Tag Archives: media: tv/movies

Why Survey Questions Matter: Blasphemy Edition

“How could we get evidence for this?” I often ask students. And the answer, almost always is, “Do a survey.” The word survey has magical power; anything designated by that name wears a cloak of infallibility.

“Survey just means asking a bunch of people a bunch of questions,” I’ll say. “Whether it has any value depends on how good the bunch of people is and how good the questions are.”  My hope is that a few examples of bad sampling and bad questions will demystify.

For example, Variety:

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Here’s the lede:

Despite its Biblical inspiration, Paramount’s upcoming “Noah” may face some rough seas with religious audiences, according to a new survey by Faith Driven Consumers.

The data to confirm that idea:

The religious organization found in a survey that 98% of its supporters were not “satisfied” with Hollywood’s take on religious stories such as “Noah,” which focuses on Biblical figure Noah.

The sample:

Faith Driven Consumers surveyed its supporters over several days and based the results on a collected 5,000+ responses.

And (I’m saving the best till last) here’s the crucial survey question:

As a Faith Driven Consumer, are you satisfied with a Biblically themed movie — designed to appeal to you — which replaces the Bible’s core message with one created by Hollywood?

As if the part about “replacing the Bible’s core message” weren’t enough, the item reminds the respondent of her or his identity as a Faith Driven Consumer. It does make you wonder about that 2% who either were fine with the Hollywood* message or didn’t know.

You can’t really fault Faith Driven Consumer too much for this shoddy “research.” They’re not in business to find the sociological facts. What’s appalling is that Variety accepts it at face value and without comment.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

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

Sunday Fun: Historically Accurate Disney Princess

Thank you Rachel Bloom for this cringe-worthy, plague-ridden parody of the Disney princess franchise!

And thanks to @AJP_lighthouse for sending it in!

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.

Female Movie Stars Peak at Age 34, but Men See Success Till the End

A new study on the differential earning power of male and female movie stars beings with a quote from Jennifer Jason Leigh:

It’s the nature of the business. People equate success with youth (source).

She’s half right.   Irene Pater and her co-authors looked at the pay of 265 actors and actresses who appeared in Hollywood films from 1968 to 2008.  They found that the average earnings of actors rises until the age of 51 and remains stable after that.  The average earnings of actresses, in contrast, peaks at 34 and decreases “rapidly thereafter.”

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Source: USA Today

Sarah Jessica Parker, then, was more on the mark:

There is still a discrepancy in earning power between men and women in Hollywood. And it becomes doubly unfair when you think of our earning potential in terms of years.  Actresses are like football players. They have a small window of prime earning ability (source).

So, is this sexism or just “market forces”?  That is, is female acting work devalued compared to men’s because people in positions of power don’t value women?  Or is it because casting women over 34 decreases box office returns, whereas casting older men does not?  Pater and her colleagues suggest that it’s sexism.  One study, they explain,

…actually examined the combined effect of gender and age on box office performance [and] revealed that casting a female lead older than 32 years of age does not influence a movie’s box office performance, whereas casting a male lead older than 42 decreases box office revenues by almost 17% (source).

So the presence of male actors in their forties and over decreases box office revenue, but they still get paid more than women of the same age.  In contrast, casting women in their mid-thirties and over doesn’t bring down profits, but she’s still less valuable in the eyes of producers.  Sexism sounds like a plausible explanation to me.

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.

Do Cartoons Have to Exaggerate Gender Difference?

One criticism of my post on gender dimorphism in Disney movies was that good animation inevitably exaggerates sex differences. There are a lot of these comments here on SocImages and at Slate. Here’s one example:

Cartoons aren’t meant to accurately portray people, EVER. They are meant to exaggerate features, so that they are more prominent and eye catching. So feminine features are made more feminine, and masculine features are made more masculine. … The less realistic the proportions, the more endearing and charming we find the character. The closer to realistic they are, the creepier/blander they can become.

Flipping through IMDB’s list of the top 500 animated movies reveals that Disney is certainly not alone in emphasizing the larger size of males. But there are a few successful counterexamples as well.

Here are some good ones where the male and female characters are similarly proportioned. Note these are not just random male and female characters but couples (more or less).

From Kiki’s Delivery Service by Hayao Miyazaki:

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From Dreams of Jinsha:

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Even some old Disney movies have romantic moments between physically-similar males and females. The original Snow White (from the 1937 movie) was paired with a Prince Charming whose wrists were barely bigger than hers:

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Disney non-human animal pairs were sometimes quite physically matched. Consider Bambi and Faline (Bambi, 1942):

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Or Dutchess and O’Malley from Aristocats (1970) in which their exaggerated femininity and masculinity are not conveyed through extreme body-size difference:

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In other realms of animation, Marge and Homer Simpson, the most durable couple in animation history, have very similar features: heads, eyes, noses, ears. His arms are fatter and neither of them really have wrists, but I’d put this in the category of normal sex difference:

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Of course, Lucy and Charlie Brown were virtually identical if you think about it:

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I’m open to other suggestions.

Cross-posted at Family Inequality and Pacific Standard.

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

Wrinkle-Washed: Female Faces in Film Marketing

We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in.  Enjoy!

The philosopher Susan Sontag has written achingly about the way in which men are allowed to age and women are not.

The great advantage men have is that our culture allows two standards of male beauty: the boy and the man. The beauty of a boy resembles the beauty of a girl. In both sexes it is a fragile kind of beauty and flourishes naturally only in the early part of the life-cycle. Happily, men are able to accept themselves under another standard of good looks — heavier, rougher, more thickly built…

There is no equivalent of this second standard for women. The single standard of beauty for women dictates that they must go on having clear skin. Every wrinkle, every line, every gray hair, is a defeat.

Perhaps nowhere is this more plain than in the movies, where men’s love interests stay the same age as they get older, and @sphericalfruit sent in a fantastic example.  The four posters below are part of a new marketing plan for the forthcoming movie, The Counselor.

Notice anything?

Screenshot_1 Screenshot_2

What a stunning example of Sontag’s observation.  The men are not considered unattractive by virtue of the fact that you can tell they have skin.  The women, in contrast, have faces that are so smooth that they look inhuman; their images are halfway between photograph and cartoon.  Amazingly, this treatment of images of men and women is so ubiquitous that it now looks more or less normal to us.

Cross-posted at Business Insider and VitaminW.

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.

Classism in the Rise and Fall of the Duck Dynasty Patriarch

This Duck Dynasty thing seems to have everyone’s undies in a culture war bunch with lots of hand wringing about free speech (find out why this is ridiculous here), the persecution of Christians, and the racism, sexism, and homophobia of poor, rural, Southern whites.

There is, however, an underlying class story here that is going unsaid.

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Phil Robertson is under fire for making heterosexist comments and trivializing racism in the south in GQ.  While I wholeheartedly and vociferously disagree with Robertson, I am also uncomfortable with how he is made to embody the “redneck.”  He represents the rural, poor, white redneck from the south that is racist, sexist, and homophobic.

This isn’t just who he is; we’re getting a narrative told by the producers of Duck Dynasty and editors at GQ—extremely privileged people in key positions of power making decisions about what images are proliferated in the mainstream media.  When we watch the show or read the interview, we are not viewing the everyday lives of Phil Robertson or the other characters.  We are getting a carefully crafted representation of the rural, white, Southern, manly man, regardless of whether or not the man, Phil Robertson, is a bigot (which, it seems, he is).

The stars of Duck Dynasty eight years ago (left) and today (right):

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This representation has traction with the American viewing audience.  Duck Dynasty is the most popular show on A&E.  Folks love their Duck Dynasty.

There are probably many reasons why the show is so popular.  Might I suggest that one could be that the “redneck” as stereotyped culture-war icon is pleasurable because he simultaneously makes us feel superior, while saying what many of us kinda think but don’t dare say?

Jackson Katz talks about how suburban white boys love violent and misogynistic Gangsta Rap in particular (not all rap music is sexist and violent, but the most popular among white audiences tends to be this kind). Katz suggests that “slumming” in the music of urban, African American men allows white men to feel their privilege as white and as men.  They can symbolically exercise and express sexism and a sense of masculine power when other forms of sexism are no longer tolerated.  Meanwhile, everybody points to the rapper as the problem; no one questions the white kid with purchasing power.

Might some of the audience of Duck Dynasty be “slumming” with the bigot to feel their difference and superiority while also getting their own bigot on?  The popularity of the show clearly has something to do with the characters’ religiosity and rural life, but I’m guessing it also has something to do with the “redneck” spectacle, allowing others to see their own “backwoods” attitudes reinforced (I’m talking about racism, sexism, and homophobia, not Christianity).

He is a representation of a particular masculinity that makes him compelling to some and abhorrent to others, which also makes him the perfect pawn in the culture wars.  Meanwhile, we are all distracted from social structure and those who benefit from media representations of the rural, white, southern bigot. 

Sociologists Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo and Michael Messner suggest that pointing the finger at the racist and homophobic attitudes of rural, poor whites — or the sexist and homophobic beliefs of brown and black men, like in criticism of rap and hip hop — draws our attention away from structures of inequality that systematically serve the interests of wealthy, white, straight, and urban men who ultimately are the main benefactors.  As long as we keep our concerns on the ideological bigotry expressed by one type of loser in the system, no one notices the corporate or government policies and practices that are the real problem.

While all eyes are on the poor, rural, white, Southern bigot, we fail to see the owners of media corporations sitting comfortably in their mansions making decisions about which hilarious down-trodden stereotype to trot out next.  Sexist, homophobic, and racist ideology gets a voice, while those who really benefit laugh all the way to the bank.

Mimi Schippers, PhD is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Tulane University.  She is working on a book on the radical gender potential of polyamory.  Her first book was Rockin’ Out of the Box: Gender Maneuvering in Alternative Hard Rock.  You can follow her at Marx in Drag.

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post and Marx in Drag.  Photos from the Internet Movie Database and Today.

“Help, My Eyeball is Bigger than My Wrist!”: Gender Dimorphism in Frozen

I can’t offer much in the crowded field of Disney gender criticism. But I do want to update my running series on the company’s animated gender dimorphism. The latest installment is Frozen.

Just when I was wondering what the body dimensions of the supposedly-human characters were, the script conveniently supplied the dimorphism money-shot: hand-in-hand romantic leads, with perfect composition for both eye-size and hand-size comparisons:

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With the gloves you can’t compare the hands exactly, but you get the idea. And the eyes? Yes, her eyeball actually has a wider diameter than her wrist:

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Giant eyes and tiny hands symbolize femininity in Disneyland.

While I’m at at, I may as well include Brave in the series. Unless I have repressed it, there is no romance story for the female lead in that movie, but there are some nice comparison shots of her parents:

3Go ahead, give me some explanation about the different gene pools of the rival clans from which Merida’s parents came.

Since I first complained about this regarding Tangled, I have updated the story to include Gnomeo and Juliet. You can check those posts for more links to research (and see also this essay on human versus animal dimorphism by Lisa Wade). To just refresh the image file, though, here are the key images. From Tangled:

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From Gnomeo:

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At this point I think the evidence suggests that Disney favors compositions in which women’s hands are tiny compared to men’s, especially when they are in romantic relationships.

REAL WRIST-SIZE ADDENDUM

How do real men’s and women’s wrist sizes differ? I looked at 7 studies on topics ranging from carpal tunnel syndrome to judo mastery, and found a range of averages for women of 15.4 cm to 16.3 cm, and for men of 17.5 to 18.1 cm (in both cases the judo team had the thickest wrists).

‘Then I found this awesome anthropometric survey of U.S. Army personnel from 1988. In that sample (almost 4,000, chosen to match the age, gender, and race/ethnic composition of the Army), the averages were 15.1 for women and 17.4 for men. Based on the detailed percentiles listed, I made this chart of the distributions:

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The average difference between men’s and women’s wrists in this Army sample is 2.3 cm, or a ratio of 1.15-to-1. However, if you took the smallest-wristed woman (12.9 cm) and the largest-wristed man (20.4), you could get a difference of 7.5 cm, or a ratio of 1.6-to-1. Without being able to hack into the Disney animation servers with a tape measure I can’t compare them directly, but from the pictures it looks like these couples have differences greater than the most extreme differences found in the U.S. Army.

Cross-posted at Family Inequality and the Huffington Post.

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

The Revenge Fantasy: Django Unchained vs. 12 Years a Slave

Many critics are praising 12 Years a Slave for its uncompromising honesty about slavery. It offers not one breath of romanticism about the ante-bellum South.  No Southern gentlemen getting all noble about honor and no Southern belles and their mammies affectionately reminiscing or any of that other Gone With the Wind crap, just an inhuman system. 12 Years depicts the sadism not only as personal (though the film does have its individual sadists) but as inherent in the system – essential, inescapable, and constant.

Now, Noah Berlatsky at The Atlantic points out something else about 12 Years as a movie, something most critics missed – its refusal to follow the usual feel-good cliche plot convention of American film:

If we were working with the logic of Glory or Django, Northup would have to regain his manhood by standing up to his attackers and besting them in combat.

Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy. In the typical version, our peaceful hero is just minding his own business when the bad guy or guys deliberately commit some terrible insult or offense, which then justifies the hero unleashing violence – often at cataclysmic levels – upon the baddies. One glance at the poster for Django, and you can pretty much guess most of the story.

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It’s the comic-book adolescent fantasy – the nebbish that the other kids insult when they’re not just ignoring him but who then ducks into a phone booth or says his magic word and transforms himself into the avenging superhero to put the bad guys in their place.

This scenario sometimes seems to be the basis of U.S. foreign policy. An insult or slight, real or imaginary, becomes the justification for “retaliation” in the form of destroying a government or an entire country along with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of its people. It seems pretty easy to sell that idea to us Americans – maybe because the revenge-fantasy scenario is woven deeply into American culture –  and it’s only in retrospect that we wonder how Iraq or Vietnam ever happened.

Django Unchained and the rest are a special example of a more general story line much cherished in American movies: the notion that all problems – psychological, interpersonal, political, moral – can be resolved by a final competition, whether it’s a quick-draw shootout or a dance contest.  (I’ve sung this song before in this blog, most recently here after I saw Silver Linings Playbook.)

Berlatsky’s piece on 12 Years points out something else I hadn’t noticed but that the Charles Atlas ad makes obvious: it’s all about masculinity. Revenge is a dish served almost exclusively at the Y-chromosome table.  The women in the story play a peripheral role as observers of the main event – an audience the hero is aware of – or as prizes to be won or, infrequently, as the hero’s chief source of encouragement, though that role usually goes to a male buddy or coach.

But when a story jettisons the manly revenge theme, women can enter more freely and fully.

12 Years a Slave though, doesn’t present masculinity as a solution to slavery, and as a result it’s able to think about and care about women as people rather than as accessories or MacGuffins.

Scrapping the revenge theme can also broaden the story’s perspective from the personal to the political (i.e., the sociological):

 12 Years a Slave doesn’t see slavery as a trial that men must overcome on their way to being men, but as a systemic evil that leaves those in its grasp with no good choices.

From that perspective, the solution lies not merely in avenging evil acts and people but in changing the system and the assumptions underlying it, a much lengthier and more difficult task. After all, revenge is just as much an aspect of that system as are the insults and injustices it is meant to punish. When men start talking about their manhood or their honor, there’s going to be blood, death, and destruction – sometimes a little, more likely lots of it.

One other difference between the revenge fantasy and political reality: in real life results of revenge are often short-lived. Killing off an evildoer or two doesn’t do much to end the evil. In the movies, we don’t have to worry about that. After the climactic revenge scene and peaceful coda, the credits roll, and the house lights come up. The End. In real life though, we rarely see a such clear endings, and we should know better than to believe a sign that declares “Mission Accomplished.”

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

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