Tag Archives: knowledge/intelligence

Sexual Objectification (Part 2): The Harm

This is the second part in a series about how girls and women can navigate a culture that treats them like sex objects (see also, part One)Cross-posted at Ms. and Caroline Heldman’s Blog.

The “sex wars”  of the 1980s pitted radical feminists, who claimed that female sexual objectification is dehumanizing, against feminists concerned about legal and social efforts to control and repress female sexuality.  Over a decade of research now shows that radical feminists were right to be highly concerned.

Getting back to the “sex wars” and how radical feminists were right, women who grow up in a culture with widespread sexual objectification tend to view themselves as objects of desire for others. This internalized sexual objectification has been linked to problems with mental health (e.g., clinical depression“habitual body monitoring”), eating disordersbody shameself-worth and life satisfactioncognitive functioningmotor functioningsexual dysfunctionaccess to leadership, and political efficacy.  Women of all ethnicities internalize objectification, as do men to a lesser extent.

Beyond the internal effects, sexually objectified women are dehumanized by others and seen as less competent and worthy of empathy by both men and women.  Furthermore, exposure to images of sexually objectified women causes male viewers to be more tolerant of sexual harassment and rape myths.  Add to this the countless hours that most girls/women spend primping and competing with one another to garner heterosexual male attention, and the erasure of middle-aged and elderly women who have little value in a society that places women’s primary value on their sexualized bodies.

Theorists have also contributed to understanding the harm of objectification culture by pointing out the difference between sexy and sexual.  If one thinks of the subject/object dichotomy that dominates thinking in Western culture, subjects act and objects are acted upon.  Subjects are sexual, while objects are sexy.

Pop culture sells women and girls a hurtful lie: that their value lies in how sexy they appear to others, and they learn at a very young age that their sexuality is for others.  At the same time, being sexual, is stigmatized in women but encouraged in men. We learn that men want and women want-to-be-wanted. The yard stick for women’s value (sexiness) automatically puts them in a subordinate societal position, regardless of how well they measure up.  Perfectly sexy women are perfectly subordinate.

The documentary Miss Representation has received considerable mainstream attention, one indicator that many are now recognizing the damaging effects of female sexual objectification.

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To sum up, widespread sexual objectification in U.S. popular culture creates a toxic environment for girls and women.  The following posts in this series provide ideas for navigating new objectification culture in personally and politically meaningful ways.

Is it Possible to Go “Off the Grid”?

In the Sociology of Gender textbook I am (very slowly) writing, I spend a chapter discussing the idea of institutions.  I define the term as “persistent patterns of social interaction aimed at meeting the needs of a society that can’t easily be met by individuals alone.”  These needs  include educating the next generation, providing health care, ensuring safety, and enabling efficient transportation.  These things are done better and more efficiently if we all chip in and put together a system.

What is interesting about institutions from a sociological perspective is that, once they’re in place, it is essentially impossible to opt out.  You can choose not to buy a car, for example, but the government is still going to spend your tax dollars on highway infrastructure.  You can amass as much medical knowledge and experience as you like, but you’ll still be a criminal if you practice medicine without a licence.  You can believe the government is corrupt and stay home on voting day, but Congress is still going to pass legislation to which you will be held accountable.

You get the picture.

In any case, I thought of this when I came across the striking photography of Eric Valli.  Valli seems to specialize in capturing the lives of people living very close to the earth.  In one series, he follows a group of individuals who have decided to live “off the grid.”  That is, they’ve “unplugged” from the social institutions that sustain us. The first image I came across was this one:

Clearly this is no joke.  And, yet, as I scrolled through additional photographs, I couldn’t help to notice how many trappings of the rest of the world were part and parcel of their lives (canoes, coats, oil lamps, cooking and eating utensils, halters, firearms, hot sauce, etc).

As I write in the book:

You can go “off the grid” to avoid capitalism, find an isolated spot in some wilderness, cut down some trees, build a hut, and live off of roots and berries.  Then again, where did you get the axe?  Will you bring a book on poisonous mushrooms?  Even the bare-handed, bunny-catching woodsman hermit will buy a few things to get along and, in any case, he can’t help but draw on knowledge that he acquired through institutions like schools, families, publishing, and the mass media.  After all, how did he know where to find the forest?

I’m not questioning, at all, whether or not these people are off the grid. They certainly appear to be.  But it is interesting to notice how much of the grid is still a part of their lives.

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.

Target Knows You’re Pregnant: Psychological Management and Consumer Data

Cross-posted at Global Policy TV.

A great story at the New York Times, sent in by Katrin, reveals how the evolving science of marketing is creating its own set of challengers for advertisers.  Target, like many companies, tracks its customers purchases and uses the data to send packets of coupons tailored to individuals and households.  In this way, they tempt us into the store by offering us deals on things they know we want.

Target is also in the business of predicting what a person will want.  So the marketing company decided to try to use costumer shopping habits in order to predict pregnancy.  If they could start sending the woman baby-related before she started shopping for them in earnest, the company figured, she might end up always thinking of Target when she needed to spend money on the baby.

Using an algorithm that considered the purchasing patterns typical of newly pregnant women — e.g., prenatal vitamins, scent-free instead of scented lotion, a sudden uptick in the acquisition of cotton balls — they were able to make a pretty good guess as to whether a female customer was expecting.  Suddenly these women were getting coupons like this:

This caused two problems.

First was the father of the teenage girl who started getting coupons for diapers in the mail.  This led to an angry phone call to Target and, later, a chagrined apology by the stunned grandpa-to-be (story here).

The second was the reaction of the intended target, the expectant moms.  Some were pretty freaked out that Target knew they were pregnant!  It’s one thing, it turns out, for Target to know you like vanilla better than chocolate ice cream, or you fancy scented candles; it’s different, perhaps, to suddenly realize that it knows your you’re having a baby.  That could feel like a serious invasion of privacy.

So Target learned that the ability to predict our needs and desires comes with the need to do some psychological management as well. Accordingly, they began sneaking baby-related coupons into coupon books that also included other things.  So far, Target reports, these women are none the wiser… and thinking of Target as their one-stop baby shop.

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.

Stereotype Promise

Cross-posted at The Russell Sage Foundation.

Claude Steele and his colleagues have found ample evidence of “stereotype threat” in test-taking situations.  Stereotype threat occurs when people worry that poor performance on a task will inadvertently confirm a negative stereotype applied to the group to which they belong.  Their worry depresses performance, thus creating outcomes consistent with the stereotype. Stereotype threat depresses the performance of high-achieving African American students on difficult verbal tests as well as accomplished female math students on difficult math tests.

Not all stereotypes are negative, however, suggesting that certain stereotypes might also enhance performance.  With Min Zhou, I looked into how the stereotype that Asian Americans students are particularly smart and high achieving — as illustrated in this TIME magazine cover from 1987 — might shape their performances.

We argue that Asian American students benefit from a “stereotype promise”—the promise of being viewed through the lens of a positive stereotype that leads one to perform in such a way that confirms the positive stereotype, thereby enhancing performance.  The Chinese- and Vietnamese-Americans students we studied described how their teachers assumed that they were smart, hard-working, and high-achieving, which affected the way that their teachers treated them, the grades they received, and their likelihood of being placed into the most competitive academic tracks, like Advanced Placement (AP) and Honors. For many students, stereotype promise exerted an independent effect, and boosted performance.

For example, Ophelia is a 23 year-old second-generation Vietnamese woman who described herself as “not very intelligent” and recalls nearly being held back in the second grade. By her account, “I wasn’t an exceptional student; I was a straight C student, whereas my other siblings, they were quicker than I was, and they were straight A students.”

Despite Ophelia’s C average, she took the AP exam at the end of junior high school, and not surprisingly, failed. Nevertheless, she was placed into the AP track in high school, but once there, something “just clicked,” and Ophelia began to excel in her classes. When we asked her to explain what she meant by this, she elaborated, “I wanted to work hard and prove I was a good student,” and also added, “I think the competition kind of increases your want to do better.” She graduated from high school with a GPA of 4.2, and was admitted into a highly competitive pharmacy program.

Once she was placed in a more challenging setting, then, where teachers’ expectations and peer performance were elevated, she benefited from stereotype promise. Ophelia did not believe at the outset that she was academically exceptional or deserving of being in the AP track (especially because she earned straight C’s in junior high school and failed the AP exam), but once anointed as academically exceptional and deserving, the stereotype promise exerted an independent effect that encouraged her to try harder and prove that she was a good student, and ultimately enhanced her performance.  While it is impossible to know how Ophelia’s academic performance would have differed had she stayed on the school’s “regular track,” that she was given the opportunity to meet her potential attests to the advantage that Asian American students are accorded in the context of U.S. schools.

In future research, I plan to study in what institutional contexts “stereotype promise” may emerge, for which groups, and in what domains. For example, males may benefit from stereotype promise in certain occupational niches where stereotypes about gender and performance prevail.

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Jennifer Lee is a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine, specializing in intersection of immigration and race and ethnicity. She wrote, with Frank Bean, a book called The Diversity Paradox, that examines patterns of intermarriage and multiracial identification among Asians, Latinos, and African Americans.

Read a Q&A on with Jennifer Lee about “stereotype promise” at the Russell Sage Foundation.

The Magic of India (for White People)

The phrase “Magical Negro” refers to the phenomenon in which a white character in a tv show or movie finds enlightenment through the wisdom of a Black character.  It is widely considered an offensive trope in which Black people — imbued with special spiritual, religious, or primitive powers of insight, often ostensibly due to some disadvantage like poverty — serve only to support a white person’s transformation.  The white person, and their ultimate redemption, remains the central story.

I couldn’t help but think of this when I watched the trailer for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, sent in by Katrin.  In this trailer, the Magical Negro isn’t a Black person; it’s not even a person.  It’s the entire country of India.

See if you see what I saw:

For examples of the Magical Negro, see our post on The Secret Life of Bees, the Magical Negro at Ikea, and the Magical Aboriginal Child in an Australian tourism ad.

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.

Protesting Censorship Online: Technology and Knowledge

Last Wednesday, January 20 18, over 7000 websites participated in a massive protest opposing bills H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and S. 968, the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). While these bills aimed to curb online piracy, many fear that they also pave the way for widespread internet censorship. Although consideration of SOPA and PIPA has now been “postponed,” the bills and the protests raise the issue of who has the authority to control access to knowledge. The different visual and technological ways that websites protested SOPA and PIPA demonstrate the importance we as a culture place on unfettered access to information. In imagining what a censored internet might be like, the protests also show how much the medium — in this case, technology — shapes our individual and collective knowledge and what kind of a threat censorship would be. In additional to concerns about free speech and access to information, the protests also remind us how many profitable businesses are based on assumptions that those things will remain uncensored.

Many sites (such as Craigslist, Pinterest, and icanhascheezburger, screencaps below) took a traditional web protest approach by posting informational messages encouraging visitors to take action against the bills:

Other websites (WordPress, Wired, Google), along with Facebook status updates and Tweets, visually depicted what internet censorship would look like. This kind of protest is particularly visually powerful — stark black blocks out the text, making the message unreadable:

Facebook:

Twitter:

Others shut down altogether (like Wikipedia, Reddit, MoveOn, and Mozilla), essentially removing their website’s resources and information for 24 hours:

Many of us are fortunate to take for granted open, easy access to information, including open access to everything on the internet (though the continued existence of a digital divide makes such information more available to some than others, and school districts routinely censor online content for students). The protests of SOPA and PIPA illustrate how much we rely on technology for access to information by raising important questions about what censorship would mean for access to knowledge. Seemingly boundless information is at the tips of our fingers everywhere we go:

(Via Shoebox Blog.)

As the cartoon shows, our knowledge is shaped by what medium is physically available to us for seeking new information. Students in my classes can’t fathom a time when they couldn’t look up any bit of information they needed on Google.  They can’t imagine the way I used to do research for a school paper– by consulting my family’s dusty encyclopedia set, or heading down to the library. Though their experience is physically removed from the research librarian’s desk, they have access to much more information than I ever did in my local library. The protests against SOPA and PIPA — the website outages and blacked out texts — make real the idea that if the internet were censored, our avenues for learning would shrink.

American Vs. International News: Time And Newsweek

Updated; originally posted July 2009.

Americans are notorious for their ignorance of global issues and international news.  This may be because Americans aren’t interested or it may be that our news outlets feed us fluff and focus us only on the U.S.  Probably it’s a vicious cycle.

This month, for example, Time magazine’s cover story is about the political strife in Egypt… everywhere except the U.S. that is.  Americans get “pop psychology” (via Global Sociology):

It turns out you can go to the Time website and compare covers from previous issues going back a long ways.  Here are some more examples from the last couple years (I cherry picked just a bit):

Dmitriy T.M. sent in these previous examples a while back.

The cover story for Newsweek magazine’s September 2006 edition was “Losing Afghanistan” in Europe, Latin America, and Asia.  It was “My Life in Pictures,” a story about the photographer Annie Liebovitz in the U.S. (via):

newsweek

The cover story for Newsweek magazine’s October 2006 edition was “Global Warming’s First Victim” in Europe, Latin America, and Asia.  It was “Off Message,” a story about Republican Congressman Mark Foley’s sexually suggestive emails and IMs to teenage boys (via):

frogs

The cover story for Time magazine’s April 2007 edition was “Talibanistan” in Europe, Latin America, and Asia.  It was “Why We Should Teach the Bible in Public Schools” in the U.S. (via, also see Time):

Capture2

As SocProf writes:

Talk about self-fulfilling prophecy: Americans are assumed to not be interested in international and global affairs… ergo, Time decides to replace a perfectly legitimate and newsworthy cover on a significant event in Egypt with some pop psychology item. As a result, Americans are less informed and knowledgeable on global affairs because they do not get intelligent coverage on that topic.

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.

Defining “Fat”

A new book by Erin Nieto inspired me to revive this post on bodies and BMI.

Click here to see a flickr slide show of dozens of people, starting with those below, with their BMI label (“underweight,” “normal,” “overweight,” “obese,” and “morbidly obese”). There’s something about seeing all these nice looking people with these judgmental labels applied to them that reveals that the BMI is a social construction. Also it’s a good illustration of the Foucauldian idea that knowledge (discourse, or even “science”) is used to label and control people, especially when it is internalized.

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Erin Nieto’s project, How Much Do You Weigh, also puts the body front-and-center, challenging us re-think what numbers mean.  She counterposes photographs of volunteers with the number on the scale.  These women model a refusal to be embarrassed by their weight and show us the imprecision of the number itself.

See more images at Nieto’s tumblr.

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.