Rob Walker (author of the fascinating book Buying In: What We Buy and Who We Are) sent me a link to a post at Drinkin’ and Dronin’ of a 1954 Levi Strauss brochure about “western Indian lore.” It’s a nice round-up of stereotypes and appropriations of Native Americans. We start off with an angry, bare-chested (and Levis-clad) man with a tomahawk, shield, moccasins, and headdress; I’d guess he’s supposed to be a warrior doing a war dance:
Then some descriptions of items associated with different tribes and the obligatory broken English (“just want ‘um”) familiar to anyone who watched The Lone Ranger and paid attention to Tonto:
I have no idea how accurate their descriptions of “unusual Indian weapons” are, but the overall tone of the brochure doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.
And we have a lesson on “the Indian sign language,” the origins of which are “lost in the mists of time”:
Thibaut T., Steve D., Alexis M., Tony L., and Dmitriy T.M. all asked us to write about a recent news story regarding skin lightening. Previously marketed to women, skin lightening, bleaching, and “fairness” creams are being newly marketed to men. The introduction of a Facebook application has triggered a wave of commentary among American journalists and bloggers. The application, launched by Vaseline and aimed at men in India, smoothes out blotches and lightens the overall skin color of your profile photo, allowing men to present a more “radiant” face to their friends.
The U.S. commentary involves a great deal of hand-wringing over Indian preference for light skin and the lengths to which even men will go to get a few shades lighter. Indians, it is claimed, have a preference for light skin because skin color and caste are connected in the Indian imagination. Dating and career success, they say further, are linked to skin color. Perhaps, these sources admit, colorism in India is related to British colonialism and the importation of a color-based hierarchy; but that was then and, today, India embraces prejudice against dark-skinned people, thereby creating a market for these unsavory products.
The obsession with light skin, however, cannot be solely blamed on insecure individuals or a now internalized colorism imported from elsewhere a long time ago. Instead, a preference for white skin is being cultivated, today, by corporations seeking profit. Sociologist Evelyn Nakano Glenn documents the global business of skin lightening in her article, Yearning for Lightness. She argues that interest in the products is rising, especially in places where “…the influence of Western capitalism and culture are most prominent.” The success of these products, then, “cannot be seen as simply a legacy of colonialism.” Instead, it is being actively produced by giant multinational companies today.
The Facebook application is one example of this phenomenon. It does not simply reflect an interest in lighter skin; it very deliberately tells users that they need to “be prepared” to make a first impression and makes it very clear that skin blotches and overall darkness is undesirable and smooth, light-colored skin is ideal. Marketing for skin lightening products not only suggests that light skin is more attractive, it also links light skin to career success, overall upward mobility, and Westernization. Some advertising, for example, overtly links dark skin with saris and unemployment for women, while linking light skin with Western clothes and a career.
The desire for light skin, then, is being encouraged by corporations who stand to profit from color-based anxieties that are overtly tied to the supposed superiority of Western culture. These corporations, it stands to be noted, are not Indian. They are largely Western: L’Oreal and Unilever are two of the biggest companies. The supposedly Indian preference for light skin, then, is being stoked and manufactured by companies based in countries populated primarily by light-skinned people. As Glenn explains, “Such advertisements can be seen as not simply responding to a preexisting need but actually creating a need by depicting having dark skin as a painful and depressing experience.”
Before pitying Indian seekers of light-skin, condemning the nation for colorism, or gently shaking our heads over the legacies of colonialism, we should consider how ongoing Western cultural dominance (that is, racism and colorism in the West today) and capitalist economic penetration (that is, profit through the cultivation of insecurities around the world) contributes to the global market in skin lightening products.
Source: Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. 2008. Yearning for Lightness: Transnational Circuits in the Marketing and Consumption of Skin Lighteners. Gender & Society22, 3: 281-302.
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.
The New York Times has a neat interactive graph based on data from the American Time Use Survey that lets you look at hour-by-hour time use broken down by sex, employment status, 3 racial/ethnic groups (White, Black, Hispanic), age, education, and number of children (though, unfortunately, you can’t search by more than one category at once). Here is the breakdown for the entire sample:
For people age 15-24:
Watching TV and movies takes up a lot of the time of those over age 65:
You can also click on a particular activity to get more information about it:
Those with advanced degrees spent the most time participating in sports or watching them in person; I suspect that the data might look a bit different if time spent watching sports on TV went in this category instead of the TV category:
Just a note, the averages for time spent at work seem pretty low, but that’s because they’re averaged over all days of the week, including any days off, rather than only days a person actually went to work.
Presumably the amount of time you’ll spend playing around with the site goes under computer use.
by Guest Blogger Adrienne Keene, Jul 21, 2010, at 10:38 am
I was waiting for my connecting flight at Chicago O’Hare, and spotted this advertisement on the opposite side of our gate. Close up on the text:
“Chicago is the Potawatomi word for onion field. Apparently, the Potawatomis didn’t have a word for global business center.”
This is an example of the use of Indigenous language and imagery that many people wouldn’t think twice about, or find any inherent issues with. But let’s look at this a little deeper:
The use of past tense. It’s not “The Potawatomis don’t have a word for…” it’s “The Potawatomis didn’t…” Implying that the Potawatomi no longer exist or are using their language.
The implication that “Indians” and “Global Business Center” aren’t in congruence. Which is assuming that Natives are static, unchanging, and unable to be modern and contemporary. “Potawatomi” and “Onion Field” are fine together, because American society associates Indians with the natural world, plants, animals, etc. But there is definitely not an association between “Potawatomi” and “Global Business”.
But, in reality, of course Potawotomis still exist today, are still speaking their language, and do have a word for Global Business Center (or multiple words…).
Language is constantly evolving, adapting to new technology (remember when google wasn’t a verb?) and community changes. I remember reading a long time ago in one of my Native studies classes about the Navajo Nation convening a committee to discuss how one would say things like “computer” or “ipod” in Navajo language, in an effort to preserve language and culture and promote the use of Navajo language among the younger generation.
In fact, here’s an awesome video of a guy describing his ipod in Navajo, complete with concepts like “downloading” (there are subtitles/translations):
To imply that Native peoples wouldn’t have the ability to describe a “Global Business Center” reeks of a colonialist perspective (we must “civilize” the savage! show him the ways of capitalism and personal property, for they know not of society!). Native peoples have been trading and communicating “globally” for centuries, long before the arrival of Europeans.
Thanks, Chicago, for giving me one more reason to strongly dislike your airport, because all the canceled flights, lost luggage, overnights in airport hotels, and 10 hour delays (all true stories) weren’t enough.
(Thanks to Hillary for taking the picture, since my sidekick pales in comparison to the iphone)
Adrienne Keene is a Cherokee doctoral candidate at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, where she studies access to higher education for Native (American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian) students, as well as the role of sovereignty and self-determination in Native education. In her free time, she blogs about cultural appropriation and use of Indigenous cultures, traditions, languages, and images in popular culture, advertising, and everyday life at Native Appropriations.
The fashion industry is often criticized for idealizing white femininity. Yet, Chelsea S. was perusing JC Penney’s online catalog and found a rather diverse set of models (pictures below). So, does the modeling industry fetishize whiteness or not?
It turns out that the answer is: it does and it doesn’t. In her article, “Size Zero High-End Ethnic: Cultural Production and the Reproduction of Culture in Fashion Modeling,” Ashley Mears, a model turned sociologist, explains that high fashion models are overwhelmingly white, but that commercial modeling — the kind you see in catalogs for stores like Target, Mervyns, and JC Penney — is much more racially inclusive. Similarly, extreme thinness is more pronounced among high fashion models, whereas commercial models tend to have a few more inches around their waists.
Mears says that the difference has to do with the contrasting purposes of the different modeling worlds. High fashion is supposed to be, by definition, unattainable. The women used to model high fashion, then, should be the most idealized, with bodies that are among the most difficult to attain and beauty that is the most rareified. Whiteness, here, is a marker of elite status because white femininity, in U.S. culture, is the most purely feminine femininity of all.
In contrast, the commercial market is actually designed to sell clothes to everyday people. In this case, they want consumers to identify with their models. Their models aren’t supposed to signify social distance, they’re supposed to be just like us. Using more diverse models and models who are less waif-like helps accomplish those goals.
Teresa L.-M. sent us a link to an article at Color Lines about a survey of 3,413 people conducted by several groups, including Time magazine and the Center for American Progress, about attitudes toward a variety of issues including changes in women’s work and family roles. Overall, we see that every group said that women’s increased participation in the paid workforce has been good for the U.S., but not surprisingly, some groups were more enthusiastic than others:
This includes those who said it has been “somewhat” or “very” positive. The % for Latinas was highlighted in the original because the memo focused on the fact that Latinos and Latinas, despite stereotypes that they hold more “traditional” gender attitudes, reported more positive feelings about increased workforce participation than did men and women as a whole. Hispanics were somewhat oversampled — that is, more were included than you would expect relative to their proportion in the U.S. population — because the organizations conducting the survey wanted to get more detailed information about Latino/a attitudes. The results indicated that “Latino attitudes were basically in line with those of other groups on nearly every indicator in the survey. Some minor differences did emerge in terms of the intensity of these beliefs and the degree of consensus about an issue.”
Also, obviously the categories above are not mutually exclusive, they just illustrate some interesting differences when you sort on various characteristics.
One area where Latinos/as differed was that they were more likely to report having an “interesting career” as the most important thing for their daughters to have, and less likely to say marriage and family is the most important, compared to all men and women, which is the opposite of what stereotypes of Latinos and Latinas would predict:
But I can’t help but note the wording there: “Everyone naturally wants the best of all things for their children…” That’s sloppy survey writing there, because it’s leading — it implies that a certain attitude or desire is universal and normative, and implies that everyone would agree that the three items they include in the question are examples of “the best.” It’s not that I’m saying most parents want their daughters to have miserable marriages or shitty jobs they hate. But you always want to be careful about wording questions in ways that take beliefs or values for granted, and thus set up a situation where contradicting them puts the respondent in the position of feeling deviant or fearing disapproval from the interviewer. I don’t know that in this particular example, that wording would have a huge impact on responses, since participants had to rank 3 specific items relative to one another. But I’d be very concerned if they had then been asked how important each item was (rather than asked to rank them), since the wording might lead people to rate items more highly than they would otherwise, because that’s what parents “naturally” want for their kids.
Anyway, moving on. Latinos/as were less concerned about children growing up without a full-time stay-at-home parent than were men and women overall, with Latinas expressing significantly less negative attitudes than women overall and Latino men (this includes those who answered “very” or “somewhat” negative):
Back to methodological quibbling, this next graph is a great example of slippage between what the graph shows and what the heading claims it shows. As we see, the title says it indicates that Latinos are “more likely to turn to one another for decision making and financial support”:
But that’s not what the data are about at all. The question wording makes it clear this is both hypothetical (including people who don’t have a romantic partner and thus may be answering based on what they suppose would be true if they did) and is about how they value these things (“how important you feel it is for you personally…”), which is very different than if they regularly do them. The fact that you feel that it’s very important to have a romantic partner who provides financial support does not mean you are, in fact, turning to another person for financial support.
Of course, the heading for the table was written after the data were gathered and analyzed, and it doesn’t necessarily indicate that the data themselves are problematic. And yet, along with the wording issue above — and these are just two things I noticed in the memo that summarizes a few of the findings — it makes me a bit hesitant. The topic is interesting, and the results, which seem to undermine stereotypes about Latinos/as, would be great to use…except the methodological issues are overshadowing what might be perfectly valid, useful, and insightful findings. So ultimately, I present the images here less as information on attitudes about women’s roles and more as a cautionary tale.
And, you know, feel free to let me know if you think I’m over-reacting.
Deepa D. sent in an interesting post from Racebending about the race/ethnicity and gender of stars who get top billing in Paramount movies. Three volunteers at Racebending analyzed relevant data on movies produced or distributed by Paramount Pictures since 2000, as well as those currently in development. They focused on top billing — that is, which stars are most frequently highlighted in promotional materials, whose names appear highest in the credits, and so on. This both reflects power and status in Hollywood (the more prestige you have, the higher you’re likely to be credited compared to lower-status stars with similar screen time) and contributes to it (higher billing leads to more exposure and attention. Racebending explains:
Various types of Credit include Main Title Credit (before the movie starts), End Title Credit (after the movie is over), Paid Advertising Credit (mention during commercials and publicity), Above-the-Title Credit (name shows up on top of the movie name in promos and on screen), and Billing Block Credit (the block of text on posters and trailers.)
For our review, we simply looked at which actor is listed first on imdb.com. Even if several actors have received top billing or above the title billing, someone is always listed first…
Our review of actors in top billing was necessarily subjective, but the cultural ethnicity and gender of most of Paramount’s top-billed actors like John Travolta, Angelina Jolie, and Samuel L. Jackson are well established in the public sphere. For animated characters like Shrek the Ogre, Spongebob Squarepants, and Eliza Thornberry we looked to the gender and ethnicity of the voice actor. We simply tallied the first actor billed, (for example: Malin Ackerman in Watchmen, Chris Pine in Star Trek, Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears, Jamie Foxx in The Soloist, Noah Ringer in The Last Airbender.)
The analysis found that the vast majority of top-billed stars in Paramount films from 2000 to 2009 are male, while movie audiences are about 45% male:
An even higher proportion — 86% — of top-billed stars are White (the green bars show each groups percent of the overall U.S. population):
The category White there specifically includes White non-Hispanics. No Latinos had top billing in Paramount movies during this time period. Also,
Out of 133 movies either produced or distributed, 17 had a black lead actor and only one had an Asian actor–Parry Shen in the film Better Luck Tomorrow (2002). However, Paramount did not produce Better Luck Tomorrow, the company distributed the film to theaters after the film made the independent film circuit.
When the data are broken down by race/ethnicity and gender, we see that the vast majority of top-billed stars who are non-White are men. Non-White women are almost entirely shut out:
The chart on the right represents films currently under development. While Whites predominate in the starring roles in these projects, notice that White women make up only 6% of top-billed stars, and non-White men make up about twice that proportion.
This is, of course, just one studio. If you have links to similar data on other studios, or on movies more generally, send them in!