“The fag” and “the slut” are both symbols of contemporary gender relations. Stories about each provide social mechanisms for bonding, betraying, and belonging. Research suggests that “fag” and “slut” are among the more ubiquitous insults traded among young people. Each is simultaneously all about sexuality and has absolutely nothing to do with sexuality. For instance, most of CJ Pascoe’s research participants in her study of the use of “fag” among boys at River High said that they would never aim the insult at someone who is “actually gay.” Pascoe suggests that this indicates a need for a more nuanced way of understanding sexuality—not as some thing inhering in specific bodies or identities, but as something capable of operating to discursively construct social boundaries in social life as well. “Slut” is used in similar ways—as a mechanism of gender policing. Most of the research focusing on either is primarily about gender policing and gender and sexual inequality. But, research shows that sexual discourses play a key role in racial and class inequality as well.

51TJlLPKAJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Pascoe discovered that “homophobia” didn’t fully explain exactly what she observed at River High. It was a gendered and racialized form of homophobia that Pascoe refers to as “fag discourse.” Fag discourse is all about drawing boundaries around acceptable masculinity. Boys hurled the insult at each other in jest, sometimes at random, and as a part of a social game—one in which they were incredibly invested. But it was a “game” primarily played among white boys at River High. There’s a whole section of her book dedicated to “Racializing the Fag” that explores the intricacies of this interesting nuance associated with fag discourse. At River High, Black boys and white boys rely on distinct symbolic resources when “doing gender.” For instance, paying “excessive” attention to one’s clothing or identifying with an ability to dance well put white boys at risk of being labeled a “fag,” but worked to enhance Black boys’ masculine status. Pascoe also discovered that Black boys were unable to rely on fag discourse in quite the same way that white boys did. Indeed, though they were much less likely to use the term, Black boys at River High were much more likely to be punished by school authorities when they did. Black boys were also the only students reported to school authorities for saying “fag” by their peers. White boys, in other words, relied on racial hierarchies to control the meaning of the discourse such that saying “fag” was interpreted as “playful” and “meaningless” when they used the term and “dangerous” and “harassing” when Black boys did.

armstrong book cover, paying for the partyIn a separate study of sexuality in college life, Elizabeth A. Armstrong, Laura T. Hamilton, Elizabeth M. Armstrong, and J. Lotus Seely investigated the meaning of the term “slut” among college women. This paper is a part of Armstrong and Hamilton’s larger research project and book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. Armstrong et al. discovered that “slut” had a fluid meaning for college women. Not all of them understood the same sorts of behavior as putting someone at risk of receiving the insult. At the institution at which the study was conducted, they found that social status among women fell largely along class lines. “High-status” women were almost entirely upper and upper-middle class. This was at least partially due to the fact that performing the femininity necessary for classification required class resources (joining a sorority, having the “right” kind of body, hair, clothes, etc.).

Armstrong, et al. found that high-status women used “slut” to refer to a specific configuration of femininity, one they defined as “trashy.” While high-status women rarely actually deployed classist language, their comments relied on understandings of performance of gender stereotypically associated with less-affluent women—what Mimi Schippers would refer to as “pariah femininities”—and allowed them to situate their own sexual behavior and identities as beyond reproach. Similar to Julie Bettie’s study of white and Mexican-American girls, Armstrong et al. found that performing “classy” or “preppy” femininity (a performance that is simultaneously gendered, raced, sexualized, and classed) worked to shield high-status women from “slut” stigma.  The low-status women in Armstrong et al.’s study understood “slut discourse” to be more about sexuality than gender. Situating themselves as outside of the alleged “hookup culture,” low-status women used “slut” to stigmatize the sexual behavior of high-status women (sex outside of relationships). In an analogous way to Pascoe’s findings regarding race and fag discourse, these classed differences involving women drawing moral boundaries around femininity were enforced unevenly. While both groups reconstituted “slut” to work to their advantage, casual sexual activity posed little reputational risk for high-status women, so long as they continued to perform a “classy” configuration of femininity in the process.  Similar to Pascoe’s research, high-status women here relied on symbolic class boundaries to control the meaning of the discourse such that participation in casual sexual interactions took on a different meaning when coupled with “classy” performances of gender.   Here, class worked to insulate high-status women just as race worked to insulate white boys in Pascoe’s research.

Both studies illustrate important intersections between sexuality, race and class. Sexual discourses are invoked in a variety of ways throughout social life. They play an integral role in policing gender boundaries. But it is also important to continue to consider the role that sexual discourses play in bolstering boundaries around race and class.

Book CoverKris De Welde and Andi Stepnick’s new co-edited book, Disrupting the Culture of Silence: Confronting Gender Inequality and Making Change in Higher Education, is an engaging, evidence-based toolkit for building gender equity in higher education. I just got my copy of the book two weeks ago, and I haven’t been able to put it down.

The first four parts of the book emphasize challenges facing U.S. women faculty (structural, cultural, interpersonal). Each part opens with an introduction that intersperses narratives from the data the editors collected for the book, and ends with a case study to give readers a sense of the difficulties and costs women academics face as a result of inequitable workplaces. It then offers action steps as starting points for other academics in similar situations (and those who support them) to use.

The chapters in Part 5, “Tools for Changing the Academy,” illustrate how broad, complementary approaches must work with smaller, progressive steps that both evaluate and correct equity issues on campus. This part concludes with real examples of recent, successful change initiatives from universities across the U.S.

With its “tool-kit” approach, Disrupting the Culture of Silence has a comprehensive list of resources compiled for faculty, administrators, and practitioner-researchers seeking to create a more inclusive academy. These resources are not only meant for women. De Welde and Stepnick write:

Though we focus on women faculty, these issues are not “women’s issues”; they are relevant to the academy, its members and constituents, and beyond. West and Curtis (2006) argue:

“The barriers for women in higher education not only raise questions of basic fairness, but place serious limitations on the success of educational institutions themselves.”

The academy reflects societal biases and hostilities. Yet, it could direct social change too. Our biographies, experiences, and training in feminist scholarship compel us to disrupt complacency among those who might claim that things are “better” or “good enough.”

The Back Story

What I also love about this book is the story behind it. Seven years in the making, Disrupting the Culture of Silence was borne from Kris De Welde and Andi Stepnick’s earlier work and a series of thematic workshops and sessions held at national conferences. After hearing about so many instances of hostile, vindictive, intimidating, and demoralizing situations among women faculty, these women decided to commit their scholarship and activism to working out concrete and meaningful strategies for helping them/us to persist, thrive, leave, or transform the very institutional environments that give rise to injustice. It makes me shudder.

The first step was a fact finding mission. They created Disrupting the Silence sessions to be held at key academic conferences that focused on the experiences and challenges of faculty women. Prior to each meeting, they issued a “call for experiences” that exemplified ‘difficult’ workplaces. They removed identifying information and  edited several of narratives into digestible stories to share at the sessions. After participants read them, they gathered into small groups to brainstorm about how to manage the situations and/or take actions that would have impact at multiple levels — individual, interpersonal, institutional, and even beyond the institution.

Faculty members who served as panelists and facilitators invited the participants to share their own experiences and the strategies they used to overcome challenges. From unequal policies, to coping with a hostile department or problematic pathways to tenure, to many other topics, those in attendance discovered that many of their challenges were common across campuses. They were not alone. After the groups reported back, their responses were documented. De Welde and Stepnick wrote up the results and shared them in other outlets read by women faculty.

The idea caught on, and women faculty flocked to these sessions every time they were held.

Next, the “Disrupting the Silence” sessions morphed into other workshops focused not only on coping with effects of gender inequality (crucial in its own right) but on Building Gender Progressive and Multicultural Departments. What could gender progressive, multicultural workplaces, departments, organizations, and institutions look like? What would be involved in creating them? What kinds of strategies are people already using to make progress?

Since all of these sessions were held over the years at multiple conferences, starting with Sociologists for Women in Society and then branching out to the American Sociological Association and the National Women’s Studies Association, there was a broad cross section of women faculty across the country who shared their stories and provided input. The book that grew out of these informative, supportive, and constructive sessions and workshops necessarily combines these real-life experiences and case studies with contemporary research, concrete strategies, resources, and tools.

Disrupting the Culture of Silence is an essential read. More than that, it is a resource that faculty members and administrators will want to re-read, and reference, and use “to make change on their own campuses and in their professional and personal lives.” Be sure to get a copy or two for your libraries and teaching centers.


Disrupting the Culture of Silence: Confronting Gender Inequality and Making Change in Higher Education is available from Stylus Publishing. Discount Code: DTCS15 saves you 20 percent.

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.

FR Huddle: Amy, Gayle, Trina, Tristan, & Mindy

Most of us here at Feminist Reflections (FR) just got back from attending the 2015 Winter Meetings for Sociologists for Women in Society in blustery Washington, D.C. Trina Smith organized a panel presentation on the founding of Feminist Reflections as “a space for feminist public sociology.”

We ended up with a time slot during the 3:30 – 4:30pm coffee break instead of our planned 2pm slot and, also without our knowledge, our panel was shortened from 90 to 60 minutes. Luckily, our small conference room was packed. We sped up our presentations to leave time for what was really an invigorating conversation. Thanks to all of you who gave up your coffee break to join us and participated in the Q&A.

We wanted to take this chance to reproduce some of our SWS panel for you here on FR. We started with some history and then moved on to why we blog, and why specifically we blog here.

Feminist Reflections was borne out of a discussion at the 2014 SWS Winter Meeting one year ago in Nashville. Gayle Sulik and Meika Loe invited Tristan Bridges to participate in a roundtable discussion on blogging and the lack of a digital feminist platform for public sociology. Amy Blackstone and Trina Smith were two of the attendees to this small group discussion, and over the hour that our conversation took shape, we came up with the idea of collaborating and potentially working with The Society Pages (TSP).

Slide02 Pre-FRIt took 5 months to get our ideas together, set up a plan, come up with a blog name that reflected our mission, and work with the incredible team at TSP to transform our idea into a reality. All of a sudden Feminist Reflections was real.

FR has been live for just over 6 months. We’ve had more than 75 posts, 5 amazing guest contributors, and we’re thrilled that one of our guest contributors, Mindy Fried, will be the newest member of our editorial board!

After this brief history, we [Gayle, Amy, Trina, Tristan, and Mindy] each presented on various reasons for blogging.

Gayle talked about blogging as a labor of love (emphasis on both the love and labor). But through blogging, Gayle has found extraordinary opportunities for collaboration, a professional platform, and access to audiences who, though they may benefit from feminist sociology, are not inclined to read the articles or books we most often use to share our insights and findings.

Public AmyAmy shared how blogging led to greater public visibility, allowing her to help shape a national conversation about making the choice to be childfree. She also discussed the support, community, and fun that comes from joining a collaborative feminist sociological blog.

Trina shared her experience of moving to the rural South and thinking about sociology as a coping mechanism to help process some of the struggles associated with that. She also asked us to consider important questions about power and knowledge—“Who can speak about sociology?” and “What can they speak about?” Amy Stone summed up Trina’s important answer:Trina QuoteTristan talked about using blogging as a way of injecting more nuance into conversations going on in the media related to his research. He also discussed the importance of blogging as establishing a new feminist network of support and engagement after leaving graduate school.

Mindy concluded our panel with an important discussion of the blurred lines between personal and professional that blogging sometimes allows. Like Gayle, she also addressed the power of collaboration through blogging in addition to some of the ways she uses blogging in teaching, applied work, and to make sense of feminist sociological triumphs and struggles.

Some of our engaged listeners.

After our panel, we had a chance to meet up the next day in person again to talk about future directions for the blog. As Gayle put it in her opening presentation at the panel,

“Feminist Reflections is a room of our own. Even better, there’s room in this room.”

We are committed to sharing this space with others interested in using feminist sociological lenses to reflect on issues important to them. And we’re open to these taking on a variety of forms: discussions of teaching practices, personal experiences, emerging research problems and findings, and more. We are excited to share the feminist reflections of others and are in the process of developing formal guidelines for guest contributors. Please consider Feminist Reflections as a potential outlet and platform for sharing your voice.

Amy Blackstone & Mindy Fried
Amy Blackstone & Mindy Fried
Trina Smith, Tristan Bridges, & Gayle Sulik


FR LogoContributing editors and guest contributors of Feminist Reflections will be attending the 2015 Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) Winter Meeting in Washington, D.C. (Feb. 19-22) to discuss our work.

Our Panel: “Feminist Reflections: A Space for Feminist Public Sociology”


How do we carve a space for feminist public sociology? Can feminist public sociology include not only highlights of important research in the media, but an understanding of the feminist sociological perspective, particularly applied to everyday life? How did a diverse group of gender scholars with varying research interests, places and positions within sociology, collaborate to create such a space? Feminist Reflections (FR) hosted by The Society Pages, is an example of this niche in feminist public sociology. The founders and contributing editors of FR include SWS members: Gayle Sulik, Tristan Bridges, Amy Blackstone, Meika Loe, and Trina Smith.

The panel will focus on the collective process of creating FR, the impact of this work, and our reflections on the first year. Panelists will address how FR is a form of feminist public sociology, the impact of this feminist space, and how blogging for FR has not only affects our research and teaching, but us personally. Panelists include the contributing editors and two feminist bloggers, Mindy Fried and C.J. Pascoe, who have contributed guest posts to FR and/or collaborated with the contributing editors. In addition, the panel serves as a way to build enthusiasm and support for this form of feminist public sociology by building a network of guest bloggers for FR.


old crazy

Why are mental health and disabilities fields that sociologists seem to neglect?

Historically, medical sociologists studied mental health and institutions. But there are few sources in the recent sociological literature on women and mental health. Feminist psychologists have done most of the research on these topics. With our intersectional frameworks, concern for social justice, and examination of structural oppression and intertwined institutions and identities, it is crucial for feminist sociologists to study gender and mental health (and disabilities).

We need to examine how women living with mental illness, and those with mental illness or disabilities in general, are labeled, viewed, and reacted to in a society that devalues emotions, lacks equity in access to quality mental health care, and criminalizes those with mental illness instead of supporting them. Even more necessary is perspective and insight on mothers who are living with mental illness, especially to give voice to women who may be afraid to speak about their experiences because of stigma.

David Karp is one of the few sociologists who has published on the experience of mental illness. In his book, Speaking of Sadness: Depression, Disconnection, and the Meanings of Illness, he states:

“Given the pervasiveness of depression, it is not surprising that both medical and social scientists have tried to understand its causes and suggest ways of dealing with…… As valuable as these studies might be, something crucial is missing. My view is that to really understand a human experience, it must be appreciated from the subjective view of the person undergoing it. …Underneath the rates, correlations, and presumed causes of behavior are real human beings who are trying to make sense of their lives” (p.11).

As sociologists we need to move away from the debate on ‘what causes mental illness’ and make room for understanding the experience of those living with it, especially for women and mothers. As David Karp notes in his work, the etiology of mental illness is complex. Sociologists can add to this research on causes, but we cannot pretend we have the grand answer. Our focus seems to be on critiques of the pharmaceutical industry and how diagnosis can be a form of social control. These are important issues, but by focusing on critiques, we neglect the stories of those who experience mental illness.

Does this mean that we are saying mental illness is not real? From the stories of women living with mental illness, we can still understand the structural forces that shape the experience, without denying that experience, and hopefully decreasing the stigma surrounding it.

To support this idea, and as an introduction to my new research on maternal mental health, I share stories, in this post, and the work of those who are using stories to dismantle the stigma that women and mothers living with mental illness experience. mom pic art

Motherhood and Mental Illness-Master Status

The blog post “Mothers and Mental Illness” written by Karen Spears Zucharias, author of Mother of Rain, tells the story of her friend who suffered from postpartum psychosis. (While this is something that can happen, it is rare. However, we may hear more about it because of the tragic events associated with it such as the death of a child.) Karen speaks volumes about mental health in this country including how we treat people with mental illness and how they may feel. These relate to sociological concepts of statuses, identity, labeling, and stigma. Karen states:

“People look at you differently when you’ve suffered from mental illness. Even when you’ve healed, there remains the nagging “what ifs” in the minds of others.”

Mental illness becomes your “master status.” With this being the case, do you ever get to have an emotion or make a mistake without your actions labeled as part of the mental illness, without the stigma? And more so, what are the consequences of this stigma, those negative sanctions that might include ending up handcuffed because of your mental illness?

A Mother in Handcuffs handcuffs

Dyane Harwood, a mother of two who lives with the mental illness bi-polar, writes about a horrendous experience in her blog post “Handcuffed and Lactating.” When her husband called 911 when she was in a manic-episode, symptomatic of her bi-polar disorder, four police offers showed up at her house to transport her to the Behavioral Health Unit. Although she was being compliant, they handcuffed her.

In her words, from the poem that begins her post:

“To this day, I can’t believe it

Why a lactating mother of two would be such a threat

I needed treatment, but I complied; I was willing to leave

My children for the hospital, near the street where I conceived

I didn’t need handcuffs – I had to laugh a bit

I wasn’t armed with a gun…what a bunch of bullshit!

I hope no other mother who’s manic and admits it

Doesn’t go through the humiliation of being treated like a convict.”

Is it any wonder why mothers, especially those living with mental illness, are afraid to ask for help? Mental illness is not a crime, nor is being a mother with a mental illness. And handcuffs do not heal. These stories are real, but we do not hear them. We do not have a space for women and mothers to share them, save for a few blogs and websites.

Stories To Tell voice

The website Stigmama, founded by Walker Karraa, PhD, focuses on the perspectives of mothers and women living with mental illness, along with those who live with them. She argues that these personal perspectives make a difference and advocates that we use the term mental ‘difference’ instead of mental ‘illness.’ Dr. Karraa express this in a powerful way in the introduction to the website:

“I have always believed in the power of women, especially those who have been touched by mental illness or mental difference, to create change. We are different. We see what others don’t, write what others won’t, and give beauty to the deepest experiences of motherhood and the human soul. I created Stigmama for mothers of all ages to do just that. To speak their truths in a non-judgmental, supportive, creative community. We need the wisdom and support of others to unpack stigma of mental difference in motherhood.”

This relates to another quote from Karp, speaking to the importance of giving voice to those who rarely get to have a voice.

“The essential problem with nearly all studies of depression is that we hear the voices of a battalion of mental health experts (doctors, nurses, social works, sociologists, psychologists, therapists) and never the voices of depressed people themselves. We do not hear what depression feels like, what it means to receive an “official” diagnosis, or what depressed individuals think of therapeutic experiences. Nor do we learn the meanings that patients attach to taking psychotropic medications, whether they accept illness metaphors assessing their condition, how they establish coping mechanisms, how they understand depression to affect their intimate relationships, or how depression influences their occupational strategies and career aspirations” (pp. 11-12).

We need safe spaces for women living with mental illness to tell their stories and safe spaces, such as Feminist Reflections, to discuss the need for this research.

Moving Forward: A Call For Feminist Sociologists To Examine Mental Health

Like our fore-mothers in sociology, many of us as contributors and readers of Feminist Reflections want to make positive social change and give voice to those who are oppressed. While there is fabulous work done by sociologists on issues of race, gender, poverty, LGBTQ issues, and related identities and inequalities, we seem to forget about the hidden stigma and oppression of mental illness. Maybe we see it is as the psychologists’ domain as it deals with the mind. Or, we quickly turn to our critiques of medication and the pharmaceutical industry or diagnosis as a tool of social control. Maybe it is just too personal for some to study.

Whatever the reasons, I am pushing for feminist sociologists to study mental illness, especially women and mothers who suffer from mental illness. It is real for those who experience it— what we call the social construction of reality. Through women’s stories, we can deepen our understandings about the relationships among gender, motherhood, and mental health. And hopefully, we can help to decrease the stigma.

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I spent a good portion of the ‘70’s curled up around my parents’ record player, listening to Jim Croce croon about the Roller Derby Queen he’d fallen in love with – a woman whose fans called her Tuffy and friends called her Spike. Tuffy/Spike raised eyebrows, she was a woman loved for her strength, one “built like a ‘fridgerator” who “knew how to scuffle and fight.” As a girl I never wanted to be a princess. But this roller derby queen thing? This was the sort of royalty I wanted to become one day.

Figure skating - another of my failed attempts at finding my passion.
Figure skating – another of my failed attempts at finding my passion.

Because roller derby was an option only in my dreams, I tried other outlets that might fulfill my penchant for pushing myself, for raising eyebrows, and for playing to a crowd. My career as a ballerina was cut short after my mother heard one too many complaints about my itchy tutu. My dreams of becoming the next Ian Anderson were dashed when my flute teacher told me I’d have to give up having friends or a life if I really wanted to be a professional musician. In college I tried my hand at broomball and rugby but I hadn’t yet developed the courage needed to leave it all on the rink or field. And though I ran a few marathons in my 30s, I’m skeptical of anyone who claims to really enjoy distance running. I mean, come on. Runner’s trots and bloody nipples? How are these things fun?

Roller derby re-entered my life just as I was wrapping up my 39th year and staring down the barrel of the big 4-0. As much as it pains me to fess up to something so trite, I suppose I was facing the proverbial midlife crisis. I’d gained weight. New gray hairs had sprouted. I worried that I’d given too much to my job and not enough to the people I loved or to myself.

I’d received tenure a few years before and was feeling restless, not sure what to do now that the chase of the thing I’d been chasing since what felt like forever had come to an end. Sure, there was the next promotion but I longed for something other than work to fill my time and to occupy my mind.

Yet I had no real passions. No hobbies. Other people I knew loved reading voraciously, building furniture, knitting sweaters, climbing rock walls, running marathons (or so they said). I wanted to have something I loved, something that was mine but that wasn’t the next paper or presentation or promotion. Something that harkened back to my life-long desire to raise eyebrows and to try scary, challenging things.

An invitation from a former student who had become part of a growing movement of women looking to bring flat track roller derby to my area led me to find myself covered in protective gear and hugging the wall at my local roller rink. I had laced up a pair of skates and was going to give it my best shot. As luck would have it, I fell. Hard. I got back up. I fell. Again.

Skating as Wined Up, #13abv
Skating as Wined Up, #13abv

For the next few years, I continued to fall and continued to get back up. More than 30 years since Jim Croce first sang to me about the adventures of his Roller Derby Queen in my parents’ basement, I’ve taken a great many spins round and around the track myself. I became my own version of Croce’s “meanest hunk of woman” I’d ever seen. And, just as Croce described, I learned how to scuffle. I reveled in the realization that being “built like a ‘fridgerator” was a good thing, a royal thing even.

To become this sort of royalty requires determination, a willingness to scuffle, and grander-than-princess aspirations. It requires an interest in what, in my humble opinion, is one of the coolest darn things some of the coolest darn women in the world give their heart and their soul to in order to be a part of something bigger than themselves, something that challenges them to be their best selves.

Popularized in the 1960’s, the derby of 50 years ago was typically run by male business owners for a largely male spectator audience. Today, roller derby is run by and for women. As a feminist sociologist of gender, I love the diversity of gender expressions that are allowed and encouraged in derby. I love how derby simultaneously embraces and challenges normative expressions of gender. I love the contrariness of it all, the eyebrow raising-ness of it all.

Most of the sociological research on roller derby comes from fellow gender scholars who are interested in how roller derby challenges what we think about gender, how we think about gender, and how we “do” gender. As sociologist Jennifer Carlson put it in her 2010 article in the Sociology of Sport Journal, “Roller derby provides an aggressive, high-contact environment in which to interrogate femininity.”

Carlson, like other sociologists who study derby, is especially interested in the balance that derby members strike between their athleticism and the sport’s theatrical edge. It is perhaps because of the theatrical liberties allowed by the sport that derby players are so successful at both calling our attention to our cultural biases when it comes to representations of gender and forcing us to question those biases.

Travis Beaver, who wrote about derby in the Journal of Sport & Social Issues, argues that the “do-it-yourself” philosophy of today’s roller derby is a crucial value of derby’s revival. Doing it themselves ensures that the skaters – the women athletes – retain control over their training, their organizations, and the future of the sport.

While derby players may have grander-than-princess aspirations in common, one clear finding to emerge from the sociological research on derby is that players are by no means a homogenous group. Kylie Parrotta, a sociologist at Delaware State University, wrote her dissertation on tensions between sub-groups of derby participants based on differential investments in the identities “rollergirl” versus “athlete.” She also explores how skaters balance work and family obligations with their commitments to the sport – not an easy task! Parrotta says that skaters’ athletic careers may be shaped by other aspects of their identities that are linked to gender, such as motherhood.

While the sociological research raises questions about the extent to which roller derby is or can be transformative in terms of gender, I think sociologist Adele Pavlidis put it best when she wrote, “Roller derby smashes through dichotomous thinking that ranks and privileges men over women, but only if we let it. Right now there is an opportunity not to be missed, an opportunity for women to be watched and admired … on their own terms and with their own rules.”

On an individual level, roller derby has without a doubt been transformative for me. It has challenged my own too-often dichotomous thinking. It has pushed me to figure out my own terms and my own rules – and to live by them. It was my passion at a time when I very much needed one and it is an experience for which I will be eternally grateful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Darwin Awards are about idiotic risks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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