Tag Archives: discourse/language

How to Change the World One Shrug at a Time

This is, by far, the best response to inquiries about male -bodied cross-dressing that I have ever heard. If you don’t already love Eddie Izzard, you might now.  Asked why he wears “women’s dresses,” this non-cisgendered man responds, in a nutshell: “I’m not wearing women’s dresses. I’m wearing my dresses. I bought them. They are mine and I’m a man. They are very clearly a man’s dresses.”

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Johnny Depp does a similarly good job of refusing to take the bait in this clip from the Late Show with David Letterman. Letterman queries his rationale for wearing a women’s engagement ring. Depp just plays dumb and ultimately says that it didn’t fit his fiancée, but it did fit him. So… shrug.

The phenomenon of being questioned about one’s performance of gender is called “gender policing.” Generally there are three ways to respond to gender policing: (1) apologize and follow the gender rules, (2) make an excuse for why you’re breaking the rules (which allows you to break them, but still affirms the rules), or (3) do something that suggests that the rules are stupid or wrong.  Only the last one is effective in changing or eradicating norms delimiting how men and women are expected to behave.

In these examples, both Izzard and Depp made the choice to disregard the rules, even when being policed. It seems like a simple thing, but it’s very significant. It’s the best strategy for getting rid of these rules altogether.

Thanks to Dmitriy T.C. for the links!

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.

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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.

The Rich to the Poor: Do What I Say, Not What I Do

Economic policies often rest on assumptions about human motivation.  Here’s Rep. Ryan (Republican of Wisconsin):

The left is making a big mistake here. What they’re offering people is a full stomach and an empty soul. People don’t just want a life of comfort. They want a life of dignity — of self-determination.

Fox News has been hitting the theme of “Entitlement Nation” lately. This Conservative case against things like Food Stamps, Medicare, welfare, unemployment benefits, etc rests on some easily understood principles of motivation and economics.

1.    Giving money or things to a person creates dependency and saps the desire to work. That’s bad for the person and bad for the country.
2.    A person working for money is good for the person and the country.
3.    We want to encourage work.
4.    We do not want to encourage dependency.
5.    Taxing something discourages it.

Now that you’ve mastered these, here’s the test question:

1. According to Conservatives, which should be taxed more heavily:

a.    money a person earns by working.
b.    money a person receives without working, for example because someone else died and left it in their will.

If you said “b,” you’d better go back to Conservative class. A good Conservative believes that the money a person gets without working for it should not be taxed at all.

Not all such money, of course.  Lottery tickets are bought disproportionately by lower-income people.  If a person gets income by winning the PowerBall or some other lottery, the Federal government taxes the money as income. Conservatives do not object.  But if a person gets income by winning the rich-parent lottery, Conservatives think he or she should not pay any taxes.

What Conservatives are saying to you is this: working for your money is not as good as instead of inheriting it. This message seems to contradict the principles listed above. But, as Jon Stewart recently pointed out, Conservatives apply those principles of economics and motivational psychology only to the poor, not to wealthy individuals or corporations.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog and the Huffington Post.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Is Religion Secularizing? Trends in Opposition to Pornography

The term secularization is typically used to describe the process by which something becomes increasingly distant from, irrelevant to, or uninfluenced by religion.  But what about religions themselves?  Can religions undergo secularization?

Sociologist Jeremy Thomas tested this proposition, looking at changes in how authors writing for the popular magazine Christianity Today frame their opposition to the use of pornography between 1956 and 2010 (article, summary).  He compared three anti-pornography frames:

  • religious (e.g., against the bible, a sin),
  • harm to others (e.g., performers), and
  • harm to self (e.g., porn addiction, marital troubles).

Thomas found that the last frame — harm to self — had increasing come to dominate the discussion at Christianity Today.  This figure shows the proportion of paragraphs that make each argument.  The last frame clearly dominates.

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Thomas calls this “outsourcing moral authority”: religious leaders are relying on other authorities to back up their points of view.  This suggests that even religion is undergoing secularization.

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.

Rethinking a Zero Tolerance Approach to “Female Genital Mutilation”

I’ve written extensively — not here, but professionally — on the ways in which Americans talk about the female genital cutting practices (FGCs) that are common in parts of Africa.  I’ve focused on the frames for the practice (common ones include women’s oppression, child abuse, a violation of bodily integrity, and cultural depravity), who has had the most power to shape American perceptions (e.g., journalists, activists, or scientists), and the implications of this discourse for thinking about and building gender egalitarian, multicultural democracies.

Ultimately, whatever opinion one wants to hold about the wide range of practices we typically refer to as “female genital mutilation,” it is very clear that the negative opinions of most Westerners are heavily based on misinformation and have been strongly shaped by racism, ethnocentrism, and a disgust or pity for an imagined Africa.  That doesn’t mean that Americans or Europeans aren’t allowed to oppose (some of) the practices (some of the time), but it does mean that we need to think carefully about how and why we do so.

One of the most powerful voices challenging Western thinking about FGCs is Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, a Sierra Leonan-American anthropologist who chose, at 21 years old, to undergo the genital cutting practice typical for girls in her ethnic group, Kono.

She has written about this experience and how it relates to the academic literature on genital cutting.  She has also joined other scholars — both African and Western — in arguing against the zero tolerance position on FGCs and in favor of a more fair and nuanced understanding of why people choose these procedures for themselves or their children and the positive and negative consequences of doing so.  To that end, she is the co-founder of African Women are Free to Choose and SiA Magazine, dedicated to “empowering circumcised women and girls in Africa and worldwide.”

You can hear Ahmadu discuss her perspective in this program:

Many people reading this may object to the idea of re-thinking zero tolerance approaches to FGCs.  I understand this reaction, but I urge such readers to do so anyway.  If we care enough about African women to be concerned about the state of their genitals, we must also be willing to pay attention to their hearts and their minds.  Even, or especially, if they say things we don’t like.

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.

Talking about the Gender Pay Gap: How Language Obscures Privilege

We have an ever-growing collection of ways in which men are frequently positioned as people and women as women.  We’re always on the lookout for new examples and sociologist Nathan Palmer recently highlighted a nice observation about how this happens in language.

He asked readers to consider a quote from a textbook (not to single Conley out, he’s using standard language and I use it as well in my own textbook).  Here’s the quote with the relevant part in bright white:

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Applying an insight by sociologist Michael Kimmel, Palmer then updated the slide with slightly different language:

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If a dollar is the amount by which all other wages should be compared, then the first sentence centers men’s experiences and positions women as a deviation from that.  The second sentence switches that around.

By switching the referent, this change in language shifts the center of the discussion from women’s disadvantage to men’s advantage.  Of course, there is both unfair disadvantage and advantage in this story, and we need to make both visible, but always talking in terms of the former makes women and their disadvantage the problem and hides the way that we need to be addressing men’s unfair advantage as well.

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.

Richard Sherman Responds to Being Called a “Thug”

Immediately after the Seattle Seahawks beat the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, Richard Sherman gave an intense, boastful post-game interview.  This triggered the always-present racism, as illustrated by many tweets that followed.  Here is just a sample from Public Shaming:

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These are obviously cruel and full of hate, but the ones in which he was called a “thug” got somewhat less attention:

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In interviews about the racist response, Sherman made some really nice points about what this means about the state of America and the specifically racial insults.  In a press conference, for example, asked about being called a “thug,” he argued that it’s just “the accepted way of calling someone the n-word these days.”  He points out that, in no way was what he was doing thug-like:

Maybe I’m talking loudly, and doing something… talking like I’m not supposed to, but I’m not… there’s a hockey game where they didn’t even play hockey, they just threw the puck aside and started fighting.  I saw that and I said, “Aw man, I’m the thug? What!? What’s going on here?”

In another video, he expands on this point, saying: “I’m not out there beating on people, or committing crimes, or getting arrested, or doing anything; I’m playing a football game at a high level and I got excited.”

Sherman’s making two points.  First, that there was nothing thug-like about his behavior.  Thugs are violent criminals.  He’s just playing a game.  And, second, the term is decidedly racial, applied to him largely because of the color of his skin.  Meanwhile, hockey players, who are overwhelmingly white, as well as other white athletes, don’t as often get these sorts of labels even if they are physically violent in ways that exceed the demands of their sport.

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.

Mother, Sex Object, Worker: The Transformation of the Female Flight Attendant

While the first flight attendants were male and many early airlines had a ban on hiring women, flight attending would eventually become a quintessentially female occupation.  Airline marketers exploited the presence of these female flight attendants.  Based on my reading — especially Phil Tiemeyer‘s Plane Queer and Kathleen Barry’s history of flight attendants’ labor activism – there seem to have been three stages.

First, there was the domestication of the cabin.  As air travel became more comfortable (e.g., pressurized cabins and quieter rides), airlines were looking to increase their customer base.  Female “stewardesses” in the ’40s and ’50s were an opportunity to argue that an airplane was just like a comfortable living room, equally safe for women, children, and men alike.  Marketing at the time presented the flight attendant as if she were a mother or wife:

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Twenty years later, air travel was no longer scary, so airlines switched their tactics. They sexualized their flight attendants in order to appeal to businessmen, who still made up a majority of their customers. Here’s a ten-second Southwest commercial touting the fact that their stewardesses wear “hot pants”:

The intersection of the labor movement and women’s liberation in the ’60s and ’70s inspired women to fight for workplace rights. Flight attendants were among the first female workers to organize on behalf of their occupation and among the most successful to do so.  Their work won both practical and symbolic victories, like the discursive move from “stewardess” to “flight attendant” that transformed women in the occupation from sex objects to workers.  A quick Google Image search shows that the association — stewardess/sex object vs. flight attendant/worker — still applies. Notice that the search for “stewardess” includes more sexualized images, while the one for “flight attendant” shows more images of people actually working.

“Stewardess”:

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“Flight attendant”:Screenshot_2My impression is that today’s marketing tends to feature flight attendants in all three roles — domestic, sex object, worker — echoing each stage of the transformation of the occupation in the public imagination.

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post, Pacific Standard, and Work in Progress.

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.