Archive: Jan 2015

Lands' End Blues
Image credit: Lands’ End’s Winter 2015 Men’s clothing catalog.

The advertisement depicted here comes out of a Lands’ End catalog I received in the mail last week. The text reads: “New blue collar shirts white collar guys will love.” It’s a subtle message and surely, some will think I am making too much of it. But, it is one small piece of a larger cultural process taking place–in this case, how class inequality gets commodified and sold back to young, straight, white men as evidence of their masculine credibility and cosmopolitan taste in gender performance and display. This is one configuration of hybrid masculinity in practice. It allows for a form of what I call “practiced indifference” whereby young, straight, white men are able to appear relaxed, content, and at ease with an increasingly varied range of gender performances.

What we think of as “masculine” is something that shifts over time and from place to place. Historical and cross-cultural research shows that just about anything you might think of as essentially “masculine” has been—at one time or another, in one place or another—thought of as anything but. This is part of what makes studying masculinity so exciting to me: it’s an unstable object of inquiry and there are lots of moving parts. Michael Kimmel sums up a really important finding from his historical research on masculinity with a simple statement: “[D]efinitions of masculinity are historically reactive to changing definitions of femininity” (here: 123). We don’t often think of those in power as capable of being “pushed around.” But the historical relationship between masculinity and femininity suggests precisely this pattern.

My own research suggests that one way gender inequality is perpetuated is by being flexible, capable of adapting to new circumstances, challenges, and contingencies. And one of the ways masculinities exhibit these qualities is through practices of appropriation—what C.J. Pascoe and I refer to as “strategic borrowing” in our theorization of hybrid masculinities. At historical moments when gender inequality is publicly challenged and threatened, configurations of masculinity shift—and they do so in pattered directions. When gender inequality is publicly threatened, a range of strategies emerge.  We may collectively exalt configurations of masculinity that exaggerate gender difference and implicitly promote the continued necessity of gender segregation.  But the discourse of what Michael Messner referred to as the “new man” can emerge as well, involving the “softening” of some features of masculinity.  And one way this happens is through a process by which (some) men strategically borrow configurations of gendered practice and presentation from various groups of Others.  This whole process has the effect of obscuring relations of power and inequality between men and women and among men as well.

As I argued earlier in my post on hipster masculinity and my post with D’Lane Compton on the rise of the “lumbersexual,” men who occupy positions of incredible privilege (young, middle- and upper-class, able-bodied, heterosexual) are increasingly borrowing elements of masculinities that do not “belong” to them. Cultural aesthetics associated with marginalized and subordinated groups (though often this relies on stereotypes and, occasionally, myths) are commodified, consumed, and work to situate certain privileged groups as more cosmopolitan as a result. These processes sometimes appear to situate young, straight, white guys as increasingly interested in equality and as more “multicultural” than Other men (who get cast as the “real problem” in this discourse). A consequence of this process is that it works to obscure some men’s positions within contemporary relations of power and inequality.

Inequalities are much easier to accept when we believe them to be just. This cosmopolitan taste in gender increasingly displayed by groups of young, straight, white men makes it appear that masculinities are opening up, becoming less dictatorial, and more democratic. Yet, the new forms that this omnivorousness in gender performance and politics is taking also works to reproduce privilege in historically novel ways. While young, straight, white men may not be the only ones flirting with these new styles of gender performance and display, they may be receiving a qualitatively different set of benefits from their engagement.

Indeed, research suggests that while it might look different today, this is a historical process. Young, middle and upper class, straight, white men became interested in exercise and building muscles around the time that this muscle was no longer necessary to earn a living (for these men). The Boy Scouts of America emerged at the turn of the century to ensure boys learned survival skills no longer required for the lives these boys would lead or the work they would eventually pursue. Young groups got interested in Black musicians and jazz at a point in our history when privilege started to feel “dull” when compared with the seemingly more “authentic” identities of Others—identities formed, in part, by the very same systems of inequality that these practices of appropriation protect. Matthew Hughey has addressed similar practices of racialized appropriation by whites and Shamus Khan finds a parallel mode of classed and racialized cultural appropriation among elites. But, it’s not just classed and racialized. Hybrid masculinities demonstrate that this is a gendered and sexualized practice as well.

Through “strategically borrowing” elements from marginalized and subordinated groups, hybrid masculinities “discursively distance” the men who mobilize these configurations of gender from masculinities that have been successfully challenged by feminist activism and reform. Yet, this discursive distance is more symbolic than “real” in the sense that it does not actually challenge the systems of power and inequality that are largely still in place—rather, it obscures them, fortifying the same inequalities in new ways.

_______________________

*This is a small piece of the argument I’m pursuing in a book prospectus and manuscript I’m currently working on that traces transformations in gender politics and performances among three separate groups of men.  I didn’t use any of my data here as I’m saving that for the book.  But I’m loving the finding some of my ideas apparent in advertisements too.

The-Theory-Of-Everything1Spoil alert! White men are going to take home a lot of Oscars this year. America and the world will once again honor the cult of male genius, and the great men of history.

Steven Hawking, Alan Turing, Martin Luther King Jr. – these are some of the great men of this year’s Oscar line-up. Their accomplishments are significant. And kudos to the filmmakers, who, in a few of these cases, complicated the “lone genius” idea by telling a story that reveals the power of mentors, colleagues, and friends. But the genius or the hero is always male, isn’t he?

I still haven’t seen a movie about a woman genius, and I’m wondering if I will in my lifetime. Afterall, our social construction of “genius” is a math-equation-solving white male nerd who is usually associated with an elite institution. We have SO many movies about that guy. Are women ever part of the equation? Isn’t the equation itself reductionist and unfair? Taking this even further, do all geniuses have to use chalkboards, or can we find great thinkers and problem-solvers outside of classrooms?

The genius stereotype isn’t something we let go of when we leave the theater. Fiction shapes real life. Sarah-Jane Leslie is a philosopher at Princeton University who writes in the journal Science that the male genius stereotype is holding women back.  And therein lies the challenge – the vicious cycle of fiction shaping reality and vice versa. How can women be called to math, physics, and philosophy, for example, when all we hear about are the great men of these fields?

This genius question undergirds Walter Isaacson’s great new book about the forgotten female programmers who created modern technology. Will anyone invest in making this story into a movie, or does it not fit our narrow idea of genius?

innovators-cover-art

It isn’t clear if Oscar-nominated The Theory of Everything pushes the genius trope to the next level. The film doesn’t put a woman in the equation, exactly, but she is nearby. While the film sets us up to follow Steven Hawking’s career and contributions, there next to him in almost every scene is his girlfriend and then wife Jane, who saves him from his depression upon being diagnosed with ALS, and then nurses him and cares for him for not two years (the period of time his doctors give him to live), but decades upon decades, while raising a family and pursuing a PhD. Just as important, she is an educated peer who pushes his thinking. She’s a superwoman! And she speaks to us. What woman doesn’t feel a pang of familiarity watching her balance work and family, thought and emotion? That said, Jane’s load is huge and lonely, especially without her husband’s consent for additional assistance.

felicity_jones_interview_theory_of_everythingIn The Theory of Everything, Jane is a type of hero in a film about defying all odds. Still, the film left me feeling like she didn’t get her due. Given her heroism as a caretaker, perhaps Jane should be the one, at the end of the film, who takes the stage and tells us how she did it. Afterall, she appears to be a problem-solving genius. How in the world did she study Spanish literature, raise three kids, care for a severely physically disabled husband, and get food on the table every night?

The Theory of Everything enables us to see the great woman behind the great man. But we still have a ways to go before the great women are the stars of the show, and the Oscar recipients.

For a great infographic, see Women’s Media Center on the gendering of this year’s Oscar nominations.

We need to keep critiquing the genius effect. Just for fun, I’m going to start using the word a whole lot more, to describe the women in my life. There are a lot of amazing problem-solvers out there.

04 Darwin_Evolve
Photo credit: http://darwinawards.com/

A new study published in the British Medical Journal titled “The Darwin Awards: Sex differences in idiotic behaviour” found marked sex differences in Darwin Award winners. Men were more likely than women to receive the award for “eliminat[ing] themselves from the gene pool in such an idiotic manner that their action ensures one less idiot will survive.”

In other words, a person who shoots himself in the head to show that a gun is loaded and dies, or a terrorist who sends a letter bomb with insufficient postage and then, upon its return, unthinkingly opens the letter and it explodes causing his death, might be eligible for the award.

The researchers reviewed data on the Darwin Award winners over a 20-year period (1995 to 2014) from the website DarwinAwards.Com.

The Darwin Awards are about idiotic risks.

Different from risks associated with adventurism or contact sports, idiotic risks involve “senseless risks where the apparent payoff is negligible or non-existent, and the outcome is often extremely negative and often final.” Thus, the nominations for the Darwin Awards go through a rigorous evaluation in terms of five criteria:

  1. Death – the candidate must be eliminated from the gene pool;
  2. Style – the candidate must show an astounding misapplication of common sense;
  3. Veracity – the event must be verified;
  4. Capability – the candidate must be capable of sound judgment;
  5. Self Selection – the candidate must be the cause of his or her own demise.

The researchers analyzed all verified nominations (n=332). They excluded nominations that were unverified or urban legends, as well as the ‘honorable mentions’ that were worthy in their own right but failed to eliminate the person from the gene pool. They also excluded the 14 awards given to “overly adventurous couples in compromising positions.” This left 318 valid cases for analysis.

Of the 318 Darwin Awards nominations in the analysis, an overwhelming majority (282) involved men, and only 36 involved women. The researchers concluded that the finding is consistent with male idiot theory, supporting their hypothesis that men are idiots and idiots do stupid things.

The authors note limitations of the study such as possible selection bias (women more likely to nominate men for the award), reporting bias (male idiocy getting more media attention), or gender differences in alcohol use (with high alcohol use known to influence risky behavior). Yet the findings suggest too that “idiotic behaviour confers some, as yet unidentified, selective advantage on those who do not become its casualties.”

Could it be that bragging rights from idiotic behavior confer social status to some forms of normative masculinity? If so, male idiot theory certainly deserves further investigation.

A complete description of the research and its data can be found here.

Part 5 in a Series

The systematic oppression of black people has been thrust into national consciousness because of the visibility of recent police brutality against black men.

Black Lives Matter (BLM), the emerging social movement challenging this violence and the institutionalized inequalities that underlie and uphold it, started as a hashtag by three black queer women activists. Now it has become a national call to action that has brought thousands of people of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds into the streets to demand immediate changes in police policies and practices.

Pacific Standard, Dec. 19, 2014

blacklivesmatter_genderOn December 18th (2014), Associate professor Adia Harvey Wingfield of Georgia State University wrote an analysis of the gendering of BLM for the Pacific Standard (PS). We wrote an article the next day, also in PS, on how social scientists can do more to end racial subjugation. Together, these articles offer both a feminist perspective on the movement and a concrete set of ways social scientists can take action.

Professor Wingfield’s analysis demonstrates how the BLM protests are important not only because they draw attention to ongoing acts of racial persecution, but because they reveal how gender shapes police violence and those who are victimized by it.

  • It’s safe to say that the most well-known victims of police (and self-appointed vigilante) violence are black males….
  • Black men have historically been and continue to be cast as dangerous, threatening, and inclined to violent behavior. This stereotype has its roots in the post-slavery era when such “violence” was used as a justification for lynching black men.
  • The stereotype of black male criminality may have the unintended consequence of making criminal activity more difficult to curtail.

Black women are an untold side of this story.

  • The act of protesting itself is a gendered activity, also involving covert forms of protest.
  • If police violence is seen as a black men’s issue, then black female victims are easily overlooked and the problem persists.
  • Depictions of black men as the primary victims of police violence may make black women reluctant to involve law enforcement.

Read the full article: “Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective” by Adia Harvey Wingfield, Pacific Standard, Dec. 18, 2014.


sws_protestOn December 19th (2014) we argued, too, that using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege. As social scientists, our job is to understand the social structures within society that reproduce inequities. We can, in tangible ways, bring our sociological imaginations to bear on the eradication of racial repression.

We can:

  1. Listen and follow the lead of this black-led movement to confront racial injustice.
  2. Assess the critical role of law enforcement.
  3. Create space in our classrooms for dialogue about white privilege and anti-black racism.
  4. Support social action among our students.
  5. Incorporate a race lens into our research and writing, and include research on race in our syllabi.
  6. Share our findings with other colleagues, activists, and our broader communities.
  7. Open our eyes, look around, and “interrupt oppression” when we see it.
  8. Talk about the Black Lives Matter movement and engage in critical dialogue to transform our institutions.
  9. Mobilize anti-racist white people.
  10. Help to change the system.

Racial justice requires fundamental changes to a system with deep historical roots, one that structurally disadvantages black people as a group. At this critical time, we all have an opportunity to examine ourselves and to support those seeking transparency, accountability, and safety in their communities.

Read the full article: “Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression” by Gayle Sulik and Mindy Fried, Pacific Standard, Dec. 19, 2014.


Read the entire Black Lives Matter Series on Feminist Reflections

Part 4 in a Series

I know racism exists everywhere in the U.S., but as a newer person to the South, I have observed that segregation and racism are more visible and verbal here.

Prior to moving here, I lived in the inner-city of a metro area in the Upper Midwest where I observed racism in more covert ways:  minority youth afraid of police, wedges between different racial/ethnic groups in the community, and  strategies to work on these issues from “Facing Race” trainings and community-police relationship building, to the police force trying to hire more minorities. From a vantage point of moving from the Upper Midwest to the Deep rural South, racism can be seen differently.

“Standpoint” is not a new concept to sociologists, nor to people of color who have lived in both regions. And certainly all ways that racism is expressed and experienced is unacceptable. However, some folks I have talked to who moved to the North from the South have said that when racism is more overt, it is sometimes easier to deal with because you know what people think. Whatever the form, racism is something we shouldn’t have to fight. But as I share my observations to talk about why black lives matter, I see clearly that racism is not dead.

In this post, I am going to take a different stance from my co-bloggers on Feminist Reflections to share stories that demonstrate racism in everyday interactions, rather than the local or national protests currently underway. Organized protests are the manifestations of years and year of oppression; a build-up of blatant racist acts experienced by people of color. With permission, I share the following stories from one of my students. My student “Bob” (not his real name) is currently finishing his internship under my supervision. It is my ethical decision to write more generically about my student and some events to protect identities of persons and organizations.

Pickin’ Cotton: My Student’s Story

Cotton Field  Photo by  Kimberly Vardeman via flickr.com.
Cotton Field

Bob is a large black man. Bob knows he is large. Bob also knows how people may perceive him, given the stereotypes about back men. Indeed, he’s told me about numerous times in his life of being pulled over by the police and the interactions that have happened. But the reason I want to talk about Bob is to point to issues about language and micro-aggressions as a form of racism occurring in everyday lives. Everyday interactions, including our language, whether people “intend” to be racist or not, are embedded in structural racism.

In a meeting discussing his internship, Bob told me about something that happened with a man who answered the phones at his internship site. While waiting to meet with another person at the organization, they engaged in small talk. After a rant about how people claim their race and ethnicity, the man told Bob that he could not call himself African American, charging that Bob could not trace his ancestry back to slavery or to Africa. Bob was shocked that this man had the audacity to make such a ridiculous claim. In trying to keep his cool while also advocating for himself, Bob gave the man “a short history lesson.” But while doing so, Bob had to maintain professionalism as an intern, despite what he had just heard, which of course upset him.

There were other stories Bob shared. Since we live in the rural South, we are surrounded  by many cotton fields. When Bob was talking to another person at the organization, the guy told Bob “to go pick cotton.” A cotton field was, literally, behind them. Joking or not, why would he say that? Did he fail to realize that the remark harkens back to slavery? Why did the receptionist at Bob’s internship think he could tell Bob what racial or ethnic term he can or cannot claim or use?

Why did these people express these particular words and types of sentiments to Bob?

Slave Family  Photo uploaded by Blofeld Dr. via http://kaufmann-mercantile.com
Slave Family

Rest assured, Bob handled the situations with professionalism and dignity. He brought the issues to the person in charge of the organization, who was concerned and took action.

However, as Bob and I talked about his experiences and I thought about them for days, the question about who tells a black person to go pick cotton kept coming to back to my mind. Language matters. Symbolism matters. If someone doesn’t understand why telling a black person to go pick cotton is not okay, that person may want to re-visit history.

The issues were taken care of internally before I had to get involved as a faculty internship adviser. But hearing about these daily micro-aggressions Bob was experiencing made me angry. If I had to get involved, what would have I said? I would have to use the language of treating my student with respect, in which racism will not be tolerated. But “who tells a black person to go pick cotton?” This is the question to ask in these kinds of circumstances.

Slaves picking cotton Uploaded by Infrogmation on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wage_slavery
Slaves picking cotton

My student may be “privileged” in that he is attending college, but this does not erase his race, the discrimination he may face because of it, nor his feelings when racial aggressions occur. He knows that in a professional setting in which many things are at stake including the security of his internship, which may be a stepping stone to a job and/or letters of recommendation for his future, he must tread lightly. As sociologists have shown, if a black person gets angry it is often viewed stereotypically as typical behavior, helping to reproduce the cycle of racism. Bob advocated for himself, but realized that he had to do so within the constraints of his professional setting.

While this interaction is not at the same level as the Ferguson or related cases, it shows how micro level interaction racism exists in overt ways. A black person carries the burden of experiencing racism in everyday life.

Moving Forward

Beyond advocacy and social action through protests, rallies, and so forth, we must also listen and acknowledge the experiences of  students and people of color that happen in everyday interactions. It is through some of these everyday experiences where we can see the ways in which racism is experienced on a daily basis by people of color.

These stories show the power of language, part of our (racist) culture. Micro-aggressions, including language and symbols, are symptoms of structural racism and perpetuate racism, intentionally or not. Intent is not the same thing as impact. And Bob is one of many students who have told me about these kinds of everyday racist interactions. Language matters. Unfortunately, language is often ignored.

I have encouraged my students to write about their experiences. My students have told me that they want to make a difference in the world and work for social justice in their careers and volunteer activities. Many of them in fact work or volunteer with student organizations, multicultural centers, and/or do internships at organizations that work with diverse and oppressed clientele. By documenting and reflecting on their experiences (sadly including the “isms” they experience or see others experience), using their sociological training, and reflecting on current ways of addressing inequality they witness, I hope we can find effective ways to work together to advocate for social justice. While I firmly believe that the oppressed should not have to teach their oppressors, I do think it is important for us as allies to listen and learn from the perspectives of people of color.

Often in our quest for public and feminist sociology, we do not hear from students or from those who experience everyday racism. I have invited my students to write their stories and reflect on how they conceive of advocacy and social change. We’ll share some of these on Feminist Reflections in the future to highlight student voices that exemplify feminist sociological principles. Activism through rallies, protests, and other forms of collective organizing are incredibly important, and so is listening and being there for our students.

In conclusion, please remember:

ear

    We cannot forget to be allies by LISTENING, leaning from, and supporting our own students whose lives have been affected by structural racism and experience micro-aggressions and every day, often overt, racism.


Related:

When Will the North Face Its Racism? by Isabel Wilkerson, The New York Times, Jan. 10, 2015


Read the entire Black Lives Matter Series on Feminist Reflections


The childfree version of Baby New Year? Image via Flckr CC
The childfree version of Baby New Year?
Image via Flckr CC

It’s that time of year. Babies in top hats don sashes and people everywhere resolve to begin anew, to start fresh, to do things differently or more wisely or somehow better.

I rang in the New Year in much the same way many do – a little too much drinking, some singing, and of course the obligatory New Year’s kiss. But I’ve always been averse to New Year’s resolutions. Why wait til the New Year to do something you should be doing now?

I’ve got a resolution this year, though. This year I resolve to walk the childfree, feminist talk I’ve been peddling for the last couple of years. You see, my partner Lance and I launched our blog about the childfree choice, we’re {not} having a baby!, in early 2013.

Our goals were simple: to celebrate our choice, celebrate that we live in a time and a place where we have a choice, and challenge the many unfounded myths of those of us who choose not to have kids.

These goals are reflected in our w{n}hab! manifesto.

w{n}hab Manifesto Image-Sidebar

You can see from our conclusion that celebrating is indeed a top priority.

Beyond celebrating, we wanted to challenge myths. And while I think we’ve done that through a variety of posts including some on challenging the idea that we’ll change our minds and others on the mistaken belief that we must hate kids, I’m not sure that I’ve challenged myths in my day-to-day life to the extent that I’d like.

So, this year I resolve to:

  1. Apologize less

I admit that I do what I have criticized others for doing: I sometimes apologize for my choice not to have kids. Not directly but implicitly. No more. I made the choice that’s right for me. I don’t need to apologize for that choice.

  1. Balance more

Over the last few months I’ve put in an average of about 75 hours of work/week. That’s nearly double what I’d like to be putting in but when push comes to shove and someone has to do it, I tend to fall on my sword and pick up slack that I might not if I had kids waiting for me at home. But I have a life and a partner at home, both of whom I adore, so I resolve to stop putting work before life. I resolve to take the advice I give to others and just say no when work creeps into the life side of the work/life equation. I didn’t choose a childfree life so that I could work more. I chose a childfree life because I value solitude, quiet, my partnership, and a zillion activities that I’ve given up in favor of work. No more.

This year, more than ever before, I will celebrate my choice. I will celebrate by actually living my life, the life I chose and the life I want to live. I will continue to advocate for work/life balance for all – parents and the childfree alike. And I will celebrate that I have a choice. I will celebrate that I have a choice by not apologizing for my choice. And I will do what I can to support efforts that ensure that all people have a choice. Now that will be walking my childfree, feminist talk!

I’ll drink to that!

Another version of this post was published at we’re {not} having a baby!.