Archive: Sep 2014

When I was a child my father never let us put bumper stickers on our cars. So my very first “bumper sticker” was actually a parking permit. This fall, I put the first real bumper sticker on my car, “I’m Ready Hillary.” Let me explain why I put it on and also why, ultimately, I took it off.

I did not think deeply about bumper stickers as an expression of identity until I moved to a small town in the deep south. I had preconceived notions about the conservative political and social climate here. Without generalizing, some of these —at least from my vantage point—were true, expressed not only though state level policies but within the public institutions of education, newspapers, and yes, bumper stickers.

I put a bumper sticker on my car to proclaim my liberal identity, not in reaction to a generally conservative environment but in response to an accumulation of events. The last straw, so to speak, was when my neighbor, with expletives, yelled “Yankee move back North!” (Read the full story here.) Why you might ask did our “preacher” neighbor scream this at us? He was upset by our dog, Bean, who would jump by the fence incidentally scaring his grandchildren.

Bean (Photo Credit of the Author)
Bean (Photo Credit of the Author)

This is Bean (left), a black lab and golden retriever mix, who can be obnoxious, but not vicious.

Had our neighbor just asked us to keep our dog away from the fence, we would have taken care of the issue. But after such a hostile interaction with our neighbor (while in the presence of my spouse who had been holding our four-year-old son at the time), I was angry and scared.

We were already outsiders to a small community. I am affiliated with the university in town and we were (are) “liberal Yankees from the North.” Confederate Pride is still strong in many places. If you Google “Yankee transplants to the South” you’ll see message boards and groups talking about us northerners. Many places here regularly feature “Sons of the Confederacy” flags and similar promotions. I took the photos below at a local parade a few weeks after I arrived in town.

Confederacy Pride- Boy Solider (Photo Credit of Author)
Confederacy Pride-Boy Soldier
(Photo by Author)
Confederacy Pride (Photo Credit of Author)
Confederacy Pride (Photo by Author)

Four days after “the altercation,” my spouse and I were both working from home when Animal Control arrived. During a conversation in our backyard (which could truly be another story in itself), the employee told us that our neighbor did not call animal control to complain but went in person the day after the incident, screaming about us “Damn Yankees” and our dog. We had already taken care to keep Bean away from the fence but were reprimanded just the same.

An example of religious messages displayed everywhere  (Photo courtesy of the author)
An example of typical religious messages
(Photo courtesy of the author)

By this time I had already been asked over several months to attend a certain denomination of church that I do not believe in. This was the case even after I started going to a church of my choice, one that does fit with my social justice values. I also felt like my children, through everyday interactions and the public schools, were being indoctrinated into beliefs that were contrary to those of our family. (There is more to this story too, as the ACLU became involved in a religious controversy in the public schools).

My noticeable car (and this is the "good side" (Photo courtesy of author)
My noticeable car (and this is the “good side”
(Photo courtesy of author)

I’d had enough. The incident with the neighbor was the tip of the iceberg. Just then, I received an email about getting a free “I’m Ready for Hilary” bumper-sticker. As soon as it came in the mail, I immediately slapped it on my bumper. My car is already noticeable, with dents and duct tape displayed proudly. I was not going to be afraid. I wanted my bumper sticker to say, “I am a liberal and I live here too.” I wanted people to know my identity. And I knew it was noticeable, as folks I know told me they knew my car by its bumper sticker. (Read more about this in my blog.)

I liked being honest and open about my liberal and social justice identity. I even thought about having a contest and asking friends across the country to send me all the liberal, social justice focused bumper stickers they could find so I could truly decorate my car. Full expression! But then I started to question having this bumper sticker both in terms of safety issues and well, as my partner asked, if people even knew who Hilary was. Thus, I wrote at the time:

But the other part of me wonders, and a lot of this stems from teaching sociology and criminology/criminal justice courses and students and their biases, will I get pulled over just because of my sticker? Will someone try to hurt my children because I have this bumper sticker? Or maybe as a few friends have asked me, do people here even know what this means?

I eventually took the sticker off. Why is is a hard question for me to answer, as a feminist, as a social justice advocate, a mother, and a spouse.

When I see injustice or inequality, I have a hard time not speaking up about them. I thank my parents for lessons on this as a child, and my sociology, women’s studies, and social work training. I would never say I am oppressed in the South—I am a middle class, cis-gender, white woman who is highly educated. But the politics are hard for me, as I am a liberal, pro-choice, LGBTQ ally, pro-immigrant rights, racial justice ally, supporter of welfare rights, and among other things believe in paying more taxes to help the common good. And I live in a small town where I am an outsider, not only because I am a “Northerner” who speaks differently and has different views on politics, but because I am not “from here.” I’m not oppressed, but there are times I feel like I don’t fit in.

While all these social justice issues are core to my work as a sociologist, activist, how I raise my children, and my own identity, I’ve come to a decision that I must engage in “Quiet Activism.” While some may say I should be speaking up more, I’ve decided that I do not want to display my identity through a bumper sticker. I’ve decided that my activism has to be “quiet,” and I must find ways to make a difference without sacrificing the safety of my family or my career.

I do not dislike the South. There are many things to like. But I stand strong by my social justice ideals that do not always match the visible environment here. There are many folks standing strong for social justice here. With permission from a colleague, there are those who are not covert about their identities.

(Photo courtesy of author)
(Photo courtesy of author)

In a small town people know your car. You learn quickly through small social networks the political and religious leanings of your children’s teachers and classmate’s families. And many times they are not the same as ours. And when you live in a state with “guns everywhere” laws and you find out that parents can have guns in their cars in the drop-off line at school, it is rational to question your difference and your safety. You learn that as a Northerner you can be seen as suspect as you are trying to change the social and political climate. There are other ways, through something as small as conversations with my children about our beliefs compared to what they hear, what and how I teach my courses, and mentoring my students who believe in social justice causes and have experienced oppression. Each day I live here, which is starting to feel less like a foreign country, I know my sociological imagination is stretching. In doing so, I am learning ways to make a difference without putting my kids, family, or career at risk.

For myself, as a dear friend told me, you have to learn to do the dance, which I am learning as a newcomer and Northerner. As I learn to do this dance, I reflect on my identity, outsider status, social justice, and how to teach my kids about diversity, oppression, and tolerance, I enjoy the long lasting warm weather in the South and creating my own oasis.

Photo courtesy of the author
Photo courtesy of the author
Photo courtesy of author
Photo courtesy of author

meme_thoughtful choiceA few months ago, the research finding that many couples who don’t want kids reach the decision “after just one conversation” caught the attention of reporters. Many expressed shock and dismay, calling the decision a “snap choice” and referring to couples’ limited discussion about the matter “strange.”

Most reports poo-pooed the childfree who participated in the research, noting that the decision not to have kids deserves “further contemplation than whether to have pizza or Indian for dinner.”

Oddly, all of these reports seemed to overlook a crucial point: that the decision not to have kids is one often made by people who think deeply about their choice and then, hopefully, find mates who feel similarly. In my own study of childfree adults, I’ve examined how it is that people come to decide not to have kids. more...

I just read and reviewed Shannon Wooden and Ken Gillam’s Pixar’s Boy Stories: Masculinity in a Postmodern Age. And I thought I’d build on some of a piece of their critique of a pattern in the Pixar canon to do with portrayals of masculine embodiment. In Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins coined the term “controlling images” to analyze how cultural stereotypes surrounding specific groups ossify in the form of cultural images and symbols that work to (re)situate those groups within social hierarchies. Controlling images work in ways that produce a “truth” about that group (regardless of its actual veracity). Collins was particularly interested in the controlling images of Black women and argues that those images play a fundamental role in Black women’s continued oppression. While the concept of “controlling images” is largely applied to popular portrayals of disadvantaged groups, in this post, I’m considering how the concept applies to a consideration of the controlling images of a historically privileged group. How do controlling images of dominant groups work in ways that shore up existing relations of power and inequality when we consider portrayals of dominant groups?

Pixar films have been popularly hailed as pushing back against some of the heteronormative gender conformity that is widely understood as characterizing the Disney collection. While a woman didn’t occupy the lead protagonist role until Brave(2012), the girls and women in Pixar movies seem more complex, self-possessed, and even tough.  [Side note: Disney’s Frozen is obviously an important exception among Disney movies. See Afshan Jafar’s nuanced feminist analysis of the film here.]  In fact, Pixar’s movies are often hailed as pushing back against some of the narratological tyranny of some of the key plot and characterological devices that research has shown to characterize the majority of children’s animated movies. But, what can we learn from their depictions of boys and men?

Philip Cohen has posted before on the imagery of gender dimorphism in children’s animated films. Despite some ostensibly (if superficially) feminist features in films like Tangled (2010), Gnomeo and Juliet (2011), and Frozen (2013), Cohen points to the work done by the images of men’s and women’s bodies—paying particular attention to their relative size (see Cohen’s posts here, here, and here). Cohen’s point about exaggerated gendered imagery of bodies might initially strike some as trivial (e.g., “Disney favors compositions in which women’s hands are tiny compared to men’s, especially when they are in romantic relationships” [here]), but it is one small way that relations of power and dominance are symbolically upheld, even in films that might seem to challenge this relationship.  How are masculine bodies depicted in Pixar films? And what kind of work do these depictions do? Is this work at odds with their popular portrayal as feminist (or at least feminist-friendly) films?

Screen shot 2014-09-08 at 9.14.49 AM

Large, heavily muscled bodies are both relied on and used as comic relief in Pixar’s collection. It’s also true that some of the primary characters are men with traditionally stigmatized embodiments of masculinity: overly thin (Woody in Toy Story, Flic in A Bug’s Life), physically awkward (Linguini in Ratatouille), deformed (Nemo in Finding Nemo), fat (Russell in Up), etc. Yet, these characters often end up accomplishing some mission or saving the day not because of their bodies, but rather, in spite of them. When their bodies are put on display at all, it’s typically as they are held up against a cast of characters whose bodies are presented as more naturally exuding “masculine” qualities we’ve learned to recognize as characteristic of “real” heroes. As Wooden and Gillam write:

Amidst ostensibly ironic inversions of power in the Monsters films and The Incredibles, male bodies are still ranked according to a tragically familiar social paradigm, whereby bigger, stronger, and more athletic men and boys are invariably understood as superior to smaller, more delicate, or intellectual ones. (here: 34)

Wooden and Gillam use Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story as, perhaps, the most glaring example . When we first meet Buzz in the Andy’s room, Buzz does not recognize himself as a toy. He is foolish, laughably arrogant, imprudent, and, quite frankly, a bit reckless. Yet, the audience is supposed to interpret Buzz as the other toys in Andy’s room do—we’re in awe of him. Buzz embodies a recognizable high status masculinity. Sulley in Monsters Inc. occupies a similar body and, like Buzz, he is instantly situated as occupying a recognizably masculine heroic role (a role that is bolstered by the comically embodied Mike Wazowksi, whose body works to shore up Sulley’s masculinity). While Buzz and Sulley—and similarly embodied men in other Pixar movies—are sometimes teased for conforming to some of the “dumb jock” stereotypes that characterize male action heroes of the 1980s, their bodies retain their status and still work as controlling images that reiterate social hierarchies.

In C.J. Pascoe’s research on masculinity in American high schools, she coined the term “jock insurance” to address a very specific phenomenon. Boys occupying high status masculinities were afforded a form of symbolic “insurance” that enabled them to transgress masculinity without affecting their status. In fact, their transgressions often worked in ways that actually shored up their masculinities. This kind of “jock insurance” is relied upon as a patterned narratological device in Pixar movies. Barrel-chested, brawny, male characters are allowed to be buffoons; they’re allowed to participate in potentially feminizing or emasculating behaviors without having those behaviors challenge the masculinities their bodies situate them as occupying or their status (in anything other than a superficial sort of way).  For instance, Sulley, Mr. Incredible, Lightning McQueen, and Buzz Lightyear perform domestic masculinities in ways that don’t actually challenge their symbolic position of dominance. Indeed, the awkwardness with which they participate in these roles implicitly suggests that these men naturally belong elsewhere.

Parr and Boss - IncrediblesIn The Incredibles, Bob Parr’s incredible strength and monstrous body look silly accomplishing domestic tasks or even occupying a traditionally domestic masculinity. His small car helps is body appear laughable in this role as he drives to work. At work, Bob’s desk plays a similar role. His body is depicted as not belonging there—domesticity is symbolically holding him back. This sort of “crisis of masculinity” narrative plays out in the stories of many of these characters. So, when they occupy the role they are initially depicted as denying, the narrative creates a frame for the audience to collectively experience relief as they take on the heroic roles for which their bodies symbolically situate them as more naturally suited. The scene in The Incredibles in which Bob Parr (Mr. Incredible) quits his job by punching his boss (whose physically inferior body is regularly situated alongside Bob’s for comic relief) through a wall is perhaps the most exaggerated example of this. The pleasures these films invite us to share at these moments when gendered hierarchies of embodiment are symbolically put on display play a role in reproducing inequality.

Similar to Nicola Rehling’s analysis of white, heterosexual masculinity in popular movies in Extra-Ordinary Men, portrayals of masculinity in Pixar films work in ways that simultaneously decenter and recenter dominant embodiments of masculinity – and in the process, obscure relations of power and inequality. Screen shot 2014-09-08 at 2.57.52 PMIndeed, side-kicks and villains are most often depicted as occupying masculine bodies less worthy of status. These masculine counter-types (like Randall in Monsters Inc., Sid Phillips in Toy Story, or Buddy Pine/Syndrome in The Incredibles) embody masculinities portrayed as “deserving” the “justice” they are served.

The films in Pixar’s collection show a patterned reliance on controlling images associated with the embodiment of masculinity that shores up the very systems of gender inequality the films are often lauded as challenging. To be clear, I like these films – and clearly, many of them are a significant step in a new direction. Yet, we continue to implicitly exalt controlling images of masculine embodiment that reiterate gender relations between men and exaggerate gender dimorphism between men and women.

Sometimes, when you point out how patterns reproduce inequality, people expect you to provide a solution. But, what would challenging these images actually look like? That is, I think, a more difficult question than it might at first appear. A former Dreamworks animator, Jason Porath, might help us think about this in a new way. Porath’s blog—Rejected Princesses—was recently featured on NPR’s All Things Considered. On the site, Porath plays with “princessizing” unsung heroines unlikely to hit the big screen.  His tagline reads: “Women too awesome, awful, or offbeat for kids’ movies.” tumblr_n7dwg3bfii1ry5q8mo5_1280Yet, even here, Porath relies on recognizable embodiments of “the princess” to depict these women—like his portrayal of Mariya Oktyabrskaya, the first woman tanker to be awarded the “Hero of the Soviet Union” award. Similarly, cartoonist David Trumble produced a series of images that “over-feminize” real-life heroines like Anne Frank, Susan B. Anthony, Marie Curie, Sojourner Truth and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. While both of these projects make powerful statements, we need more cartoon imagery that challenge these gendered embodiments alongside narratives and characters that support this project. What that might actually look like is currently unclear. What is clear, I think, is that we can do better.