Masculinization of Sex

What comes to mind when you think of romance, love, and Valentine’s Day?  Probably things like sunsets, flowers, chocolates, candles, poetry, and bubble baths.  You know, girl stuff.

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Francesca Cancian, who writes on love, calls this the feminization of love.  It makes love seem like its for women and girls only.  This is a problem for at least two reasons.  First, because men are supposed to avoid girly things in our culture, they are pressured to pretend like they’re not into love and love-related things.  That’s why men are offered the alternative Steak and a Blow Job Day.

Second, it makes other ways of expressing love less visible.  Maybe he shows love by always changing the oil in the car or making sure the computer is updated with anti-virus software.  These can be mis-recognized as not about love because they aren’t the proper socially constructed symbols.  So, if he doesn’t also show up with flowers or candy once in a while, maybe she doesn’t feel loved.

The flip side of this is the masculinization of sex.  The rather new idea that what men are really interested in is sex and that this is secondary or, even, obligatory for women.

The feminization of love and masculinization of sex manifests itself in a myriad of ways across our culture, causing all sorts of problems.  In the case of Valentine’s Day, it makes it seem as if the (assumed heterosexual) holiday is for women but, if he does it right, he’ll get sex as a reward.  How romantic.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Valentine’s Day as Youth Rebellion in India

I am always surprised when Valentine’s day rolls around in America as the fiery public outbursts don’t seem so prevalent. In contemporary India this day holds a special significance especially for youngsters. More than the average date-night with an exchange of chocolates, gifts, and flowers, Valentine’s Day provides an opportunity for young practitioners to authenticate and reify their practice of dating and pursuing “true love.”

While arranged marriages are considered  the moral norm, pursuing individual love fantasies are potentially frowned upon and discouraged in a lot of modern Indian homes. Hindutva followers (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) also recommend boycotting the day labeling it western, anti-Hindu, a moral corruption of Indian youth.

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Indian youngsters, however, represent a marketable youth desiccated by parental norms, traditional values, and mixed sexual messages. Valentine’s Day appears as an oasis of freedom, filled with everything the society and parents condemn. They are marketable not only with chocolates, pretty red roses and heart-shaped goods, but also marketable for practices that condone a “way of life” very different from those their parents seem to follow.

In this sense, participation in Valentine’s Day is a kind of religious act. Counter-culture, anti-traditional, and even anti-caste (according to the DMK), participation is of the utmost necessity to its ardent young fans and signifies their socio-cultural milieu.

While some think it’s quite inauthentic for Indians to be celebrating Valentine’s Day, Indian youngsters see it as a natural display of their modern values in response to their conservative parents. They may even connect across religious diversity upon this issue. As a mode of rejecting the anti-dating model culturally imposed by parents, kids take to streets kissing in public, exchanging cards and flowers, hungry to share their love with each other.

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Ultimately the observer has to notice that the plethora of critiques have made Indian celebrators broaden their definition of love, invoking Valentine’s Day for animals and celebrations with destitute elders and those mentally challenged.

“For charity and for love” seems to provide an example for a more neutral celebration, condoned by older members of the community. Each time the day is evoked the ritual is transformed. Even in America some call this day a “Hallmark holiday” and refuse to buy into the propaganda that tells you to monetarily express your love.  Others reject the day, crying that it forces gender stereotypes and creates unwanted expectations. Far divorced from the roots of a religious tradition called Christianity, St.Valentine’s Day has morphed into a Hallmark holiday for Americans and an excuse to publicly proclaim your dating culture for Indian youth.

What the Indian haters of Valentine’s Day need to realize is that it’s probably nothing personal. Young people have always wanted an excuse to make-out in the back rows instead of pay attention in class. India also just seem to “love love” as a friendly visitor once told me. But, we cannot ignore the fact that these practices are changing based on the lifestyle needs of modern urban Indians, and that they are also changing peoples expectations and expressions of love.

The Hindutva respondents are like some Christians and Muslims who argue that participating in yoga might make you Hindu. They certainly aren’t wrong in implying that participation in a practice could  transform your worldview. Far from being irrelevant to religion, opposing meanings of what the practice of Valentine’s Day may create only indicates that “you never know what you’re gonna get!”

Deeksha Sivakumar is a Ph.D. student in South Asian Religions at Emory University, GA. Her current research interests surround a particular enactment of a goddess festival and its unique celebration in Southern India as Bommai Golu. You can follow her on TwitterThis post originally appeared at Bulletin for the Study of Religion.

Martin Luther King Jr., Sociology Major

B.A. in Sociology, Morehouse College, Class of 1948. 

Image at HBCU.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.