Tag Archives: social construction

Who Kills Themselves Binge Drinking? It’s Not Who You Think

At Everyday Sociology, sociologist Karen Sternheimer made a nice observation about the problem of teen drinking. It’s not our biggest alcohol problem.

According to the CDC, the age group most likely to die from binge drinking is people 35-64 years old. In fact, three out of every four alcohol poisoning deaths are in this age group — 4.5 out of a total of 6 a day — and 76% of them are men, especially ones who earn over $70,000 a year.777

So why all the PSAs aimed at teens?

Sternheimer argues that the focus on teens has to do with who what groups are identified as problematic populations. In the 1800s and early 1900s, she points out, laws were passed in several states making it illegal for African Americans and Native Americans to drink alcohol. Immigrants were also targeted.

Young people weren’t targeted until the student rebellions of the 1960s and ’70s. Like the “protest psychosis” attributed to black Civil Rights activists, the anti-establishment activism of young people was partly blamed on drug and alcohol use.

Today, she observes, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism focuses its attention on young people, minorities, women, and people with HIV.

It’s about power. She writes:

White, middle-class men over thirty typically have more social power than the groups commonly targeted as problems. They also vote, and no sane politician is going to campaign warning of the danger some of these men cause and how we can control them.

Not to mention, she says, how the alcohol industry would feel about the government telling their richest customers to curb their drinking. They much prefer that PSAs focus on young people. “This industry can well afford the much-touted ‘We Card’ programs,” says Sternheimer, “because teens usually don’t have the money for the expensive stuff that their parents can buy.”

The industry’s marketing to wealthy, white men, then, goes unchecked.

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.

Why Don’t Men Kick Each Other in the Balls?

In Greco-Roman wrestling, boxing, and mixed martial arts, there is a rule that you never hit “below the belt.” The area of biggest concern is the testicles. As the Ultimate Fighting Championship rules specify, “groin attacks of any kind” are a foul. This is probably because groin attacks might make for short fights or ones where everyone just goes around protecting their balls. In any case, the skills being tested are of a different kind. But, even aside from that, this seems like a good idea and very civilized. I do not advocate for testicle kicking, not groin attacks of any kind, for what it’s worth.

I do think it’s somewhat odd, though, that men who fight each other outside of controlled conditions—men in street fights, bar brawls, and parking lot scuffles—also usually avoid hitting below the belt. These fights aren’t about training or skill, like those between professional athletes, they’re real attempts to do some damage out of anger or defensiveness. So, why no hits to the balls?

The question was posed by a woman on Yahoo! Answers: “If you dislike each other enough to want them to get hurt,” she asked, “why not do the worst?”

The answers, admittedly unscientific, were interesting. One of the common responses involved the idea that not hitting below the belt was “an unspoken rule.” Maybe it’s the Golden Rule—do onto others as you would have them do unto you—and some men mentioned that, but others suggested that it was a rule specific to manhood. It’s a “cheap shot,” said one. A “low blow,” said another.

But why? Why do men agree not to kick each other in the balls? Why is that part of the code?

I think it’s because it serves to protect men’s egos as well as men’s balls.

What would street fights between guys look like—or professional fights for that matter—if one could go below the belt? For one, there’d be a lot more collapsing. Two, a lot more writhing in pain. Three, a lot less getting up. All in all, it would add up to less time looking powerful and more time looking pitiful. And it would send a clear message that men’s bodies are vulnerable.

Chris Tuchscherer not having been just hit in the balls:

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Chris Tuchscherer having been just hit in the balls:

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Not hitting below the belt, then, protects the idea that men’s bodies are fighting machines. It protects masculinity, the very idea that men are big and strong, pain- and impact-resistant, impenetrable like an edifice. So not hitting below the belt doesn’t just protect individual men from pain, it protects our ideas about masculinity.

When a man hits below the belt, he is revealing to everyone present that masculinity is a fiction. That’s why one guy said: “For ‘alpha male’ fights, nut shots are just wrong.” Alpha male fights are about figuring out which male is alpha, while preserving the idea that the alpha male is a thing that matters.

This is why men are quick to criticize other men who break the code. One of the best ways to control men is to threaten to kick them out of the man club. “If a guy kicks another guy in the balls on purpose during a fight,” one replied to the question on Yahoo, “he will forever be banished from manhood.” Another said: “Winning like this means that you cannot beat up the other guy by ‘real’ fighting.” It’s a matter of one’s own reputation: “A man who kicks another man in the balls,” said a third, “immediately loses all manliness and respect.”

So, men generally agree to pretend that the balls just aren’t there. The effect is that we tend to forget just how vulnerable men are to the right attack and continue to think of women as naturally more fragile.

I still don’t want anyone to get kicked in the balls, though, just to be clear.

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.

Just for Fun: The Social Construction of Chest Hair

Back in the heyday of Burt Reynolds, having a hairy chest was oh-so-sexy. What a departure from the hairless chests of today’s masculine icons. At least it makes some sense to associate chest hair with masculinity, since men on average have more of it than women. It just goes to show that everything’s a social construction. But you knew that. ;)

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Found at Cult of the Weird.

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 Attribution of Intelligence

The day I defended my dissertation I watched Chaotic, the Britney Spears/Kevin Federline reality show, from beginning to end. True story. The next day I pulled all of the paperback classic novels from my bookshelves and donated them to Goodwill. They were mostly tattered Penguin copies of things like The Sun Also Rises and The Stranger. I was done with them.

I was the first person in my family to get a traditional college degree and those books meant a lot to me for a long time. I was an insecure student; a sufferer of the famous imposter syndrome.  The books were a signal to myself — and perhaps others, too — that I was a Smart, Educated Person with Intelligent Tastes. They were what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would call cultural capital, objects that indicate my membership in a particular class. Both Chaotic and the purging of the books were part of the same cathartic expression: relief, incredible relief, at having not-failed. I had a new form of cultural capital now, a more powerful version of that message. I had a PhD. I could afford to toss the paperbacks.

Today, as someone who has officially “made it” in academia, I need those books even less than I did on that transitional day. And, as I’ve made the journey from nervous graduate student to tenured professor, I’ve slowly come to understand what an incredible privilege it is to carry the institutional capital that I do.

Every time I have the opportunity to admit I was wrong or confess a lack of knowledge, for example, I can do so without fear that anyone will think that I’m generally stupid or ignorant. Others assume I’m smart and knowledgeable because of the pedigree, whether I am or not. People who aren’t as lucky as I — who have the wrong accent, the wrong teeth, or the wrong clothes, and who don’t have the right degrees, jobs, and colleagues — they are at risk of being labeled as generally stupid or ignorant whenever they make an intellectual misstep, whether they are or not.

To them, that used Penguin copy of The Stranger may be more valuable than the $0.03 it costs on Amazon. In another part of the social strata, it might be worth it to pay $46 for that subscription to The New Yorker. The subscriber may only read the cartoons, but they don’t mind because, after all, that’s not really what they’re paying for.

1aImage via PostSecret. 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.

The Tomato Tariff: The Politics of Fruits and Vegetables

If it were to happen that the decision as to whether the tomato was a fruit or vegetable made it to the highest court of the land — if such a strange thing were to happen — certainly the botanist’s opinion would weigh heaviest. Right?

Nope.

In fact, this decision did make it all the way to the Supreme Court. It happened in 1893. The case was brought by a tomato importing family by the last name of Nix. At the time, the law required that taxes be collected on vegetables that were imported, but not fruit.

The lawyers for the Nix family argued that the tomato is a fruit and, therefore, exempt from taxation. They were, of course, correct. Botanists define fruit according to whether it plays a reproductive role. So, any plant product with one or more seeds is a fruit, whereas vegetables don’t have seeds. Fruits are ovaries, for lack of a better term. All other plant products — stems, roots, leaves, and some seeds — are vegetables.

But the Supreme Court said, essentially, “We don’t care” and gave their gavel a good pound. Here’s some of the text of their unanimous opinion:

Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine… But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are… usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.

The judges were referring to the common understanding, which has more to do with how we use the plant products than how plants use them. Your typical chef roughly divides plant products according to whether they’re sweet or savory. Fruits are sweet. Vegetables are savory and used for main courses and sides. It’s all about whether you eat them for dinner or dessert. And that’s what the Supreme Court upheld.

Culinary vs. botanical categorization (source):

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Since the culinary scheme dominates our colloquial understanding, we mis-classify lots of other things, too. Zucchini, bell peppers, eggplants, string beans, cucumbers, avocado, and okra — all fruit. Rhubarb is a vegetable. No seeds. Pineapples are fruits. “Ah ha!” you say, “I’ve never noticed a pineapple having seeds!” That’s because commercial growers sell us seedless pineapples. Who knew. Berries are fruit, but strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries are not actually berries. Isn’t this fun?

Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, in Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts, wrote:

If reality means anything, it is that which “resists” the pressure of a force. … That which cannot be changed at will is what counts as real.

We often think of cultural facts as somehow less real than biological ones. For the Nix family, though, biology mattered naught. They still had to pay the damn tax on their tomatoes. Culture is real, folks. Social construction is not just something we do to reality; for all intents and purposes, it is reality.

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.

Five Reasons Why Gendered Products are a Problem

Our Pointlessly Gendered Products Pinterest board is funny, no doubt. When people make male and female versions of things like eggs, dog shampoo, and pickles, you can’t help but laugh. But, of course, not it’s not just funny. Here are five reasons why.

1. Pointlessly gendered products affirm the gender binary.

Generally speaking, men and women today live extraordinarily similar lives. We grow up together, go to the same schools, and have the same jobs. Outside of dating — for some of us — and making babies, gender really isn’t that important in our real, actual, daily lives.

These products are a backlash against this idea, reminding us constantly that gender is important, that it really, really matters if you’re male and female when, in fact, that’s rarely the case.

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But if there were no gender difference, there couldn’t be gender inequality; one group can’t be widely believed to be superior to the other unless there’s an Other. Hence, #1 is important for #3.

Affirming the gender binary also makes everyone who doesn’t fit into it invisible or problematic. This is, essentially, all of us. Obviously it’s a big problem for people who don’t identify as male or female or for those whose bodies don’t conform to their identity, but it’s a problem for the rest of us, too. Almost every single one of us takes significant steps every day to try to fit into this binary: what we eat, whether and how we exercise, what we wear, what we put on our faces, how we move and talk. All these things are gendered and when we do them in gendered ways we are forcing ourselves to conform to the binary.

2. Pointlessly gendered products reinforce stereotypes.

Pointlessly gendering products isn’t just about splitting us into two groups, it’s also about telling us what it means to be in one of those boxes. Each of these products is an opportunity to remind us.

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3. Pointlessly gendered products tell us explicitly that women should be subordinate to or dependent on men.

All too often, gender stereotypes are not just about difference, they’re about inequality. The products below don’t just affirm a gender binary and fill it with nonsense, they tell us in no uncertain terms that women and men are expected to play unequal roles in our society.

Girls are nurses, men are doctors:

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Girls are princesses, men are kings:

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4. Pointlessly gendered products cost women money.

Sometimes the masculine and feminine version of a product are not priced the same. When that happens, the one for women is usually the more expensive one. If women aren’t paying attention — or if it matters to them to have the “right” product — they end up shelling out more money.  Studies by the state of California, the University of Central Florida, and Consumer Reports all find that women pay more. In California, women spent the equivalent of $2,044 more a year (the study was done in 1996, so I used an inflation calculator).

This isn’t just something to get mad about. This is real money. It’s feeding your kids, tuition at a community college, or a really nice vacation. When women are charged more it harms our ability to support ourselves or lowers our quality of life.

5. Pointlessly gendered products are stupid. There are better ways to deliver what people really need.

One of the most common excuses for such products is that men and women are different, but most of the time they’re using gender as a measure of some other variable. In practice, it would be smarter and more efficient to just use the variable itself.

For example, many pointlessly gendered products advertise that the one for women is smaller and, thus, a better fit for women. The packaging on these ear buds, sent in by LaRonda M., makes this argument.

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Maybe some women would appreciate smaller earbuds, but it would still be much more straightforward to make ear buds in different sizes and let the user decide which one they wanted to use.

Products like these make smaller men and larger women invisible. They also potentially make them feel bad or constrain their choices. When the imperative for women is to be small and dainty, how do women who don’t use smaller earbuds feel?  Or, maybe the small guy who wants to learn how to play guitar never will because men’s guitars don’t fit him and he won’t be caught dead playing this:

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In sum, pointlessly gendered products aren’t just a gag. They’re a ubiquitous and aggressive ideological force, shaping how we think, what we do, and how much money we have. Let’s keep laughing, but let’s not forget that it’s serious business, too.

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.

Wouldn’t A Wife Be Great!?

Flashback Friday.

Heather L. sent us a link to a business called The Occasional Wife. It’s slogan: “The Modern Solution To Your Busy Life.” The store sells products that help you organize your home and office, and provides all kinds of helpful services to support your personal goals.

capturea1captured

There are two things worth noting here:

First, the business relies on and reproduces the very idea of “wife.”  As the website makes clear, wives are people who (a) make your life more pleasurable by taking care of details and daily life-maintenance (such as running errands), (b) organize special events in your life (such as holidays), and (c) deal with work-intensive home-related burdens (such as moving), all while perfectly coiffed and in high heels.

But, the business only makes sense in a world where “real” wives are obsolete.  Prior to industrialization, most men and women worked together on home farms.  With industrialization, all but the wealthiest of families relied on (at least) two breadwinners. In the 1950s, the era to which this business implicitly harkens, Americans were bombarded with ideological propaganda praising stay-at-home wives and mothers (in part to pressure women out of jobs that “belonged” to men after the war).  Since then, women have increasingly participated in wage labor.  Today, the two parent, single-earner family is only a minority of families.

So, in our “modern” world, even when there is a wife in the picture, there’s rarely a “wife.”  But, as the founder explains, it’d sure be nice to have one:captureb

See, she was his wife, but not a wife.

Of course, this is nothing new.  Tasks performed by wives have been increasingly commodified (that is, turned into services for which people pay): for example, house cleaning, cooking, and child care.  This business just makes the transition in reality explicit by referencing the ideology.  The fact that the use of the term “wife” works in this way (i.e., brings to mind the 1950s stereotype) in the face of a reality that looks very different, just goes to show how powerful ideology can be.

Originally posted in 2009; the business has grown from one location to four.

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.

Ohio Class Teaches Children that Men Think and Women Feel

From Reddit comes the story of an assignment given to high school students in a sex education unit of health class in Columbus, Ohio (as reported in theDispatch). The introduction reads (typos included):

Appreciating Gender Differences: Often there are many stereotypes attached to being male or female. Yet male and female together keep our species alive! Through knowing and appreciating the many differences in brain development and psychological processes of males vs. female one learn to accept and appreciate the differences.”

Then there’s this graphic: 1 (3) - Copy Yes, boys and girls in the class all got the same handout, with the normal human described as “you” and the one in the dress labeled “she.” After the graphic is a list of questions for the students to ponder in an essay, such as, “How might knowing these differences influence and impact an intimate relationship you might currently have or develop in the future?”

In her defense, the teacher naturally told the Dispatch that the point was to just “stimulate conversation.” But nothing in the assignment suggests the stereotypes might not be anything but true. None of the essay questions cast doubt on the facts presented. Consider revising the text like this:

Appreciating Gender Similarities: Often there are many stereotypes attached to being male or female. Yet male and female together keep our species alive! Through knowing and appreciating the many similarities in brain development and psychological processes of males vs. female one learn to accept and appreciate the similarities.”

That could be a useful opening to a unit on gender and development for high school sex education (without the graphic). Where did this come from? The teacher said it came from “an outdated book.”

With the power of Google image search, you can follow this image around the Internet, where it has been used by a lot of people to illustrate supposedly funny-but-oh-so-true stereotypes, like “Hilarious differences between men and women,” and on pages with sexist aphorisms such as, “A woman worries about the future until she gets a husband; a man never worries about the future until he gets a wife,” and on relationship advice pages, with conclusions such as, “If we understand this basic fundamental, there will be better relationships … steadier !!,” and even “Real, Honest Female Advice” for men who want to “start having unbelievable success with women.” It always has the same typo (“Figure Our Her Needs”).

I can’t find an original use, or any serious attempt at educational use, but I’d love to know who came up with it.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.