On July 13th, George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the shooting of 17 year old Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman shot Martin during a scuffle—the details of which we will never truly know—and claimed that he had done so only in self-defense. The jury believed him; much of the viewing public did not. In the weeks since the verdict, the nation has been reeling. The shooting itself, the failure of the police department, the vigilantism encouraged by “Stand Your Ground” (SYG) laws, the racial tensions—all of it brought to light deep seated issues in the US. Clearly, we are not a post-racial society.

Some have used the case as an opportunity to say hateful things. Ann Coulter, for example, had this to say: “Why do you suppose there would be a generalized fear of young black males? What might that be based on?… It’s because a disproportionate number of criminals are young black males. It just happens that when Lee Van Houten and George Zimmerman were mugged by two of them, they survived the encounter.”  Others have tried to demonize Trayvon directly, pointing to the possibility that the candy and tea he bought might be used to make a drug concoction. Still others have complained that people are playing the “race card” and making a big deal out of the case.

But something beautiful also happened when the verdict was delivered. It gave many white Americans the chance to glimpse the experience of black people in this country. (To be fair, every day offers this chance to white people who are willing to pay attention.) It provided a space for black Americans, especially black men, to voice their fears, their feelings, and know that at least some of us were listening. More than that, though, Trayvon’s death galvanized the public. I’d like to take a look at one of the collective actions occurring since the verdict, because I think they serve as a reminder that there is good out there, and that even though this world is a bit of a mess, we have power to make it better.

As a (former) Floridian, I watched the trial verdict with a heavy heart—to be from Florida is to know some of the best and worst of humanity. The white sand beaches and resort appearance mask some of the most virulent hate you will encounter in this country; it is a state of rampant homophobia, sexism, racism, and xenophobia. With the national spotlight trained on Florida, that prejudice could no longer hide behind Mickey Mouse ears and manicured golf courses. But there is a lot of good there too, and that can be seen in the actions taken by the Dream Defender activists who are currently occupying Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office, and have been for more than a week. Their singular demand is both simple and reasonable: that Gov. Scott call a special legislative session to evaluate Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. Scott has refused. He convened as task force to assess the law earlier this year, but the task force was comprised of individuals who had helped create, or who openly supported, the law in the first place and, not surprisingly, they advised him to keep the law in place. The Dream Defenders are mostly young people—people who really identify with Trayvon Martin—and they are refusing to budge.

The actions of these young people, and the adults who support them, highlight the possibilities of peaceful collective action. Motivated by sadness and grief, fear and anger, these youths have channeled those feeling into something productive; as they put it, “Our anger in the face of gross injustice has led us to take action but it is the love of our people and our community that pushes us forward.” Their initial public statement eloquently addresses the many facets of the problems in Florida, and the rest of this country: “stand your ground vigilantism, racial profiling and a war on youth that paints us as criminals and funnels us out of schools and into jails.” But these kids refuse to back down. In fact, with Rick Scott refusing to even consider their demands, they are holding their own legislative session aimed at addressing what Florida’s leaders are failing to fix. When the system fails you, it is time to take matters into your own hands…peacefully. These young people are truly leaders. And while none of this can bring Trayvon back, or right the centuries of wrongs that black Americans have faced, it is a step in the right direction.

I hope that we can turn our national grief into momentum towards something better. I’ve heard calls for boycotts of Florida until the SYG law is repealed (and have friends calling for similar boycotts in their home states, which have similar laws). I’ve seen young people around the country sharing their stories, inspired by President Obama’s speech, reminding us of just how many young people could have been Trayvon. And I’ve seen many rallies and protests, supported and attended by people around the country. How can we maintain this movement? How can we build on it? And what can we, as academics, offer to ensure that we keep moving forward?


Further Reading

Lee, Cynthia. (forthcoming) 2013. Making Race Salient: Trayvon Martin and Implicit Bias in a Not Yet Post-Racial Society. 91 N.C.L. Rev.

Nier, Jason A., Samuel L. Gaertner, Charles L. Nier, and John F. Dovidio. 2012. Can Racial Profiling Be Avoided Under Arizona Immigration Law? Lessons Learned From Subtle Bias Research and Anti-Discrimination Law.” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy 12(1): 5-20.

(For teachers who want to teach these issues, this article on racial profiling provides an interesting point of comparison—Can we avoid racial profiling in Stand Your Ground laws?)

Ruiz-Junco, Natalia. 2013. Feeling Social Movements: Theoretical Contributions to Social Movement Research on Emotions. Sociology Compass 7(1): 45-54.

There have been some great posts on The Society Pages about Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, and the politics involved in this case. Here are just a few: The George Zimmerman Case: What Role Did Race Play?; Thinking about Trayvon: Privileged Response and Media Discourse; Wearing Privilege; Stand Your Ground Increases Racial Bias in “Justifiable Homicide” Trials; Who’s Afraid of Young Black Men?; Bodies in the Justice System


Many young American girls grow up playing with Barbie dolls. I certainly did—brushing her hair, dressing her up in dresses and high heels, even taking her pink Corvette out for a spin. I had Barbie, Ken, Skipper, the whole gang. She was so beautiful, popular, and successful. Oh, and skinny. And busty.

It wasn’t until a college women’s studies class that I really thought critically about Barbie. There I learned the truth about Barbie: that the doll was inspired by an erotic German adult toy; that a real woman who was built like Barbie wouldn’t be able to stand straight; and that Barbie, like so many cultural influences on young women and girls, produced an unrealistic and unhealthy, not to mention heteronormative, racialized and classed, standard of beauty.

Recently, an artist created a 3D rendering of a “normal” Barbie (pictured here), using the average body stats, provided by the CDC, of a 19 year old American woman. The resulting doll is shorter, has a larger waist and butt, and walks with feet flat on the ground (as opposed to those invisible high heels Barbie always seemed to be wearing). This “normal” Barbie is still unrealistic—her doe eyes are still far too large and her skin impossibly flawless. And given the growing average weight of American women, this doll is still probably far too thin to be realistic. But she looks healthier and more athletic than the waiflike original. The same artist has also created makeup-less Barbie dolls to show that they are just as lovely without extended lashes, heavy eye shadow, and lipstick. His goal with both projects is to encourage manufacturers to create more natural looking dolls that won’t pressure girls with unrealistic beauty standards.

There is plenty of research to indicate that Barbie’s unattainable measurements affect young girls, leaving them with poor body image, low self-esteem, and unhealthy relationships with food. Yet, many commenters on the artist’s blog offer the usual criticism: what’s the big deal, it’s just a toy. In some ways, this question makes sense—one doll should not make or break a girl’s self-esteem. But the toys we play with have individual and cultural ramifications (Masters, 2008) that we just can’t ignore (in an earlier post, I discuss the gender norms that toys tend to promote). And more than that, Barbie is not the only influence in girls’ and young women’s lives, telling them that looks are everything. Barbie is one piece of a very problematic puzzle. Barbie reaches girls at a young and vulnerable age, long before they become savvy consumers of cultural images, and often before parents anticipate needing to explain these complex issues. And after Barbie come teen magazines, teen celebrities, fashion models, and a host of media and peer group influences that seem to tell girls that they aren’t good enough the way they are.

I think that “normal” dolls are one of many things that should be considered. It would be a simple change to make dolls a bit more realistic, with measurements that real human beings could actually embody. It would be good to teach young girls not to accept these images at face value. And on that front, there is some good news. Although toys matter, like all media and representations, we don’t have to consume them in the ways their makers intended. And as it turns out, children’s creativity seems well-suited to reconfiguring Barbie’s meanings. Erica Rand’s book, Barbie’s Queer Accessories, explores the many innovative ways that people play with this iconic doll. The adults she interviews recall a variety of queer Barbies: from transgender to punk, these ways of “playing Barbie” are not Mattel’s intent. If we can resist the pressure in these ways, we can surely rail against the constraining beauty narratives as well.

I’ll end here with a personal story, a favorite in my family. I was about 5 years old, on a family vacation to visit my grandparents. And because Barbie was my favorite toy, I’d packed my suitcase with several dolls. One rainy afternoon, I was inside playing when I innocently called my grandmother over to see them…two Barbie dolls, in their birthday suits, kissing! My parents insist, to this day, that even in my young mind, I knew that this would be a bit discomforting for my rather prudish grandma, who was still coming to terms with my parents’ lesbian relationship. Whatever my intention, it is clear that I resisted the heteronormative story Mattel tells about Barbie and Ken. And I bet many others have similar stories—stories about remaking Barbie’s looks and identity, chopping off her hair, cross-dressing Barbie—suggesting another strategy for parents who want to raise girls with higher self-esteem: encourage their creative play, which can be its own form of resistance.




Further reading

Masters, Patricia Anne. 2008. Play Theory, Playing, and Culture. Sociology Compass 2(3): 856-869.

Rand, Erica. 1995. Barbie’s Queer Accessories. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Schick, Vanessa R., Brandi N. Rima, and Sarah K. Calabrese. 2010. Evulvalution: The Portrayal of Women’s External Genitalia and Physique across Time and the Current Barbie Doll Ideals. Journal of Sex Research 48(1): 74-81.


Battleground Afghanistan and Eyewitness War are two new shows premiering on National Geographic Channel this July. Both reality dramas follow the firsthand experiences of soldiers on the front lines of combat, as they engage in battle and carry out a variety of missions for the American military. And although these shows have yet to begin, I’d like to pose some “guiding questions” for those who might end up watching them.

Mass media dramatically affect our understanding of war. Katy Parry’s review article on news images in war raises a relevant point: namely, “that footage of conflict often presented to viewers as ‘objective’ coverage actually participates in the legitimation of war” (2010, 419). In part, this may be due to the fact that images do not exist in a vacuum. For audiences to interpret imagery, they require some discourse that situates what they are seeing—who the heroes or villains are, where the combat is taking place, why the conflict is happening, etc. When the images seem to correspond with the hegemonic discourse about that war, they may lend credence to the official story.

So, will these new shows challenge or legitimate the American military presence abroad? Without seeing the shows, it is hard to know, but we can speculate. Perhaps reception of the show will be guided by the popular discourse of “the troops,” which seems to be rather bifurcated: first, the “support the troops” no matter what camp, which imply that, regardless of your stance on the war, you should refrain from criticizing it in order to show appreciation for the troops who risk their lives; or second, the (support the troops so) “bring them home” camp, which suggest that having the troops’ best interests in mind means ending war and returning troops to their families. Perhaps one of these will be the guiding narrative, providing audiences with an intended interpretation. But, audiences are not passive receivers; they use their own references and experiences to actively interpret what they see. Whatever the interpretation, it is clear that these images will not be innocent, cannot be innocent, when they serve to represent violence and power.

Images are tools, and can even be weapons. They do not simply depict the truth—they reflect, but also construct meaning. Significantly, with regard to these new shows, the images are highly manipulated, even as they appear to be “reality” TV. As Jelle Mast explains, “reality TV” is an incredibly complicated media, and as an umbrella genre, it encompasses many different forms of TV programming. One definition of the genre suggests several components, including: filming (or recreating and then filming) the experiences of groups or individuals, often with handheld equipment, and then packaging these into a TV program that can claim some veracity or authenticity. But at this definition implies, the images are molded—by producers, writers, directors, and even the individuals being filmed—into what we see as “real life.” It is interesting to note that the mediation that takes place to create a reality TV show is not much different than what takes place when creating a traditional “documentary,” where materials are also cut and assembled according to the subjectivity of the filmmakers (see Minh-ha, 1991 for more on this point).

Eyewitness War claims to show you “the dangerous missions and perils of war through the eyes of our brave American service members” in a way that is “[u]nfiltered, raw and intense” and Battleground Afghanistan “looks inside the latest chapter of the Afghan conflict as seen by American Marines.” What we will really be watching are technologically mediated images captured by a camera again another for soundtrack, perhaps even narration. Along the way, writers may be involved to create a coherent plot line out of the weeks or months of footage. Pieces are deleted or reconfigured to fit the plot; individual “talking heads” (where the people involved sit alone in front of a camera, and sometimes a producer, to describe the event and how they felt about it) may be added to create or solidify a narrative. All of this work, all of these levels of narrative and meaning, all to create the image of reality. And in this case, of war.

For those who tune in to these shows, the questions will be: what does this show say about the American presence in Afghanistan, or about war generally? What do we learn about the men and women (and masculinities and femininities) in conflict? What story(ies) do these shows tell us about the nation? And what can we learn about our society from the story being told, knowing full well that it is one made for, not revealed to, us.


Further Reading:

Mast, Jelle. 2009. Documentary at a Crossroads: Reality TV and the Hybridization of Small-Screen Documentary. Sociology Compass 3(6): 884-898.

Minh-ha, Trinh T. 1991. When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge.

Parry, Katy. 2010. Media Visualisation of Conflict: Studying News Imagery in 21st Century Wars. Sociology Compass 4(7): 417-429.


In an advanced capitalist society, such as the United States, individuals express their identities through the items they purchase, how they present themselves to others. For those with a lot of money, this often means conspicuous consumption, or buying items with the express purpose of being able to show them off to others (e.g. a waterfront mansion, a yacht, a Maserati). But expressing one’s personality through clothing, jewelry, make up, and other grooming practices is not just reserved to the rich. We are all taught to be conscious of our appearance. We know that we are being judged based on the choices we make, and our ability to conform to fashion norms and trends. In this way, fashion is a performance in which we all engage.

This is problematic on a number of levels. First, there is the problem of stratification. If you cannot or do not purchase the right goods, you are stigmatized. You might remember this from high school. When I was growing up, everyone just had to have Adidas sneakers; wearing knock-offs meant you couldn’t sit at the cool table. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to grow out of this way of sorting people. We even have evidence that appearance factors into really important decisions, like which person to hire for a position. Second, this pressure to look right and express yourself in clothing choices (or cars, or where you go to eat, etc.) increases the rate at which we all consume, which in turn increases the waste we produce. Need to make room for this season’s trends? Start by throwing out the last batch of disposable shirts and shoes. We make things that will fall apart quickly because we know we won’t keep them very long to begin with. Third, we expand the reach and strength of global consumer capitalism, and contribute to worker abuses worldwide.

In the wake of recent factory tragedies in Bangladesh—a fire in November 2012 and a building collapse in April 2013, together resulting in over 1200 deaths—some consumers are looking for alternatives to Wal-Mart and other mainstream, cheap/affordable sources of material goods. And the idea of being “green” in your consuming is also gaining some traction. For example, rapper Macklemore devotes a song to shopping at thrift stores and hipsters everywhere are making it trendy to wear old, vintage, worn, and trashed clothing. The idea of shopping at thrift stores has some potential—be reusing and repurposing old clothes, we can reduce waste, and by recycling from thrift stores, we opt out (at least in that moment) of the production-consumption cycle that leads to workplace abuses. But, as Aleit Veenstra and Giselinde Kuipers (2013) explain, vintage shopping in a capitalist society is a complex endeavor.

Ironically, as they challenge mainstream capitalist values (buying new, buying often), vintage shoppers fulfill the underlying capitalist demand to express one’s inner identity through purchases. One of the main desires of vintage shoppers is to express individuality and authenticity through their clothing choices—by rejecting mass produced, contemporary items, these consumers believe that they represent their own uniqueness. Like any fashion choice, wearing vintage or secondhand clothing acts as a kind of cultural capital, allowing the wearer to send a message about themselves to others, to fit in a desired peer group. Because thrift and vintage stores may sell goods at reduced prices, this type of shopping may violate some of the typical class boundaries associate with high fashion; but, thrifting does not opt out of stratification entirely. For example, there are rules among those who “know” vintage fashion—rules about fit, what to combine and how, how to tailor old pieces, how to recognize “vintage” from just “old” and so on. These rules establish new hierarchies, probably recreating some of the class lines, establishing new insiders and outsiders. But even more fundamentally, thrift and vintage shopping perpetuates our emphasis on identity expression through clothing (or other consumables).

I think that, because they address some of the other major concerns associated with modern consumption, vintage, thrift, and antique stores are good options. In fact, they may be a wonderful short term strategy, especially family-owned stores, since purchases support local economies. And because, for many, the emphasis on thrifting has gone hand in hand with a desire to try to do it yourself (DIY), to take things you already own or find and remake them, it teaches some people that they don’t have to shop for everything.  But insofar as this type of shopping maintains our never-fulfilled desire for more stuff, we should be careful. We should try to live more simply, which means buying less, no matter where it comes from.


Further Reading

Anderson, Tammy L., Catherine Grunert, Arielle Katz, and Samantha Lovascio. 2010. Aesthetic Capital: A Research Review on Beauty Perks and Penalties. Sociology Compass 4(8): 564-575.

Rief, Silvia. 2008. Outlines of a Critical Sociology of Consumption: Beyond Moralism and Celebration. Sociology Compass 2(2): 560-576.

Veenstra, Aleit and Giselinde Kuipers. 2013. It Is Not Old-Fashioned, It Is Vintage, Vintage Fashion and The Complexities of 21st Century Consumption Practices. Sociology Compass 7(5): 355-365.

Angelina Jolie recently made a huge decision, choosing a double mastectomy to prevent what she and her doctors saw as an inevitability—breast cancer. She then bravely came forward with the decision, writing an op-ed detailing how she made the choice, trying to take away the stigma and fear many women experience. She describes not only the testing that she underwent, but also points to the inequities of breast cancer—that it happens in mainly low- and mid-income countries, and that even in wealthy countries, many women cannot afford the genetic testing or preventive care that she had. She also fights the notion that her post-operative body is now less feminine. I am grateful for Jolie’s willingness to speak up about her choice; I have a family history of breast cancer, and have personally known women who, even after diagnosis, struggle with the mastectomy choice, fearing that they will be less feminine, less attractive after surgery. Jolie’s op-ed is demonstrative of how the breast cancer movement specifically, and the women’s movement more generally, has affected our culture. Rather than viewing the disease (or in this case, its prevention) as a private issue, Jolie uses her experience to influence change. She makes the personal political.

Jolie’s decision and the public discussion she has reinvigorated provides us a chance to talk about the many facets of breast cancer. For all the discussion of the BRCA mutations and the increased cancer risk they produce, these genetic factors are only related to about 5-10% of breast cancer cases. And while the genetic influences are important, there are some breast cancer activists who want to change the focus from these individual level predictors, to other less-researched causes. I’m particularly interested in the environmental arguments, which tend to have less traction in public discourse.

Researchers Sabrina McCormick, Phil Brown, and Stephen Zavestoski (2003) have written rather extensively on a recently developed faction of the breast cancer movement, which they term the “environmental breast cancer movement.” These activists bridge the women’s health movement and the environmental movement by investigating the toxins and contaminants that they believe may be linked to increasing rates of breast cancers. Public health initiatives have tended to highlight individual factors—poor diet, smoking, lack of exercise—whereas these health activists desire structural explanations. I think that this is an important shift, especially from a sociology of knowledge perspective. First, the breast cancer cases that are explained by genetics and diet/exercise/behavior appear to be fairly limited, so restricting research to just these causes may not fully explain cancer rates. We may be missing opportunities to help the growing numbers of women who are being diagnosed with breast cancer every few minutes. But more important than just the question of accuracy is the question of responsibility. The predominant way of thinking about breast cancer has placed the responsibility on individuals to avoid cancer—eat better, exercise, find out your genetic risk, and seek medical interventions (mammograms, biopsies, surgeries) when necessary. But individual responsibility misses the mark in a couple of ways. Some people are unable to avail themselves of these “choices”—because of poverty, they may not be able to eat better or seek consistent medical care. And all of us are at risk of daily exposure to dangerous carcinogens in our food, bath and beauty products, and general environment (from air pollution, hydrofracking, radiation, etc.).

The environmental breast cancer movement’s approach moves the locus of responsibility from the individual or family (and their genetic contributions) to corporations and government institutions whose job it is (or ought to be) to ensure safety. This is more in line with the “personal is political” framing that was so important to the women’s movement, and early breast cancer activism. Finally, the environmental approach is open to intersectional analyses. For example, we know that lower class families and minorities are more likely to suffer higher exposure to environmental toxins. Additionally, these groups are less likely to be able to afford expensive genetic testing and preventive surgeries. By focusing on these other explanations, we can serve underprivileged groups, and encourage institutional changes that help the disenfranchised. How might we influence the conversation that Angelina Jolie has opened up? How can we push science and medicine to be more in line with social and environmental justice?


Further reading

Archibald, Matthew E. and Charity Crabtree. 2010. Health Social Movements in the United States: An Overview. Sociology Compass 4(5): 334-343.

Brown, Phil, Stephen Zavestoski, Sabrina McCormick, Brian Mayer, Rachel Morello-Frosch, and Rebecca Gasior Altman. 2004. Embodied Health Movements: New Approaches to Social Movements in Health. Sociology of Health & Illness 26(1): 50-80.

McCormick, Sabrina, Phil Brown and Stephen Zavestoski. 2003. The Personal Is Scientific, the Scientific Is Political: The Public Paradigm of the Environmental Breast Cancer Movement. Sociological Forum 18(4): 545-576.

Tutton, Richard. 2009. Social Aspects of Genetic Testing Technologies. Sociology Compass 3(6): 972-985.


An exciting new journal is slated for release next year—Routledge’s Porn Studies. The journal, the first of its kind, will focus explicitly on erotic and pornographic materials, as well as sex work generally. As its call for papers makes clear, it aims to include interdisciplinary, intersectional, and global analyses. Such a journal is a brave endeavor because the topic of pornography is an incredibly volatile one in academic and activist worlds. The journal is still a year away from publication and has already sparked angry responses, highlighting an ongoing problem in approaches to pornography that will be the focus of my post.

Since the late 1970s, critical engagements with pornography have been rather explosive. The late 70s and early 80s were dubbed, in feminist communities, the porn wars (or sex wars) (see Cornell, 2000 for examples of many feminist takes on pornography, both recent and historical). At this time, anti-porn, or radical, feminists suggested that pornography was a social problem that could only be stopped through censorship. Pornography was, according to feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon, violence against women—literally against the women who performed in it, and symbolically against all women in society because of the stereotypes and aggressive sexuality it promoted. In contrast, anti-censorship and pro-sex (or sex positive) feminists, highlighted the dangers of the radical position. The fact that pornography encouraged female sexuality meant that it could potentially be harnessed by feminists to fight against cultural norms of female sexual passivity and propriety. Moreover, the problems of censorship had to be considered and the feminists raised concerns that the sexual materials of minority communities (LGBT, S&M, etc.) would be the first, and perhaps only, materials to be criminalized. The heated debate became all-out war, which then transformed into a hateful stalemate between opposing groups. A kind of feminist civil war that was never resolved. Still is not resolved.

Through the past few decades, scholarship on pornography has continued, but rarely is there conversation between opposing viewpoints. The debate about Porn Studies makes this clear. The organization, Stop Porn Culture, an activist organization representing the modern instantiation of anti-pornography feminism, has put forward a petition opposing the publication. The petition claims that the journal’s board is biased in favor of pornography and the journal’s neutral title is misleading given this bias. (One blogger, not obviously affiliated with the organization, likens the bias to filling an advisory board for a dietetics journal with the CEOs of Pepsi, Kraft, and Pillsbury. This is a flawed analogy however, because the journal’s board is not comprised of pornographers and porn actors.) They believe anti-porn research will be rejected from the journal, thus silencing their political position. Yet the journal’s call for papers explicitly states that it is interested in publishing “observations, developments, debates or issues in porn studies, designed to encourage exchange and debate.” This is, in my opinion, the greatest opportunity the journal offers—in a climate of silence, mistrust, and anger, the editors are actively seeking out new ways to converse.

The primary goal of Stop Porn Culture, like the anti-pornography feminists during the porn wars, is eradication of pornography, especially violent pornography. But they also seek to expose the ways in which porn has seeped into the veins of our culture, its deep connections to other powerful industries, and the effect it has on gender and sexuality—all of these goals are at least implied in the works listed on the website. Providing these contextual insights is precisely the objective of the journal the organization is currently fighting. The fact that they cannot see the benefit of furthering our understanding of pornography, both in the U.S. and globally, is disturbing. There is still so much that we don’t know about pornography. For example, although we have a lot of anecdotal evidence about the women who act in pornography, few studies have set out to understand how industry women, on the whole, experience their work. We also don’t know nearly as much as we could about porn’s female viewership. Do they engage with pornography in ways that differ from male audiences? Do they watch the same types of pornography? And what are the actual effects when women watch porn? A lot of research during the porn wars focused on the outcomes when men watch explicit materials, but few have investigated how and why women watch porn, and what they feel when they do.

These types of questions—important questions—are well within the purview of Porn Studies and the expertise of its editorial board, most of whom are situated in media and film studies or cultural studies, and/or are trained in critical sexuality studies. And more than that, these questions are answerable only if we open up space for dialogue rather than silence. This new journal is precisely that opportunity.

**A quick thanks to Cheryl Llewellyn, another Sociology Lens blogger, and my SBU colleague. The ideas here are part of a larger project on feminism and pornography that she and I have been invested in for several years.


Further Reading

Attwood, Feona. 2011. The Paradigm Shift: Pornography Research, Sexualization and Extreme Images. Sociology Compass 5(1): 13-22.

Ciclitira, Karen. 2004. Pornography, Women and Feminism: Between Pleasure and Politics. Sexualities 7(3): 281–301.

Cornell, Drucilla (ed.) 2000. Feminism and Pornography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McKee, Alan, Katherine Albury, and Catharine Lumby. 2008. The Porn Report. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.



Last Wednesday, Cheryl posted an interesting analysis of the nature vs. nurture debate that has plagued the social and biological sciences since their emergence. More and more research, from both disciplinary areas, is accumulating to overturn this simplistic dichotomy. Rather than thinking of ourselves as purely determined by our body chemistry and structure OR by our social environment, it is useful to think of ourselves as what Donna Haraway terms “material-semiotic” entities—that is, as unique combinations of natural and cultural elements. This way of theorizing the relationship between nature and culture—or rather, the mutual and continuing construction of nature and culture—is given to us by critical science studies scholars. By thinking, as Haraway does, in terms of “naturecultures,” we escape the nature/nurture divide, merging the two inseparably. What we call “nature” and “culture”/“nurture” are actually mutually constituted.

Lisa Wade’s recent Sociology Compass article, and Cheryl’s post, both focus on the implications of emerging research on gender inequality, but it is clearly applicable to other forms of inequality as well. In this brief discussion, I’d like to turn our focus to the topic of racism. How can thinking of ourselves as material-semiotic entities push us to challenge racial inequality in fruitful ways? Well, sociologists have long argued that race is not natural, but a social construct. It is merely a set of categories applied to skin tone variation that is best explained by geography (the fact that groups of people evolved in different environments, and developed different amounts of skin pigmentation), not inherent differences in intelligence, behavior, or moral capabilities. If race is a social construct, then so is racism, or our fear of “racial others.”

As it turns out, it is a little more complicated than that. A fascinating piece of neuroscience research is of interest here. Eva Telzer, Kathryn Humphreys, Mor Shapiro, and Nim Tottenham, researchers from the University of Illinois and UCLA conducted fMRI brain scans on a group of young people (both white and black) to study how their brains responded to images of racial others. In particular, they looked at the amygdala, the brain structure that appears to be related to emotion and threat detection, and thus, with racial fears. The scans have been used in this type of research before, but have usually been conducted with adults so they have had little to say about the development of racism. What the researchers found is illuminating. Children do not seem to evidence any brain activity in the amygdala when shown images of African Americans. Adolescents (by about age 14), on the other hand, do. This suggests that children learn racism from their environment, but it takes a while before it “sets in.” But it does set in. Fear of black faces, this research suggests, becomes second nature; it sort of cements itself into the workings of the brain. This is a scary notion because, to promote antiracist politics, we must not only work against people’s preconceived ideas, but also their unconscious brain processes.

But the story doesn’t stop there. The researchers offer another interesting finding. The amygdala effect is less in more diverse environments; adolescents with a highly diverse peer group, showed almost no effect. It is possible that the heterogeneity of one’s peer group may mitigate racism. That is to say, perhaps people who are raised in more racially and ethnically diverse environments learn racial acceptance rather than fear. The researchers are careful not to argue any type of causation here. Just as a more diverse environment might lead to a less active amygdala response, there is another possibility—those with a lower amygdala effect (a less “racist brain,” if you will) may seek out more diverse peer groups. (Since 14 year olds have little control over their environments—the diversity of their schools or neighborhoods, though, I am inclined to believe the former.) Either way, this phenomenon is best understood as the result of material-semiotic processes—our nature is discursively produced, but is not just “made up,” because it, in turn, influences the way we interact, our culture.

We need to push this research further to see how we might influence brain development in ways that align with social justice. As Cheryl suggested in her post, we can use toys and games to train girls’ brains to give them an equal edge in STEM fields and this neuroscience study suggests that promoting heterogeneous schools and integrated neighborhoods might promote some of the goals of antiracist politics. But what else can we do? If we embrace what critical science studies tells us, the possibilities seem to open up dramatically. It may be more complicated to think of naturecultures, but it may also be worth it.


Further reading

Haraway, Donna. 1992. The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others. In Cultural Studies, edited by Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, Paula A. Treichler. New York: Routledge. Pg 295-337.

Kubota, Jennifer T., Mahzarin R. Banaji and Elizabeth A. Phelps. 2012. The Neuroscience of Race. Nature Neuroscience 15: 940-948.

Lende, Daniel H. and Greg Downey. 2012. The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology. The MIT Press.

Pickersgill, Martyn and Ira Van Keulen (eds.). 2012. Sociological Reflections on the Neurosciences (Advances in Medical Socioloy). Emerald Publishing Group.

Pitts-Taylor, Victoria. 2010. The Plastic Brain: Neoliberalism and the Neuronal Self. Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine 14(6): 635-652. (In this article, Pitts-Taylor offers a cautionary tale about how cultural discourses have described brain plasticity, the brain’s ability to change)

King Leonidas, right, and Xerxes, left (source:
King Leonidas, left, and Xerxes, right (source:

In a recent post, I discussed a longstanding trend in American (and Western) media of using racial Others to embody evil.  From adult action films to children’s animated features, we can find examples of villains whose malevolent nature is clear from the racial/ethnic stereotypes used to characterize them. But racial stereotypes are not the only stereotypes used to denote wickedness; we can also find many examples of non-normative sexualities and gender performances associated with evil. Importantly, this sexual Otherness is often developed alongside and in relation to racial/ethnic Otherness.

The intersectional nature of race, gender, and sexuality is fundamental here. Many scholars have documented the connection between racial and sexual Otherness. As Edward Said explains is his exposition of Orientalism (the discursive tool through which Europe and the West has understood the Middle East), the Orient is characterized by its sexual peculiarity. Anything goes, it seems, in the Oriental world of excess; this “sexual excess” is best captured, in the European or American mind, by the image of the harem (see, for example, Said, 1975: 57, 102-103; also Alloula, 2000). Joane Nagel (2003) presents wide ranging historical examples outside the Orient (from the era of direct European imperialism to slavery to modern times) that demonstrate this point. As Nagel explains, “The sexual ideologies of many groups define members of other classes and ethnicities as sexually different from, usually inferior to their own normal and proper ways of being sexual. These class or ethnic ‘Others’ might be seen to be oversexed, undersexed, perverted, or dangerous” (9). Nagel’s overarching point is that “ethnosexual boundaries” (the lines we draw demarcating ethnic/sexual insiders and outsiders) are central to definitions of nation, citizenship, family etc. These sexual ideologies and stereotypes make their way into media representations just like the racial stereotypes I discussed in the prior post. And when ethnosexual Others appear, it is often as villains.

An example may help illustrate my point: Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006). For those unfamiliar with the film, it is a fantastical reimagining of the ancient battle of Thermopylae, where the Spartans, numbering only 300, attempt to defend against imperial conquest by the Persians. In the film, the Spartans are paragons of bravery, heroic to the core. Gerard Butler plays the lead, King Leonidas, followed by a small army of chiseled muscle-men sporting speedos and spears. From their beards to their pecs, the Spartans are the epitome of heterosexual masculinity. As heroes, they are pure—they are committed to right over any bodily or worldly desires, even sexual desires as they abandon their wives for the cause and reject offers of concubinal pleasures. They are devoted to freedom and nation and willing to sacrifice everything for liberty.

In stark contrast stand the Persians, the epitome of Oriental excess and evil, embodied most clearly by their leader, Xerxes. Played by Rodrigo Santoro, Xerxes (also in a speedo) is highly effeminized: his skin is dark, hairless, and pierced; he wears eyeliner and gold makeup and is decadently decorated in gold jewelry. Though surrounded by a harem of belly dancing women, and making sexually violent threats towards the Spartan women, Xerxes exudes stereotypical homosexuality in mannerism and style. He stands much larger than Leonidas, but given his styling and sexual ambiguity, this makes him more scary than manly. His army, a dark-skinned horde that includes literal monsters, is also of questionable sexuality (and masculinity)—the fact that 300 Spartan men stand strong against the 100,000+ army evidence of the failure of Persian masculinity. (For further analysis of this film and others like it, see Pierce, 2011 and Es, 2011, especially pg 15-23.)

As in my discussion of racial Others in film, these ethnosexual Others reinforce existing societal ideologies. They reinforce a gender and sexual order that places (white) normatively masculine, heterosexual men at the top; second, they maintain our mistrust of the GLBT (in the case of Xerxes, especially the G and T) communities. By using sexual Others to denote evil and immorality, audiences are reminded of the centrality and rightness of heterosexuality and normative masculinity. With 300, a triumphant tale of a battle for democracy (to which we trace our democratic origins), we are also given instruction about the relationship of ethnosexual Others to the nation—they are clearly a threat. In Nagel’s words, “The link between war and manhood and the notion of our men as virile and their men as degenerate (and our women as pure and their women as sluts) illustrates often hidden, but powerful sexualized assumptions about the nation, its citizens, its defenders, and its enemies. Good citizenship relies on appropriate sexual behavior and proper gender performance” (2003: 30).

Is it possible to create entertainment forms that don’t rely on these easy stereotypes? How can we push Hollywood and other media outlets to imagine new characters, both good and evil? And, at a higher level, how can we engage in cultural critique of the ethnosexual ideologies that govern nation, citizenship, and basic structures of belonging?



Further Reading

Alloula, Malek. 2000. The Colonial Harem: Images of a Suberoticism. In Feminism & Pornography, edited by Drucilla Cornell. New York: Oxford University Press. pg 381-403.

Es, Murat. 2011. Frank Miller’s 300: Civilizations Exclusivism and Spatialized Politics of Spectatorship. Aether: The Journal of Media Geography VIII(B): 6-30.

Ferber, Abby L. and Michael S. Kimmel. 2008. The Gendered Face of Terrorism. Sociology Compass 2(3): 870-887.

Nagel, Joane. 2003. Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality: Intimate Intersections, Forbidden Frontiers. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pierce, Jerry B. 2011. “To do or die manfully”: Performing Heteronormativity in Recent Epic Films. In Of Muscles and Men: Essays on the Sword and Sandal Film, edited by Michael G. Cornelius. pg 40-57.

The History Channel’s miniseries, The Bible, has been lauded by some and scrutinized by others. Recently, some have raised questions about the show’s portrayal of the Satan, specifically the striking resemblance between the character and President Barack Obama (you can read a commentary at the HuffPost). The show’s producers have called the claims “utter nonsense” and insisted that actor Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni’s long record working on religious film sets made him an obvious choice for the role.

I’m no mind-reader and won’t speculate whether the producers intended any connection between Pres. Obama and the devil. I’ve raised this little controversy for another purpose, to demonstrate a long-standing film tradition of racializing villains. From spy flicks and action blockbusters to children’s animated movies and faith-based media, evil is often embodied by dark-skinned characters. Think about it—who are the bad guys in James Bond movies? What stands out about the animated character, Jafar, in Disney’s Aladdin? And what can we say about the Devil in the History Channel’s The Bible, especially compared to the heroic characters? They are all highly racialized depictions of racial/ethnic Others. They draw on nasty stereotypes designed to make us fearful. They are shown as morally corrupt and physically unattractive. Jafar, for example, conforms to ethnic stereotypes much more than Aladdin or Jasmine, both of whom could easily pass (in white westerners’ imaginations) as well-tanned Americans if not for their desert setting.


Edward Said famously wrote about this representational tactic in his book Orientalism (you can watch a documentary about Orientalism, featuring Said, called On Orientalism, on YouTube). Said explains that Orientalism is a patterned way of representing Arabs and Muslims as a unified cultural group (despite the fact that the terms aren’t synonymous, that Muslims live in many places outside the Arab world, and that “Arab” is used to describe individuals from many different backgrounds), less civilized than white Europeans or Americans, and capable of terrible things; in other words, Orientalism is a discourse that presents Arabs/Muslims as a dangerous threat. Not limited to specific media, Orientalism surrounds us and, from an early age, inculcates us with a particular way of understanding the Arab world. It gives us a specific language that governs how we conceive of Arab people and naturalizes our stereotypes. The Arab is a terrorist; the Arab is patriarchal—these terrible generalizations make sense and seem real in an Orientalist framework.



We need not limit ourselves to thinking just about the Arab/Muslim in the Western imaginary. Similar respresentational tropes govern depictions of blacks and Africans as well, though they have a different history (still rooted in imperialism, but also, in the U.S., a history of slavery and ongoing racial inequality structured around a black-white dichotomy). In a fascinating article, Carmen Lugo-Lugo and Mary Bloodsworth-Lugo (2008) demonstrate how racialization (and heteronormativity) functions even in animated films. Understanding that the animals in these films function anthropomorphically to teach children about the world around them, the authors argue that racialized characters reinforce the racial stereotypes that children are beginning to learn. For example, in the film Shark Tale, “Children learn that our culture is strictly raced and racialized, since even fish can be Black or White” (Lugo-Lugo and Bloodsworth-Lugo, 2008: 5). The black fish look different, live in segregated parts of the reef, and are recognizable through racialized markers like voice/accent, mannerisms, and jewelry (5). Reading the article, I thought back to one of my favorite animated films growing up—The Lion King. In this film, Scar is our racialized villain (along with his pack of hyenas). The most obvious racial marker is his darkened mane which stands in stark contrast to the lighter locks of Mustafa and adult Simba. We learn very early that darkness is not to be trusted, it is evil, murderous, and must be conquered (by civilized, benevolent, blondish lions, of course).  While it might seem silly to focus on movies when racism functions in so many other parts of our lives, media is of vital importance. The power to tell stories about Others, Said would remind us, is not an innocent power—it is the foundation of colonialism and racism everywhere that these emerge, it is the basis for political and economic domination. The stories we tell have both symbolic and material consequences. But the power of our stories can also be transformative in other ways—imagine if we told different stories, or allowed Others to tell their stories. What kind of world might we imagine, and thereby create?

Further Reading

Hughey, Matthew W. 2012. Racializing Redemption, Reproducing Racism: The Odyssey of Magical Negroes and White Saviors. Sociology Compass 6(9): 751-767.

Lugo-Lugo, Carmen and Mary K. Bloodsworth-Lugo. 2008. “Look Out New World, Here We Come”?: Race, Racialization, and Sexuality in Four Children’s Animated Films by Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks. Cultural Studies—Critical Methodologies.

Saeed, Amir. 2007. Media, Racism and Islamophobia: The Representation of Islam and Muslims in the Media. Sociology Compass 1(2): 443-462.

Said, Edward. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

Said, Edward. 1994. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage Books.

A photo of my best friend and me
A photo of my best friend and me

A recent article in Marie Claire magazine caught my eye. The title asks, “Are girlfriends the new husbands?” As the article explains, young adult women are increasingly turning to best friends for the kind of support that one might expect only from a romantic partner. As they choose to remain single later into life, women’s best friends become intimate partners (though not sexual ones). Cohabitation, “family” vacations, even some type of co-parenting between best friends is becoming more common. I should note, the article doesn’t discuss race, sexuality, class or any of the other intersecting social categories that affect women’s lives, so we cannot make sweeping generalizations, but among an abstract category of 20- to 30-something year old women, the nature of friendship appears to be changing. And I’d like to argue that this change is a good one.

The author, Whitney Joiner, seems mostly optimistic about women’s friendships, sharing several women’s stories of the value and joys of having a BFF (best friend forever). But she goes on to suggest two downsides: first, that friends have no binding commitment and when times get tough, they can easily “call it quits”; second, these ‘besties’ may use their relationship with one another to avoid the dating scene. I don’t have much to say on the first point, except the exceedingly high divorce rates in the US suggest that it is pretty easy to “call it quits” in a marriage. The second is where I have qualms.

Joiner relies on a fairly common cultural assumption, namely, that family and marriage are more significant relationships than friendship. At the heart of this assumption are problematic heterosexist beliefs about men’s and women’s “natures” and the necessity of childbearing (especially for women). These beliefs militate against cross-sex friendships, for example, because we assume that men and women must, deep down, want to sleep with each other. They militate against strong and intimate friendships between men because of these friendships carry the stigma of homosexuality. And they militate against women’s friendships because women are supposed to compete with one another to secure a male mate, and fulfill their “biological destiny” of birthing a child (in the confines of marriage, of course). I want to be clear that these are cultural assumptions, not facts—men who are friends are not necessarily gay, women need not compete with another for male attention even when they are heterosexual, and men and women can clearly be friends without jumping into bed. But the cultural norms infiltrate our thinking and how others perceive us, so they do affect our behavior.

So when women engage in these deep friendships, they are challenging some of the fundamental ideas undergirding heterosexism. Is there something wrong with women pursuing friendships instead of pursuing husbands? I don’t think so. In fact, I think just the opposite. I think that intimate friendships between women are a practical enactment of feminism—when we allow ourselves to embrace and celebrate the women in our lives, we challenge the heterosexist structures that tend to keep us apart (see Lisa Wade and Caroline Heldman speak on this here; also bell hooks (2002), ch. 14). We refuse to conform to society’s expectations at each other’s expense. We resist the homophobia and heterosexism implicit in other’s judgments of our friendships (that we are secretly lesbians, that we are spinsters who cannot find a man, and so on). We recreate the very notion of family in these relationships. And we are still free to pursue any other kind of relationship we desire—be it a traditional, married relationship, other friendships, even motherhood. But, if we don’t want to get married or don’t want to have children, why should we deny ourselves a support structure, an intimate with whom we can share our triumphs and tribulations? These friendships, it seems, enable women to decide when or if they want what society expects, without giving up the psychological, emotional, and physiological benefits of having a life partner.

So, are girlfriends the new husbands? Well, if I were to evaluate my own life, the answer would be a resounding yes. I’ve lived together with my BFF for six years; we share our finances, our chores, our families, and a deep love for one another—we are each other’s “lady husbands.” We are friends, sisters, partners, intimates. I can attest to the fact the many people are skeptical of our relationship, even intimidated by it, and definitely make assumptions about our sexualities because of it. The fact that they are intimidated, I think, indicates the true feminist potential of friendships like ours: they threaten the social structures that maintain heterosexual/male privilege, and they may provide a foundation for organized resistance to those structures.

I’d love to see more sociological investigation of intimate friendships. Previous research has indicated that men’s friendships are somewhat different from women’s. Do we see similar forms of intimacy occurring among men, and why (or why not)? Joiner’s article says nothing about the race or sexuality of the women in her article (though they seem to come from middle-class, professional backgrounds), and my friendship experience is rooted in my own social position as white, hetero-appearing, American-born and middle-class. How do intersecting categories (race, sexuality, citizenship status, class, etc.) affect the form and content of friendships, and how might intimacy within and across these social categories encourage new types of resistance? To what extent do intimate friendships lead to actual engagement with feminisms or other social movements? Previous research (see an example here, but take the biological determinism with a grain of salt) shows the psychological and physiological benefits of friendship, so do intimate friendships enable healthier relationships with others or even greater gains in self-esteem?


Further Reading

Boyle, Karen and Susan Berridge. 2012. I Love You, Man: Gendered Narratives of Friendship in Contemporary Hollywood Comedies. Feminist Media Studies.

Chasin, CJ DeLuzio, and H. Lorraine Radtke. 2012. “Friend Moments”: A Discursive Study of Friendship. Qualitative Research in Psychology.

Felmlee, Diane, Elizabeth Sweet, and H. Colleen Sinclair. 2012. Gender Rules: Same- and Cross-Gender Friendship Norms. Sex Roles 66: 518-529.

hooks, bell. 2002. Communion: The Female Search for Love. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.

On boys’ (and men’s) friendships: Way, Niobe. 2011. Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection. Harvard University.