The joke about the woman who sued McDonald’s after spilling hot coffee in her lap has become a cultural lightening rod, mocked in sitcoms and used to argue in favor of reforming the law that guides civil lawsuits. In fact, the coffee was served 30 degrees higher than coffee made at home. When it spilled between 79-year-old Stella Liebeck’s legs and pooled in her seat, she went into shock. She was burned over 16% of her body, 6% of the burns were 3rd degree. She spent a week in the hospital and had to have skin grafts. When she asked McDonald’s to pay her hospital bills, they refused. Later it came out that the restaurant had gotten many complaints about the temperature of their coffee.
This New York Timesvideo reviews the case, described as the “most widely misunderstood story in America.” From a sociological perspective, it’s a great example of how stories can bounce around in the media echo chamber, constrained by the need for sound bites, and become a cultural touchstone.
Way back in 1978, Mark Fishman wrote an article titled “Crime Waves as Ideology.” It referred to the way in which TV news gets organized thematically in ways that make non-trends appear to be trends. Fishman pointed out that the news directors can unwittingly create media crime waves — sudden increases in the number of stories even as the the actual number of crimes remains unchanged. Once the theme is established, it’s just a matter of combing the city or the entire country for incidents that fit. Today we’re so used to it that when we watch the local news at eleven, we barely notice.
Now, thanks to hyperlinks, online news can do the same thematic grouping. Consider: on a recent Sunday, both New York tabloids put the same story on page one — the stabbing death of a woman and four children in their apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
Early word from the police was that “it’s looking a domestic violence case.” Apparently the killer knew the victims and may have been a relative.
What caught my attention was the “related” story that the Daily News linked to on its website version of the story. What kind of story might be related? A story about the family? About difficulties faced by Chinese immigrants or conflicts within an immigrant community? About mental illness and violence? About ethnic and demographic changes in Sunset Park? No. None of the above. The related story is actually an entirely unrelated story.
The story the Daily News chose as “related” concerns the “Green Gang goon who was caught on video slugging a female New England Patriots fan in the face after the Jets’ upset victory” a week earlier. It turns out that in a fight twenty years ago, when he was 17, he fatally stabbed another kid. He served three years.
How are these two stories related? There is no connection between the two killers or their victims. The incidents are separated by two decades. The motives and circumstances are entirely different. If the Jets fan had not been caught on camera punching the female Patriots fan, no journalist following the Sunday killing would have dug up information on this crime of twenty years ago in an attempt to elaborate on the Sunset Park killings. Knowing about that “related” crime gives us no better understanding of Sunday’s stabbing.
Instead, the two stories are related by a common theme — they are both about killing where the weapon is a knife. The Daily News seems to be taking a page from Amazon’s marketing strategy. “Readers who liked this story also liked . . .” or Netflix recommendations. Television news often groups stories thematically. A story about a commercial arson in one part of town will be followed by a story about an accidental fire in a house in a distant neighborhood. The circumstances, location, and causes of the two fires are completely different, and if the big fire had not occurred, that house fire might not have been newsworthy. But that night, it fit with the fire theme.
Here is another example in a screengrab from the Daily News website:
A stabbing at the University of Indiana. The related stories are a stabbing death of a teacher in Long Beach, California and of a teacher in a Texas high school.
So, students stabbing people at schools — is that a real trend? Probably not, but it is a news theme.
Yesterday the Pew Research Center released data on the news coverage of Typhoon Haiyan — a disaster that has killed at least 4,000 people — and the bungled Obamacare website roll-out. Comparing 20 hours of news coverage over four major U.S. channels, they found dramatic differences. The data below shows the hours and minutes spent on each topic at each channel (red = Obamacare, yellow = the typhoon).
First, the two partisan channels (Fox News and MSNBC) gave more time to Obamacare than the typhoon. On MSNBC, there was four times as much coverage of Obamacare. On Fox, there as a stunning 80 times as much coverage. Al Jazeera America and CNN spent significantly more time on the typhoon, likely reflecting their more global focus and less of an ideological mission.
The channels also differed in how much time they spent on facts/reporting versus opinion/commentary. Check it out:
While most all of us sometimes lazily refer to “the media” as if it’s a homogeneous thing, it’s important to remember that our perceptions of reality are strongly shaped by which media we consume.
Many critics are praising 12 Years a Slave for its uncompromising honesty about slavery. It offers not one breath of romanticism about the ante-bellum South. No Southern gentlemen getting all noble about honor and no Southern belles and their mammies affectionately reminiscing or any of that other Gone With the Wind crap, just an inhuman system. 12 Years depicts the sadism not only as personal (though the film does have its individual sadists) but as inherent in the system – essential, inescapable, and constant.
Now, Noah Berlatsky at The Atlantic points out something else about 12 Years as a movie, something most critics missed – its refusal to follow the usual feel-good cliche plot convention of American film:
If we were working with the logic of Glory or Django, Northup would have to regain his manhood by standing up to his attackers and besting them in combat.
Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy. In the typical version, our peaceful hero is just minding his own business when the bad guy or guys deliberately commit some terrible insult or offense, which then justifies the hero unleashing violence – often at cataclysmic levels – upon the baddies. One glance at the poster for Django, and you can pretty much guess most of the story.
It’s the comic-book adolescent fantasy – the nebbish that the other kids insult when they’re not just ignoring him but who then ducks into a phone booth or says his magic word and transforms himself into the avenging superhero to put the bad guys in their place.
This scenario sometimes seems to be the basis of U.S. foreign policy. An insult or slight, real or imaginary, becomes the justification for “retaliation” in the form of destroying a government or an entire country along with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of its people. It seems pretty easy to sell that idea to us Americans – maybe because the revenge-fantasy scenario is woven deeply into American culture – and it’s only in retrospect that we wonder how Iraq or Vietnam ever happened.
Django Unchained and the rest are a special example of a more general story line much cherished in American movies: the notion that all problems – psychological, interpersonal, political, moral – can be resolved by a final competition, whether it’s a quick-draw shootout or a dance contest. (I’ve sung this song before in this blog, most recently here after I saw Silver Linings Playbook.)
Berlatsky’s piece on 12 Years points out something else I hadn’t noticed but that the Charles Atlas ad makes obvious: it’s all about masculinity. Revenge is a dish served almost exclusively at the Y-chromosome table. The women in the story play a peripheral role as observers of the main event – an audience the hero is aware of – or as prizes to be won or, infrequently, as the hero’s chief source of encouragement, though that role usually goes to a male buddy or coach.
But when a story jettisons the manly revenge theme, women can enter more freely and fully.
12 Years a Slave though, doesn’t present masculinity as a solution to slavery, and as a result it’s able to think about and care about women as people rather than as accessories or MacGuffins.
Scrapping the revenge theme can also broaden the story’s perspective from the personal to the political (i.e., the sociological):
12 Years a Slave doesn’t see slavery as a trial that men must overcome on their way to being men, but as a systemic evil that leaves those in its grasp with no good choices.
From that perspective, the solution lies not merely in avenging evil acts and people but in changing the system and the assumptions underlying it, a much lengthier and more difficult task. After all, revenge is just as much an aspect of that system as are the insults and injustices it is meant to punish. When men start talking about their manhood or their honor, there’s going to be blood, death, and destruction – sometimes a little, more likely lots of it.
One other difference between the revenge fantasy and political reality: in real life results of revenge are often short-lived. Killing off an evildoer or two doesn’t do much to end the evil. In the movies, we don’t have to worry about that. After the climactic revenge scene and peaceful coda, the credits roll, and the house lights come up. The End. In real life though, we rarely see a such clear endings, and we should know better than to believe a sign that declares “Mission Accomplished.”
In 1990 I was still an American Culture major in college, but I was getting ready to jump ship for sociology. That’s when Madonna’s “Justify My Love” video was banned by MTV, which was a thing people used to use to watch videos. And network TV used to be a major source of exposure.
I was watching when Madonna went on Nightline for an interview. The correspondent intoned:
…nudity, suggestions of bisexuality, sadomasochism, multiple partners. Finally, MTV decided Madonna has gone to far.
They showed the video, preceded by a dire parental warning (it was 11:30 p.m., and there was no way to watch it at any other time). In the interview, Forrest Sawyer eventually realize he was being played:
Sawyer: This was a win-win for you. If they put the video on, you would get that kind of play. And if they didn’t you would still make some money. It was all, in a sense, a kind of publicity stunt. … But in the end you’re going to wind up making even more money than you would have.
Madonna: Yeah. So, lucky me.
The flap over Miley Cyrus completely baffles me. This is a business model (as artistic as any other commercial product), and it hasn’t changed much, just skinnier, with more nudity and (even) less feminism. I don’t understand why this is any more or less controversial than any other woman dancing naked. Everyone does realize that there is literally an infinite amount of free hardcore porn available to every child in America, right? There is no “banning” a video. (Wrecking Ball is pushing 250 million views on YouTube.)
No one is censoring Miley Cyrus — is there some message I’m missing? When she talked to Matt Lauer he asked, “Are you surprised by the attention you’re getting right now?” And she said, “Not really. I mean, it’s kind of what I want.”
Women strategize within a set of concrete constraints, which I identify as patriarchal bargains. Different forms of patriarchy present women with distinct “rules of the game” and call for different strategies to maximize security and optimize life options with varying potential for active or passive resistance in the face of oppression.
I think it applies perfectly to Miley Cyrus, if you replace “security” and “life options” with “celebrity” and “future island-buying potential.” Lisa is 1,000-times more plugged in to kids these days than I am, and the strategies-within-constraints model is well placed. But that article is from 1988, and it applies just as well to Madonna. So where’s the progress here?
Interviewed by Yahoo!, Gloria Steinem said, “I wish we didn’t have to be nude to be noticed … But given the game as it exists, women make decisions.” That is literally something she could have said in 1990.
The person people are arguing about has (so far) a lot less to say even than Madonna did. When Madonna was censored by MTV, Camile Paglia called her “the true feminist.”
She exposes the puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism, which is stuck in an adolescent whining mode. Madonna has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising total control over their lives. She shows girls how to be attractive, sensual, energetic, ambitious, aggressive and funny — all at the same time.
When Miley Cyrus caused a scandal on TV, Paglia could only muster, “the real scandal was how atrocious Cyrus’ performance was in artistic terms.”
Madonna was a bonafide challenge to feminists, for the reasons Paglia said, but also because of the religious subversiveness and homoerotic stuff. Madonna went on, staking her claim to the “choice” strand of feminism:
I may be dressing like the typical bimbo, whatever, but I’m in charge. You know. I’m in charge of my fantasies. I put myself in these situations with men, you know, and… people don’t think of me as a person who’s not in charge of my career or my life, okay. And isn’t that what feminism is all about, you know, equality for men and women? And aren’t I in charge of my life, doing the things I want to do? Making my own decisions?
And she embraced some other feminist themes. When Madonna was asked on Nightline, “Where do you draw the line?” she answered, “I draw the line with violence, and humiliation and degradation.”
I’m not saying there hasn’t been any progress since 1990. It’s more complicated than that. On matters of economic and politics gender has pretty well stalled. The porn industry has made a lot of progress. Reported rape has become less common, along with other forms of violence.
But — and please correct me if I’m wrong — I don’t see the progress in this conversation about whether it’s feminist or anti-feminist for a women to use sex or nudity to sell her pop music. As Lisa Wade says, “Because that’s what the system rewards. That’s not freedom, that’s a strategy.” So I would skip that debate and ask whether the multi-millionaire in question is adding anything critical to her product, or using her sex-plated platform for some good end. Madonna might have. So far Miley Cyrus isn’t.
The philosopher Susan Sontag has written achingly about the way in which men are allowed to age and women are not.
The great advantage men have is that our culture allows two standards of male beauty: the boy and the man. The beauty of a boy resembles the beauty of a girl. In both sexes it is a fragile kind of beauty and flourishes naturally only in the early part of the life-cycle. Happily, men are able to accept themselves under another standard of good looks — heavier, rougher, more thickly built…
There is no equivalent of this second standard for women. The single standard of beauty for women dictates that they must go on having clear skin. Every wrinkle, every line, every gray hair, is a defeat.
What a stunning example of Sontag’s observation. The men are not considered unattractive by virtue of the fact that you can tell they have skin. The women, in contrast, have faces that are so smooth that they look inhuman; their images are halfway between photograph and cartoon. Amazingly, this treatment of images of men and women is so ubiquitous that it now looks more or less normal to us.
Some sociologists went to the US Open final and posted about it on Facebook. Here’s what they saw. Notice the size of the court.
(Photo by Jenn Lena)
I saw the match too. When I got home from work, I turned on CBS. Here’s what I saw.
On my 40″ flat-screen Samsung, I could see the match as though I were in the box seats, nothing between me and the court. I could see the grimace on a player’s face, the sweat stains on his shirt. I sat on an upholstered chair. And it cost me nothing.
How much was a plastic seat in the top rows of Arthur Ashe Stadium? I don’t know. My grounds pass on Day 3 was $66. Seats for the finals were $95. I have sat up there near the top. The players are colorful miniatures moving around on the green rectangles. The distant perspective allows – forces – you to see the whole court, so you are aware of placement strategies and patterns of movement you might otherwise not have noticed. But tennis isn’t football; strategy, especially in singles, is fairly obvious and not complicated.
From way up there, the players are so far away. It’s as though you were looking at your TV through the wrong end of a telescope. You see the game differently, and you hear it differently. A player hits a solid backcourt shot, and for a noticeable half-second or so, you hear silence. Only when the ball is clearing the net do you hear the impact of the stroke.
Why go out to Flushing Meadow? It’s ridiculous to think about this in the narrow economic framework of money and tennis narrowly defined. My $0 view of the match was far better than that of my FB friends in their expensive seats high above the court. Close that micro-economics book and open Durkheim. Think about the match as ritual. It’s not just about Nadal and Djokovic whacking a fuzzy yellow ball back and forth for a couple of hours. A ritual includes everyone. If you’re there, you are part of that group. You are one with the with the people in the stadium and with the charismatic figures in center court
That’s why, if something is a ritual, being there is so important. Showing up is more than just 80%. It’s everything. If you’re there, you are part of our group. You go to Thanksgiving dinner at Aunt Diane’s house not because the food is good. You might get better food and more enjoyment at home with take-out Chinese and a TV. You go because your presence defines you as a member of the group. Not going is tantamount to saying that you are just not part of this family.
The Final is not just any match. It is the ritual that anoints our king, hence the trophies and pageantry and ritualistic incantations (speeches) after the match. I would guess that most of the people there yesterday would choose even a so-so final over a close, well-played match on an outside court in Round 3. Because this match is so important, it generates more mana. And that energy is created by the crowd. Of course, the crowd’s perception is that it is the players who are creating that special feeling, and it helps if the match on the court is close and well-played. But the same match – every shot exactly the same – played in an early round in a nearly empty stadium would not create that same feeling for the handful of spectators who showed up.
What makes the ticket worth all the money then is not the quality of the play. It is the symbolic meaning of the ritual and the strong feeling you get from being part of that ritual. You were there, with Nadal and Djokovic. That ritual exists in sacred time, linked to other great finals matches. So maybe you save your ticket stub or your program as your link to that sacred past.
I saw the same match, and I had a better view. But I’m not going to save my cable TV bill.
All In with Chris Hays does a great job mocking the “What’s wrong with Black culture?” question. He and his “guest,” Gawker’s Cord Jefferson, straight-face skewer news programs that take every instance of African American law breaking as an opportunity to castigate the group writ large. It’s great satire: