Medical professionals often have the final say in deciding what counts as a “defect.” Often, their decisions exceed the bounds of medicine, addressing bodies that may deviate from “normal” or “average,” but do not actually cause medical problems.

An alternative might be to allow the patient to decide if his or her body is acceptable, but in doing so they risk allowing people’s deeply subjective and often dysmorphic perceptions of their own bodies determine whether they undergo a risky procedure.

Is there another way?

Pediatric surgeon Norma Ruppen-Greeff and hers colleagues thought so. Pediatric physicians often correct hypospadias: a condition in which the meatus, or opening of the urethra, doesn’t quite make it to the top of the penis during fetal development, such that the urethra exits the penis somewhere along the shaft. This is generally corrected surgically, but physicians found that some men returned to them as adults with concerns that their penis still appeared abnormal.

Instead of dismissing men’s concerns or jumping with a knife, they decided to ask women if they noticed. They had 105 women fill out a questionnaire and rate which aspects of penile appearance were important to them. And, lo and behold, the shape and placement of the meatus was the least important. No need for surgery, plus they can reassure the guys that they’re okay. (Someone should follow up and ask gay and bisexual men; anyone for an awesome senior thesis?)

This is a great way to measure the sociocultural value of a surgery. Whereas we’re used to thinking about surgical issues as psychological (someone wants it) or medical (someone needs it), these physicians asked a distinctly sociological question. They measured how penises are widely perceived and which parts are socially constructed as important. That’s a pretty neat way to incorporate sociological realities into surgical practice.

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.

Flashback Friday.

In the contemporary U.S., individuals choose who to marry based on personal preference, but there is a specific script by which those choices become a wedding day. Not everyone follows the script, but everyone knows it: the man decides to ask the woman to marry him, he buys a ring, he arranges a “special” event, he proposes, and she agrees. Many of us grow up dreaming of a day like this.

But this isn’t the only possible way to decide to marry. A reverse script might involve female choice. We can imagine a world in which, instead of hoping to be chosen, women decide to propose and men can only marry if they get asked. Another alternative script might involve no proposal at all, one in which two people discuss marriage and come to a decision together without the pop question and uncertain answer.

Of course, many couples essentially decide to marry through months or years of discussion, but these couples frequently act out the script anyway because, well, it’s so romantic and wonderful.

Or is it?

Andre M. sent in a clip of John Preator, a finalist on a previous season of American Idol. In the clip, he proposes to his girlfriend Erica on Main Street at a Disneyland Resort. The clip exaggerates the patriarchal underpinnings of both marriage and the marriage proposal. It may or may not be real, but it doesn’t really matter for our purposes.

Here it is:

First, Andre says, the spectacle is a shining testament to our commitment to the idea of marriage as an ideal state. Everyone loves marriage! As Andre writes:

A whole rainbow of characters come out of the shadows to push her towards yes, from the smiling Asian janitor, to the African American guy knighted by our hero and his plastic phallus, to the disabled woman who wishes to trade her fate with the bride-to-be.

We are supposed to think: “How wonderful! How sweet! How perfect!” What is made invisible is the fact that, in addition to a potential site of wedded bliss, marriage is the site of the reproduction of patriarchal privilege (especially through women’s disproportionate responsibility for housework and childcare) and heterosexist (still excluding same sex couples). But the audience knows that they are supposed to feel elated for the couple and privileged to witness their special moment (whether they feel these things or not).

Second, the public nature of the proposal put a lot of pressure on her to say “yes.” The audience is asked to participate in urging her to agree to marry him (“come on folks, how about a little encouragement?!”). And the performers, as well as the performance itself, create conditions that look a lot like coercion. Could she have said “no” if she wanted to? As if breaking his heart wouldn’t have been deterrent enough, saying “no” would have disappointed the onlookers and ruined the performance. He put so much work into scripting the proposal and it was very clear what her line was. How many women, with less pressure, have nonetheless felt it difficult or impossible to say “no”?

Okay, so let’s assume that Erica did want to marry John and that they will live happily ever after. And let’s also assume that most marriage proposals in the U.S. do not come with this degree of pressure. The clip is still a nice reminder of (1) just how taken-for-granted marriage is as an ideal state (can you imagine her saying, “I love you more than life itself and I want to be with you forever, but marriage, no thanks!”) and (2) the way that the proposal script puts men in the position of getting to choose and women in the position of having to agree or go off script.

Originally posted in 2010.

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.

Flashback Friday.

I just have to say “wow” to this ad for Quartz counter tops, sent it by Lisa Ray of Parents for Ethical Marketing and Corporate Babysitter:

The ad depicts a little girl fantasizing about growing up, but growing up means (extremely) high patent leather pumps; growing up means sexualizing herself.

And the ad does sexualize the little girl who, from the top-scanning-down, looks like a sweet girl trying on mommy’s shoes, but from the bottom-scanning-up, looks like an adult woman who suddenly transforms into a child. The white cotton dress implies innocence and purity, but it’s a costume we regularly see adult women wear when we want to both sexualize and infantilize them. In other words, this ad nicely plays into the mythology endorsed by pedophiles that even little girls want to feel sexy, even little girls want men’s attention, even little girls want sex.

And, yet, we are supposed to think this is sweet. The text, “Harmonizing Beautifully with Life” is, of course, ostensibly about the counter tops. But aligned with the image, it naturalizes both the girl’s fantasy and the conflation of female sex with the performance of sexualized femininity (it’s just “life”; as if there’s a gene for Christian Louboutin shoes that activates in the presence of double X chromosomes). More than simply naturalizing the girl’s fantasy of self-objectification, it endorses it (it’s beautiful harmony).

Notice also the class story in the ad. Who exactly is class privileged enough to have the freedom to allow “the quiet moments” to “steal the show”? Well, apparently people who are rich enough to wear Louboutin shoes. Louboutin began putting red soles on all his shoes as a not-so-subtle way to advertise that the shoe was Louboutin and, therefore, a very expensive shoe. It worked.  Fashion writers started pointing out the red soles with glee, as in this story about Angeline Jolie on a red carpet. The fact that the sole of this shoe is red is no accident, it’s meant to add class to the counter tops, in both senses of the word.

A final word on race: That the girl in the ad is white is no accident. And it’s not only because marketers expect the majority of their customers to be white, but because of what whiteness represents. Her white skin symbolizes the same thing that the white counter tops and white dress symbolize: purity, cleanliness, even innocence. It is only because all those symbolic elements are there that we can put a black patent leather heel with a red sole on her and still think “sweet.”  Imagine the same ad with a black child. In the U.S., black women are often stereotyped as sexually loose, morally corrupt, irresponsible teen mothers on welfare. With that symbolic baggage, this ad would be a morality lesson on the hypersexuality of black girls and their propensity to “grow up too fast.” It wouldn’t look sweet, it’d look dangerous.

“Harmonizing beautifully,” indeed.

Originally posted in 2010.

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.

Using pictures with the tag #americanparty on Instagram, Buzzfeed put together a non-scientific collection of what “American Parties” thrown in other countries look like. it’s an interesting window into how they view us. Themes include red cups, popcorn, marshmallows, and sports jerseys. Happy 4th of July weekend everyone.

Visit the original post for the whole set of “American Party” photos or you can browse the hashtag yourself. Here’s my favorite, from Russia:7

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.

If Mexicans celebrated the 4th like Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo:

From Flama.

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.

Flashback Friday.

My great-grandma would put a few drops of turpentine on a sugar cube as a cure-all for any type of cough or respiratory ailment. Nobody in the family ever had any obvious negative effects from it as far as I know. And once when I had a sinus infection my grandma suggested that I try gargling kerosene. I decided to go to the doctor for antibiotics instead, but most of my relatives thought that was a perfectly legitimate suggestion.

In the not-so-recent history, lots of substances we consider unhealthy today were marketed and sold for their supposed health benefits. Joe A. of Human Rights Watch sent in these images of vintage products that openly advertised that they contained cocaine or heroin. Perhaps you would like some Bayer Heroin?

 

 

This alcohol and opium concoction was for treating asthma:

Cocaine drops for the kids:

This product, made up of 46% alcohol mixed with opium, was for all ages; on the back it includes dosages for as young as five days:

A reader named Louise sent in a recipe from her great-grandma’s cookbook. Her great-grandmother was a cook at a country house in England. The recipe is dated 1891 and calls for “tincture of opium”:

The recipe from the lower half of the right-hand page (with original spellings):

Hethys recipe for cough mixture

1 pennyworth of each
Antimonial Wine
Acetic Acid
Tincture of opium
Oil of aniseed
Essence of peppermint
1/2lb best treacle

Well mix and make up to Pint with water.

As Joe says, it’s no secret that products with cocaine, marijuana, opium, and other now-banned substances were at one time sold openly, often as medicines. The changes in attitudes toward these products, from entirely acceptable and even beneficial to inherently harmful and addicting, is a great example of social construction. While certainly opium and cocaine have negative effects on some people, so do other substances that remained legal (or were re-legalized, in the case of alcohol).

Often racist and anti-immigrant sentiment played a role in changing views of what are now illegal controlled substances; for instance, the association of opium with Chinese immigrants contributed to increasingly negative attitudes toward it as anything associated with Chinese immigrants was stigmatized, particularly in the western U.S. This combined with a push by social reformers to prohibit a variety of substances, leading to the Harrison Narcotic Act. The act, passed in 1914, regulated production and distribution of opium but, in its application, eventually basically criminalized it.

Reformers pushing for cocaine to be banned suggested that its effects led Black men to rape White women, and that it gave them nearly super-human strength that allowed them to kill Whites more effectively. A similar argument was made about Mexicans and marijuana:

A Texas police captain summed up the problem: under marijuana, Mexicans became “very violent, especially when they become angry and will attack an officer even if a gun is drawn on him. They seem to have no fear, I have also noted that under the influence of this weed they have enormous strength and that it will take several men to handle one man while under ordinary circumstances one man could handle him with ease.”

So the story of the criminalization of some substances in the U.S. is inextricably tied to various waves of anti-immigrant and racist sentiment. Some of the same discourse–the “super criminal” who is impervious to pain and therefore especially violent and dangerous, the addicted mother who harms and even abandons her child to prostitute herself as a way to get drugs–resurfaced as crack cocaine emerged in the 1980s and was perceived as the drug of choice of African Americans.

Originally posted in 2010.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Most people middle aged or older remember the “Crying Indian” campaign for Keep America Beautiful:2

Most of them, by now, also know that Iron Eyes Cody was no Native American. Born to Sicilian Immigrants in southwestern Louisiana in 1904, Espera Oscar de Corti became an actor in his youth, and found that he could “pass” as a Native American in Hollywood.

de Corti, changing his name to “Cody,” claimed to have Cherokee-Cree heritage. He played native roles in dozens of westerns, with John Wayne and other stars of the mid-20th century. His chanting was featured in the Joni Michtell song “Lakota.” And, of course, he was the Noble Savage face of Keep America Beautiful. All while sharing more heritage with Christopher Columbus than with the people who got the shit end of the Columbian Exchange.

By all accounts Iron Eyes Cody tried to honour his assumed ancestry. He became an activist for Native American causes, and did lecture tours preaching against the harm of alcohol. He married a Seneca archaeologist, Bertha Parker, and they adopted two adopted two Dakota and/or Maricopa children. He even wrote a book about native sign language.

He also invented a backstory, quoted by Glendale News Press from  a 1951 local newspaper article:

Iron Eyes learned much of his Indian lore in the days when, as a youth, he toured the country with his father, Thomas Long Plume, in a wild west show. During his travels, he taught himself the sign language of other tribes of Indians…

The article said that the television star and his wife would appear at a Glendale Historical Society event to tell the story of the “Indian Sign Language in Pictures” and would demonstrate Indian arts and customs. Plus, the couple would bring along their 3-month-old “papoose” Robin (Robert Timothy). All were to be attired in Indian regalia.

In 1996, three years before his death, Iron Eyes Cody was outed as European by his half-sister, May Abshire, who offered proof of the actor’s Sicilian parentage to the Times-Picayune. Cody denied the allegations.

Today, such a shocking exposé, proving that an upstanding member of an ethnic community was really an outsider, would be all over social media. Just like Rachel Dolezal.

I’m having a hard time digging up any initial reactions to Iron Eyes Cody’s outing from indigenous people in the United States or Canada. How is he remembered? Did he help make native issues more visible, or did he obnoxiously appropriate a culture of suffering that didn’t belong to him?

Cross-posted at The Ethical Adman.

Tom Megginson is a Creative Director at Acart Communications, a Canadian Social Issues Marketing agency. He is a specialist in social marketing, cause marketing, and corporate social responsibility. You can follow Tom at Osocio and The Ethical Adman.

Earlier this year a CBS commentator in a panel with Jay Smooth embarrassingly revealed that she thought he was white (Smooth’s father is black) and this week the internet learned that Rachel Dolezal was white all along (both parents identify as white). The CBS commentator’s mistake and Dolezal’s ability to pass both speak to the strange way we’ve socially constructed blackness in this country.

The truth is that African Americans are essentially all mixed race. From the beginning, enslaved and other Africans had close relationships with poor and indentured servant whites, that’s one reason why so many black people have Irish last names. During slavery, sexual relationships between enslavers and the enslaved, occurring on a range of coercive levels, were routine. Children born to enslaved women from these encounters were identified as “black.” The one-drop rule — you are black if you have one drop of black blood — was an economic tool used to protect the institution of racialized slavery (by preserving the distinction between two increasingly indistinct racial groups) and enrich the individual enslaver (by producing another human being he could own). Those enslaved children grew up and had children with other enslaved people as well as other whites.

In addition to these, of course, voluntary relationships between free black people and white people were occurring all these years as well and they have been happening ever since, both before and after they became legal. And the descendants of those couplings have been having babies all these years, too.

We’re talking about 500 years of mixing between blacks, whites, Native Americans (who gave refuge to escaped slaves), and every other group in America. The continued assumption, then, that a black person is “black” and only “mixed race” if they claim the label reflects the ongoing power of the one-drop rule. It also explains why people with such dramatically varying phenotypes can all be considered black. Consider the image below, a collage of people interviewed and photographed for the (1)ne Drop project; Jay Smooth is in the guy at the bottom left.

2 (1)

My point is simply that of course Jay Smooth is sometimes mistaken for white and it should be no surprise to learn that it’s easy for a white person — even one with blond hair and green eyes — to pass as black (in fact, it’s a pastime). The racial category is a mixed race one and, more importantly, it’s more social than biological. Structural disadvantage, racism, and colorism are real. The rich cultural forms that people who identify as black have given to America are real. The loving communities people who identify as black create are real. But blackness isn’t, never was, and is now less than ever before.

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.