Frank and Claire Underwood House of Cards Promo

Spoiler alert! This season the popular Netflix series “House of Cards” got a bit more radical. Main characters and power couple Claire and Frank Underwood are unapologetically, consensually non-monogamous. In fact, sociologist Mimi Schippers says the show portrays “one of the best television representations of an open/poly relationship I’ve seen.” In the fourth season, Claire, married to the President of the United States, becomes sexually involved with Thomas Yates, a writer. While many shows depict “extramarital affairs” as inherently negative, “House of Cards” Frank affirms that Tom can “give” Claire things he can’t.

In a blog post for NYU Press, Schippers argues that the Underwoods go “beyond” marriage, monogamy, and dominant gender norms. According to research she conducted for her upcoming book, men in polyamorous relationships tend to shift their understanding of masculinity because they must forgo jealousy and control over the women in their lives. The openly non-monogamous relationships on “House of Cards” thus challenge more than just ideas about what relationships should look like. It confronts gendered expectations for men to be competitive and possessive and grants women sexual autonomy, independent of men.

[T]he Underwoods distinguish themselves from society’s ideas of the “perfect couple” by being both child-free and consensually non-monogamous. They are something else–something beyond “perfect”, beyond marriage, and beyond traditional gender arrangements. Rather than representing bad character or immorality, Claire’s increasingly intimate relationship with Tom and Frank’s enthusiastic acceptance of it (the very definition of polyamory) punctuates and solidifies the strength of their marriage as one between equals.

Virtual reality still sees sexism. Photo by Nan Palmero, Flickr CC.
Virtual reality still sees sexism. Photo by Nan Palmero, Flickr CC.

Star Wars conventions: one place where everyone is equal (if they hate Jar-Jar Binks). Or maybe not. As it turns out, even Star Wars has become a controversial area for discussing the place of feminism and powerful women in society. Work by sociologists CJ Pascoe and Tristan Bridges sheds more light on how sexism has infiltrated nerd culture. Following their recent book release, Pascoe and Bridges were interviewed by Broadly to help explain sexism in an unlikely arena.

Pascoe explains that “nerds” are consistently emasculated in society because they don’t participate in the same types of gendered dominance displays expected of young men. That might make it seem they exist away from expected dichotomies of gender roles. Bridges adds, however, that nerdy activities have become more mainstream due to popular television and media, so now the traditional nerd versus jock relationship is more nuanced.

Bridges said,

Nerds are, as a cultural “type,” emasculated… But it’s also true that there is a lot of toxic masculine behavior in nerd cultures. Think about it: #GamerGate happened among the nerds, not the jocks.

Pascoe agreed, explaining that fandom cultures create a space for men to be dominant even if they do not follow mainstream masculine pressures. The presence of women in these spaces might constitute a threat to the men within them. Still, Pascoe concludes that feminism is still a benefit for nerd culture overall. She says hopefully,

Increasing including and visibility of women, trans folk, and LGBQ folk in fandom communities will result in less damaging gender socialization for everyone—men included—and will help to change the way in which nerds themselves are placed on the bottom rung of some masculinity hierarchy.

Ban the Box via PBS

As noted by Harvard sociologist Devah Pager, experimental evidence indicates that the presence of a criminal record reduces one’s application callback likelihood by 50% for whites and 64% for African Americans. To potentially mitigate this employment discrimination, 23 states have adopted “ban the box” policies—the removal of the criminal history question on first-round job applications. However, a pesky question remains in the minds of many employers: do felons make good employees?

National Public Radio’s Planet Money Podcast, hosted by Keith Romer, asked Pager how felons fare if they gain employment. To get at the answer, Pager has been studying felon enlistment in the military (5,000 enlistees between 2002-2009 had felony records). She finds that those with felony records are no more likely to get kicked out before the end of their term than their clean-record counterparts. In fact, those with felony records are not only promoted faster, they are also promoted to higher ranks. Pager contends that “employers are probably missing a lot of talent when they exclude people with criminal records” (notably, with few exceptions, the military is not currently accepting felons). Because it is often so hard for ex-cons to get a job, they seem to work particularly hard to keep that job. Overall, Pager’s evidence appears to show that steps to “ban the box” will bring qualified applicants rather than unwanted mischief to employers.

Photo via Scripps National Spelling Bee, Flickr CC
Integrated kids become integrated adults. Photo via Scripps National Spelling Bee, Flickr CC.

Nearly 20 years have passed since Beverly Daniel Tatum released her groundbreaking book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations about Race. In it, she examines how and why black youth often segregate themselves in middle and high school, arguing that engagement in meaningful conversations about race can help deconstruct such racial barriers. While many may have lost hope in the Civil Rights-era dream of school integration, today, new sociological research demonstrates the importance of integration and the positive long-term effects it provides for working adults. A recent article in The Atlantic reveals that students who attend racially diverse high schools are more likely to work in diverse employment settings.

Adam Gamoran, Sarah Barfels, and Ana Cristina Collares tracked over 10,000 black and white high school students during the 1980s and 1990s, then recorded the racial make-up of their current work environment. White and black students who attended predominantly white schools were more likely to work in predominantly white work settings. Regardless of the various methods behind the integration (including busing and neighborhood development), the students from racially diverse high schools were more likely to work today with a diverse group of coworkers. The authors suggest that “Interactions with a diverse student body may mean that individuals are more likely to live in communities that are more diverse, or [are] more willing and comfortable in racially diverse settings later in life.” While they are reluctant to conclude that attending a diverse high school or working with diverse coworkers will eradicate the economic and social disparities of life in the U.S., it is safe to say that both provide a strong step in the right direction.

Equal Pay Day is marked around the world as the day on which women have officially made as much as their male peers did in the previous year. This year's was April 12, 2016 in the U.S. Photo by metropolica.org, flickr.com
Equal Pay Day is marked around the world. It shows how far into the next year women must work to make as much as their male peers did in the previous calendar year. This year’s was April 12, 2016 in the U.S. Photo by metropolico.org, flickr.com

Recently, I reviewed research showing that women in leadership roles may contribute to decreasing gender segregation at lower positions in the same firm. I also noted that gender segregation is a large contributor to the wage gap between men and women. Unfortunately, while a small number of women moving into top positions may help those below, when large numbers of women enter traditionally male-dominated fields, the results are not so rosy. Why? Women’s work simply isn’t valued as highly as men’s.

The Washington Post recently featured a study by sociologists Paula England and Asaf Levanon demonstrating this trend. When occupations employing mostly men shifted to employing most women, these jobs started to pay employees considerably less, even when the researchers took employees’ education, work experience, skills, race, and geography into account. For instance, wages for a ticket agent dropped 43 percentage points after the position shifted from mainly male to female. Stereotypically “female” jobs that involve caregiving pay less, regardless of whether men or women hold those jobs:

[T]here was substantial evidence that employers placed a lower value on work done by women. “It’s not that women are always picking lesser things in terms of skill and importance,” Ms. England said. “It’s just that the employers are deciding to pay it less.”

Taller men get the taller stacks. TaxCredits.net.
Taller men get the taller stacks. TaxCredits.net.

According to British researchers, tall men and thin women are most likely to make the big bucks. Meanwhile, they found evidence to suggest overweight workers, especially women, are likely to get paid less. Still, sociologist Amy Blackstone says companies probably aren’t intentionally penalizing employees based on height and weight.  

In an interview with Broadly, Blackstone points to gender biases that extend beyond the workplace. Culturally, Americans associate thinness with beauty and self-discipline in women and tallness with authority for men. “For women, being thin means taking up less space, something that is expected of women both literally and symbolically,” Blackstone says. Thus, it’s no surprise that pay reflects societal views about gender, power, and the body. Nor is it a surprise that other gender inequalities make their way into work spaces, like limitations on contraception coverage in employer provided health care and a lack of paid maternity leave. As contributing editor Diana Tourjee points out, “paying certain men and women less in relation to the way they look is obviously disturbing, but worse is the realization that this data is part of a broader system of oppression that structures the lived experiences of us all.”

Photo by The Great 8, Flickr CC.
Photo by The Great 8, Flickr CC.

Income inequality is a hot topic this election, and the Panama Papers have added fuel to the fire. Indeed, it seems that there’s no end to the data that shows the discrepancy between the 1% and the rest of us. What will it to start seeking solutions to extreme income disparities?

New research by TSP contributor Kevin Leicht of Urbana Champaign (available in an article in The Sociological Quarterly) points us in the right direction. As he explains in an interview with The Atlantic’s Gillian B. White, the way social scientists and others conceptualize inequality is too tied to trying to increase diversity at the top rather than studying the economy as a whole. Furthermore, while we’ve been very interested in inequality by race, we don’t do enough to consider gender inequalities, particularly as they exist within racial groups. The popular narrative is that hard work can jettison anyone to the top, but research like Leicht’s shows how outdated this notion is.

To read more of Leicht’s work, see his TSP papers, “Has Borrowing Replaced Earning?”, “Economic Decline and the American Dream,” and “Old Narratives and New Realities,” or check out our volume on the new sociology of debt, Owned.

When it comes to love, we needn't fear tech advances. Jimmy McIntyre, Flickr CC.
When it comes to love, we needn’t fear tech advances. Jimmy McIntyre, Flickr CC.

Between the increased screen-time, decreased personal contact, and evaluating strangers through profile pages, is online dating bad for society? Rest assured, everyone; these ideas are founded on exaggerated fictional fears rather than actual facts, as described by a Washington Post article with help from Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld.

As Rosenfeld describes through his analysis of a massive dataset regarding online dating activity, there are a lot of myths about online dating. People who meet online don’t break up as frequently as you may have been told, and online dating does not promote hookup culture over long-term relationships (as in the real world, you can find whichever you’d like). Overall, online dating seems to be working for people; Rosenfeld says societies have always been fearful of new technologies but generally come around. Can’t you feel the love?

In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana and her parents can only dream of opening a restaurant.
In The Princess and the Frog, Tiana and her parents can only dream of opening a restaurant.

Disney movies get a lot of flack for promoting unrealistic gender expectations, especially for young girls. But kids are getting messages about more than just gender. A recent article in New York Magazine featured a study helmed by sociologist Jessi Streib that revealed that successful G-rated movies, including many Disney films, communicate unrealistic depictions of social class.

In over half of the 32 films they studied, the main characters were upper- or the upper middle-class, clearly misrepresenting the distribution of wealth both in the U.S. and the world. In addition, many downplayed or even romanticized the hardships of lower-class status. For instance, in Aladdin, wealth and poverty are depicted as two sides of the same coin with each equally constraining individuals’ lives. Unlike in adult films where working class characters tend to be portrayed as irresponsible, in G-rated films, working-class characters are shown as warm members of a tight-knit community. In fact, in Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, it is the lower-class characters who teach their upper-class characters about humanity, empathy, and love:

The key takeaway, from the authors’ point of view, is that these films legitimize and reinforce class structures. Middle-class and poor people are de-emphasized, as are the difficulties associated with not having enough money. Moreover, climbing the class ladder isn’t presented as particularly difficult.

 

The Live Below the Line campaign helped people in many countries express solidarity with fellow citizens working to make ends meet.
The 2015 Live Below the Line campaign helped people in many countries express solidarity with fellow citizens working to make ends meet.

The U.S. presidential election is beginning to take on issues of poverty and class. Such conversations often look at “the poor” from a careful remove, but work by Thomas Hirschl of Cornell and Mark Rank of Washington University says that outsider angle is a comfortable farce. As explained by an article in Salon, the unpleasant fact is that over fifty percent of Americans will experience poverty during our lifetimes. Impoverishment and “the poor”—and the politics and policies that affect them—are actually very close to home.

Of course, demographic factors are a big part of predicting one’s likelihood of experiencing poverty. (If you’re interested in calculating your own odds, check out Hirschl and Rank’s poverty calculator!) Education is one big factor, as is race: white people are half as likely as non-white people to fall into poverty. And married people are less likely to become poor than singles. Still, as candidates and voters debate nature of class and poverty in America, we would do well to remember that they affect us all. To pretend like anyone’s above poverty would be a poor show.