Tag Archives: social construction: symbols

Oh Yeah, Don’t Forget the Guns

All eyes are on the Confederate flag, but let’s not forget what enabled Roof to turn his ideology into death with such efficiency.

From cartoonist Jonathan Schmock3Visit Schmock’s website 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.

What Should Cities Do With Their Icons to White Supremacy?

In the aftermath of Dylann Roof’s racist murder, some cities in the South are reconsidering their relationship to the Confederate Flag. Should it fly? Be in a museum? Burn? The discussion raises larger questions of how to move forward from ugly histories without simultaneously whitewashing a city’s past. And, as well, how do we know when something is truly in our past?

I was thinking about just these questions a couple weeks ago when a friend of mine walked me by the monument to the Crescent City White League in New Orleans. The conical stone was erected to commemorate the return of white supremacist government two years after a lethal insurrection against the Reconstruction state government in 1874. In that insurrection, thousands of former Confederate soldiers attacked the city police and state military. They killed 11 members of the NOPD and held city government buildings for three days before federal troops arrived and they fled.

Two years later, the white supremacist politicians were back in power and they placed the monument in a prominent place where Canal St. meets the Mississippi. The monument, to be clear, is in honor of cop-killing white supremacists.

Here it is in 1906 (source, photographer unknown):14

So, what to do with the thing?

In 1974 — one hundred years after the insurrection and 98 years after its erection — the city added a marker nearby distancing itself from the message of white supremacy. It read:

Although the “battle of Liberty Place” and this monument are important parts of the New Orleans history, the sentiments in favor of white supremacy expressed thereon are contrary to the philosophy and beliefs of present-day New Orleans.

In 1993, some of the original inscriptions were removed and replaced with this slightly more politically correct comment:

In honor of those Americans on both sides who died in the Battle of Liberty Place. … A conflict of the past that should teach us lessons for the future.

It was also moved to a new location. Today it sits between a flood wall, a parking lot, and an electrical substation. If you wanted to give a monument the finger, this is one way to do it. Here’s how it looks on Google Maps streetview:

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So, the question is: What to do with these things?

I’ll admit that seeing the monument tucked into an unpleasant corner of New Orleans was somehow satisfying. But I was also uneasy about its displacement. Is this an example of New Orleans trying to repress knowledge of its racist history? (And present?) Or is it a sign that the city actively rejects the values represented by the monument? Conversely, if the city had left the monument at the foot of Canal St. would this be a sign that it took history seriously? And, thus, responsibility for its past? Or a sign that it didn’t take an anti-racist stance seriously enough?

This seems like an obviously difficult call to make, but I’m glad that we’re using the horror of Roof’s massacre to begin a discussion about how to handle symbols like these and, maybe, truly make them a part of our past.

Cross-posted at A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans.

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.

We’re Not “Opposite Sexes,” But This Ad Wants You To Think We Are

In this Farm Bureau Insurance ad, a father and son paint a room pink and commiserate about how their lives will be ruined by the arrival of a baby girl.

1. Essentialize gender. A girl is coming? That means playing with dolls and having tea parties. Girls are girls. Us, we’re boys, so automatically we…

2. …belittle femininity. The stuff girls do is boring and trivial. Only girls would want to do those things. Girls are such a drag!

In short, all girls are girly and girly stuff is dumb.

I didn’t find it, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt; maybe they made the opposite commercial, too. One in which a mom and her daughter cringe over the idea of having to put up with booger-flinging and farting at the table.

But that would be equally bad. We don’t know a child’s personality just by anticipating the stuff between their legs. And it’s not true that male and female humans are so different as to enjoy entirely non-overlapping sets of things.

In daily life, we recognize each other for the complex and varied people that we are. Think about it. Practically the only place we see stereotypes this retrograde are on TV and in the movies. We’re not “opposite sexes,” but we’re surrounded by the idea that we are.

Thanks to @DustinStoltz anyway!

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.

Girl-on-Girl Action: A New Visual Landscape

2Perusing my Facebook feed, I came across a photo proudly posted by a former student — now a hair and makeup artist — of two brides at a wedding.  It was beautiful and the young, conventionally attractive brides were leaning in for a kiss.  Like these:
Glendelough

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When I saw the image, my mind immediately pulled up similar images it has in storage — frequently described as girl-on-girl action — and I was struck by the similarity of the images and their powerfully different messages.

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Until recently, “hot girl-on-girl action” was the primary visual that involved women kissing.  In mainstream culture, genuine and open female same-sex attraction was almost entirely invisible, hidden and denied.  Today, the proliferation of same-sex marriages offer a new visual landscape for framing what it means for two women to kiss each other.

The meaning, moreover, could not be more different.  Though often women with same-sex desire use this assumption to explore real attraction, girl-on-girl action shots are ostensibly between two heterosexually-oriented women who are kissing for male attention.  These brides are presumably doing the opposite of that.  They are displaying love and commitment to one another. The kiss is for them and no one else and they are, implicitly if not actually, openly committing to making themselves sexually unavailable to anyone else, male or female.  This is far from the notion that they are just kissing a girl to get guys to think they’re sexy.

I wonder how these images — ones that depict sexual intimacy between women who love one another and do not seek male attention — will ultimately change how we think about “girl-on-girl” action in the U.S.  As they proliferate, will they push back against the male-centrism and heterocentrism of our society?  I think they very well might.

Congrats to the newlyweds! Their wedding photos can be found herehere, and 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.

That’s Fishy: From Scent to Suspicion and Back

2Earlier this year I reviewed a study that found that, simply by changing the weight of an object in hand, psychologists can manipulate how seriously a person takes an issue.  In other words, when holding something heavy, matters seem heavy.  Or, concerns seem weightier when one is weighed down.

Thanks to an email from USC professor Norbert Schwarz, I was introduced to a whole series of studies on what psychologists call metaphorical effects.  These are instances in which a metaphor commonly used to describe a psychological state or social reality can, in turn, induce that state or reality.  So, for example, holding a warm cup of coffee makes people feel warmly toward each other (here), getting the cold shoulder makes people feel cold (here), people placed in a high location seem to be high in a hierarchy (here), and cleaning one’s hands makes a person feel morally clean (here).

Schwarz was the co-author, with Spike W.S. Lee, on another example of a metaphorical effect.  They wanted to know if smelling something fishy made people suspicious.  It did!

Asked to participate in a fake study on whether they’d be willing to invest money in a scheme, subjects who were exposed to a fishy smell invested less than those exposed to no smell and less than those exposed to another icky smell that was “metaphorically irrelevant”: fart.

From sensory perception to psychological state.  Boom.

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Lee and Schwarz were also interested in the reverse process.  Did being suspicious increase the likelihood that they would identify a fishy smell as fishy.  Sometimes smells can be hard to figure out, but when people are primed with the answer, they are more likely to get it right.  Would the metaphorical effect work in the other direction: from psychological state to sensory perception?

They asked another group of subjects to sniff five different vials and attempt to label each smell.  Half the time, they induced suspiciousness by having the experimenter say: “Obviously, it’s a very simple task and, you know, there’s . . . there’s nothing we’re trying to hide here.”  The experimented would then spot a document on the table, whisk it away nervously and repeat:

Sorry, it shouldn’t have been there. But . . . ahem . . . anyway. Where was I? Oh yes, it’s all very simple. There’s nothing we’re trying to hide or anything.

Did subjects induced to be suspicious identify the fishy smell correctly more often?  Yep!

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This is a fun literature, but it has serious implications.  It reveals that the associations we have in our minds impact how we perceive the world and each other.

Sociologists believe that essentially all of life is socially constructed, meaning that we collectively learn and internalize arbitrary connections between things: like being male and computing or being black and athleticism.  These connections literally structure our brain, such that thinking about one is likely to trigger thoughts of the other.

Fishy and suspicious are connected in our minds and, so, when we are exposed to one, we are more likely to experience the other.  In other cultures, Lee and Schwarz point out, it is not fishiness, but other smells that are associated with suspicion.  These things are not natural or universal, but they drive our perceptions nonetheless.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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.

Reading the Camouflage: “You are Now Enemy Combatants”

2Much has been said — and much more should follow — about the militarization of the police in American cities.  The images coming out of Ferguson, MO these past weeks testify to the distribution of military-grade hardware, gear, guns, and vehicles to your everyday police officer.

Here I’d like to focus on just one small part of this distribution of military-grade equipment: the uniform.  It’s not, by a long shot, the most straightforwardly dangerous, but it is a powerful symbol.  It’s a “dead giveaway,” writes a political scientist at Gin & Tacos, that there is something amiss with the “mindset of law enforcement.”  He’s referring to the swapping of blue or tan in favor of camouflage, like in this photo by Whitney Curtis for The New York Times:

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From Gin & Tacos:

Of what conceivable practical use could green or desert camouflage be in a suburban environment? Gonna help you blend in with the Taco Bell or the liquor store? Even if they did wear something that helped conceal them, that would be counterproductive to the entire purpose of policing in a situation like that; law enforcement wants to be visible to act as a deterrent to violent or property crimes in a public disturbance.

He concludes that “[t]here is only one reason those cops would wear camo” and, if I can put words in his mouth, it’s to be frightening and intimidating.  And, perhaps, to enjoy being so.

This is clear when we think about the role that camo plays in everyday fashion. For women, it’s a fun appropriation of masculinity.  For men, it’s a way to signal “I’m tough” by reference to hunting or soldiering. What irony, after all, that black men in Ferguson were also photographed wearing camo during the unrest that followed Brown’s death.

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On their bodies, of course, the camouflage is much more benign.  In contrast, alongside kevlar, automatic rifles, and riot shields on cops, it’s terrifying. It sends a clear message to the people of Ferguson: you are now enemy combatants.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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.

How Fetal Photography Changed the Politics of Abortion

Flashback Friday.

You have likely seen photographs of fetus’ that seem to float in a dark womb.  The first of these were taken by Swedish photographer Lennart Nilsson. One of his photographs graced the cover of Life magazine in April of 1965.

Nilsson’s images forever changed the way that people think about pregnancy, mothers, and fetuses.  Before Nilsson, the visual of a fetus independent from a mother was not widespread. His pictures made it possible for people to visualize the contents of a woman’s womb independently of her body.  Suddenly, the fetus came to life.  It was no longer just something inside of a woman, no longer even in relationship to a woman; it was an individual with a face, a sex, a desire to suck its thumb.

Once the fetus could be individualized, the idea that a woman and her fetus could have contrasting interests was easier to imagine. In many countries even today, the idea that helping pregnant women is helping fetuses and helping fetuses means helping pregnant women is still the dominant way of thinking about pregnancy. Pro-choice and other fetus-defenders, such as those who want it to be illegal to smoke during pregnancy, used these images to disentangle the interests of the woman and the fetus. The vulnerability of Nilsson’s subjects, free-floating in space, made it easier to portray fetuses as in danger.

There is power in visualization and its technological advance and these images were a boon to the pro-life cause. Ironically, it was abortion that made these images possible. Nilsson posed the fetuses to look alive, and gives no indication otherwise, but they are actually photographs of aborted fetuses.

Although claiming to show the living fetus, Nilsson actually photographed abortus material obtained from women who terminated their pregnancies under the liberal Swedish law. Working with dead embryos allowed Nilsson to experiment with lighting, background and positions, such as placing the thumb into the fetus’ mouth.

— Quote from the University of Cambridge’s history of the science of fetal development

Liberal abortion rights laws resulted in a product that was used to mobilize anti-abortion sentiment.  Today it is par for the course to have been exposed to images like this. And the rest is history.

Originally posted in 2009.

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.

Who Are Habitats For? Electrified Nature in Zoo Exhibits

What do you see?

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While it hasn’t always been the case, most well-funded zoos today feature pleasant-enough looking habitats for their animals.  They are typically species-appropriate, roomy enough to look less-than-totally miserable, and include trees and shrubs and other such natural features that make them attractive.

How, though, a friend of mine recently asked “does that landscaping stay nice? Why don’t [the animals] eat it, lie down on it, rip it to shreds for fun, or poop all over it?”

Because, she told me, some of it is hot-wired to give them a shock if they touch it. These images are taken from the website Total Habitat, a source of electrified grasses and vines.  

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Laurel Braitman writes about these products in her book, Animal Madness.  When she goes to zoos, she says, she doesn’t “marvel at the gorilla… but instead at the mastery of the exhibit itself.”  She writes:

The more naturalistic the cages, the more depressing they can be because they are that much more deceptive. To the mandrill on the other side of the glass, the realistic foliage that frames his favorite perch doesn’t help him one bit if it has been hot-wired so that he doesn’t destroy it… Some of the new natural looking exhibits may be even worse for their inhabitants than the old cement ones, as the new plants and other features can shrink the animals’ usable space.

The take-home message is that these attractive, naturalistic environments are more for us than they are for the animal.  They teach us what the animal’s natural habitat might look like and they soothe us emotionally, reassuring us that the animal must be living a nice life.

I don’t know the extent to which zoos use electrified grasses and vines, but next time you visit one you might be inspired to look a little more closely.

Photo of elephants from wikimedia commons.

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.