For better or worse, pop culture models some of our deepest assumptions about social relationships. One classic example is the Hollywood double standard when it comes to gender and aging—leading men get to age while the media expects most leading women to stay forever young. This can lead to age gaps on screen that mirror uncomfortable patterns of gendered power in society.

Has this trend gotten better or worse over time? I recently came across some great open data from the Hollywood Age Gap project, where Lynn Fisher has collected the ages of actors playing the romantic leads in over 600 films to calculate the actual age gaps behind the on-screen relationships. The website does an excellent job showing the gaps for each movie individually, but we can also look at them in the aggregate. It turns out that as more movies are produced, more also tend to have smaller age gaps between the leads. The average age gap for films in this data set sits just below 10 years since 2000, down from average gaps of about 15 years through the 1970s.

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We also know that social context matters for relationships. If both people are older, for example, smaller age gaps aren’t as big a deal. The classic “half-your-age-plus-seven” shortcut is one example of the kind of informal rules cultures can develop to figure these things out. After a little math, I color coded the age gaps using this common shortcut. About 27% of the movies in this data set fail the test. Notice how the rule cuts both ways—some larger age gaps pass the test because both actors are older. Other smaller age gaps fail the test.

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However, there is still a massive gendered double standard in these movies. Once we remove the 20 instances of same-sex relationships in the data set, 83% of the cases have an older man and only 17% of cases have an older woman. The older men cases are also more likely to violate the half-plus-seven rule (based on a quick chi-square test for gender of older actor x half plus seven status – p<.001).

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The news here is a mixed bag. While average age gaps as a whole are on the decline, these data show how Hollywood still has a gendered double standard for who has to act in a potentially “creepy” scenario on screen.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

For years now, expecting parents have been popping balloons and cutting colorful cakes to announce the sex of their babies. These “gender reveal parties” can be a fun new take on the baby shower, but they also show just how much we invest in the gender identities of children. In a world where gender inequality persists and gender identities can be in flux, cultural traditions like this can lock people into rigid thinking that separates boys and girls.

Photo Credit: Peter Mai, Flickr CC

Of course, point this out at the wrong time and you’ll usually get accused of raining on the parade. It’s just a cake after all, right? The tricky part is that social scientists often show how identities can turn into ideologies that have real stakes for human behavior.

For a dramatic example, last week the world got footage of the gender reveal party that sparked a massive 2017 wildfire in Arizona. These parents wanted to go big to announce their new baby boy—so big that it warranted explosions in the middle of dry grasslands.

It’s not that gender stereotyping directly caused this fire—even if we didn’t have a rigid gender binary, people would still start disasters with a stray campfire or sparkler. This case is still useful for thinking about gender, though, because what we celebrate and how we celebrate it shows a lot about where people learn to place their interest and effort. We don’t have massive parties for baby’s first steps or first conversation, and I can’t think of a time when a First Communion needed 800 fire fighters to come clean up afterwards.

 

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Recent news on climate change is deeply troubling, and people around the world are mobilizing to call for immediate action. This unique global problem means we all have to get better at understanding global inequality, but the first step to this might just be getting a more accurate view of the globe itself.

I love this classic clip from The West Wing about the problems with the Mercator Projection—the way we typically draw maps of the world.

About a month ago, data scientist Neil Kaye made a popular animation correcting the Mercator Projection to countries’ true sizes. Watch how dramatically the northern hemisphere shrinks, and the points from Cartographers for Social Equality seem even more serious.

One of the most striking parts of this animation for me is that many of the regions that are most vulnerable to extreme early changes don’t shrink much. If it is true that people attribute importance to size, these maps are an important reminder that we may not have the best mental pictures for thinking about both old trends in economic and political inequality and new trends in climate risk.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Political drama over the past few years has driven us to take a new look at bridging social division. Pundits worry about filter bubbles, cultural enclaves, and the way “identity politics” might be driving us apart into groups that understand each other less and less. The theory assumes we do a lot of identity policing—we figure out who we are, anchor that on who we are not, and spend a lot of time and effort policing that boundary to keep other people out. If everyone self-sorts into similar identity communities, it can be harder to connect in a diverse society.

But is that really what’s happening? Sociologists know that identities are a key part of cultural membership, but we often complain about “identity politics” for certain groups and ignore it for others. Now, new research shows how focusing on one kind of identity can bring people together, rather than pushing them apart.

Photo Credit: Ted Eytan, Flickr CC

In a new study published in Sociological Science, Adam Horowitz and Charles Gomez look at “identity override”—a process where a shared identity can lead people to bridge other social divides. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent to Adult Health, they find evidence for an interesting case of identity override: people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (GLB) have more friendships and relationships with people from different racial groups.

Identity was the key factor here; people who reported same-sex relationships but didn’t identify as LGB didn’t show the same patterns. Rates of interracial relationships also held after the authors controlled for other demographics and whether respondents lived in urban areas. Racial segregation still persists in the United States, but it looks like coming out and coming together encourages interracial social ties that can overcome some of these barriers. Horowitz and Gomez write,

the cross-racial nature of GLB membership allows it to override the otherwise high borders between people without such a second salient identity.

This research provides a little bit of good news for a world that seems full of conflict. In this case, there’s some evidence that investing in an identity doesn’t always mean cutting other people off.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Read more at There’s Research on That (here and here)

The U.S. midterm elections are upon us this week, and everyone is trying to get out the vote. This is important, since voter turnout in this country is relatively low, but we also have to remember that there are institutional reasons why turnout is low in some areas that have nothing to do with voters’ motivation. Commentators often talk about gerrymandering and voter suppression policies, but what do these look like in practice, and what kind of impact do they have? Social science research can show us.

Gerrymandering occurs when legislators redraw voting districts in order to concentrate their electoral dominance. Political sociologists have shown that full voting rights are not as guaranteed in the United States as in many other major democracies, especially for low-income voters and communities of color in the electoral process. For example, partisan gerrymandering reduced access to communication between ward residents, local nonprofits, and their political representatives in Chicago. There is also evidence it changed voters’ choices in Georgia.

Bureaucratic policies can also enforce voter suppression by making it harder for people to register and to vote. After the 2010 midterm elections, there was a wave of laws that seemed to bolster voting requirements, such as new ID laws and proof of residence. And while strengthening voter requirements may seem benign at first, these rules restrict access to people who are less likely to have identification and proof of residence — people of color, the elderly, and the poor. In essence, such laws make it harder for only some people to vote. Research suggests that Republican leadership and legislatures are more likely to push for these laws.

Policies like these show why it is especially important to stay connected with the politics and to help others to vote where you can. Regardless of your personal preferences, we have a collective responsibility to defend the democratic process for everyone.

Amber Joy Powell is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her current research interests include punishment, sexual violence and the intersections among race, gender, age, and sexuality. Her work examines how state institutions construct youth victimization.

Neeraj Rajasekar is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota interested in the intersections of “diversity” discourses, racial factors, and cultural ideologies.

Caity Curry is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include the sociology of punishment and social control, especially the causes and consequences of mass incarceration and mass supervision.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein. Written by a teenage Mary Shelley on a dare, this classic example of science fiction and horror explores the ethics of scientific discovery. In the story, Victor Frankenstein brings a corpse (or, many pieces of corpses sewn together) to life. Instead of continuing to study his creation, he runs away leaving it alone and defenseless. At first, the creature attempts to befriend the people he meets, but they are so offended by this specimen that they chase him away. Lonely, the creature vows to take revenge on his creator by killing Victor’s loved ones. Eventually, both the scientist and the experiment are left alone with their misery, floating off on icebergs.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Frankenstein was based on real science at the time—Galvanism—when scholars and showmen were animating dead bodies with small electric shocks. Shelley saw some of these demonstrations and, after a few rainy night’s in Byron’s castle, penned the novel. Against this bleak backdrop, Shelley asks us to consider who is responsible for the devastation in her story? Is it the creature, a mere experiment, who caused such destruction? Is it the scientist who never took responsibility for his own work? Or, could it be the people, those who shunned the scientific anomaly because they didn’t like what they saw? What happens when other people make a monster out of your work?

We are still wrestling with these questions today as we debate gender and genetics. A recent article from Amy Harmon in The New York Times reports on communities willfully misinterpreting recent research in social science and genetics to support white supremacist views. At the same time, the department of Health and Human Services is considering establishing a formal definition of gender grounded in “scientific evidence” that could curtail civil rights protections for transgender and nonbinary people—despite the fact that biological research doesn’t support this binary view.

The scariest part of these stories isn’t just that science is taken in bad faith, it is also the confusion about who is responsible for correcting these problems. From Harmon’s article:

Many geneticists at the top of their field say they do not have the ability to communicate to a general audience on such a complicated and fraught topic. Some suggest journalists might take up the task. Several declined to speak on the record for this article.

Social science research shows that trust in scientific evidence isn’t just a matter of knowing the facts or getting them right. Trust in science requires cultural work to achieve and maintain, and political views, prior beliefs, and personal identities can all shape what kinds of evidence people accept and reject. While the media plays a big role in this work, experts also have to consider who gets to control the narrative about their findings.

The bicentennial of Frankenstein asks us to consider, this hallow’s eve, the responsibility we carry as researchers, as interpreters of research, and as those who lead people to research. It is our guidepost and our warning call. This is why we (a science educator and a sociologist) both think science education and public engagement from experts is so important. If practitioners back away from the public sphere, or if they don’t intervene when people misinterpret their work, there is a risk of letting other social and political forces make them into Victor Frankensteins. What do you think? Do experts just need to stick to the science and leave their results to everyone else? Or, do scientists need to start worrying more about their PR?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (Frankenstein’s Laboratory at The Bakken Museum)

Sofia Lindgren Galloway is a STEM Educator at The Bakken Museum and a theatre artist in Minneapolis. With The Bakken Museum, Sofia performs educational plays and teaches classes about Mary Shelley, Science Fiction, and the history of electricity, among other topics.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

 

In our last post we discussed using horror films in our classes to teach both sociological concepts and critical analysis of media. Here is a template of a movie analysis assignment you can adapt to your own classes. You’ll want to change at least the parts in red (and maybe others depending on your course structure). We recommend assigning a podcast episode as a reference for how to sociologically analyze movies. We’ve had enthusiastic student response to these assignments!

Below are our film recommendations based on course topic.

Please note on the IMDb page for every film is a “Parent’s Guide” section with specific information about violence and sexuality content. This can be used by students and teachers as a reference for trigger warnings.

Introduction to Sociology

Any of the films listed below will work well for an introductory course.

Race and ethnicity

The First Purge (McMurray 2018), Get Out (2017)

Gender and sexuality

Assassination Nation (Levinson 2018), Jennifer’s Body (Kusama 2009), Summer of ‘84 (2018), Ghostland (Laugier 2018), Revenge (Fargeat 2017)

I Spit on Your Grave (1978) (special trigger warning as this has an extensive scene of sexual assault)

Deviance

The First Purge (McMurray 2018), Thoroughbreds (Finley 2017), Kuso (Lotus 2017), Martin (Romero 1978)

Social Problems

The First Purge (McMurray 2018), The Tall Man (Laugier 2012)

Sociology of Aging

Wiener-dog (Solondz 2016)

Sociology of Violence

Martyrs (Laugier 2008), Assassination Nation (Levinson 2018), I Spit on Your Grave (Zarchi 1978), The First Purge (2018)

Films and episodes we do not recommend for classes because of a lack of sociological content. Some we enjoyed, some we didn’t. Listen to the episodes to find out more.

I Spit on Your Grave (Monroe 2010)

Mandy (Cosmatos 2018)

Night of the Demons (Tenney 1988)

If you are teaching a specific class not included here, we are happy to recommend something for you. Please email us! We’d love to hear your thoughts as well as student reactions!

Marshall Smith earned his PhD in sociology from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2011 focusing on gender, sexuality, youth, and media. He currently teaches sociology classes at CU Boulder for the Farrand Residential Academic Program. 

Laura Patterson earned her PhD from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2011, focusing on environmental issues and the impacts of HIV/AIDS in rural South Africa.  She’s currently a research consultant with a Colorado-based pregnancy prevention program and other federally-funded evaluation efforts, in addition to teaching at CU Boulder and Adams State University.

Sociology reveals the invisible in our world. Sociologists explore the parts of our society that remain “in the dark,” and this has a lot in common with the horror genre. Both sociologists and horror fans find value in delving into the qualities and behaviors of people that others would rather not address. Both focus on things we don’t want to confront. More than many other genres, horror films are rife with sociological implications.

We are sociologists who host the Collective Nightmares podcast. Our podcast examines horror films from a sociological perspective. We focus on issues such as the representation of individuals of different genders, sexualities, and racial/ethnic backgrounds as well as the ideological messages of the film narratives.

Horror movies are a great teaching tool for undergraduate classes. For example, two recent films, Summer of ’84 and The First Purge, are a good fit for sociology courses focusing on gender, sexuality, deviance, and social problems. We’ve used discussion of horror films in our classes with great success – and what better time than Halloween to inspire students to think sociologically about horror?!

Summer of ’84 (2018)

Summer of ’84 models itself on popular media of the 1980s in look, tone, and story (The Goonies (1985), Explorers (1985), Stand By Me (1986), etc.). Our lead protagonist, an upper-middle class, white, heterosexual, boy, Davey, played by Graham Verchere, suspects his neighbor of being a serial killer. He convinces his friends to help him spy and investigate. Hijinks and horror ensue.

A Reagan Bush ’84 campaign sign in a neighborhood yard, signaling the political era of the film.

In our discussion of Summer of ‘84, we examine the representation of young women in adolescent boy-centric summer adventure movies. We also discuss the ubiquity of troublesome, but “oh so palatable” tropes. These include the representation of women, people of color, and political ideology that, when couched in a nostalgic 1980’s setting (which we both grew up smack in the middle of) can feel homey. The cultural climate of our youth seems to have clouded our ability to see the way Summer of ’84 depicted first and foremost women, but also racial inequity and the political climate of the 1980’s.

To address these ideas in your classroom, consider a discussion centered on the following argument, which we make in the podcast: Summer of ‘84 presented women largely as sexual currency for young men’s bonding.

Davey and his friends in their clubhouse discussing women while looking at an adult magazine.

Horror is a genre that relies on stigmatized topics and transgressing boundaries, and it therefore has unique potential to challenge or reinforce common conceptions of normalcy. One of the ways the core group of boys are cast as normal, good, and moral, in contrast to the suspicious neighbor, is via their hegemonic heterosexuality. This is largely done by showing them discussing women as potential sexual trophies, engaging the male gaze toward adult magazines, and taking advantage of Davey’s vantage point to watch his neighbor Nikki, played by Tiera Skovbye, undressing.

Nikki is relegated to the role of  “love interest” as a willing participant in these exchanges. She takes pride in her ability to give the boys status through her flirtations, exalting them as her only true friends. She finds their covert attempts to see her naked as flattering, rather than a stark invasion of privacy. For a deeper discussion, we take this argument a step further and ask ourselves why we, both trained sociologists (one of whom specializes in gender) found the film enjoyable in spite of these deeply problematic behaviors. What does that say about the pervasiveness of these gender ideologies in our society?

The First Purge (2018)

The annual purge announcement from The Purge: Election Year (2016)
Staten Island residents rallying against the proposal to enact The Purge in their neighborhood.

The concept of The Purge (2013) film and now TV series is that once a year in the U.S. for 12 hours, all crime, including murder, is legal. The most recent film in the series, The First Purge, arrived in theaters this summer. In the film, the right-wing New Founding Fathers of America political party conducts an experiment on Staten Island, a borough of primarily poor people of color. This experiment is a trial run of the Purge concept that is rolled out nationally in the other films.

This premise offers director Gerard McMurray an allegory to explore a host of sociological issues relevant to current U.S. society. The film works as a basis for a discussion of class inequality, racial injustices, gendered violence, and social control. In our discussion of the film, we address deviance, racial stereotypes, anomie, solidarity, and the social psychological influences on behavior, especially the internalization of norms.

Though the horror genre is notorious for being particularly white-dominated, The First Purge is directed by a Black man (Gerard McMurray) and the primary stars of the film are people of color (Y’lan NoelLex Scott DavisJoivan Wade). While critical and thought-provoking in many ways, the film is also disappointing when it comes to portrayals of gender and sexuality. Questions for class discussion could include how social structure influences individual agency within the film’s narrative. How does the film perpetuate and challenge race, gender, and racial stereotypes? What is the role of intersectionality in these stereotypes?

In preparation for Halloween, we will soon have a follow-up post detailing which of our prior podcasts are relevant to different sociology courses. We will also have an example assignment to share that instructors can adapt to their own needs/classes to help you discuss horror films with your students.

Marshall Smith earned his PhD in sociology from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2011 focusing on gender, sexuality, youth, and media. He currently teaches sociology classes at CU Boulder for the Farrand Residential Academic Program. 

Laura Patterson earned her PhD from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 2011, focusing on environmental issues and the impacts of HIV/AIDS in rural South Africa.  She’s currently a research consultant with a Colorado-based pregnancy prevention program and other federally-funded evaluation efforts, in addition to teaching at CU Boulder and Adams State University.