Tag Archives: social construction: symbols

Pac-Man and Mr. Pac-Man: Flipping the Script

Anita Sarkeesian is back with a new installment in her feminist analysis of video games. This one is a 25 minute discussion of the Ms. Male Character Trope, the phenomenon in which video games spice up their characters by including a female modeled off of the original male character.  It’s a good example of the way in which males are centered, while females, if included at all, are seen as a non-normative kind of human, animal, or thing.

She starts with the classic example of Pac-Man and Mrs. Pac-Man, observing that only Mrs. is marked with symbols of femininity; Pac-Man, who’s not even called Mr. Pac-Man, has no markers at all.  This is typical.  This is how maleness is made simultaneously invisible and front-and-center, while femaleness is othered.  Like this:

Pacman and Mrs Pacman

A fan sent her an example of what a reverse world would look like, where women were the default and men were marked and othered.  Awesome:

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Here’s the whole video:

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.

Disguising the Gift of Money

Princeton sociology professor Viviana Zelizer wrote a wonderful succinct editorial for the New York Times about the idea of giving money as a gift.  Money, she explains, is used in the most impersonal of transactions (even antagonistic ones, as someone who recently paid a parking ticket recalls), so giving money to loved ones can be seen as crass, tasteless, or thoughtless.

Zelizer explains that cultural elites have been worrying about this since the early 1900s.  The solution: “camouflage money inside a traditional gift.”  Offering some examples, Zelizer writes:

In the December 1909 Ladies’ Home Journal, for instance, the writer Lou Eleanor Colby said she had found a way to “disguise the money so that it would not seem just like a commercial transaction.” She explained how she had incorporated $10 for her mother into artwork. She inserted dollar bills into two posters; one showed five sad bills not knowing where to go, and the other depicted the happy ending: “five little dollars speeding joyfully” toward her mother’s purse.

Housewives hid gold coins in cookies and boxes of candies; dollar bills could decorate belt-buckles or picture frames. Women boasted when the recipient failed to realize that the actual present was money. Men also disguised the money they gave to their wives as gifts, to distinguish it from their allowances. If you give her a check, The Ladies’ Home Journal advised, “put it in an embroidered purse, or a leather sewing basket or a jewel box which will be a little gift in itself.” The better the disguise, the more successful the gift.

Today these tokens are probably familiar to many of you.  One site suggests making the money into a gift basket:

Another suggests that you give the gift of (money) origami:

Soon, Zelizer explains, companies figured out how to cash in on this cashing out, inventing the idea of decorated money orders and telegrams:

…in 1910, American Express began advertising money orders as an “acceptable Christmas gift.” Western Union improved on the idea by creating distinctive telegrams for sending money for special occasions, while greeting card companies started selling decorative money holders for birthdays and holidays.

Thus the “money holder” card was born:

(source)

And what do you think these really are?

(source)

While it may seem obvious to many of us now that gift certificates and money holders exist, Zelizer shows that these objects have a cultural history, devised to solve a particular problem that emerged with the spread of a wage-based economy.

Via Kieran at OrgTheory.  Originally posted in 2010.

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.

A Short History of Santa Claus

Posted last year, but I love it, so here it is again!

In this fun four minute history of Santa Claus, CGP Gray explains how the character evolved, the role of Coca Cola, his conquest of the globe (i.e., Santa’s cultural imperialism), and the ongoing debates about where, exactly, he lives.

Also from CGP Gray:

Via Blame It On The Voices.

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.

Public Property, Defacement, and Fighting the Good Fight

If you take a close look at the stick figures in your life, you’ll notice that the “generic” stick figure is actually a great example of the way many of our societies center the male (as in, it’s generic insofar as the male is the generic human and women are, well, women).  That’s why the bathroom symbol for “men’s” is the same one you see virtually everywhere representing “person.”  Unless, of course, children or cleaning are involved and then they weirdly sprout skirts.

Today our Facebook friend Tamar G. sent us one we couldn’t resist sharing.  It’s a playground sign from Goettigen, Germany featuring an adult and child. As is common, the adult has been carefully altered to be identifiable as female because the sign is in reference to caretaking kids.  Someone in Goettigen found this as annoying as we do, however, and scribbled upon the sign: “Daddy, I also want to wear a skirt.”  What a fabulous way to fight back against rigid gender rules.

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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 Gender Binary in the Brain

Elana M. sent along a fascinating study revealing the gender binary in our brains.  The researchers, Homayoun Javadi and Natalie Wee, asked subjects to look at a series of gendered objects — either (a) or (b) — and then judge the masculinity or femininity of a series of androgynous faces.  Gender mattered, but not how you might think.

Condition 1:1
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Condition 2:

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The findings were counter-intuitive to me.  Subjects who saw the feminine objects judged the faces to be more masculine, and vice versa for subjects who saw the masculine objects.  The researchers interpret this as an “adaptation effect,” a neurological phenomenon in which “looking at something for a long time makes you more likely to see its opposite” (source).  For example if you look at a white screen after looking at a red one for a while, the white screen will appear green (red’s opposite).  Or, if you look at lines moving right for a while and then look at static lines, they will appear to move left.

Javadi and Wee’s findings suggest that our brains give gender to both objects and people and that we place masculinity and femininity in a binary.  We are “opposite sexes,” then, but only in our minds.

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.

New Symbol for Disability Unveiled in New York City

A new symbol to represent people with disabilities is being introduced in New York City. The symbol, designed by a team at Gordon College, looks like this:

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We’ve posted previously about the politics of the symbol and its history. The notable changes here are the moving of the arms to the wheels of the chair, suggesting that the person is pushing themselves, and the forward-leaning angle, suggesting active motion.  It tells a story about independence and ability, instead of dependence and disability.  A very nice change.

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.

Obscene Gestures from Around the World

1The phrase “social construction” refers to the fact that things, symbols, places, sounds — basically everything — is devoid of meaning until we, collectively, agree as to what something means.  Once that happens, it has been “socially constructed” and we can refer to it as a “social construct.”

The fact that gestures have any meaning at all, and that they can have different meanings in different places, is a simple example of this basic sociological concept.  Enjoy this one minute compilation of examples!

Via Blame It On The Voices.

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 Nuance of Heteronormativity

Clearly depicting a sexual encounter between two women, this billboard — posted on Doheny Drive in Los Angeles — looks like it would undermine heteronormativity: an invisibility of same-sex sexual and romantic relationships.

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In fact, I don’t think it does.  For one, the aim of the advertisement is to appeal to male consumers. The women’s appearance is in conformity with the demands of the hypothetical heterosexual male gaze.  They have long groomed hair and are wearing sexy lingerie and make-up. They are arching their backs and sticking out their busts and butts. The performance of male gaze-compliant femininity is clear, making the male viewer an implicit part of the advertisement.  This enforces heterosexuality and promotes heternormativity instead of undermining it.

Moreover – and stay with me here – that implicit male manifests himself symbolically in the shaft of the champagne bottle.  The woman’s hand gripping the bottle turns this image into a depiction of a threesome rather than a lesbian encounter. This billboard, then, reinforces heterosexuality instead of disrupting it.

Sianni Rosenstock is a freshman at Occidental College. She is an intended Sociology major and Studio Art minor.