Leonard Nimoy attended University of California, Los Angeles in 1971 to study photography. He had already filmed the original Star Trek television series, which didn’t develop a cult following until reruns of the show aired in the 1970s. His love of photography, however, predates his portrayal of the half-Vulcan, Spock.

While this role is what most people are sure to remember Nimoy by, I will always think of him as a skilled photographer who engaged cultural rhetoric on the gendered and sexual body. Perhaps his most controversial work is titled Shekhina, which is his attempt to capture divinity in a “feminine” form. Shekhina, he explains here, is a Jewish “deity”—one so luminous that men in synagogue have to look down, away, or otherwise shield their faces. As a child, he wondered, “Why hide the face? Why can’t we look?”

Spending seven years searching for Shekhina through his photography, Nimoy produced images he describes here as a “crossover between sensuality and religion.” Consequently, he was asked to not show his photographs at a Seattle synagogue where he had been scheduled to talk about his work. The controversy around this censorship arose because of a religious discomfort with sexual portrayals of women—as sexually desirable and perhaps as sexually desiring—and the association of women with power. Nimoy saw his work as a “very strong feminist statement” partly because “to some degree, in the orthodox community, that makes people uncomfortable—the idea that god is a woman.”

Shekhina. Leonard Nimoy/R. Michelson Galleries

Nimoy’s Shekhina series at times conflates femininity with desirability, but it also challenges us to think of women as corporeally and inherently powerful. He captures the simultaneous idolization of femininity and invisibility of the female body in religion, specifically in Judaism. And the looking away from Shekhina speaks to her ideological incandescence as well as to the way religion is structured around gender dichotomies, whereby women are cast within an androcentric institution as heterosexually alluring and men as driven by primitive roots—or by what Martha McCaughey refers to in her book, The Caveman Mystique, as Darwinian ideas about sex.

At the same time Nimoy challenges the invisibility of a powerful, deific femininity, he also privileges hegemonic corporeal norms, situating in his frames thin, white women with long hair who often peer down. [When they look directly at the viewer, the images take to task representations of women as meek]. Nimoy recognized this, noting that it was not until he began work on The Full Body Project that he realized very specific bodies and definitions of beauty dominated his work. A large-bodied model contacted him to see if he was interested in photographing her precisely because she represented a different sort of body than he was used to shooting.

Joan Jacob Brumberg’s book on The Body Project looks historically to demonstrate the ways social norms have turned women’s bodies into all consuming projects. At any given time, women’s bodies are defined as malleable and docile, evoking Michel Foucault’s notion of the panopticon, by which women internalize narrow, sexist bodily expectations. To take on work that captures an alternative image of beauty, Nimoy said he had to ask himself, “Will you do something that scares you?” In other words, could he do justice to a woman who challenged him to rethink how he was portraying beautiful bodies and women’s sexuality?

Nimoy’s relationship with the model evolved into a larger venture as he found that when he showed his photography, it was pictures of this full-bodied woman that “got the attention. So I thought, there’s something going on there in our culture about this kind of body.” Nimoy appeared to know he was engaging larger conversations about the misogyny of fat-shaming and problematic definitions of what counts as a beautiful and thus culturally valued woman. He found a San Francisco burlesque group called The Fat-Bottom Revue that was happy to pose for him; the women were comfortable in their own skin and used the art of dance and theater to do body-positive activism. Along with these women, Nimoy highlighted bodies as cultural symbols that are constrained by gendered structures but also vehicles of agency through which we experience the world around us and develop intellectual, emotional, and physical relationships with others. [For more on The Full Body Project, see here and here].

The Full Body Project. Leonard Nimoy/R. Michelson Galleries
The Full Body Project. Leonard Nimoy/R. Michelson Galleries
Leonard Nimoy
Leonard Nimoy. Seth Kaye Photography.

As a gender scholar who studies issues of masculinity, I can’t help but wonder where the masculine body is in Nimoy’s work. Why not capture sensual photos of large bodied men? Or of female masculinity? Focusing on femininity and female bodies relegates “beauty” to feminine identified bodies, but it also keeps women at the center of a discussion of bodies and structures of power. [In my own research, I explore men’s relationship to beauty and the beauty industry. See here]. What Nimoy does so well in his photography is acquaint us with images of bodies that beget conversations about gender, sexuality, and social hierarchies. As Nimoy noted, his photos put us in touch “with something beyond what you see in the image;” and he saw his work as not about any particular model or group of models, but rather about “feminine power.”


Barber_PhotoKristen Barber is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Affiliate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. She teaches courses on gender, inequality, work, and qualitative methods and is on the Gender & Society Editorial Board. Her book on women working in the men’s grooming industry is forthcoming with Rutgers University Press.

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.

Image source: http://www.thebolditalic.com/articles/6235-the-lumbersexual-is-here-to-chop-down-metrosexuals
Image source: http://www.thebolditalic.com/articles/6235-the-lumbersexual-is-here-to-chop-down-metrosexuals

“Lumbersexual” recently entered our cultural lexicon. What it means exactly is still being negotiated. At a basic level, it’s an identity category that relies on a set of stereotypes about regionally specific and classed masculinities. Lumbersexuals are probably best recognized by a set of hirsute bodies and grooming habits. Their attire, bodies, and comportment are presumed to cite stereotypes of lumberjacks in the cultural imaginary. However, combined with the overall cultural portrayal of the lumbersexual, this stereotype set fundamentally creates an aesthetic with a particular subset of men that idealizes a cold weather, rugged, large, hard-bodied, bewhiskered configuration of masculinity.

Similar to hipster masculinity, “lumbersexual” is a classification largely reserved for young, straight, white, and arguably class-privileged men. While some position lumbersexuals as the antithesis of the metrosexual, others understand lumbersexuals as within a spectrum of identity options made available by metrosexuality. Urbandicionary.com defines the lumbersexual as “a sexy man who dresses in denim, leather, and flannel, and has a ruggedly sensual beard.”

One of the key signifiers of the “lumbersexual,” however, is that he is not, in fact, a lumberjack. Like the hipster, the lumbersexual is less of an identity men claim and more of one used to describe them (perhaps, against their wishes). It’s used to mock young, straight, white men for participating in a kind of identity work. Gearjunkie.com describes the identity this way:

Whether the roots of the lumbersexual are a cultural shift toward environmentalism, rebellion against the grind of 9-5 office jobs, or simply recognition that outdoor gear is just more comfortable, functional and durable, the lumbersexual is on the rise (here).

Many aspects of masculinity are “comfortable.” And, men don’t need outdoor gear and lumberjack attire to be comfortable. Lumbersexual has less to do with comfort and more to do with masculinity. It is a practice of masculinization. It’s part of a collection of practices associated with “hybrid masculinities”—categories and identity work practices made available to young, white, heterosexual men that allow them to collect masculine status they might otherwise see themselves (or be seen by others) as lacking. Hybridization offers young, straight, class-privileged white men an avenue to negotiate, compensate, and attempt to control meanings attached to their identities as men. Hybrid configurations of masculinity, like the lumbersexual, accomplish two things at once. They enable young, straight, class-privileged, white men to discursively distance themselves from what they might perceive as something akin to the stigma of privilege. They simultaneously offer a way out of the “emptiness” a great deal of scholarship has discussed as associated with racially, sexually, class-privileged identities (see here, here, and here).

The lumbersexual highlights a series of rival binaries associated with masculinities: rural vs. urban, rugged vs. refined, tidy vs. unkempt. But the lumbersexual is so compelling precisely because, rather than “choosing sides,” this identity attempts to delicately walk the line between these binaries. It’s “delicate” precisely because this is a heteromasculine configuration—falling too far toward one side or the other could call him into question. But, a lumbersexual isn’t a lumberjack just like a metrosexual isn’t gay. Their identity work attempts to establish a connection with identities to which they have no authentic claim by flirting with stereotypes surrounding sets of interests and aesthetics associated with various marginalized and subordinated groups of men. Yet, these collections are largely mythologies. The bristly woodsmen they are ostensibly parroting were, in fact, created for precisely this purpose. As Willa Brown writes,

The archetypal lumberjack—the Paul Bunyanesque hipster naturalist—was an invention of urban journalists and advertisers. He was created not as a portrait of real working-class life, but as a model for middle-class urban men to aspire to, a cure for chronic neurasthenics. He came to life not in the forests of Minnesota, but in the pages of magazines (here).

Perhaps less obviously, however, the lumbersexual is also coopting elements of sexual minority subcultures. If we look through queer lenses we might suggest that lumbersexuals are more similar to metrosexuals than they may acknowledge as many elements of “lumberjack” identities are already connected with configurations of lesbian and gay identities. For instance, lumbersexuals share a lot of common ground with “bear masculinity” (a subculture of gay men defined by larger bodies with lots of hair) and some rural configurations of lesbian identity. Arguably, whether someone is a “bear” or a “lumbersexual” may solely be a question of sexual identity. After all, bear culture emerged to celebrate a queer masculinity, creating symbolic distance from stereotypes of gay masculinities as feminine or effeminate. Lumbersexuals could be read as a similar move in response to metrosexuality.

Lumbersexual masculinity is certainly an illustration that certain groups of young, straight, class-privileged, white men are playing with gender. In the process, however, systems of power and inequality are probably better understood as obscured than challenged. Like the phrase “no homo,” hybrid configurations of masculinity afford young straight men new kinds of flexibility in identities and practice, but don’t challenge relations of power and inequality in any meaningful way.


*We would like to thank the Orange Couch of NOLA, Urban Outfitters, the rural (&) queer community, and Andrea Herrera for suggesting we tackle this piece. Additional thanks to C.J. Pascoe and Lisa Wade for advanced reading and comments.

Both Apple and Facebook recently announced that they will cover egg freezing for their employees. The policies at both companies provoked a series of smart analyses of why they are simultaneously something to celebrate and challenge. For instance, Joya Misra writes, “In an environment in which many women face motherhood and pregnancy discrimination, policies that encourage women to freeze their eggs supposedly to delay parenthood, may actually discourage women from becoming mothers altogether. Access to paid leave and high quality, subsidized childcare would better support women’s decisions about having children” (here). Dr. Misra and others are absolutely correct that egg-freezing policies fail to do anything about the family-friendliness of workplaces and organizations.1 The existing data on people who take advantage of the specific technology Apple and Facebook are offering to cover for female employees, however, suggests that the lack of family-friendly policies is only one issue worth considering here. Among these issues are: cost of infertility treatment, same-sex families, and explorations of the other reasons reproductively healthy heterosexual women might pursue these options.

There are four obvious groups of women who might pursue this technology. The first are queer or lesbian women (see here, here, and here). The second are women with known or anticipated fertility issues (such as cancer treatment). The third group (and those who have received most media attention surrounding this issue) are professional heterosexual women who may be in a relationship, but don’t want to have children until they’ve reached a place in their career where they feel it will be least professionally damaging. The fourth group are single heterosexual women who might pursue freezing their eggs in the hopes of eventually meeting someone. The data suggest that the majority of heterosexual women pursuing this technology are single. As one maternal fetal medicine specialist and Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology—Dr. Chavi Eve Karkowsky—writes,

“[I]f these women were partnered, but still wanted to delay child-bearing, they would probably pursue IVF with their eggs and their partner’s sperm, and freeze the resulting embryos. IVF and embryo cryopreservation is an older, more refined, and arguably more successful technology… What they want is a baby, yes, but with a willing partner for child rearing and a present father for their child” (here).

What Dr. Karkowsky suggests is that women’s decisions to freeze their eggs might have more to do with not feeling like they’ve found a “Mr. Right” (if they’re even looking for Mr.’s in the first place) than with a desire to focus on their careers. In one study of the reasons women pursue egg freezing as an option, women were asked to select any and all reasons to account for why they had not pursued childbearing earlier in their lives. Graph of Why Women Pursue CryopreservationWhile they were allowed to select all of the possible reasons that might apply, only about a quarter of the sample cited “professional reasons” for not having children earlier. The overwhelming majority of women (88%) claimed that “lack of partner” was the primary reason (see our adapted graph).2

This is related to an issue sociologists refer to as the “marriageability” of men. In the context of rising joblessness in low-income urban communities, William Julius Wilson suggested one consequence of shifts in our economy was that poor, non-white, urban men were disproportionately affected by the shift to a service economy. They’re not out of work because they don’t want jobs; Wilson found that they are out of work because the jobs simply don’t exist. And this has reverberations throughout their communities. One consequence was shrinking “pools of marriageable men” for poor black women (here). “Marriageability” has, thus far, largely been discussed as an issue of economic stability (having a job). And, as Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas more recently documented in Promises I Can Keep, poor women remain hesitant to bet their futures on men on whom they may not be able to count to provide economically for their families over the long haul.

More recently, Philip Cohen updated the outcome, considering the ratios of employed, unmarried men per unmarried women for black and white women. Cohen’s analysis suggests that poor women still have smaller pools of “marriageable” men, but also that black women face greater shortages of “marriageable” men than white women in most major metropolitan areas. Here too, Cohen relies on Wilson’s formula for marriageability: “marriageable” = employed.

Yet, when middle and upper-class women (the groups most likely to pursue cryopreservation fertility options) are asked why they are pursuing egg freezing, “lack of partner” is highest on the list. But many of these women must live in “partner rich” areas with favorable “pools of marriageable men” as traditionally defined. Surely some of this is the result of women finding men who might qualify as “marriageable” by Wilson’s standard, unmarriageable by their own.  As Stephanie Coontz has shown, women and men are asking a lot more out of their marriages today than their parents and grandparents might have.  As such, it might not be all that surprising that a more diverse group are delaying and forgoing marriage.  Pew Graph - EducationIndeed, as a recent Pew Report investigating the rise in unmarried Americans attests, the population of young adults who have not entered marriage is both growing and changing. For instance, the education gap between never married men and women has widened (see graph). Never married women and men are more educated today than previous generations. More than 53% of never married men today have more than a high school education; 25% have at least a bachelor’s degree. And while it’s a tough economy, Cohen’s analysis suggests that many of these men are finding jobs (often in larger numbers than women in many cities).

We suggest that middle- and upper-class women are delaying and foregoing marriage for many reasons, among them that the employed men they encounter are “unmarriageable” for other reasons.

We are currently working on an article collecting research across the class divide dealing with the “marriageability of men” hypothesis.  Research shows that the “lack of marriageable men” trend is best analyzed as twin trends occurring among different groups for different reasons. For instance, Wilson suggested that “marriageability” primarily had to do with obtaining a job—a task more difficult from some groups of men than others. But, middle- and upper-class women, by this standard, should be marrying in droves—employed men are not always the issue. Men who might be capable of financially providing are not necessarily all women want out of a relationship today.

For instance, in The Unfinished Revolution, Kathleen Gerson found that men and women across a range of class backgrounds said that they desired gender egalitarian relationships. Men were just as likely as women to say that having a partner able to find personally fulfilling work and to co-provide financially was an important part of what they hoped to achieve in current and future relationships.   Things get more complicated, however, when women and men are asked about their backup plans. What happens when those plans for dual-earning, emotionally fulfilling, egalitarian partnerships don’t work out? Women state that they are willing to confront a range of options in terms of fulfilling their family and career goals. Men, on the other hand, are most likely to say that their fallback option does not include the possibility of staying home themselves. Rather, men’s “plan B” appears to put women right back at “plan A” 50 years ago (see Lisa Wade’s analysis here). Indeed, in her interviews with women about their heterosexual experiences in Hard to Get, Leslie Bell finds profound dissatisfaction among 20-something women with their romantic and sexual relationships with men.

While only a small number of women currently choose to pursue oocyte cryopreservation, this issue represents a larger concern with which many women are dealing more generally. Freezing their eggs is one of many strategies heterosexual women might pursue as men are navigating new meanings of what it means to qualify as “marriageable” today.


Thanks to D’Lane Compton and C.J. Pascoe for advanced reading and comments on this post.

1 Whether or not assisted reproductive technologies (ART) are covered by insurance also varies by state in the U.S.  Some states mandate IVF coverage, for instance, while other states do not. In states that do not mandate coverage, it is a more expensive for employers to include coverage in their employee health benefits packages. So, this is not only an issue of “good” and “bad” companies, but one of state legislation that influences organizational policies as well. See here for state-specific policies.

2 It’s important to note that some social desirability bias is likely to rear its head here. For instance, some respondents may have felt that claiming “professional reasons” for not pursuing childbearing earlier may be perceived unfavorably by others.

Originally posted on “Marx in Drag”

Screen shot 2014-09-23 at 2.20.08 PMThere is something that is bothering me about the phrases, “A real man doesn’t hit a woman,” or “No one should ever hit a woman.”  This seems to be the go-to phrase in response to the video of Ray Rice punching and knocking out his wife. A friend with tickets to an NFL game wanted to wear a t-shirt that represented her commitment to girls’ and women’s rights. One person suggested, “Don’t Hit Girls.” On the surface, who could argue with that?

But I have found myself cringing every time I hear this. Why would I bristle at this no-brainer?

When we say, “Don’t hit girls,” it punctuates gender difference and re-articulates the idea that girls and women are a different kind of human than boys and men (e.g. don’t use that language around women and children, the victims of the airstrike include women and children, and you never hit a woman).

While these phrases strike a chord of protection, they are examples of benevolent sexism—cultural practices or beliefs that appear to raise women’s status and honor them, but in reality set them apart as different, weak, and/or in need of protection.  Benevolent sexism, while seemingly benign in the form of holding doors, is the same logic that was used historically to bar women from education, politics, and employment (it’s for their own good, poor dears).

I think the phrase “don’t hit women” might be an updated version of benevolent sexism and is the same old discursive move to punctuate gender difference as a hierarchy where men are powerful and women are weak.  When we say that men should not hit women and leave it there, we’re saying that it is okay for men to hit each other.  That is, men are more powerful than women, they are capable of and expected to use violence to settle disputes with “equals”, and women are not equals so should be left out of the messy business of masculine affairs.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I do not think we should do away with this injunction, and I am well aware that men have used violence to exert power and control over women, and that, as researchers like Lisa Brush show, they do more damage when they assault their wives than wives who assault their husbands (see article here).  Domestic violence is an enormous problem, is inextricable from gender power dynamics, and those who are victimized are in need of resources and protection and those who perpetrate should suffer consequences.

However, at the same time, I simply do not believe that saying, “don’t hit girls,” in response to media portrayals of men beating up women, will stop an individual abuser from hitting his partner.  In a world where men are told they should and deserve to have power and control, especially in relationship to women, and that violence is a natural, legitimate, and admirable way to settle disputes, a simple catch-phrase repeated only when boys hit girls or men beat on women won’t stop men like Ray Rice from punching women.

In fact, I think it might do the opposite. This phrase reproduces the idea that violence is inherently masculine and naturally wielded by men.  It’s a “man” thing; it’s not cool to use it against women and children.

While I agree that women and children should never be the victims of violence, I wholeheartedly disagree with the idea that masculine violence is natural or that it should, in any context, be wielded by men to settle disputes or exert or gain power.  When power and control are contested via physical violence, the entity with the greatest physical strength will have the most power and control, whether it is a state, a group, or an individual.  In reality, however, why should this be the case?  What function does brute physical strength serve in most contemporary societies except to unjustly exert or gain power to control others?

This is precisely what bothers me.  The problem is not hitting girls.  The problem is hitting.  If Ray Rice’s partner were significantly smaller than him and a man, what would we say?  What if Ray Rice was partnered with another football player his size or bigger?  Would it be okay for him to punch and knock out “his fiancé, now husband”?  Men small in stature, are not skilled at violence, or who are not willing to use violence against others also suffer greatly at the hands of boys and men who do.  How does that phrase, “don’t hit girls,” help them?  What grievance do they have in the eyes of public opinion?

Finally, I’m also bothered by the media spectacle of Ray Rice’s violence because I am a football fan. Football is embedded in and reflective of a masculine culture of violence.  There is absolutely no getting around this.

In fact, as Michael Messner and others suggest, because brute physical strength is no longer an advantage to men in most areas of life, we raise football  to a religion and worship football players because they provide a cultural demonstration of brute strength as valuable and a legitimate criteria with which to settle who is Number One.  Football, more than any sport embodies and celebrates that aspect of masculine culture and masculine superiority.

As a football fan, I appreciate the athletic skills of quarterbacks, receivers, and pass defenders along with the tactics and strategy required to excel as a team.  I also enjoy men in tight, spandex pants falling all over each other in slow motion.  It’s the beauty, not the brutality of the game that I love.

However, I can’t delude myself.  I’m not pulling the “I like the articles in Playboy” card.  I do sometimes enjoy the violence of the game.  I like it when my team sacks the other team’s quarterback. No matter what I like about the game, however, my participation and endorsement of it is ultimately an endorsement of the physical and economic exploitation of the players and the celebration of masculine power and violence. I am struggling with all of this and have to decide whether or not I will continue to participate as a fan.

But again, I think that blaming football for Ray Rice’s violence is also unacceptable. There has been important discussion about how the players bring the violence of the game back to their interpersonal relationships.  I have no doubt that is the case.  However, to say the problem is football is to ignore the broader gendered culture of violence of which football is a part. We need to take a long hard look at the gender of violence that makes us love football and say “A real man never hits a woman.” What if, instead of saying “A Real Man doesn’t hit women,” we said, “A good person doesn’t hit others?”

But of course, that wouldn’t work for a t-shirt slogan my friend could wear to an NFL game, for, if you oppose hitting of any kind, what are you doing at a football game? And that is precisely the problem with the centrality of violence in football and the role it plays in keeping the gendered order of violence unquestioned.  The t-shirt would have to be about girls.


schippers_photo_3Mimi Schippers received her PhD in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is Associate Professor of Sociology and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Tulane University. She is author of Rockin’ Out of the Box: Gender Maneuvering in Alternative Hard Rock (Rutgers University Press) and is currently working on her next book entitled Polyqueer: Masculinity, Femininity, and the Queer Potential of Plural Relationships (New York University Press, forthcoming).

I was in a rock band for three years. Sometimes 30-year-old women would look longingly at my lead-singer husband and 75-year-old men would flirt with me, but we never had 15-year-old girls scream at us. We were also not the Beatles, Elvis, or One Direction, although sometimes we made enough money to pay the babysitter during our gigs at a handful of local wine bars.

concert screaming
This image was originally published at dallasnews.com: http://tinyurl.com/pogs7v7

Do you scream at rock concerts? What pops into your mind when someone asks you to think about an audience of screaming fans at a rock concert? Media representation of this kind of image has tended towards young girls and women, which makes it important to think about this image from a feminist perspective. (I could also examine the age difference in concert behavior between my and my husband’s fans, but that is a different feminist issue.)

“But I’m not a 15-year-old girl,” you say. Of course we know that it is not just girls and young women who scream at concerts, even though we’ve seen the footage linked above (and it is not just the behavior of girls and young women that interest feminists). One of my friends noted that she hears lots of middle-aged men scream at country music concerts, for instance. But here’s the rub: the image of girls screaming is more common to see, and is evaluated differently from other images (of people, or screaming people), which makes it a good puzzle to sort out using feminism as a guiding lens.

Screaming is a physiological response to a stimulus, whether it is stress, fear, pain, sexual stimulus, or just excitement to see a rock star who has been hyped up as a dreamboat. Screaming at a concert, like the music performance itself, is a bodily experience, and calls to mind ponderings about bodies, control, and sexuality. Screaming at a concert, especially one where girls in the audience may be attracted to the main attraction (or even to the messages in the music), may be viewed as a form of free bodily sexual expression, an experience long touted by feminists of many types to be crucial if women and men are to be equal, egalitarian, and/or emancipated from their prescribed gender roles.

But it’s not that simple. This bodily and vocal sexual expression could have two paradoxical interpretations: either a girl screaming at a concert is defiantly protesting girls’ sexual repression in a highly sexualized society, or she is doing so as an unsuspecting part of the larger project to maintain girls’ sexuality as controlled, quiet, and contained. 

Let’s see what this means. One the one hand, swooning and screaming may seem out of control (the history of the word “hysteria” deserves yet another feminist blog post), but is actually a way for the girls to try to retain control of their bodies, experiences, and sexual expression. Screaming means you have a voice. Literally. The screamers get to decide to scream, think about the performer, and embody sexual expression. As Australian researcher Sarah Baker reminds us in her work “The Screamers,” “pre-teen girls are not simply ‘swallowing’ cultural commodities” passively and superficially. They are voicing their selves to the world, with nobody telling them what to do.

On the other hand, as Baker (2003) also says, “[g]irls’ public expression of sexuality at the pop events is accepted because the ‘official culture’ knows that such a public expression is ephemeral. Appearances by pop stars always ‘end with the old order restored.’” If the “old order” is one that perpetuates girls being required to control their sexuality, then free expression is illusory, temporary, and therefore not really free at all. In fact, we could make the argument that the seemingly uncontrollable screaming is prescribed so that order is maintained. Certainly “controlled chaos” is not out of the realm of understanding of sociologists who aim to research crowd behavior in protest and war. But consider that it may also be useful applied to the happy occasion of an awesome concert.

This is where the screaming paradox is not just about girls, but about youth generally. Or any disenfranchised voice, for that matter. Young people do not have a loud voice in our society. Nor do they have a say in how spaces and bodies are supposed to be organized and moved. So, screaming, which is usually not allowed at home or school or in public gatherings like assemblies or faith communities, is a blessing at concerts. Kids can scream legitimately and claim a “space that is not usually recognized as their own” (Baker 2003). But, as the above discussion suggests, this emancipatory claiming is not a threat to the social order that keeps young people voiceless because there are still authority figures at the venues, and the expression is temporary.

So, within the girl, the screams can be freeing. Within the context of social life more broadly, the screams are a “safe” way for girls to be sexual, thus limiting that freedom and perpetuating the notion that girls ought to be pure and good unless the space is controlled by others.

The idea that young girls especially are uncontrollable (and therefore in-need-of-control) screamers is part of a problematic stereotype of girlhood. The idea that controlled hysteria can simultaneously emancipate and constrain a group is terribly important for scholars interested in inequalities and group behavior, feminist or otherwise.

We need to reimagine the image of young girl concert-goers as hysterical and uncontrollable. We need to remember that girls’ voices are still dismissed, trivialized, and silenced, despite the high decibel level of One Direction concerts referenced in media. That something so loud connotes silence is a powerful message for feminists and others to continue to hear.


Baker, Sarah. 2003. “The Screamers.” Youth Studies Australia 22(2): 19-24.

michellejanningMichelle Janning, Senior Scholar with the Council on Contemporary Families, and Professor of Sociology at Whitman College, was recently quoted and interviewed (With audio! For over 2 minutes!) about the topic of screaming girls at boy band concerts in the Washington Post and on KCBS Radio San Francisco. She teaches and researches families, gender, popular culture, and childhood (and, evidently, combinations thereof), among other topics. Her blog and website can be found at http://michellejanning.com/.

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.

Do you know a hipster when you see one? Have you ever been in the company of a hipster and tried to bring up the subject?

Talking about hipsters in front of hipsters is more taboo than you might think. The term is rarely lobbed in the presence of those who would fit the label. Most often it is used to describe other men in a disparaging way –like calling a guy a “douchebag” or a “fag.” At the same time, hipster has a different ring to it. It is calls the authenticity of one’s masculinity into question.

When I was studying a young, straight, white group of men who frequented the same bar, I regularly encountered the term. I learned quickly that if men found out they’d been “hipster’d” when they weren’t around, they were deeply offended. Part of hipster identity seems to be explicitly about NOT identifying as such. Hipsters have a casual form of detachment about identity and tastes—a gendered nonchalance that I call “practiced indifference.”

Sociological investigations about hipster identity—like Kathleen Ross and Dayna Tortorici’s What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation—have primarily situated hipsters as identified by tastes. But, as Mark Greif wrote, “[S]truggles over taste… are never only about taste.” Beyond this, hipster masculinity is associated with a specific group of men: they’re young, straight, and white. But they are also different from other young, straight, white guys—at least they seem to want to believe they are. They have an evolving set of tastes that encompass an eclectic array of musical interests, hair styles, body types, grooming habits, clothing, literary and artistic curiosities, culinary and libation preferences, and more. As a group, hipsters have a reputation as counter-cultural, androgynous, intelligent, creative and independent but are also mocked for only superficially exhibiting any of these qualities.

hipster line-up
image from portlandhipster.com – http://www.portlandhipster.com/p/about.html

Hipster culture is popularly presumed to be more gender and sexually egalitarian. In fact, both men and women can be hipsters. But the most recognizable image of the hipster is a slender white man in his 20s or 30s and a great deal of hipster style plays on a cultural nostalgia for masculinities of old—what I like to call “vintage masculinity.” These performances of gender involve an astounding collection of aesthetics taken from specific periods of American history. Hipsters don’t adopt these masculinities in complete form (or the gender relations from which they emerged). Rather, they borrow bits and pieces, like styles of facial hair or dress or very particular cultural artifacts. They’re into craft beer and microbrews, they deride others for their “pedestrian” palates, and they have strange hobbies that might have been professions a few generations ago. They seem insistent upon finding small—but significant—ways to stand out from the crowd. Perhaps ironically, hipster men might be best understood as standing out by fitting in (with other hipsters).

Hipster masculinities rely on a specific interpretation of their performances of gender. They rely on a sort of “when men used to be men” understanding. But, they also seem simultaneously interested in incorporating the form but denying the substance of the masculinities they perform with their clothing, beards, and interests. For all their posturing, hipster masculinities appear (at least symbolically) intent on being taken tongue in cheek. Yet, if we’re to believe reports of young white men going to plastic surgeons for beard transplants, it’s clear that whatever this new trend is, it may not be undertaken as casually as the hipsters might want others to believe. As Greif writes:

All hipsters play at being the inventors or first adopters of novelties: pride comes from knowing, and deciding, what’s cool in advance of the rest of the world. Yet the habits of hatred and accusation are endemic to hipsters because they feel the weakness of everyone’s position—including their own.   Proving that someone is trying desperately to boost himself instantly undoes him as an opponent. He’s a fake, while you are a natural aristocrat of taste. That’s why ‘He’s not for real, he’s just a hipster’ is a potent insult among all the people identifiable as hipsters themselves. (here)

Hipster masculinity is all about proof of authenticity. Similar to any identity category worth its salt, membership requires some kind of validation, sometimes institutional of some kind. Hipster identities are less “formal” than this. They are internally validated. Hipster masculinity seems to require proving that other men have failed in their attempts to be hipsters. While Greif does not mention gender, it’s significant that he uses the masculine pronoun. As an identity, hipster masculinity seems to simultaneously—if contradictorily—claim: “Real men don’t care about masculinity,” “I don’t care what people think of my masculinity,” and, more subtly, “This (practiced) indifference is why I’m more of a man than you!” If we take a moment, stand back, and look at them without their beards, bacon and beer, this sounds like a fairly traditional story about masculinity.

Hipster masculinity may be less “new” than popularly imagined, and borrowing more from the masculinities it purports only to cite than the hipsters themselves acknowledge.