Turning Away from Football

Andrew’s insightful post about the Martin/Incognito issue has prompted me to think more deeply about my personal relationship with football. About three weeks ago, I decided to “quit football.” This is a particularly challenging time to do this since Florida State University, my alma-mater, is having it’s most successful season in recent memory and quite possible might make it to the national championship game.

I haven’t entirely been able to articulate the reasons for my decision. I thought for a time it was the CTE head-injury issues plaguing the league. And while that is a big reason why I’m turning my back on the sport, it’s not the whole reason. To say I can’t live with the cognitive dissonance would flatter me too much. I’m a self-identified feminist that on a regular basis is compelled listen to Notorious B.I.G’s Ready to Die album (I’m particularly hooked on “The What” and “Unbelievable” at the moment.

In truth, I’ve been distancing myself from football for a while. And it’s not because of the Martin/Incognito issue. I’ve seen lots of condemnation about a “hyper-macho” culture in the NFL. But let’s be real, it’s not like the NFL suddenly became hyper-masculine. It has always been this way. What makes it the 800-lb gorilla of sports and culture is it’s projection of an almost unreachable masculinity. An ideal form of masculinity that we can view from a distance.

What’s more, we use it as a currency. We use it to brandish a form of masculine “street-cred” that matters a lot in some places. I grew up outside of Miami in what would be called a “lower-middle class” suburb. There was a whole lot of projection of masculinity. one way to “feel masculine” or to “be masculine” was to throw myself headlong into a love of the Miami Dolphins. That’s not the main reason I threw things across the room when Dan Marino threw a pick or Andra Franklin fumbled on the three yard line, but the fact that a love of football made me “one of the guys” didn’t hurt.

My struggle with turning my back on the sport I worshiped as a kid is likely informed by my place in life. As a middle-aged husband and father of a nine year old girl, I don’t need to tap into the idealized version of masculinity that football presents.

But low testosterone notwithstanding, I think that my decline in interest comes more from the selling of the game than the game itself. The selling of the game has increasingly mirrored they bluster and hyper-masculinity of the game itself. This wasn’t always the case. As an example, watch this CBS’ NFL pre-game show The NFL Today from September 1981.

The presentation seems remarkably muted. But this muted presentation made the game itself the spectacle. But today’s coverage of the NFL almost dwarfs the game itself. ESPN has daily, if not hourly, programming that covers Sunday’s games. The game itself seems to exist simply to provide fodder for the chatter about the game during the week. Check out any “take” by ESPN analysts Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith. These guys might be outliers of feigned passion and intensity, but they are indicative of a media culture that feels it needs to be as newsworthy as the news they cover. In this way, it seems a lot like standard critiques of the news media’s coverage of American politics.

I’ll always love football. What is appealing about football is the necessity to perform demanding intellectual tasks under intense physical and emotional duress. Reading a coverage, knowing when to ‘break a route” or figuring out who to pick up on a blitz are all the equivalent of brain-teasers happening at 100 miles an hour. Although strength and speed are a must, football is a “smart person’s” game.

But the increasing wall-to-wall coverage, the emphasis on the personalities covering the game rather than the game itself and (most importantly) the increasing evidence that playing football for sustained periods of time can lead to irreversible brain injury, has made the sport feel less mythic, less like an idealized notion of masculinity and more a stylized, exploitative version of its former self. It feels more like a simulacra of masculinity rather than an earnest production of it.

For me, there’s a legitimate societal role for the brand of “toughness” the NFL markets. To often it gets dismissed as a retrograde and archaic view of the world. The problem is not the toughness itself, is the cultural primacy of the toughness and its attachment to specific genders and sexes. As Andrew rightly points out, Brandon Marshall is making an important sociological point about how we talk to boys and girls. We should want them to both cry and “shake it off,” not either/or. But for me, any lesson the NFL could teach boys and girls about toughness is getting muddled by a lack of concern for player safety and an off-putting presentation of the product.

Gender Socialization and the NFL

Maybe others have picked up on this, but I’m just getting around to hearing, by way of Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast, Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall* comment on the Richie Incognito bullying scandal. In a press conference, he sounded a bit like a sociologist as he commented on gender socialization:

“Take a little boy and a little girl. A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as parents is ‘Get up, shake it off. You’ll be OK. Don’t cry.’ A little girl falls down, what do we say? ‘It’s going to be OK.’ We validate their feelings. So right there from that moment, we’re teaching our men to mask their feelings, to not show their emotions. And it’s that times 100 with football players. You can’t show that you’re hurt, can’t show any pain. So for a guy to come into the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, that’s a problem. That’s what I mean by the culture of the NFL. And that’s what we have to change. So what’s going on in Miami goes on in every locker room. But it’s time for us to start talking.

marshall
While his insight is unsurprising to most sociologists, it might be worth using in class alongside, say, Bill Pollack’s The Boy Code. But I think there’s also a point to be made here about how gender inequality affects us all. Marshall — a professional athlete — embodies hegemonical masculinity and is at the tippy-top of a hierarchy that privileges men and masculine behavior. And, yet, his comment reveals the brutality of that system for even the supposed beneficiaries.

*Despite his eloquence on this issue, Marshall is not necessarily an ideal role model of feminist conduct. He has had a number of run-ins with the law for assault and domestic violence. He was subsequently diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and seems to be doing quite well with the treatment. As the Hang Up and Listen hosts mention, one can hear a bit of the language of therapy in his statement, something more NFL players (and people in general) could benefit from.

Epilepsy, Personally and Sociologically

University of Minnesota Sociology Ph.D. student Tim Ortyl died last week of natural causes related to epilepsy. I didn’t know Tim, but, by all accounts, he was a smart, fun, and kind guy and I know his family, friends, and colleagues will mourn his loss for some time to come. While others will commemorate Tim, as a sociologist and an epileptic myself, I would like to use this space to briefly discuss the lived experience of those with epilepsy.

Not all epilepsy is the same. People ranging from Harriet Tubman to Vladmir Lenin to Prince all have had epilepsy and, according to the Epilepsy Foundation, it affects 2.2 million Americans and 65 million people worldwide. However, “epilepsy” is a social construct and a false binary (i.e., one is “epileptic” or not) that refers to a wide spectrum of conditions. People are diagnosed as “epileptic” when they have had “two or more unprovoked seizures,” but the condition can range from those who have 2-3 seizures in their lifetime to those who have a hundred per day. As The Institute of Medicine writes in a report on the prevalence of epilepsy, “the 2.2 million prevalence estimate is most accurately viewed as approximating a midpoint in a wide potential range of 1.3 million to 2.8 million people with epilepsy.” Personally, I have had fewer than ten seizures in my life and it is “controlled” if I make sure to take a prescription, get adequate sleep, and remember to eat. Others have it much worse.

Depending on their severity of their condition, epileptics – like others with medical issues or disabilities – experience a range of challenges that may make life more difficult. These challenges include regular medical appointments, submitting to a range of unpleasant medical tests, and adjusting to new medications. And, of course, that is the condition for those who are privileged enough to have medical coverage. Many Americans and people in the developing world have to cope with epilepsy without the resources of medical care. In addition to the medical side, depending on state laws*, having a seizure can lead to have one’s driver’s license revoked. Outside of major metropolitan areas with extensive public transportation, not having a driver’s license puts you at a major disadvantage in terms of getting to work, picking up groceries, and performing the basic tasks of everyday life. In two different states, I have experienced having my license revoked. Throughout both experiences, I felt great embarrassment for not feeling like full-fledged adult and guilt for having to ask friends for rides all the time. Even though I knew rationally that I shouldn’t feel that way about something that was beyond my control, I did. Because of the practical and social consequences of a loss of license, some epileptics will choose to fight the ban in court, incurring major legal costs.

Finally, beyond the direct medical and legal consequences of being epileptic, there are significant social challenges. As Erving Goffman noted, physical disabilities always bear stigma. To be at risk of seizure means walking around with a sense of vulnerability to a potential failed public performance. In a society where individual control is so prized, to be as profoundly out of control as one is during a seizure carries with it feelings of shame and humiliation. Even well-intentioned people often deliver up negative social sanctions to epileptics. When I was on the job market in graduate school, one faculty member advised me not to mention my epilepsy to anyone (as if I bring it up a lot!), saying, “You don’t want people picturing you flopping around on the floor in the department.” Later, as a faculty member, (after a sleepless night and forgetting to take my medicine and not eating) I had a seizure while advising a student in my office. While I greatly appreciated the kindness shown by my colleagues and the poor student, the sympathy I received for what felt like a public display of mental and bodily weakness was difficult to accept without feeling diminished by pity. Moreover, I think that physical weakness and vulnerability is particularly difficult for men given social expectations of masculine control and physical strength. Stepping out of a basketball game because of an “aura” (the sense of an oncoming seizure) is not just a failed performance; it is a failure to “power through” and properly perform masculinity.

Because of the stigma associated with epilepsy, as Goffman would predict, nearly all of us who are epileptic actively engage in impression management to try to “save face.” To save face, we keep our condition secret if we can, emphasize that it is “controlled,” make self-deprecating seizure jokes, and try to explain how it is beyond our control. Like all emotion work, managing stigma around epilepsy can be exhausting. For people like me who can hide it for years at a time, it is only occasional work. For other epileptics, impression management is full-time work.

To be sure, these circumstances are common among people with many medical conditions. But the complexity of epilepsy and the challenges it poses to people with it are often unseen and may be affecting those close to us.

*In some states, simply having a seizure triggers the loss of a license. In others, it is only having a seizure despite medication. The driving ban can last from 6-12 months.

Understanding the Conservative Movement

On Monday night, Jon Stewart said something I’ve heard a lot of lately: “These people are crazy.” The “these people” in question are the Congressional Republicans who have refused to allocate appropriations or enact a continuing resolution for the 2014 fiscal year until Democrats agree to defund Obamacare. As we all know, the disturbing consequence has been the government shutdown due to get worse next week if the current debt ceiling isn’t raised. Of course, Stewart doesn’t mean that they are literally insane. Like most Lefties who use that term, he means that their ideology is radically outside the mainstream and their tactics are unusual and highly risky. But Republicans rarely use “crazy” to describe Democrats, instead using “dangerous,” “radical,” or “socialist.”

Explaining Conservatives

It seems that the world according to Democrats is more comprehensible to Republicans than vice versa (an assertion supported by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s controversial studies of the moral foundations of political views). So, in recent months, Left-leaning publications, commentators, and academics have begun to ask, What has happened to the Republican Party? Paul Krugman makes a moral claim, arguing that “an almost pathological meanspiritedness” has infected “the soul” of the GOP. Others have written about the radicalization and politicization of institutions of conservative intellectualism like the Heritage Foundation, once a legitimate think tank and now the propaganda wing of the GOP. Some commentators like Slate’s Dave Weigel and the New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza have argued that the extremism of the Republican Party stems from gerrymandering that produced disproportionately white, conservative, Christian, low population districts all too willing to elect radical anti-government congressmen. This perspective is certainly supported by a fair amount of empirical evidence showing that most of the partisan polarization of recent years is on the Republican side.
Romney

Conservative intellectuals (who tend to be more moderate) have also gotten in on the act of explaining the current crisis by pointing out the weakening of party power and the simmering resentment of “forty years of failure” in overturning the “New Deal-Great Society Leviathan.” As The New York Times’ Ross Douthat writes in an usually thoughtful op-ed, “So what you’re seeing motivating the House Intransigents today…is not just anger at a specific Democratic administration, or opposition to a specific program, or disappointment over a single electoral defeat … it’s a revolt against the long term pattern.”

What Can Sociology Tell Us?

This mad scramble to understand what’s going on in the Republican Party is reflective of the fact that we (perhaps especially sociologists) have done too little to theorize and document the dynamics of the American conservative movement. That is one of the central claims of an outstanding 2011 review by Neil Gross, Thomas Medvetz, and Rupert Russell. Here are three key take-aways from the article that can help us understand current developments:

1) Be careful defining “conservative”: Gross et al. reject three common definitions of conservative. The first sees the conservative movement as a “backlash” against progressivism (“attempting to stuff a rapidly changing American society back into the box of a white, theologically conservative small-town vision of the good”). They argue this definition assumes static definitions of progressive and conservative, which don’t match the historical reality. The second flawed definition is that conservatives are “supporters of free market capitalism” who simply exploit race and religion to secure working class support. Gross et al. claim that this definition gives short shrift to the sincerity of social claims of the conservative movement. A final definition holds that conservatives have different assumptions about human nature (it’s unchanging) and the moral order (there’s objective morality) from progressives. This definition assumes homogeneity and intellectual coherence within the movement.

Instead, they offer this definition: “conservatism is not a fixed category of belief or practice but a collective identity that evolves in the course of struggles…over meaning…” But it is an identity that is organized through social structures like social networks and formal organizations like the Republican Party or Tea Party groups. So, in analyzing the current situation, we must keep in mind that while conservatives tend to share an identity, ideology is not and never has been uniform either within the movement at any given moment or over time.

2) Framing Matters: One the main points of the article is that sociologists have not sufficiently recognized the contributions of conservative intellectuals to the movement. One of the main tasks for conservative intellectuals was to “[carve] out a viable identity for the movement” that would bridge the divide between libertarians (limited government in both fiscal and social issues) and traditionalists (social issue conservatives with free market concerns). Conservative intellectuals addressed this problem by reframing the concept of “elites” in a way that would satisfy both groups of conservatives:

“The danger in America lay not in great concentrations of wealth but in the growth of a political and cultural elite…that was more cosmopolitan than patriotic, soft on communism, driven to favor ill-fated social engineering schemes, and supportive of pernicious social trends like secularization.”

The success of this particular framing of “elites” help us understand how House Republicans would see themselves as taking a stand against elite power, while their liberal opponents also see themselves as standing up for the little guy.

3) Institutionalization Matters: As a movement almost entirely encased in the Republican Party, unlike, say, Occupy Wall Street, the American conservative movement has typically adopted electoral solutions. In other words, they’ve tried to back candidates and take control of the institutions of government. At the same time, seeking to counter “the dominance of liberal elites” in academia, the media, and policy institutes, conservative intellectuals encouraged the business community to help fund a “conservative counter-establishment.” This meant think-tanks like the Heritage Foundation and media outlets like Fox News. Today, Occupy has left behind some taglines (e.g., “the 99%”), but the radical wing of the conservative movement has a powerful place in Congress. The institutionalization of conservative views in media and think tanks have shaped the prevailing ideas among the conservative movement constituents, but also helped frame debates more widely. In other words, the effort to institutionalize as succeeded.

Taken together, the American conservative movement should be seen as an ever-changing and heterogeneous movement that has adopted effective framing and has been wildly successful in institutionalizing the movement. In other words, the movement has been anything but “crazy.” Holding aside the question of whether the movement’s ideas or tactics are good for society, they have been successful at doing what all movements aim to do: gain power.

Why It’s Called “Obamacare”?

Why is the Affordable Care Act (ACA) more widely known as “Obamacare”? After all, we don’t call Medicare “Johnsoncare” or Social Security “Roosecurity.”

President Obama, who is currently on a traveling charm offensive to promote the ACA, offered a hypothesis yesterday: “Once it’s working really well, I guarantee you they will not call it ‘Obamacare.’” If we extrapolate a bit from his remark, the ACA is more widely known as “Obamacare” because his opponents want to associate the law with the President who is widely loathed on the Right and earns mixed reviews from the general public (though polls consistently show that the vast majority of Americans find Obama personally likable). Bad President, bad law, so the thinking goes. Or perhaps the term conjures the image of Obama crossing the country with a stethoscope and kicking down doors, forcing blood pressure readings on us. That is to say, “Obamacare” may generate fears of the worst kind of “nanny state.”

Dr. Obama
But here’s an alternative explanation for the persistence of the term. Consider that his own supporters use the term, no doubt creating love for the law on the Left. Unlike Social Security and Medicare (single-payer systems of direct entitlements), the ACA is actually a complex mixture of taxes and subsidies, public-private exchanges, and regulations on the private insurance industry. In other words, it’s no one thing.

As the time goes on, I suspect “Obamacare” will fall by the wayside and “ACA” is a bit too wonky to stick. But what the popular name will ultimately be depends on what the public (or the political claimsmakers who inform them) see as the marquee feature of the legislative package. I would guess the healthcare exchanges will come to be more important than most believe. So, I’ll lay my odds on “Health Exchange” as the thing currently known as “Obamacare.”

mcdonald’s and the search for the authentic abroad

Visit the related post at The Open Window Exchange.

Nearly every year, I teach a month-long summer school course overseas. During May 2013, I taught a course called “The Global City” in London. One of the key ideas we introduce (using Dean McCannell’s stellar book, The Tourist) is that the tourism industry actively constructs a version of London for tourist consumption. Red telephone booths, charming historicism, proper fellows with umbrellas doffing their hats, Orwell, Churchill, Beckham. Nearly all tourists attempt to push past the layer of the obviously constructed to what they deem as “authentic.” Depending on who the tourist is, s/he may define “authentic” differently. The “truth” is that there are many Londons (not just the historic, natty, white one presented in the West End) and “authentic” is a social construction.McDonald's in Rome

After my course, my wife and I took a vacation in Italy. In a brief essay on The Open Window Exchange, I reflect on some discoveries about the search for the authentic and American cultural imperialism during a visit to one of the most lavish McDonald’s in the world in Rome. The Open Window Exchange is a new venture by some recent Concordia grads and I hope all TSP readers will give it a chance.

return to silver

Almost exactly a year ago, The Society Pages published my feature, “The Sociology of Silver,” about statistics, public discourse, and pop statistician Nate Silver. Around the time of the 2012 Presidential Election, Silver received a great deal of attention (and generated controversy in some parts) for the stunning accuracy of his predictive models. This week, he once again set the chattering class achatting for his big move away from The New York Times and to ESPN.

For those who have followed Nate Silver’s work closely, it was not terribly surprising to learn last week that he had decided to return to realm of sports where he began. If there was a surprise, it was that he willingly decided to step away from the prestige of working for The New York Times, the nation’s paper of record. But then, ESPN has its own merits including an increasingly sociological perspective in some of its programming (maybe I’ll say more about that in another post).

In the wake of his departure, many media watchers have been trying to describe his legacy at The Grey Lady. One common trope is that he challenged the values of political journalism and was sometimes resented for it. In a rather gossipy column, The Times’ Public Editor Margaret Sullivan writes, “[Silver] was, in a word, disruptive … A number of traditional and well-respected Times journalists disliked his work.” If political journalists depend on toss-up elections, narrated with daily rundowns of unimportant events magnified into “game-changers,” then Silver’s model, which showed a clear Obama win beginning in June 2012, made them look foolish. As Silver told NPR’s Morning Edition today, “At some point, I began to push back and to kind of launch a counter-critique of some of the conventions of horse-race journalism and punditry. I have less of a critique of traditional shoe leather journalism.”

Here, Silver, distinguishes among 1) data-driven journalism, 2) horse-race journalism, and 3) traditional shoe leather journalism (a.k.a. investigative journalism). To distill a bit, he’s saying that he’s smart, the shoe leather journos are hard workers, and the race watchers are insipid and bow to market demand for spectacle. Such a typology is partially about drawing status distinctions within the journalistic field, but it also recognizes a growing divide not so much between Nate and everybody else, but among the types of methodologies used by journalists. As I wrote last summer, the development of advanced statistics, widespread availability of fast computers and readily accessible data, and a smaller, but more technocratic marketplace of ideas paved the way for journalists to adopt data-driven methods. “Silver may have been the first to post Stata output on the New York Times’ web site, but if he hadn’t, someone else surely would have.” In his eulogy to Silver’s tenure at the Times, Ezra Klein gets it exactly right when he says that Silver wasn’t doing anything unique statistically. His main achievement is a journalistic one: “What Silver figured out was how to make data-driven election journalism into a daily product that could satisfy political obsessives.”

So, those (including Silver himself) who have said that he attacked the idea of horse race coverage of the election or emphasized data over narrative are dead wrong. Silver’s coverage was day-to-day coverage of ups and downs in a horse race where one horse was pretty consistently winning. Moreover, his coverage was desirable to a particular consumer base precisely because it animated data with narrative. In some ways, Silver embodies the very journalistic values he claims to critique. His primary innovation was to integrate a new type of methodology into the journalistic field and such “paradigm shifts” are not usually well received. But just watch as isomorphism takes hold. The New York Times will hire a new Nate Silver (Drew Linzer maybe?). The Washington Post will hire a stats guy for Ezra Klein’s wonkblog. And eventually, the methodological innovation becomes commonplace and no longer threatening.

As Silver noted on Morning Edition, the sportsworld largely accepted statistics as an essential analytical tool over a decade ago (See: Moneyball). If he fits in better at ESPN than the Times, it won’t be because his new colleagues are invulnerable to market demand or as enlightened as he about not falling into horse race rhetoric (hell, sometimes they cover actual horse races!), it will be because his methodology is more accepted.

Feminism and Slut Shaming in MadMen

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I’ve been watching MadMen since its inception. Yes, I see the show as a way of having discourse about current issues within the safety of a period drama set now in 1968. I’ve felt that the show could be more interesting in examining social issues, which it does do, but I just find its treatment of them to be uneven.

I sometimes take issue with the cultural narrative that it may be creating, which brings us to last Sunday’s episode of Mad Men (S06E04). Last season, Joan’s character slept with a client she wasn’t attracted to and parlayed that into a 5% partnership stake at the SCDP ad agency. Quid pro quo. I felt that this pandered to the “Oh no she didn’t” school of writing that was vaguely misogynistic in its portrayal, despite the idea that the show was set in 1968. One read is that her maneuver shows her self-empowerment. She’s using the tools at her disposal within an organizational and sociocultural context to get ahead as a single mom.  On this week’s episode, Joan fires Harry’s (Head of Television) secretary for having someone else punch her time card. Joan is portrayed as a dictatorial bitch and it’s hard to be sympathetic to her situation, even if one believes she is totally in the right. Harry goes ballistic, as her actions make him feel unempowered (arguably emasculated) and he makes a spectacle of calling Joan out for her actions by interrupting a board meeting. Oh, he adds the slut-shaming zinger directed at Joan:

“I’m sorry my accomplishments happened in broad daylight and I can’t be given the same rewards.”

Harry’s invective had the impact of de-legitimizing her status in the company and labeling her as a whore. Not only calling into question her ethics, it also casts doubt on her abilities. While the means by which Joan became partner may provide for some shock and awe value, i.e., Joan selling her body to get ahead, couldn’t this be a parable depicting a 1967 version of leaning in? Now, let me make it clear that I get that there is the difference between women being a part of generic “lean in” circles and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In™ machinery, involving a book, a movement (with only stories with positive endings, please), and a backlash.

The idea of “leaning in” is innocuous enough: women need to lean in at the workplace in order to advance, embrace  ambition and in a sense “do what it takes” to succeed despite challenges in balancing career, family, relationships, etc. There is a certain pragmatics to this that speaks to addressing the issue of women getting paid 77¢ on the male dollar.

Tracie Egan Morrissey’s Jezebel recap of the episode leans in that direction, quite explicitly. Morrissey doesn’t have an issue with Joan’s rise to the top and remarks how Joan indeed has the chops to do her job. The narrative of the show supports the idea that she is qualified. Her techniques may be brusque and could be construed as “bitchy”, but incompetent she isn’t. (Effective is another matter, but I’ll leave that for another day.)

Tracie Egan Morrissey notes how the latter is embracing a lean in type of attitude, in that Joan realizes she has the admiration and respect of other women and delegates responsibilities in order to gain more respect of her male counterparts. Morrissey acknowledges that Joan prostituted herself, but that’s OK because she has the skills. My take was that Morrissey felt that Joan did indeed prostitute herself, but that she earned being partner based on her accomplishments. So, it’s not sex work, but sex for work in a situation where the sex is opening a door that would never be opened to her. Yet, Harry’s slut shaming reminded the Board and the audience that Joan engaged in “prostitution”.

Unfortunately, Joan’s story arc is one of several prostitution references in the show (i.e., flashbacks to Don Draper’s childhood growing up in a brothel, Don’s comparison of Megan’s acting with love scenes to prostitution). I suppose what rubs me the wrong way with Morrissey’s recap is how Joan’s “prostitution” is somehow pragmatic and lean in-like, yet, prostitution and sex work are still a point of derision:

“Speaking of worth and transactional sex, I thought that having Sylvia (the neighbor Don is having an affair with) use a penny as the secret code for Don was genius. It works on so many levels! It helps illustrate that Don is nothing but a cheap whore, the ultimate irony after trying to insinuate that Megan is a prostitute because she gets paid to perform love scenes on her soap. (Also, I think that Don, who’s been “acting” for most of his adult life, believes that if you’re good at pretending, then you’re a bad person. So he views Megan’s career as some kind of moral failure. Even more irony.)”

Moreover, there’s more than a nod to the normative here:

Also the idiom: a bad penny always turns up, meaning that a worthless person always comes back to the place he started. For Don, who was raised in a brothel, that’s loveless sex.

Morrissey’s take on the episode highlighted what I see to be a huge problem in the current discourse space. Within the spectre of pragmatics like lean in, sex work can have its place, but only if it fits a certain narrative? I say this, as it still can be used to marginalize or otherwise put down others. I don’t think it matters that Don Draper is depicted as a white male with power. It’s pretty transparent that he’s being leveled by Morrissey who calls him a “cheap whore” and states he’s motivated by “loveless sex”. Feminists casting aspersions like this on sex work only serve to further create divisions by reinforcing judgments and social normatives. Hannah Betts in The Guardian warns that feminism should be mindful of hating prostitutes. Betts notes a prevailing notion that money for sex is fine, as long as its legitimized:

Marriage continues to be considered to veil sex with respectability, whatever its financial motivations. Nobody campaigns against the career courtesans who are Belgravia bankers’ wives, or the footballers’ consorts of Cheshire. The message: sex for money is fine – just put a ring on it before you put out.

Morrissey’s “lean in” stance is similar in that Joan’s use of her body is legitimate, but the tomcatting Don Draper is reduced morally by being equated to a “cheap whore” raised in a brothel—where “loveless sex” occurs, an act with no legitimacy. Is this just semantics? Should I just lighten up, it’s just a TV show, after all? Doesn’t Morrissey really mean that Don is a phoney, cheat, and a lout, but “cheap whore” simply has a succinct and terse economy of phrasing? Well, I think language does indeed matter and the use of such slut shaming terminologies with historical baggage in describing behaviors, real or fictional, matters.

Moreover, I think that Morrissey uses a too-literal transactional definition of sex work as sex-for-money, as opposed a more nuanced sociological one. Melissa Gira Grant in another Guardian article from 2011 defines sex work in more nuanced terms:

What sex workers are actually selling is our ability to make our customers think they are getting what they want, and we try to sell that with as little strain on our time and our bodies as possible. You wouldn’t be able to tell this from sex trade ads because it would be incredibly bad marketing, but it’s the illusion around which sex work turns.

The creation of value through experiences people want may sound like so much marketing mumbo jumbo, but I think it’s not only the foundation of marketing, but many everyday social actions. We present ourselves to others in everyday life, in a Goffman sense, in our daily social interactions. So, sex work cannot be simply reduced to sex for money, it’s fostering an illusion, but if we really think about it, perhaps this is a more general concept applicable to the labor market. This isn’t to say that illusions are devoid of value or are trickery. Here, I’m implying that there is a performative that is used as the basis for exchange value. Sex work, like many social interactions are—dramaturgical.

Lean in as a generic concept is about a gendered performative in the workplace, which is fine. I think it probably fails as a one-size-fits-all overarching metanarrative, as the experiences of women in the Judith Butlerian intersection of race, class, and gender blasts apart the idea that there can be a singular lean in. Perhaps additionally problematic for feminism are other metanarratives, such as a normative orthodoxy on sex work that may not hold true as a sociological phenomenon, again, at the intersections of race, class, and gender. Nevertheless, I think social movements as a whole can learn from a better understanding various micronarratives and care should be taken not to use language to marginalize those who may be outside of the dominant paradigm.

There’s a certain irony that MadMen allows an examination of contemporary themes through a safer lens of the wayback machine of period television, but it’s interesting how we can’t seem to escape the historical burden of our sociocultural neuroses about sex.

The Homogenization of Asian ‘Beauty’

Miss Korea 2013 Contestants

I was doing my daily browsing of Reddit, the popular online news, humor, and information aggregation site, and came across this submission that caused me to do a double-take: Korea’s Plastic Surgery Mayhem is Finally Converging on the Same Face: Miss Korea 2013 Contestants. The picture on the right shows the 21 contestants of the Miss Korea 2013 beauty pageant.

Although there are differences in hairstyle and dress, at least when it comes to the contestants’ faces, I have to say that I agree with the page’s consensus that all the women look virtually the same.

Physical Homogeneity and the Yellow Peril

As such, this brings up a few different implications. The first, as mentioned in several of the Reddit comments, is that it seems to reinforce the unfortunate stereotype that all Asians look the same. On the one hand, there tends to be a certain degree of visual conformity and homogeneity in beauty pageants in general, but as many Asian Americans can attest to, this particularly stereotype about all Asians looking the same unfortunately feeds into the image of us as the Yellow Peril — the depiction of Asians as a faceless and almost sub-human mass bent on attacking, taking over, and/or destroying U.S. society, its economy, and culture.

This imagery of Asians as the Yellow Peril can be seen in the graphic below from the 1800s, which is actually a magazine advertisement for soap (that’s what Uncle Same is holding in his left hand). The image’s main focus however, is on him kicking out the Chinese out of the country toward the squinty-eyed sun in the horizon. Just as important is the imagery of physically indistinguishable Chinese scurrying into the background, the Yellow Peril vanquished by American might and superiority. As described elsewhere on this blog, this stereotype that all Asians are the same has also led to many tragic instances of blatant bigotry, discrimination such as racial profiling, and even violence.

Anti-Chinese image from 1800s

Conformity to Western Beauty Standards

Secondly, the image of the Miss Korea 2013 contestants brings up the question of whether Asians and Asian Americans are implicitly or explicitly conforming to dominant western standards of physical beauty. Within the Asian American community, this question has taken the form of the debate about the cultural implications of Asian Americans getting cosmetic surgery and in particular, whether procedures such as double-eyelid surgery, breast augmentation, and using products to whiten one’s skin represent conforming to western standards of beauty. This question is highlighted in a segment from ABC’s NightLine from a couple of years age:

Of course, there are passionate opinions on both sides of this debate about these particular cosmetic procedures represent conforming to western standards of beauty, but more generally, I would venture to say that most people, Asian American and otherwise, would agree that westerns ideals of beauty are still a dominant force in the media and fashion industries in industrialized nations around the world and do indeed exert an influence on how young Asian American women judge themselves and their physical appearance.

The downside to such pressures can often be disastrous for Asian American women and take such forms as eating disorders, depression, and when combined with other pressures to conform to the model minority image, even suicide.

The Ironies of Multiculturalism

The irony in all of this is that, in the context of globalization, multiculturalism, and increased racial/ethnic diversity in U.S. society, our society has generally been more open and likely to recognize and celebrate more diverse forms of cultural representation. But one area in which this does not seem to be the case is standards of physical beauty where western and White images and idealizations still predominate. Even in the ABC NightLine video segment above, while the overall trend is toward greater inclusion of Asian and Asian American models in the fashion industry, the reality of their portrayals have included an underlying profit motive to tap into the burgeoning Asian consumer market and (inadvertently?) homogenizing the models.

Going back to the contestants of the Miss Korea 2013 pageant, like most people, I would certainly concur that the young women are all attractive just based on their physical appearance. Nonetheless, I hope that Korean and western societies in general will eventually acknowledge and appreciate that beauty can take many diverse forms and can wear more than just one face.


I am very pleased to report that this post is the 1,000th post published on the Asian-Nation blog. Thank you for helping to keep Asian-Nation going strong since 2001 and here’s to the next 1,000 posts and beyond!

why marriage equality isn’t “if,” but “when”

On this morning’s The Today Show, the nation’s second place intellectually-barren morning fear-mongerer, Matt Lauer pointed out that the debate over same-sex marriage is far from settled with 36% of Americans opposing it. Conservative activists have made similar arguments, noting that whatever the polls might say, ballot measures reveal a higher degree of opposition to marriage equality. As Gary Bauer told Fox News Sunday:

“I’m not worried about it, because the polls are skewed. Just this past November, four states, very liberal states, voted on this issue and my side lost all four of those votes. But my side had 45, 46 percent of the vote in all four of those liberal states.”

In a WashPost blog post titled
Is support for gay marriage oversold?“, Aaron Blake and Scott Clement summarize the work of political scientist Patrick Egan who finds that due to social desirability issues in polling and greater election turn-out by conservative activists, polling results do, in fact, underestimate opposition to same-sex marriage.

But I’m not worried. Whatever the Supreme Court may decide, in the long-term, public opinion is solidly on the side of justice. As Sarah Kliff demonstrates on Workblog, demographic trends strongly favor advocates for same-sex marriage. Beyond demographics, there may be some institutional reasons to believe expect greater acceptance of same-sex marriage in the future.

Why?

1) Attitudes evolve. We all know about President Obama’s “evolution” on the issue of same-sex marriage, but, to a great extent, the rest of the country has followed suit. As seen below, every single age group has grown more supportive of same-sex marriage in the past ten years and particularly in the last four. Since 2000, according to Pew Research, support in my Grandma’s generation has grown from 21% to 31%. That’s huge! As several charts on Kliff’s post reveal, one of the best predictors of supporting same-sex marriage is knowing that a friend or family member is gay. With greater numbers of Americans coming out, we would expect more attitudes to “evolve.”

Pew Research Polling of Same-Sex Marriage Opinion Over Time

2) Old people oppose same-sex marriage. But old people die. Among people born since 1981, support for same-sex marriage is currently 70%. Even a majority of Republicans under 30 support same-sex marriage.

3) Radical Professors and the Liberal Media. Sometimes Fox News gets it right. My Facebook feed, composed almost entirely of college students, college graduates, and Professors, is red as hell today with the Human Rights Campaign Marriage Equality sign. While surveys of professors are few and far between, one survey of Constitutional Law Professors found 87% support same-sex marriage. While sociology certainly skews Left, I suspect the academy as a whole is more support of marriage equality than the country. Likewise, though many media depictions of gays and lesbians are deeply stereotypical, there’s no question that industry elites who produce TV, movies, and print publications tend to favor same-sex marriage. As former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent once wrote, “The [New York] Times present the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading … That’s all fine, especially for those of us who believe that homosexual couples should have precisely the same civil rights as heterosexuals.” With popular shows like “Modern Family” and “Glee” offering favorable depictions of healthy same-sex relationships alongside positive examples of same-sex couples in Amazon Kindle and JC Penny commercials, the mass media increasingly paints a picture of life in same-sex relationships that is unthreatening. While there are any number of examples of homophobia in the academy and the mass media both are agents of socialization that largely favor same-sex marriage. To bastardize Marx, as go elites, so goes the nation.

HRC sign

4) Same-sex marriage exists (and things are okay) in big, growing states. Sixteen percent of Americans live in states with marriage equality and if Prop 8 is overturning, it will jump to 28%. And, taken together, the states with marriage equality are growing faster than those without it. More of the population will be living alongside married same-sex couples and it will become plain that the reality of same-sex marriages is as unexciting and mundane as opposite-sex marriages.

These are among the reasons that marriage equality is not a question of “if,” but “when?” What other reasons should we add to this list?