Tag Archives: media

The Sinking of Quicksand

“For many of us, quicksand was once a real fear,” write the producers at Radio Lab:

It held a vise-grip on our imaginations, from childish sandbox games to grown-up anxieties about venturing into unknown lands. But these days, quicksand can’t even scare an 8-year-old.

Interviewing a class of fourth graders, writer Dan Engber discovered that most understood the concept, but didn’t find it particularly worrisome.  ”I usually don’t think about it,” said one.  They were more afraid of things like aliens, zombies, ghosts, and dinosaurs.  But they understood that it was something that people used to be afraid of: ”My dad told me that when he was little his friends always said ‘look out that could be quicksand!’”

Engber became fascinated with what happened to quicksand.  He found a source of data — compiled by, of all things, quicksand sexual fetishists — that included every movie scene that involved quicksand from the 1900s to the 2000s.  Comparing this number to the total number of movies produced allowed him to show that quicksand had a lifecourse.  It rose in the ’40s, skyrocketed in the ’60s, and then fell out of favor.

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Why?

Engber found a pattern in the data.  In quicksand’s early years, the movie scenes featured quicksand as a very serious threat.  But, after quicksand peaked, it became a  joke.  In the ’80s, quicksand even made it into My Little Pony and Perfect Strangers.  Later, in discussions about plot lines for Lost, the idea of quicksand was dismissed as ridiculous.

I guess it’s fair to say that quicksand “jumped the shark.”

In sociology, we call this the social construction of social problems: the fact that our fears don’t perfectly correlate with the hazards we face.  In this case, media is implicated. What is it making us fear today?

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.

Why Survey Questions Matter: Blasphemy Edition

“How could we get evidence for this?” I often ask students. And the answer, almost always is, “Do a survey.” The word survey has magical power; anything designated by that name wears a cloak of infallibility.

“Survey just means asking a bunch of people a bunch of questions,” I’ll say. “Whether it has any value depends on how good the bunch of people is and how good the questions are.”  My hope is that a few examples of bad sampling and bad questions will demystify.

For example, Variety:

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Here’s the lede:

Despite its Biblical inspiration, Paramount’s upcoming “Noah” may face some rough seas with religious audiences, according to a new survey by Faith Driven Consumers.

The data to confirm that idea:

The religious organization found in a survey that 98% of its supporters were not “satisfied” with Hollywood’s take on religious stories such as “Noah,” which focuses on Biblical figure Noah.

The sample:

Faith Driven Consumers surveyed its supporters over several days and based the results on a collected 5,000+ responses.

And (I’m saving the best till last) here’s the crucial survey question:

As a Faith Driven Consumer, are you satisfied with a Biblically themed movie — designed to appeal to you — which replaces the Bible’s core message with one created by Hollywood?

As if the part about “replacing the Bible’s core message” weren’t enough, the item reminds the respondent of her or his identity as a Faith Driven Consumer. It does make you wonder about that 2% who either were fine with the Hollywood* message or didn’t know.

You can’t really fault Faith Driven Consumer too much for this shoddy “research.” They’re not in business to find the sociological facts. What’s appalling is that Variety accepts it at face value and without comment.

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.

What Causes Inequality? Systemic and Individual Frames for Racism in Media

Sociologists who study inequality distinguish between individual bias, negative beliefs about a group held by individual persons, and systemic inequality, unequal outcomes built into our institutions that will produce inequality even in the absence of biased individuals.

A good example is K-12 education in the United States.  School funding is linked, in part, to the taxes collected in the neighborhood of each school.  So, schools in rich neighborhoods, populated by rich kids, have more money to spend per student than schools in poor neighborhoods.  This system privileges young people who win the birth lottery and are born into wealthier families, but it also benefits whites and some Asians, who have higher incomes and greater wealth, on average, than Latinos, African Americans, American Indians, and less advantaged Asian groups.

Now, teachers and school staff might be classist and racist, and that will make matters worse.  But even in the absence of such individuals, the laws that govern k-12 funding will ensure that rich and white children will be given a disproportionate amount of the resources we put towards educating the next generation.  That’s f’d up, by the way, in a society that tells itself it’s a meritocracy.

Sociologists who spend time in classrooms know that young people coming into college are much more familiar with the idea that individuals are biased than they are with the idea that our societies are designed to benefit some and hurt others.  This is a problem because, in the absence of an understanding that we need to change law, policy, and practice — in addition to changing minds — we will make limited headway in reducing unfair inequalities.

But where do people get their ideas about what causes inequality?

One source is the mass media and, thanks to Race Forward, we now have a portrait of media coverage of one type of inequality and the extent to which it addresses individual and systemic biases.  They measured the degree to which news and TV coverage of issues were systemically aware (discussing policies or practices that lead or have led to inequality) or systemically unaware (fails to discuss such policies, explicitly denies them, or refuses to acknowledge racism of any kind).

First, they found that news outlets varied in their systemic awareness, with MSNBC a clear stand out on one end and Fox News a clear stand out on the other. On average, about 2/3rds of all media coverage failed to have any discussion of systemic causes of inequality.  Articles or op-eds that robustly discussed policy problems or changes were extraordinarily rare, “never constitut[ing] more than 3.3% of any individual news outlet’s coverage of race…”

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Second, they found that systemic awareness varied strongly by the topic of the coverage, with the economy and criminal justice most likely to receive systemically aware coverage:

4What this means is that whether any given person understands racism to be a largely one-on-one phenomenon that can be solved by reducing individual bias (or waiting for racists to move on to another realm) or a systemic problem that requires intervention at the level of our institutions, depends in part on what media outlets they consume and what they’re interested in (e.g., sports vs. economics).

There’s lots more to learn from the full document at Race Forward.

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.

Gillette, Stymied by Beards, Heads South

I always love a good behind-the-scenes marketing story and last month NPR reported that Proctor & Gamble is facing falling men’s razor sales as beards have become more fashionable.  Their response?  To put more pressure on men to shave other parts of their bodies.

Always a glutton for punishment, I set out to discover just how they were going to try to convince men to do this… and I was not disappointed.

Gillette has hired models to convince men to shave, well, their whole body.  A slightly longer ad featuring three of them begins with the question, “What do you say to a guy who grooms everything?”  To which they answer, “Yaaaaaaay!”  No really.

This is the sexual objectification of male bodies.  The use of threats like “you’ll be disgusting to women if you don’t do what we say” is a form of social control.   One point for capitalism over its long-enduring opponent in the male hygiene and grooming market: gender ideology.

Cross-posted at BroadBlogs.

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.

Questioning Media Portrayals of Female Drunkeness

At the New Statesman, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter skewer the common media hand-wringing over women who get drunk in public.  Above and beyond the victim-blaming “don’t make yourself so rape-able” message, Cosslett and Baxter point out that the tsk-tsking is deeply laden with the idea that women should behave like “ladies.”  This, of course, is an old-fashioned notion suggesting that women are or should be the moral superiors of men (invented during the Victorian era).

Using a Daily Mail article as an example, they criticize the typical language and imagery that accompanies these stories:

Platell’s piece manages to feature almost every aspect of drunken female behaviour that tabloids simultaneously loathe and desire. Yes, this article has the whole shebang: long lens photos of young women with their fishnets torn up to the bum at a fancy dress party in freshers’ week; phrases like “barely leaving anything to the imagination” and “neo-feminists behaving like men” and creepily voyeuristic descriptions of “pretty young girls lying comatose on the pavement.”

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From another point of view, Cosslett and Baxter argue, this looks like “a pretty cracking night out,” stumbles and all.

They point out, smartly, that many of these stories frame women’s interest in alcohol as an effort to hang with the boys.  The message, they explain, is that ”‘young ladies’ are being warped by the hard-drinking university culture… going along with men’s behaviour because they’re weak-willed and they think it will make them look cool.”

Because men invent things, and then women jump on board because they feel like they have to — that’s the way of the world, isn’t it? It’s not like those of the female variety enjoy a pint, after all, or even — God forbid — enjoy the sensation of drunkenness once in a blue moon. It’s not as though our decision whether or not to drink has anything to do with us or our own lives… modern female binge drinking is still all about the men.

This is not to defend drinking per se, or binge drinking or public drunkeness, but to point out the gendered coverage of the phenomenon, which still portrays women’s drinking as somehow less natural, more worrisome, and more dangerous than men’s.

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.

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 author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.