Tag Archives: modern/primitive

The White Woman’s Burden

Flashback Friday.

Below is a remarkable commercial in which a white woman is told that if she buys Pampers, the company will donate vaccines to children in other countries.   Thanks to Kenjus W. for the submission.

It is an example of “activism by purchase,” which we have discussed at length on this blog. Apparently Pampers will only help keep babies alive if you buy their product.  How nice of them.

It’s also a fascinating example of the way in which white Westerners are seen as rescuing the rest of the world. This white mother with her white baby represent the West (erasing the diversity of people who live there). And she and her baby are counterposed to all the other mothers and their babies representing different racial groups (which are assumed to be coherent categories, even continents).

In the narrative of this commercial, all women are bonded by virtue of being natural nurturers of babies (and I could take issue with that, too), but the white Western woman is the ultra-mother. They may be sisters, but there are big and little sisters in this narrative. The babies run to her as if drawn to her ultra-motherhood and she treats them all, just for a moment, as if they were her very own.

Pampers wants you to think, of course, that when you buy a pack of Pampers, you are “helping” Other mothers and can save those Other babies.

This is just another manfestation of an old colonial belief, the white man’s burden, or the belief that white men had to take care of the rest of the world’s people because they were incapable of taking care of themselves.

Great find, Kenjus!

This post originally appeared in 2008.

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.

New Documentary: The Illusionists

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Writer and director Elena Rossini has released the first four minutes of The Illusionists.  I’m really excited to see the rest.  The documentary is a critique of a high standard of beauty but, unlike some that focus exclusively on the impacts of Western women, Rossini’s film looks as though it will do a great job of illustrating how Western capitalist impulses are increasingly bringing men, children, and the entire world into their destructive fold.

The first few minutes address globalization and Western white supremacy, specifically.  As one interviewee says, the message that many members of non-Western societies receive is that you “join Western culture… by taking a Western body.”  The body becomes a gendered, raced, national project — something that separates modern individuals from traditional ones — and corporations are all too ready to exploit these ideas.

Watch for yourself (subtitles available 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.

Does Europe Have a Sex Selection Problem?

Excess under age-60 female mortality in less developed countries is estimated to add up to 3.9 million missing women worldwide (World Bank, 2011).  A large proportion of this is due to sex-selective abortion practices.  The practice occurs most commonly among poorer families in societies where boy children are given greater economic and social status than girl children. In such a context, the transition to smaller families can lead parents to choose boys over girls. Notably, female fetuses are most likely to be aborted when the first child born is a girl.

The table below shows the countries with the most skewed ratios at birth in the world. While there is naturally a slightly higher sex ratio of boys to girls — between 1.04-1.06 — ratios above that are considered to be altered by technology due to gender preferences for boy children.

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The reason we find this newest 2013 data of particular interest is that, despite the popular Western focus on Asia, the practice occurs in more European countries. Perhaps most striking is the central European country that ranks at the top of the list—Liechtenstein. This strikes us as odd, given that Liechtenstein has never made this list in the past. Perhaps this is a data collection error (in very small populations, as also in Curacao, the results can be skewed). But we are surprised that no journalists have picked up on the fact that the worst offending son-preference country in the world is now, allegedly, a European country.  We contacted the CIA to ask them about this possible data anomaly but have not yet heard back.*

On the other hand, if the Liechtenstein data is accurate, this would be a very interesting story indeed, especially since Liechtenstein has the most restrictive laws against abortion in Europe.  A quick scan of gender equity policies in Liechtenstein shows that women there were not legalized to vote until 1984, indicating that it is not the most gender egalitarian of European countries.

In any case, whether Liechtenstein’s inclusion in this disreputable list is a data error or not, the other European countries on the list are legitimate.  They have been high for many years, and a recent report on Armenia, for example, documents longstanding norms in gender preference.  The disproportionate focus on birth sex ratios in China and India no doubt reflects their status as the #1 and #2 most populous countries, which means a much greater overall impact in sheer numbers.  Nevertheless, our point stands.  Why has the disproportionate inclusion of non-Asian countries on the above-list gone virtually unmentioned by journalists?

Do Developed Western Countries Prefer Boys?

Americans often think of parental sex preference as a thing of the past, or a problem in developing countries. After all, the U.S. sex ratio at birth falls in the normal range, at 1.05. This is in spite of the curious American cottage industry in sex-identification home use kits, such as the Intelligender, the GenderMaker and the Gender Mentor.

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In surveys, American parents report an ideal of two children and equal preference for boys and girls. However, American gender preferences manifest themselves in more sneaky ways. A 2011 Gallup poll showed that, if they were only able to have one child, the highest preference was for a boy.  These results are little changed from the same Gallup question asked of Americans in 1941.

To return to a point made in an earlier post on skewed sex ratios, Americans may not be so different, after all, in their gender preferences from the countries in the above table.  The crucial difference, she noted, is that some Asian countries are more enabled to act on their boy preference than others. It appears we should now be including some European countries in that “enabled” group as well.

* Neither the United Nations, Population Reference Bureau, nor the World Bank have published 2013 statistics yet for comparison to the CIA data.

Jennifer Lundquist is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst who specializes in stratification and social demography.
Eiko Strader is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst who studies inequality in labor markets and the welfare state.

Ripley’s Portrays “Giraffe-Necked Women” as Oddity in 2013

This month I enjoyed a lovely week with my mother and step-father, during which we drove down to Key West, FL.  Flipping through the tourist book in the hotel, I was surprised to see this:

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I’ve been writing for Sociological Image for over six years now and, as a result, it takes a lot to shock me.  Well, you got me, Ripley’s!  I did not know that we were still marketing racial or ethnic others as “oddities.”  At least not this blatantly.

The women who have historically practiced this neck lengthening illusion (what you are seeing is a depressed collar bone, not a longer neck) are a Burmese ethnic minority called Kayan or Padaung.  As late as the early 1900s, Europeans and Americans were kidnapping “Giraffe-necked women” and forcing them to be exhibits in zoos and circuses.  Promotional materials from that era look similar. Here’s an example:

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By the way, Kayan women weren’t the only humans kept in zoos.

I knew that Westerners still traveled to the communities where Kayan people live to see them “in their natural habitat” (sarcasm) and I’ve argued previously that this is a case of racial objectification.  I had no idea, however, that we still featured them as grotesque curiosities.  Ripley’s Believe It or Not!: “Proudly freaking out families for over 90 years.” Taking that tradition thing really seriously, I guess.

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 Stigma of Immigrant Languages

Cross-posted at Asian-Nation and Racialicious.

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Photo by Lulu Vision (Flickr/Creative Commons)

As an undergraduate majoring in linguistics, I was fascinated with the concept of endangered languages. Colonization, genocide, globalization, and nation-building projects have killed off untold numbers of languages. As linguist K. David Harrison (my undergrad advisor) tells NPR, speakers of stigmatized or otherwise less-favored languages are pressured to abandon their native tongue for the dominant language of the nation and the market (emphasis mine):

The decision to give up one language or to abandon a language is not usually a free decision. It’s often coerced by politics, by market forces, by the educational system in a country, by a larger, more dominant group telling them that their language is backwards and obsolete and worthless.

These same pressures are at work in immigrant-receiving countries like the United States, where young immigrants and children of immigrants are quickly abandoning their parents’ language in favor of English.

Immigrant languages in the United States generally do not survive beyond the second generation. In his study of European immigrants, Fishman (1965) found that the first generation uses the heritage language fluently and in all domains, while the second generation only speaks it with the first generation at home and in limited outside contexts. As English is now the language with which they are most comfortable, members of the second generation tend to speak English to their children, and their children have extremely limited abilities in their heritage language, if any. Later studies (López 1996 and Portes and Schauffler 1996 among them) have shown this three-generation trend in children of Latin American and Asian immigrants, as well.

The languages that most immigrants to the U.S. speak are hardly endangered. A second-generation Korean American might not speak Korean well, and will not be speaking that language to her children, but Korean is not going to disappear anytime soon — there are 66.3 million speakers (Ethnologue)! Compare that with the Chulym language of Siberia, which has less than 25.

Even if they’re not endangered per se, I would argue that they are in danger. While attitudes towards non-English languages in the U.S. seem to be improving, at least among wealthier and better educated people in some more diverse cities and suburbs, the stigma of speaking a non-English language still exists.

How many of you have:

  • been embarrassed to speak your heritage language in front of English speakers?
  • been reprimanded for speaking your heritage language in school?
  • been told to “go back to [country X]” when someone overhears you speak your heritage language?

I’ve heard innumerable stories about parents refusing to speak their native language to their children. Usually, the purported rationale is that they do not want the child to have language or learning difficulties, a claim that has been debunked over and over again by psychologists, linguists, and education scholars.

I’m sure that these parents truly believe that speaking only English to their children will give them an edge, though the reverse is true. What I wonder is how much this decision had to do with an unfounded belief about cognition and child development, and how much it had to do with avoiding the stigma of speaking a language that marks you as foreign, and as “backwards and obsolete and worthless”?

Calvin N. Ho is a graduate student in sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles studying immigration, race/ethnicity/nationalism, and Asian diasporas.  You can follow him at The Plaid Bag Connection and on Twitter.

A Balanced Look at Female Genital “Mutilation”

While I’m most well-known for my work on hook up culture, I’ve written extensively on a different topic altogether: how Americans talk about female genital cutting practices (FGCs), better known as female genital “mutilation.”  While FGCs are passionately opposed by essentially all Americans who learn about them, our understanding of the practices is, in fact, skewed by misinformation, ethnocentrism, and a history of portraying Africa as naively “backwards” or cruelly “barbaric.”

The main source of distortion has been the mass media.  Aiming to encourage journalists to think twice when covering the topic, the Hastings Center has released a report by the Public Policy Advisory Network on Female Genital Surgeries in Africa.  In the rest of this post, I briefly discuss some of the things they want journalists — and the rest of us — to know and add a couple of my own:

Using the word “mutilation” is counterproductive.

People who support genital cutting typically believe that a cut body is a more aesthetically pleasing one.  The term “mutilation” may appeal to certain Westerners, but people in communities where cutting occurs largely find the term confusing or offensive.

Media coverage usually focuses on one of the more rare types of genital cutting: infibulation.

Infibulation involves trimming and fusing the labia so as to close the vulva, leaving an opening in the back for intercourse, urination, and menses.  In fact, 10% of the procedures involve infibulation.  The remainder involve trimming, cutting, or scarification of the clitoris, clitoral hood (prepuce), or labia minora or majora.  While none of these procedures likely sound appealing, some are more extensive than others.

Research has shown that women with cutting are sexually responsive.

Women who have undergone genital surgeries report “rich sexual lives, including desire, arousal, orgasm, and satisfaction…”  This is true among women who have experienced clitoral reductions and undergone infibulation, as well as women who’ve undergone lesser forms of cutting.

Health complications of genital cutting “represent the exception rather than the rule.”

News reports often include long lists of acute and long-term negative medical consequences of FGCs, and these may feel intuitively true, but efforts to document their incidence suggest that health problems are, for the most part, no more common in cut than uncut women.  The Report concludes: “…from a public health point of view, the vast majority of genital surgeries in Africa are safe, even with current procedures and under current conditions.”

Girls are not generally cut in response to the influence of cruel patriarchs.

Most societies that cut girls also cut boys; some groups that engage in cutting have relatively permissive sexual rules for women, some do not; and female genital cutting practices are typically controlled and organized by women (correspondingly, men control male genital surgeries).

FGCs are not an “African practice.”

The procedures we label “female genital mutilation” occur only in some parts of Africa and occur outside of the continent as well (source):

Moreover, cosmetic genital surgeries in the U.S. are among the fastest growing procedures.  These include clitoral reduction, circumcision of the clitoral foreskin, labia trimming, and vaginal tightening, not to mention mons liposuction, collagen injected into the g-spot, color correction of the vulva, and anal bleaching.  While it would be simplistic to say that these are the same as the procedures we typically call “mutilation,” they are not totally different either.

Western-led efforts to eliminate FGCs are largely ineffective and sometimes backfire.

It turns out that people don’t appreciate being told that they are barbaric, ignorant of their own bodies, or cruel to their children.  Benevolent strangers who try to stop cutting in communities, as well as top-down laws instituted by politicians (often in response to Western pressure), are very rarely successful.  The most impressive interventions have involved giving communities resources to achieve whatever goals they desire and getting out of the way.

In sum, it’s high time Americans adopt a more balanced view of female genital cutting practices.  Reading The Hastings Center Report is a good start.  You might also pick up Genital Cutting and Transnational Sisterhood by Stanlie James and Claire Robertson.  Full text links to my papers on the topic, including a discourse analysis of 30 years of the academic conversation, can be found here.

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Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College.  She frequently delivers public lectures about female genital cutting. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

African American Women as “Wild” and “Exotic”

We’ve posted in the past about the ways in which ads often depicted non-White women as wild and exotic (and thus exciting), even conflating them with animals through poses or animal-print clothing. Unstraightened African American hair is also used as an exotic marker, presented as less civilized. Recently readers sent in two separate examples of these tropes.

Michelle H. noticed that Lane Bryant advertised “exotic inspirations” as part of a “tribal trend” “inspired by nature” that allows you to use your “natural instincts”. The model used to personify this exoticism is an African American woman with unstraightened hair:

Similarly, Sonia A., Jen J., and an anonymous reader noticed that data analysis firm ATLAS.ti used an image of an African American woman with several pencils stuck in her natural curls along with text encouraging you to “tame your data” but also “go wild”:

The company removed the banner from its Facebook page after complaints, but it’s still on the company website in an image and accompanying brochure on the product info page and several other places on the site.

Challenging Stereotypes of African Men

We’ve posted in the past about stereotypes about Africa. For instance, Binyavanga Wainaina’s video describes common tropes used when non-Africans write about Africa, while Chimamanda Adichie discusses the problem with the limited narratives we hear about African people and nations.

In another great example of challenging such stereotypes, Dolores sent us a video in which four young men highlight common portrayals of Africans — and specifically, African men — in movies. It’s really great:

Via Colorlines.