About a month ago, I found myself embarrassed to sit as the sole faculty member at a table of new members of Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) – that is, aside from Dr. Mary Bernstein, outgoing SWS president, who led the new member orientation. I was excited to attend my first SWS winter meeting (really, first of anything hosted by SWS), but also embarrassed that I was new already half way to tenure and still “new.” No disrespect meant to the graduate students in that room, but I felt as though I was sitting at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving dinner. And, when it came my turn to introduce myself, I felt as though I was at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: “Hi, my name is Eric Grollman, and this is my first SWS meeting.” “Hi Eric,” my fellow newbies didn’t actually say, but I could hear in my imaginative and anxious mind.

No Support To Attend SWS Meetings

I went through all six years of graduate school, and then two years in my current position, without ever attending an SWS function. Some years I was a dues-paying member, and some years not. I justified the distance from SWS by identifying as more of a health scholar, and secondly a sexualities scholar – that gender was only tangentially related to my research. It took an encouraging email from SWS Executive Officer, Dr. Joey Sprague, to finally get serious about becoming involved in SWS. Recently, my work as an intellectual activist – particularly on my blog, Conditionally Accepted – has focused on protecting fellow intellectual activists from public backlash and professional harm. As many of those who have been attacked are women of color, it was clear that my efforts were in line with SWS’s mission and many of its initiatives. You-should-get-involved became you-should-attend-the-winter-meeting, which became you-should-organize-a-session-on-this-topic. This was quite a break from what feels like eagerly awaiting opportunities for leadership in other academic organizations!

I’ve studied sexuality and gender, as well as their intersections with race, since I officially declared my major in sociology and minor in gender studies in college. And, I’ve been an activist of sorts since kindergarten, focusing heavily on LGBTQ and gender issues beginning in college. Why did it take me so long to get involved with SWS – a feminist sociologist organization?

Elizabeth Salisbury, Drs. Jodi Kelber-Kaye, Ilsa Lottes, Fred Pincus, Michelle Scott, Carole McCann, and Susan McCully, among others. These aren’t names that are known nationwide (not yet, at least), but they are forever a part of my life. These are professors who were fundamental in the raising of my feminist consciousness, and in feeding my budding activist spirit. They introduced me to Black feminist theory (among other theoretical perspectives), feminist and queer critiques of the media, womanist accounts of herstory, and social justice-oriented research methods. Clearly, I still feel nostalgia for those days of self-exploration, advocacy, and community-building.

Graduate school, unfortunately, was a hard right-turn from my undergraduate training. I chose to pursue a PhD in sociology, assuming it would be easier to get into the fields of gender studies, sexuality studies, or even student affairs with that degree than the other way around. I won’t waste my energy on regretting the decision, but I recognize that it was the first of many compromises I would make to advance my career. Dreams of a joint PhD with gender studies were dashed due to “advice” that I would not be employable. I was discouraged from my fallback plan of a graduate minor in gender studies or sexuality studies because, I was told, one can “read a book” to learn everything there is to know about gender. By the time I selected the topic for my qualifying exam, I knew to select the more mainstream area of social psychology rather than the more desirable areas of sexualities, gender, or race/class/gender/sexualities. Still, I was reminded again that my interests in gender, sexualities, and race were not “marketable” when I proposed a dissertation on trans health. I was mostly obedient as a student. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised by my friends’ surprise that I had been offered a tenure-track position in sociology with a focus on gender and health. I entered grad school open to interdisciplinary study on queer, feminist, and anti-racist issues, utilizing qualitative methods, and tying my research to my advocacy; I left a mainstream quantitative medical sociologist who viewed writing blog posts as a “radical” forms of advocacy.

Would it surprise you that I wasn’t encouraged to attend an SWS meeting in graduate school? Those who were actually involved in SWS did so on their own volition. We were otherwise expected and encouraged to attend the mainstream organization – the American Sociological Association – and perhaps the regional sociology conference as a starting point to “nationals.” It wasn’t encouraged, it wasn’t the norm; and, on the limited funds of a graduate student, I had to be pragmatic about which conferences I attended. ASA won out all through grad school and beyond.

Finally Finding My Feminist Sociology Community

Tressie Me Perry DawnSo, back to my first SWS winter meeting. It was amazing, of course. I felt like an academic celebrity, having many people – some whom I knew, many whom I did not – express their appreciation for my blog, Conditionally Accepted. Admittedly, with such visibility as an intellectual activist, there is a lingering twinge of the mentality I was forced to adopt in grad school: “what about my research?” I thought privately. Obviously, these colleagues care about my research, as well. But, I found that the meeting, unlike other conferences I’ve attended, was just as much about research as it was about feminism, activism, and building a community. At what other conference would I feel torn between attending a session on feminist public sociology (hosted by the fine folks at Feminist Reflections) and another on campus anti-racist activism? Certainly not the conferences I’ve been attending over the years.

In hindsight, I realize how easy the meeting was emotionally, socially, and professionally. I saw an occasional glance at my nametag, but never followed by averted eyes. I sensed genuine curiosity in meeting others, not the elitist-driven networking to which I’ve grown accustomed at academic conferences. There was even a banquet, featuring a silent auction, a dance party, and delicious food, on the final night of the meeting. Feminist sociologists know how to party after a busy day of talking research and advocacy!

Needless to say, SWS meetings will be one of the regulars on my yearly conference circuit. I am left wondering how different my career and life would be thus far had I attended SWS from the start. Would I have had an easier time finding support for my research and advocacy knowing that I would at least have a network of social justice-minded colleagues in SWS? Would I be in some sort of leadership position within SWS by now? I even saw half a dozen current grad students from my graduate program at the meeting. What do they know that I didn’t?

I can’t speak to paths I did not take, and why others do what they do (or don’t do). I made the decision to focus on becoming involved in mainstream sociology spaces to increase my visibility, widen my professional networks, and enhance my job prospects. SWS did not seem like a feasible opportunity for me because it was not seen as a central in my graduate program. I suffered to a great extent in attempting to navigate the powerful mainstream expectations of my graduate training and my own goals to make a difference in the world. I don’t know that I could have handled being marginal anymore than I already was as a Black queer intellectual activist who studies race, sexualities, and gender.

Find Your Own Feminist Academic Community

Adia Ray MeWhat I take from life’s lessons is that one can really benefit from looking just a little bit further to find what one needs. My program devalued research on my communities – Black and LGBTQ. But, had I attended just one SWS conference, I would have found that there exists an academic space where that work is valued without question. My program sought to “beat the activist” out of me; but, in SWS, I would have found regular, open discussions about feminism, activism, and social justice. I know now that if I cannot find support for my goals, my identities, my politics in my immediate context, I am certain I can find support elsewhere. And, if not, there are likely a few others who are willing to join together to build a community that would offer such support. “If you build it, they will come,” or something along those lines. So, no matter how alone we might feel in a specific program, department, university, field, organization, etc., we have to remember that the universe is vast – there is someone or some group out there in which we can find home.

I don’t want to end by beating myself up, though. I’ve done too much of that in trying to make sense of the traumatic experience of grad school. Rather, I want to end by encouraging those who are in supportive networks to reach out to fellow colleagues and students who you know will benefit from access to such networks. I want to encourage those with power, money, and other resources to share them with someone who may not be able to afford attending a conference that might be transformative for them – but their department won’t support or encourage. I encourage faculty to emphasize to their students how amazing SWS is, or at least having other options besides ASA. Departments and universities can also consider setting aside money and resources to help students attend SWS, the Association of Black Sociologists, Humanist Sociologists, Society for the Study of Social Problems, regional sociology meetings, and those outside of sociology (e.g., National Women’s Studies Association). We do not advance our field by reproducing mainstream and traditional work; we do it by taking risks and thinking outside of the box. We do not benefit from young, aspiring feminist sociologists trudging through their careers thinking that their feminist politics are at odds with success in sociology, nor having them drop out of their programs or leave sociology for more supportive fields. We benefit from supporting the creativity and bravery of the next generation of scholars.

So, I hope to see you at the next SWS meeting. I’ll be the one attendee with the big grin on my face – well, at least one of the many.

___________________

Dr. Eric Anthony GrollmanEric Anthony Grollman is a Black queer feminist sociologist and intellectual activist, and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Richmond. Their research focuses on the impact of prejudice and discrimination on the health, well-being, and worldviews of oppressed groups, especially those marginalized by multiple systems of oppression (e.g., LGBTQ people of color). They are the founder and editor of the blog, Conditionally Accepted, which is now hosted by Inside Higher Ed.

maiden madonna maiden

My childhood friend, Gail, is six months younger than me. As adults, that age differential is totally meaningless, but as “pre-teens”, it apparently meant a lot. She reminds me that when my mother took me to the local department store to buy me a “training” bra, she followed suit.  “I had to get a bra because you had one”. We both bought Peter Pan “AA”s, ironically from a company named after a boy who never wants to grow up, played in film and play versions by petite adult women.

Underneath the story of the bra (literally) is the story of the breast, that contested body part – shall we say, the ONLY body part – on women that is multiply-functioned to feed, and to receive and give sexual pleasure; a body part which is also the site of deadly disease for growing numbers of women.

Purchasing a first bra is a rite of passage into womanhood, sort of like a secular Bat Mitzvah for young girls*. And how apt that this first bra is called a “training” bar, signifying a broader issue of how girls are “in training” to be women.

While many women – particularly those with larger breasts – may need or want a bra for comfort, the reality is that bras are not anatomically necessary to support breasts. In fact, the history of “the bra” suggests that they are literally shaped by cultural norms, which are historically situated, including the economic climate, the role of technology and available materials within a particular time period. My own drawer of bras – and yes, because I’m terrible at throwing things out, I have kept bras for at least a decade – is a veritable history of the changing notion of women’s beauty, as seen through the lens of the shaping of the breast. I might even go so far as to say that the bra is an element of physical and even social control that tells one chapter of the gendered history of women.

Short history of the bra

There is evidence that Greek and Roman women athletes in the 14th century wore simple bands of cloth covering their breasts while playing sports.bra ancient1

And apparently, medieval bras were called “breast bags”, which had distinct cut cups, in contrast to antique Greek or Roman breast bands. In the 16th century, women in France wore corsets which flattened the breast and pushed it up and nearly out of women’s dresses. The containing and shaping of women’s bodies continued well into the 19th century, as women were corseted from breast to hip. In the Victorian era, women’s waists were tight-laced in order to emphasize the breasts and hips.

An American named Mary Phelps-Jacob is credited with inventing “the modern bra” in 1914. It was made out of silk handkerchiefs and ribbons, and she patented her design under the name of Caresse Crosby. Phelps-Jacob came from a well-to-do family, and she decided to create a bra that was more comfortable for dancing (presumably at fancy balls!).

Mary Phelps-Jacob and her bra design
Mary Phelps-Jacob and her bra design

She worked with her French maid, creating a design by tying two silk handkerchiefs together, sewing on baby ribbons as straps and a seam in the center front of the item. She later wrote: “I can’t say the brassiere will ever take as great a place in history as the steamboat, but I did invent it.”

By 1932, the bra company, Warner, introduced the notion of “cup sizes” correlated with letters – A, B, C and D – and added adjustable bands and eye hooks. This is the first time that breasts were no longer treated as one object; rather, they were viewed as two body parts to be enclosed separately.  Bras now used latex – as chemists had figured out how to transform rubber into textile fabric that could be woven and was washable.

bra ancient2
World War II era utility bra

During World War II, material shortages affected the design of the bra. Some were made out of minimal fabric, called “utility bras”, and they were comprised of cotton-backed satin or “drill”, often in a peachy pink color. Women also sewed their own bras from patterns or magazine instructions, using parachute silk or nylon or old satin wedding dresses.

Some women began wearing “torpedo” bras, which claimed to protect women in war factory jobs. In the 1950s, after the war, women were wearing pointy bras, called the sweater or bullet bra, which drew upon war imagery. The 60s brought the push-up bra.

In 1968, a small group of feminists staged a dramatic demonstration at the Miss America Pageant in Atlanta, to protest the oppression of women. They picketed the event with signs saying, “Let’s Judge Ourselves as People.” And they also dumped symbols of female oppression – girdles, cosmetics, high-heeled shoes, and bras – into a “freedom trash can”.

Feminist dumping bras and make-up into freedom trash can at 1968 Miss America Pageant
Feminist dumping bras and make-up into freedom trash can at 1968 Miss America Pageant

It’s unclear as to whether there was any real fire at this event, much less women baring their breasts publicly. But the image of bras going into a trash can was captured in a photo, and journalists tagged these women as “bra-burning feminists”, a phrase that was meant to brand them as crazy radicals, but only contributed to the overall protest movement, which catalyzed women for action.

In 1977, the first “sports bra” was created, made out of stretchy rubberized material that held in women’s breasts for comfort so they could do more active sports. That same year, Victoria’s Secret opened its first store, accentuating women’s breasts as objects of sexuality aimed at the male gaze. These two bra types reflected the complex notion of women’s roles in society. In the 1990s, if it wasn’t clear what the bra was intended to do, this “Hello Boys” ad came out for Wonder Bra!hello boys

While I know many women who would like to NOT wear a bra, these images are very compelling. Our choice to wear a bra – and particularly our choice about which bra style to wear – is consciously and unconsciously impacted by notions of the so-called ideal body shape, including the socially constructed notion of what it means to be “attractive” or “desirable”, and these notions have changed over time.

So how about today?

In the 2000s, technology has allowed the creation of the “bioform” bra – which provides a consistent shape of the breast that doesn’t rely on what’s underneath it. Pauline Weston Thomas says that this bra “uplifts and contours the breasts so well that it immediately takes ten years off a sideways sagging bust.  If you are past 40 with a full cup size you may realize that you have not seen your breasts in this position for twenty years, as it centers and uplifts the breasts.”

This new bra – made possible by synthetic materials and technology-driven design – promises to literally freeze, or even turn back, time! As we age, women’s breasts change in shape and form. They may sag, but the Bioform bra maintains a youthful veneer, or what we perceive as the young breast. The bra defines the shape of the breast, including the tilt and the amount of cleavage (think, push up bras). This bra claims to literally shave years off our age, without any invasive surgery. It’s tantamount to an anti-aging tool, and considered safe. We’re not injecting any foreign substance into our bodies when we wear this type of bra, so ostensibly, it’s not harmful. But is it necessary?

Research on bras…

Based on a study conducted by French researcher, Professor Jean-Denis Rouillon from the University of Besançon in eastern France, “bras are a false necessity”. Rouillon argues that “medically, physiologically, anatomically – breasts gain no benefit from being denied gravity.” On the contrary, he says, “they get saggier with a bra”. Rouillon spent many years measuring changes in the orientation of breasts on hundreds of women, ages 18-35, and found that women who did not wear bras had less sag. “There was no dis-improvement in the orientation of their breasts, and in fact, there was widespread improvement”. A 28-year-old woman who participated in his study and stopped wearing a bra for 2 years says, “There are multiple benefits: I breathe more easily, I carry myself better, and I have less back pain”.

So is there anything wrong with wearing a bra?  NO, of course not. And if women need a bra for comfort, want a bra because they’re modest, or want to attract men or other women with their breasts – however they want to accentuate them through the use of the bra – it’s all good!  Who am I to judge? Nonetheless, some women find “the bra” constricting and would welcome more comfort.

Here’s a great piece about a woman who experiments with not wearing a bra for a week, and discovers that she initially feels naked, discovers her breasts are lop-sided, learns that it’s not as painful as she thought it would be and eventually realizes it’s more comfortable without. She also goes out clubbing and realizes that no one notices!

And here’s another great video with a few women who try it for one week!

 

* A Bat Mitzvah is a coming-of-age ritual for Jewish girls signifying that they are now full-fledged members of the Jewish community with associated responsibilities.

 

 

People are often shockingly wrong about how much time they dedicate to various tasks.  In general, we tend to overestimate how much time it takes to do things we dislike and underestimate how much time we spend on tasks we enjoy.  So, people ritualistically overestimate how much time they spend on laundry, cleaning bathrooms, working out and underestimate how much time they spend watching television, napping, eating, or doing any number of tasks that provide them with joy.

Asking about how people use their time has been a mainstay on surveys dealing with households and family life.  We ask people to assess how much time they spend on all manner of mundane tasks in their lives–everything from shopping, sleeping, watching television, attending to their children, and household labor is divided up into an astonishing number of variables.  The assumption, of course, is that people can provide meaningful information or that their responses are an accurate (or approximately accurate) portrayal of the time they actually spend (see here).  This is why time diary studies came into being–they produce a more accurate picture of how people use their time.  People record their actual time use throughout the day in a diary, marking starting and stopping points of various activities.  And there are a number of different scholars who rely on this method and these data.  But Liana Sayer is among the leading scholars in the field.  When I’ve seen her present, or others present on time use data, the data are almost always visualized in the same way (as stacked column charts).  Personally, I love seeing the data this way.  The changes jump out at me and I feel like I instantly recognize trends and distinctions they discuss. But I have learned in my classroom that students do not always have the same reaction.

I’m interested because I use data visualizations in class a lot.  And in my (admittedly limited) experience, students have an easier time interpreting the story of time use data when it is visualized in some ways over others.

All of the examples here are pretty basic changes in data visualizations.  But, learning these basics are necessary to help students read the more complex data visualizations they may encounter.  Being able to interpret visualizations of temporal data is important; it’s part of what helps social scientists consider, measure, and critique the idea of “feminist change.”  Distinguishing between men’s and women’s time use is only one pocket of this field.  But, it’s the one I’ll focus on here, and on which Liana Sayer is among the foremost experts.  The data I’m visualizing below come from one of Sayer’s most cited articles: “Gender, Time and Inequality: Trends in Women’s and Men’s Paid Work, Unpaid Work, and Free Time” (here – behind a paywall).

It’s fairly common to present time use data with a series of stacked columns (the same way the Census often illustrates shifts in household types).  Below is a visualization of the differences between women’s and men’s minutes per day allocated to paid work, unpaid work, free time, and time dedicated to self care.  It’s all time diary data and we talk about why this is more reliable and a better measure – but also why it is more difficult to collect, etc.  Some students see the story of this graph immediately.  I do too.  Men’s time allocated to paid labor decreased while women’s increased.  And women perform more unpaid work than do men.  Lots of students, however, are stumped. stacked column

But when I present the data differently, students often have an easier time seeing the story the chart is produced to illustrate.  The Pew Research Center visualizes a lot of their data using stacked bar graphs.  And maybe it’s because these are more easily recognized by people with less experience with data visualization.  I have found that more of my students are able to read the chart below than the one above (at least for temporal time use data comparisons).stacked bar

Another way of presenting these data might be to use clustered columns.  I have also found that students are more quick to recognize the trend in these data with the graph below than they are with the initial stacked column chart.cluster column

But, I’ve found that students have the easiest time with line charts for temporal time use data.  On the chart below, I deleted the grid lines because The New York Times sometimes displays time trend data this way (see Philip Cohen’s piece on NYT Opinionater, “How Can We Jump-Start the Struggle for Gender Equality?” for an example).  Students that struggle to recognize the trend in the clustered column chart, are much faster to see the trend here.line

These aren’t an exhaustive set of examples, and all of them are basic visualizations.  For instance, we might use a stacked area chart to show these data (as trends in the racial composition of the U.S. are often depicted), a scatterplot (as data on GDP and fertility rates are often illustrated), a series of pie charts (as men’s and women’s various compositions in different economic sectors are sometimes visualized), or something else entirely. Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 9.59.28 AMIn fact, The New York Times produced a really incredible interactive stream graph visualizing data from The American Time Use Survey that illustrates differences in time use between groups. I sometimes have students explore this graph in my course on the sociology of gender.  But many struggle interpreting it.  This is, I think, in part due to the fact that we often take data visualization literacy for granted.  It’s a skill, and it’s one we should be better at teaching.

I think the point I want to make is that we (or I, at least) need to think more carefully about how we visualize our data and findings to different audiences.  Liana Sayer has an incredible mastery of this (she presents data in all of the ways mentioned in this post and more throughout her work).  One thing that I’m thinking more about as I write and teach about research and findings amenable to data visualization is which visualizations are best suited to which kinds of data (something all scientists are concerned with), but also which visualizations work with which kinds of audiences.  This is new territory to me.

Visualizing feminist change in a single chart is difficult.  And it’s often accompanied by, “Well, this is true, but let me tell you about what these data don’t show…”  But, I’m interested in how we make choices about visualizing feminist research and whether we need to make different kinds of choices when we talk about the findings with different kinds of audiences.

I am headed to the Eastern Sociological Society conference in Boston, MA this week. My main focus is the Digital Sociology mini-conference that is held in conjunction with the event. The mini conference’s first year was 2015, when I co-organized it with Jessie Daniels and Karen Gregory. My name is still on the organizers’ list this year with Jessie and Leslie Jones. I should say upfront that Leslie and Jessie did all of the legwork this year. My year was spent in various stages of completing three book manuscripts and settling into the first year of my tenure track job at Virginia Commonwealth University. This will be my first year presenting, organizing and contributing to an academic conversation as a “legitimate” sociologist. more...

The barbershop holds a special place in American culture. With its red, white, and blue striped poles, dark naugahyde chairs, and straight razor shaves, the barbershop has been a place where men congregate to shore-up their stubble and get a handle on their hair. From a sociological perspective, the barbershop is an interesting place because of its historically homosocial character, where men spend time with other men. In the absence of women, men create close relationships with each other. Some might come daily to talk with their barbers, discuss the news, or play chess. Men create community in these places, and community is important to people’s health and well-being.

But is the barbershop disappearing? If so, is anything taking its place?

In my study of high-service men’s salons—dedicated to the primping and preening of an all male clientele—hair stylists described the “old school” barbershop as a vanishing place. They explained that men are seeking out a pampered grooming experience that the bare-bones barbershop with its corner dusty tube television doesn’t offer. The licensed barbers I interviewed saw these newer men’s salons as a “resurgence” of “a men-only place” that provides more “care” to clients than the “dirty little barbershop.” And those barbershops that are sticking around, said Roxy, one barber, are “trying to be a little more upscale.” She encourages barbers to “repaint and add flat-screen TVs.”

Tony's Barber Shop. Yelp.com.
Tony’s Barber Shop. Yelp.com.

When I asked clients of one men’s salon, The Executive, if they ever had their hair cut at a barbershop, they explained that they did not fit the demographic. Barbershops, they said, are for old men with little hair to worry about or young boys who don’t have anyone to impress. As professional white-collar men, they see themselves as having outgrown the barbershop. A salon, with its focus on detailed haircuts and various services, including manicures, pedicures, hair coloring, and body waxing, help these mostly white men to obtain what they consider to be a “professional” appearance. “Professional men… they know that if they look successful, that will create connotations to their clients or customers or others that they work with—that they are smart, that they know what they’re doing,” said Gill, a client of the salon and vice-president in software, who reasoned why men go to the salon.

Indeed the numbers support the claim that barbershops are dwindling, and it may indeed be due to white well-to-do men’s shifting attitudes about what a barbershop is, what it can offer, and who goes there. (In my earlier research on a small women’s salon [see here], one male client told me the barbershop is a place for the mechanic, or “grease-monkey,” who doesn’t care how he looks, and for “machismo” men who prefer a pile of Playboy magazines rather than the finery of a salon). According to Census data, there is a fairly steady decline in the number of barbershops over twenty years. From 1992-2012, we saw a 22.5% decrease in barbershops in the United Stated, with a slight uptick in 2013.

U.S. Census Bureau, Statistics of U.S. Businesses, www.census.gov.
U.S. Census Bureau, Statistics of U.S. Businesses, www.census.gov.

But these attitudes about the barbershop as a place of ol’, as a fading institution that provides outdated fades, is both a classed and raced attitude. With all the nostalgia for the barbershop in American culture, there is surprisingly little academic writing about it. It is telling, though, that research considering the importance of the barbershop in men’s lives focuses on black barbershops. The corner barbershop is alive and well in black communities and it serves an important role in the lives of black men. In her book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET, Political Scientist and TV host, Melissa Harris-Perry, wrote about everyday barbershop talk as important for understanding collective efforts to frame black political thought. Scholars also find the black barbershop remains an important site for building communities and economies in black neighborhoods and for socializing young black boys (see here, here, and here).

And so asking if the barbershop is vanishing is the wrong question. Rather, we should be asking: Where and for whom is the barbershop vanishing? And where barbershops continue as staples of a community, what purpose do they serve? Where they are disappearing, what is replacing them and what are the social relations underpinning the emergence of these new places?

In some white hipster neighborhoods, the barbershop is actually making a comeback. In his article, What the Barbershop Renaissance Says about Men, journalist and popular masculinities commentator, Thomas Page McBee, writes that these places provide sensory pleasures whereby men can channel a masculinity that existed unfettered in the “good old days.” The smell of talcum powder and the presence of shaving mugs help men to grapple with what it means to be a man at a time when masculinity is up for debate. But in a barbershop that charges $45 for a haircut, some men are left out. And so, in a place that engages tensions between ideas of nostalgic masculinity and a new sort of progressive man, we may very well see opportunities for real change fall by the wayside. The hipster phenomenon, after all, is a largely white one that appropriates symbols of white working-class masculinity: think white tank tops with tattoos or the plaid shirts of lumbersexuals. (See Tristan Bridges’ posts on hipster masculinity and the borrowing of working-class masculine aesthetics, and his post with D’Lane Compton on the lumbersexual).

When we return to neighborhoods where barbershops are indeed disappearing, and being replaced with high-service men’s salons like those in my forthcoming book, Styling Masculinityit is important to put these shifts into context. They are not signs of a disintegrating by-gone culture of manhood. Rather, they are part of a transformation of white, well-to-do masculinity that reflects an enduring investment in distinguishing men along the lines of race and class according to where they have their hair cut. And these men are still creating intimate relationships; but instead of immersing themselves in communities of men, they are often building confidential relationships with women hair stylists.

 

*Thank you to Trisha Crashaw, graduate student at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, for her work on the included graph.

http://cdn.running.competitor.com/files/2012/12/treadmill.jpgA few years ago, I was on the treadmill at the gym, trying to undo a day of sitting and staring at my computer, when a casual “gym friend” joined me on an adjacent treadmill. She noticed that I hadn’t been there much lately, and wanted to know why. I didn’t know her well and could have manufactured some quick story, but she had always been so warm and friendly, so I decided to tell her the truth: my 97-year-old father had passed away. Her response was immediate and kind, as she empathized with how hard it is to lose a parent. Then she looked up to the ceiling of the gym, and as I followed her gaze wondering what had stolen her attention, she said in a reassuring voice that “he is in heaven now,” and then looked back at me with a smile. Not knowing how to respond, I smiled back wanly and increased the incline on the treadmill. I wish I could believe my dad was in heaven and, as my partner says, I hope to be happily surprised…

She then asked about the funeral, and I explained that we had it right away because I’m Jewish and that’s what we do. Apparently distracted by the realization that I was a Jew, she paused, and then told me that she had many arguments with her Catholic friends who believe “the Jews killed Christ.” (Wait a minute – where did that lovely empathy go?!) Just as I was thinking about an exit strategy, she came back to earth and said, “It’s crazy that people of all faiths don’t get along.” And as I was mentally excusing her for that detour, she added, “except for the Muslims.” With those words, I was hooked again. I looked back at her and must have appeared surprised because she smiled uncomfortably…and then told me she worried that Muslims – presumably all Muslims – were terrorists. Wasn’t it time for me to leave the cardio area and work on my abs or something? But no, I couldn’t leave now because I saw this as a “teachable moment.”

Her comments really irked me. Here was a kind-hearted, well-meaning person who lacked real knowledge about Muslims, and seemed to be swallowing whole the Fox News/right wing extremist narrative. It upset me that people like her – presumably good people – can be so vulnerable to wrong thinking. Moreover, the current array of bigoted GOP candidates – fueled by and reinforced by right-wing media outlets – are able to reinforce people’s fears into a frightening political direction.

http://www.usnews.com/dims4/USNEWS/976e756/2147483647/thumbnail/652x454%3E/quality/85/?url=%2Fcmsmedia%2F84%2F1d%2F46a5f6984d0ab8c82e04377eb88a%2Fresizes%2F1500%2F150909-immigrants-editorial.jpgIn his analysis of why Donald Trump is gaining traction in this presidential race, scholar and activist Noam Chomsky says that Trump is “evidently appealing to deep feelings of anger, fear, frustration, hopelessness, probably among sectors like those that are seeing an increase in mortality, something unheard of apart from war and catastrophe.”  Trump supporters, he argues, “are sinking into hopelessness, despair and anger”.  Instead of directing these feelings against the structures and institutions that are “the agents of the dissolution of their lives and worlds”, Trump incites people to blame “those who are even more harshly victimized,” including Muslims.  Add to this the fact that Trump is an entertainer! He cushions his message of hatred of “the other” with the bombast of a reality TV delivery. Chomsky warns us that these “signs are familiar,” as they “evoke some memories of the rise of European fascism.”

http://christewtechproject.weebly.com/uploads/1/4/4/8/14485152/1351702220.jpgI hearken back to the consistent message I heard throughout my life from my political activist father – that we must stand up for our beliefs. In the 1940s and 1950s, he was a very effective union organizer, fighting for better wages and working conditions for working men and women. But in 1954, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to answer the now-infamous question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party (CP) of the United States?” After much emotional wrangling, he decided to challenge the committee’s legality. As a result, he was “blacklisted” from employment in the U.S. and could only find work selling life insurance for 15 years through a Canadian firm. Again in 1965, he was subpoenaed to testify before the Committee. By that time, he had become a prolific playwright, writing about his experiences within the labor movement in an attempt to give voice to working people. His life choices affected his family. We lost friends and were rejected by family members. And yet I have internalized – without a doubt – the importance of challenging injustices.

So what did I say to my treadmill partner when she brought up her fear of radicalized Muslims? I told her that the media would like us to believe that all Muslims are terrorists, but most Muslims are peaceful people. Didn’t the “Koran incite Muslims to commit terrorist acts?” she asked. I replied that I knew that was completely false, drawing upon knowledge I have gained over the years.

Did I say enough to challenge her thinking? I’m not sure. There is that moment when we may ask ourselves, “Am I going to challenge this person? How do I do it respectfully? Am I risking their wrath? Will I feel uncomfortable? While it might be a conversation with just one person, I have no doubt that these interactions can make a difference in changing people’s minds. Maybe they will be more thoughtful or less reactive. But I believe that if we remain silent, we are – in a way – complicit.

There are many ways to fight misinformation and to work for a better, more equitable world. We can organize, write, teach, and, sometimes, just talk with a friend, colleague, or acquaintance. And we shouldn’t be afraid to do so.

In my introduction to Sociology class, I use trends in baby names to introduce students to sociological research and inquiry. It’s a fun way to show students just how much we can learn from what might feel like idiosyncratic details of our lives. I start by showing students the top 10 boy and girl names from the most recent year of data available (along with their relative frequencies). After this, I show them the most popular names and their relative frequencies from 100 years earlier. There are some names on both lists; but for the most part, the names on the latter list sound “old” to students. Screen Shot 2016-02-19 at 12.37.09 PM

When I ask students to characterize the types of names they see on the older list of names, someone usually says the names sound more “traditional.” I tell them that in 100 years, someone will probably say that about the most recent list of names they’re looking at: these future students will have a different idea of what makes a name “traditional.”

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If you’re interested, someone produced these two GIF files that depict the most popular names by state between 1960 and 2012. I like to show one of these while I’m talking with students about what what names can help us learn. I ask students to raise their hand when they see their own name or the name of their best friend. As we get into the 80’s and 90’s, lots of hands start going up. But the GIFs are also interesting because they are a powerful visualization of the spread of cultural norms. Popular names move through a population in a way that appears to be similar to infectious diseases.

This is a fun way to show students that deciding what to name a child might feel like a personal decision, it’s actually a decision that is shaped by social forces. Names and name trends are great examples of what sociology can reveal because, as Stanley Lieberson points out so simply, while taste in most elements of culture is not a requirement, everyone has tastes in names. And, as it turns out, we can learn a lot about a society just by looking at patterns in which names we select for our children (and equally important are the types of names different groups tend to avoid).

SIDENOTE: I like to highlight a great finding by Stanley Lieberson, Susan Dumais, and Shyon Baumann from their article on trends in androgynous names (here). Androgynous names are names that are given to both boys and girls–think Taylor, Cameron, or Casey for current examples. Lieberson, Dumais, and Baumann found that androgynous names follow an incredibly common pattern once they achieve a critical level of popularity: they become girl names and become dramatically less common names for boys–a powerful example of the stigma associated with femininity for boys.

When I first started using the exercise, I was fascinated with the relative frequencies much more than the names on each list. But it’s an amazing shift. More than 1 in 20 girls born in 1914 was named Mary (the most popular name that year – and many other years too if you’re interested). By 2014, just over 1 in 100 girls born were given the most popular name that year, “Emma.” This is part of a larger trend in naming practices–popular names just aren’t as popular as they used to be. Stanley Lieberson refers to this as the “modernization theory” of name trends. The theory suggests that as institutional pressures associated with names decline (e.g., extended family rituals, religious rules), we see the proliferation of more diverse names. But there’s a twist. The phenomenon is also gendered: popular boy names have always been more popular (in aggregate) that popular girl names. Below, I’ve charted the proportion of boys and girls born in the U.S. with top 10 names from 1880-2014. Boys given top ten names in 1880, for instance, accounted for more than 40% of all boys born. And the most popular boy names have always accounted for a larger share of all boys born than the most popular girl names for girls born. It’s not a new fact and I’m not the first to notice it. (Though, as you can see below, the lines have just recently met, and they could conceivably cross paths any year now. And that will be something that has never happened.)

Baby Name Frequencies

In 1965, Alice Rossi suggested that part of what accounts for the discrepancy is related to gender inequality. As she put it, “Men are the symbolic carriers of the temporal continuity of the family” (here). Lieberson and Eleanor Bell later discovered that girls are more likely to have unique names as well (here). It’s an interesting example of something that many people teach in courses on men and masculinities. While men are, as a group, systematically advantaged, they may be held accountable to a more narrow range of gender performances than are women. And while men’s rights groups might frame this as an illustration of women being the group to benefit from gender inequality, it’s much better understood as what Michael Messner refers to as a “cost of privilege.”

Yet, this appears to be one costs of privilege that has decreased. In 1880, the top 10 boy names accounted for 41.26% of all boys born that year; the top 10 girl names accounted for 22.98%. There was more than an 18% gap. While boys’ popular names are still more popular than girls’ popular names, the gap shrunk to 0.27% by 2014. That’s a monumental shift. And I’m sure the modernization theory of name trends accounts for the lion’s share of the more general shift toward more secular names and a general decrease in name continuity between fathers and sons. But there is more than one way to read this shift. We might also say that this is a really simple illustration of one way that patriarchal family traditions have been chipped away over the past 100 years. Lots of data would support this conclusion.  We might account for it alongside, for instance, data showing the prevalence of women taking men’s surnames after marriage as a percentage of all marriages in a given year or opinions about surname change.  But it’s also an illustration of the ways that this process has meant changes for boys and men as well.

Masculinity has, quite literally, opened up. It’s something that has happened more for some racial and class groups than others. And whether this transformation–this “opening up”–is a sign of gender inequality being successfully challenged or reproduced in new and less easily recognizable ways is the subject of my favorite corner of the field.

Did the title of this post make you uneasy? My guess is that you seldom received that advice from mentors, family members, or friends; and if you teach, you would most likely never give that advice to your own students. From a very young age I learned to be giving of my time and money. Sharing and helping others were desirable qualities—selfishness was not. As I re-read this last sentence, I can’t help but still agree with that statement. I try to instill these same values in my own ten-year-old daughter. However, I constantly find myself encouraging students to be selfish! As a Latina professor at a large research university, I constantly battle with this moral paradox when it comes to advising my Latina/o students.

I have the honor of mentoring students of color, predominately Latino students. These students seek me out because I am often the only Latina professor in the department and some of them are able to identify with me because I teach courses on Latinos and immigration. I am bilingual, the first in my family to graduate from college, and I come from a working class family. I also enjoy getting to know my students. I ask them about their families and they feel comfortable talking with me about their personal and educational backgrounds, as well as their academic aspirations.Advise2

I have discovered that when I ask my undergraduate Latino students about their future academic aspirations, they usually reply in the same way: “I don’t know,” they say, “I just want to be able to help people.” Then they list professions such as social work, teaching, law, and even sociology. As I hear their responses, I think of my own college years, when I felt the same way. This type of response used to give me a warm sensation and hope in humanity. After all, it is great when students want to pursue a career that helps others. Today, I don’t feel as optimistic by this altruistic response. It now worries me that Latino students are being limited to “helping” professions that are not always as financially rewarding and socially transformative as they imagine.

Superhero

Underprivileged students who face social inequalities in their communities and schools often turn to careers that allow them to support both their families and other racial and ethnic minorities. According to sociologist Jody Agius Vallejo, middle class Latinos from working class backgrounds are more likely to “give back” to kin and co-ethnics (see her book, Barrios to Burbs). In her work on racialized tokens, for example, sociologist Glenda Flores found that Latina primary school teachers are tracked into teaching and, once there, develop a missionary zeal and actively advocated for their Latino students. Similarly, Maya A. Baesley and Mary J. Fischer’s research shows that talented black college students “opt out” of high-paying and high-status careers for fear of discrimination in particular fields such as science, engineering, information technology, and finance (see here). After graduation, some of these students then choose jobs that, although low-paying, enable them to help the black community. In these studies, discrimination experienced by communities of color shapes the educational trajectory of young men and women.

In my own research with Mexican child street vendors in Los Angeles (see here and here), I found that these youth had two main career aspirations that would empower them to help their communities and their own street vending parents—law and law enforcement. Their decisions to choose these careers were rooted in their everyday street vending struggles. For example, one parent told me: “I have always said to my son, like I have seen many injustices with the police here in my community, and in reality we do need legal representation. … At first he told me that he wanted to be a lawyer and then he said ‘No, I don’t just want to be a lawyer, I want to be a judge.’” Similarly, thirteen-year-old Arturo said his parents wanted him to be “something in life. Like a Lawyer or a hero.” When I asked him to clarify, he said “Like a lawyer, a police officer because they save people… Someone that is considered a hero.” Many of my respondents wanted to become heroes to the struggling people in their lives.

The students that come to my office express a similar sentiment. They have experienced and witnessed many injustices in their communities and wish to major in fields that will allow them to enact change. I too come from a generation of Latino students who saw education as a way out of poverty and a promise to create positive social change. But this is a heavy burden to carry. I opt to encourage students to pursue careers they love and to focus on themselves—to be selfish! Students are usually surprised that I give this advice. Their reactions, however, are not as cutting as those I get from other Latino professionals, some who are close friends. Among other things, I have been told that I am too “Americanized.” Some express surprise and then gesture in disagreement while trying to change the conversation.

I hope to see a day when my own daughter and Latino students who come to my office me me medon’t feel constrained by their mission to help, but rather are moved to choose jobs based on their individual intellectual curiosities. I am confident that if giving back is in their heart, then they will find a way to help people by becoming social workers, teachers, attorneys, doctors, engineers, chemists, or graphic designers. So, my dear students, be selfish. And while you are at it, do your best in whatever field you choose. I’m sure you will positively impact a life or two or more along the way.

Emir Estrada is Assistant Professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University.

This is my sixth post for Feminist Reflections, and I am starting to settle into my new role as a (more) public sociologist. Since I started blogging, my work has been reposted on other academic blogs, popped-up on Tumblr, and made it to Sociological Images’ top posts of 2015. It is exciting to see my ideas weave their way through the online world. It makes me feel less armchair-y, and it allows me to write in ways that break the academic mold.

But I wasn’t prepared for the backlash of putting sociological analyses of different phenomenon out into the public world. In the classroom, I occupy a status of authority, and I suppose that I figured as an expert in sociology and gender studies, people who read my posts would consider what I had to say. This is, after all, the courtesy I am afforded in the classroom. What I have found, though, is that blogging means making myself vulnerable in new ways; it means deciding to engage or avoid people who vehemently (to put it mildly) reject my online work; and it means thinking more about what exactly can be accomplished by blogging.

By definition, sociologists study and engage public issues. They are trained to analyze the mechanisms by which social ideologies, interactions, and structures shape everything from fashion choices to the global political economy; and so this work is often political in nature and strikes many as judgmental of their own behavior. To some, sociologists seem to make Halloween costumes and the comeback of plaid and beards for men unnecessarily political. From a sociological perspective, though, this work reveals the already existing but often taken-for-granted inequalities of everyday life.

It’s interesting to see what work gets the most public backlash. Of my own blogs, Man Buns as Cultural Appropriation was widely “liked” and much despised. Perhaps I could have been clearer that I was not saying white men who gather their hair behind their ears should feel racial guilt; but I stand by my argument that the bun does not transform all men into hipsters. Some men are negatively targeted because of the racial, ethnic, or religious associations of their buns. And when style sites encourage men attempting the bun to “Think more Indian Sikh than Kardashian at the gym” or to mimic the Samurai top knot, they help us understand that the man bun is about more than just style.

Other scholars who ask us to consider white, male, and/or heterosexual privilege also see a lot of backlash; and some have received hate mail calling them whores and death threats on social media. And some academics are getting into trouble with their universities for making public not only their personal opinions, but their interpretations of phenomenon in ways that are actually congruent with their training; be it political science, sociology, queer studies, or any number of fields.

Book-The Public Professor

M. V. Lee Badgett’s new book, The Public Professor: How to Use Your Research to Change the World, unpacks strategies for going public with academic research and encourages scholars to consider the practical effects of these different strategies. Citing academic bloggers John Sides and Lisa Wade, for example, she lays out valuable outcomes of blogging, including: providing content for courses, becoming a public expert and generalist in a field, and helping to encourage “appreciative thinking” outside the classroom. They also note that blogging can be fun! The title of the book is thus a bit of a misnomer, as Badgett encourages scholars to go public but keep their expectations in check. You might not change the world with one post or even one hundred posts. Nonetheless, you just might find yourself feeling empowered to engage new audiences outside of your classroom, discovering new communities of colleagues, and learning how to respond to challenges to your work you never received from academic colleagues. I’m still navigating what “going public” means for me, but I’m interested to see where this digital road leads.

theatre1I am not an actor or a playwright, although, full disclosure, I have been surrounded by artists throughout my life. My father was a playwright and an actor; my mother was a painter; and my partner is also a playwright. My sister and I were both plunked into dance classes and piano lessons at an early age. Dance was what “stuck” for me, a necessary outlet in a household too full of struggle.  By the time I was 13, I was in a college performing troupe, and in my 20s, I was performing regularly, teaching dance classes and working as a dance therapist. I was taught by my father to find a “real job” where I could make a living, that the arts were something to do “on the side”. And anyway, he told me, artists needed “material” to inspire our creativity. I could write this entire blog just on that topic and how artists in this country are NOT supported, but that’s not where I’m headed. Instead, I write about the value in bringing the arts – specifically theatre – into the sociology classroom.

Getting started in connecting teaching with the arts

When I began working as an applied sociologist about twenty years ago, my focus was on work and family research. As I explored new areas of research, I yearned to figure out a way to incorporate the arts into my work once again. One day, while riding a subway car, I happened to overhear a conversation between a seasoned professional and a younger woman. The professional was an incredible guide, listening well to the younger woman talk about some work they were doing together, and then re-framing it in a helpful and respectful way. vsaI leaned over to her and commented that she was a great mentor. This brief encounter turned into a four-year working relationship, starting with acting as a coach and support to my new friend who worked for the national organization, VSA arts, an international organization* that focuses on arts and disability. My initial role as coach broadened into helping the organization with strategic planning and eventually studying the impact of a VSA arts’ artist-in-residence program which was taking place in “inclusive” classrooms, classrooms including children of all abilities. Later, I became a trainer for VSA arts, travelling to a number of their state affiliate organizations around the country and teaching evaluation research, as well as how to build strategic partnerships. The training we did always incorporated arts activities, and I could see that teaching “in and through” the arts was a powerful medium.

atingWhen I started teaching sociology courses, I wanted to build on what I had learned doing training for VSA arts. I started experimenting with using theatre as a tool to teach gender theory in a feminist theory class. While there are, no doubt, many activities one can do with theatre, including taking students on field trips to a local playhouse or supporting their research on plays that deal with gender issues, I have chosen a more hands-on method. When I have used theatre in the classroom, students take on acting out several scenes of a play and use their understanding of the characters as a means to apply gender theory.

In this post, I describe a few of the plays and methods I have used.  While my teaching goal is to help students develop a deeper understanding of gender theories, I have also used this technique in a Sociology of Aging class, which was very effective, and I believe that many areas of analyses can be explored through the use of theatre.

Teaching gender theory through the arts

glassI first considered the idea of using theatre as a means to teach gender theory when I was teaching Sociology of Sex and Gender.  Having taught feminist theory in a fairly traditional way, I wanted to experiment with finding a way to make gender theory come alive. I called my dad and asked him what plays he thought would work, and he immediately suggested “The Glass Menagerie,” by Tennessee Williams.  As you may know, this play focuses on the frail character of Laura who collects glass objects (her “menagerie”). Her mother, driven by fears that her Laura will become a spinster, pressures her son to bring home a coworker as a possible suitor. With an exaggerated Southern etiquette, the mother welcomes this “gentleman caller,” hoping that he will woo Laura and save her from a life of loneliness. The visitor is very kind and somewhat pitying, but finds Laura’s quirky obsession with glass objects intriguing. There is plenty of gender food for thought in this play, and it is truly a classic.

The second play that I have used is “Gut Girls,” a contemporary play written by British author, Sarah Daniels. I used this play for a course called “Gender, Work and Public Policy.” In this case, I wanted a play that centered on the experience of work, and which also had a lot to say about gender and class. The gut girls in Daniels’ play are slaughterhouse workers in late 19th century England. They are feisty, funny and irreverent working-class women who, in their own ways, understand their oppression and exploitation. We meet these women in their messy workplace, and find out how “gutsy” they are, as they exchange banter while doing their jobs. The “plot thickens” when an upper-class woman visits the gut girls at their workplace, deigning to enter their world of blood and entrails. She is appalled at their working conditions, and also takes pity on them, and decides to sets up a social club to teach them manners.

gutUltimately, we discover that the upper-class woman’s motives are twisted, as she gets them to work as domestics, considered more “refined” work, or more appropriate for women. Among the gut girls is a woman trying to unionize the group, another who lives in a home for wayward girls, and so on. Students take on the various roles of these gut girls with great gusto! They love to struggle with the working class British accents, and swear and cajole one another about offal (or guts). It is, at the very least, a heck of an icebreaker for any class.

Some suggestions for how to use theatre in the classroom

Here are some more specifics regarding how I approached getting started and implementing this methodology of using theatre with students.

1. Finding a play

First of all, I select a play that deals with gender issues. (One could argue that all plays could be construed as dealing with gender issues.) Short of having a family member who can act as a resource, there are many ways to research options. For example, a store called Baker’s Plays has a website (www.bakersplays.com), which allows you to search for plays by type or title, and then you can purchase the plays from them at a very reasonable price. Or you could contact a local theatre or even a theatre department in your university/college, for advice. Also, the Drama Book Shop in New York has a website (www.dramabookshop.com), with up-to-date information about plays and more. To find “Gut Girls,” I emailed chairs of theatre departments around the country, explaining the kind of play I needed and why, and was pleasantly surprised that they took my request seriously. Interestingly, a number of them suggested this play. I had no problem finding the play on the web, but finding a physical copy was not easy. This is how I discovered Baker’s Plays, and they had the play. (Some plays, including “Gut Girls,” cannot be found in your average bookstore. More popular plays are easier to track down at a chain or independent bookstore.)

2. Finding a scene from the play

So far, I have not used the entire play; rather, I select several scenes that capture the essence of the play and also include the number of characters needed to include students in the “production.” I try to keep the reading to about 30-45 minutes, so doing a rehearsal reading on your own may be useful.

3. Introducing the idea to your class

On the first day of class, part of my introduction to the course involves handing out the script and asking students to volunteer to “play” whatever character they choose. This achieves two purposes:  I find it facilitates student bonding early on in the semester, and it also solicits commitment to the course.

4.  Students prepare for their mini-production

When I use this method in a small class, everyone can have a part in the play. When the class is larger, I get volunteers, who will then “perform” it for their peers. In my experience, being in the play is very exciting (and perhaps preferable), but observing a play reading is still a great experience for students.  In one larger class where I used this method, it turned out that the volunteers were extremely talented drama students and the rest of the class was treated to a professional performance! After students have been introduced to the play and have selected their character (that is, if they have a character), I encourage them to go through their script and highlight their lines before the next class when they do the play reading. The class is also assigned readings on gender theory, which they must also complete by the next class.

5. The production

I find that students take the production very seriously. They come prepared, even if they stumble over some of their lines. When it really clicks, they work at relating to each other as characters, rather than just reading their lines. At the same time, because this isn’t a professional production, I find that students will laugh at a funny part or groan or comment at something particularly sad or difficult. At the end, we applaud! Often students want to continue reading beyond the selected scene, which I figure is a good sign, but I do stop them so we can get on to the analysis.  It’s mainly a time issue.

6. Small group discussion

First, I ask students how they felt to be the characters they played. I also ask them their general observations about the other characters. Then, students break into small groups for 15-20 minutes, and work on applying a theoretical perspective (e.g., biological determinism, gender as social construction) to the characters and their actions. I ask them to focus on one theory, because the task of thinking about the play in the context of doing a theoretical analysis can be fairly complex. While presumably they have done assigned readings on gender theories, I hand out a one-page description of several theories, which they use as a guide.

7. Large group discussion

When small groups have finished talking, they come back to the larger group and a representative from the group presents their group’s analysis. We then open it up for discussion, comparing and contrasting the gender theories, in the context of the play.

Using theatre in this way is fun and productive. I believe that it enhances students’ understanding of the theories they are discussing. In many of the classes I teach, students ultimately learn to apply their analyses of gender issues to their own lives, taking the understanding of the personal to a broader level that often involves an understanding of the intersection of sociology, psychology, economics and political science. Using theatre early on in the semester is one way to provide an opportunity to take students into the realm of human experience – through their characters – as a bridge to better understanding their own lives.

If using theatre in the classroom moves you, but you have some questions about how to make it happen, feel free to ask them in the comments section, and I promise that I’ll respond!

National Theatre, Washington, DC
National Theatre, Washington, DC

*VSA arts is now merged within the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts