Search results for symbols

What comes to mind when you think of romance, love, and Valentine’s Day?  Probably things like sunsets, flowers, chocolates, candles, poetry, and bubble baths.  You know, girl stuff.


Francesca Cancian, who writes on love, calls this the feminization of love.  It makes love seem like its for women and girls only.  This is a problem for at least two reasons.  First, because men are supposed to avoid girly things in our culture, they are pressured to pretend like they’re not into love and love-related things.  That’s why men are offered the alternative Steak and a Blow Job Day.

Second, it makes other ways of expressing love less visible.  Maybe he shows love by always changing the oil in the car or making sure the computer is updated with anti-virus software.  These can be mis-recognized as not about love because they aren’t the proper socially constructed symbols.  So, if he doesn’t also show up with flowers or candy once in a while, maybe she doesn’t feel loved.

The flip side of this is the masculinization of sex.  The rather new idea that what men are really interested in is sex and that this is secondary or, even, obligatory for women.

The feminization of love and masculinization of sex manifests itself in a myriad of ways across our culture, causing all sorts of problems.  In the case of Valentine’s Day, it makes it seem as if the (assumed heterosexual) holiday is for women but, if he does it right, he’ll get sex as a reward.  How romantic.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Anita Sarkeesian is back with a new installment in her feminist analysis of video games. This one is a 25 minute discussion of the Ms. Male Character Trope, the phenomenon in which video games spice up their characters by including a female modeled off of the original male character.  It’s a good example of the way in which males are centered, while females, if included at all, are seen as a non-normative kind of human, animal, or thing.

She starts with the classic example of Pac-Man and Mrs. Pac-Man, observing that only Mrs. is marked with symbols of femininity; Pac-Man, who’s not even called Mr. Pac-Man, has no markers at all.  This is typical.  This is how maleness is made simultaneously invisible and front-and-center, while femaleness is othered.  Like this:

Pacman and Mrs Pacman

A fan sent her an example of what a reverse world would look like, where women were the default and men were marked and othered.  Awesome:


Here’s the whole video:

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Cats and dogs are gendered in contemporary American culture, such that dogs are thought to be the proper pet for men and cats for women (especially lesbians).  This, it turns out, is an old stereotype.  In fact, cats were a common symbol in suffragette imagery.  Cats represented the domestic sphere, and anti-suffrage postcards often used them to reference female activists.  The intent was to portray suffragettes as silly, infantile, incompetent, and ill-suited to political engagement.




Cats were also used in anti-suffrage cartoons and postcards that featured the bumbling, emasculated father cruelly left behind to cover his wife’s shirked duties as she so ungracefully abandons the home for the political sphere.  Oftentimes, unhappy cats were portrayed in these scenes as symbols of a threatened traditional home in need of woman’s care and attention.


While opposition to the female vote was strong, public sentiment warmed to the suffragettes as police brutality began to push women into a more favorable, if victimized, light.


As suffragettes increasingly found themselves jailed, many resisted unfair or inhumane imprisonment with hunger strikes.  In response, jailers would often force-feed female prisoners with steel devices to pry open their mouths and long hoses inserted into their noses and down their throats.  This caused severe damage to the women’s faces, mouths, lungs, and stomachs, sometimes causing illness and death.

Not wanting to create a group of martyrs for the suffragist cause, the British government responded by enacting the Prisoner’s Act of 1913 which temporarily freed prisoners to recuperate (or die) at home and then rearrested them when they were well.  The intention was to free the government from responsibility of injury and death from force feeding prisoners.

This act became popularly known as the “Cat and Mouse Act,” as the government was seen as toying with their female prey as a cat would a mouse.  Suddenly, the cat takes on a decidedly more masculine, “tom cat” persona.  The cat now represented the violent realities of women’s struggle for political rights in the male public sphere.


The longevity of the stereotype of cats as feminine and domestic, along with the interesting way that the social constructions flipped, is a great example of how cultural associations are used to create meaning and facilitate or resist social change.

Cross-posted at Jezebel and Human-Animal Studies Images.

Ms. Wrenn is an instructor of Sociology with Colorado State University, where she is working on her PhD.  She is a council member of the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section and has published extensively on the non-human animal rights movement. 

Read this with the movie trailer voice in your head: In a world where men and masculinity are valued above women and femininity and the voice of god sounds like a man. Can there be any sense of justice? Can a hero rise from the ashes that were this country’s dreams of equality?

Now read this with nerdy sociologist voice: In this piece, Nathan Palmer discusses how we manipulate our voices to perform gender and asks us to think about what our vocal performances say about patriarchy in our culture.

My Mom’s Phone Voice

Voice & The Performance of Gender

We have talked extensively on SociologyInFocus about how gender is a performance. That is, we “do gender”. Right now if you wanted to act feminine or to act masculine you could change your clothing, how you move, how you sit, the facial expressions you use, but arguably the first thing you would change is your voice. Gender is a performance and like any performance there are costumes, lines, mannerisms, etc. that you embody to perform the role. The rules of gender performance are so clear and present throughout society that even my 5 year old can recite them:

Patriarchy, Cultural Symbols, and In A World

As a sociologist concerned with inequality, I think the juiciest question to ask is, are all voices treated equally? That is, do we empower some gender presentations and disempower others? This question is the central question explored in the movie In A World:

The movie, which was written and directed by it’s star Lake Bell, is about a young woman who is trying to break into the voice over acting world, but struggles mightily because the industry is male dominated. In the movie and in reality, when Hollywood wants an authoritative voice, a powerful voice, or simply “the voice of god”, they turn to male voice over actors more often than not. We should stop and ask, why is it this way? Are masculine voices just naturally more powerful? Nah. If you’ve spent anytime with opera singers you know that both male and female voices can rattle your ribcage. The answer then must be cultural.

In any culture the people in it use symbols to communicate with one another. They fill these symbols with shared meaning and connect them with other ideas and symbols. For instance, today we associate blue with masculinity and pink with femininity, but a hundred years ago pink was a, “a more decided and stronger color, more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”. The point here is that any symbol, whether it’s a color or the sound of a voice, is not inherently masculine or feminine, powerful or weak, etc. As a culture we put the meaning into the symbols.

So what does it say about our culture if we associate power with masculinity? The answer is simple, it suggests that we live in a patriarchal society (i.e. a society that values men and masculinity above women and femininity). That’s why it was so surprising to me when I read/watched interviews with Lake Bell where she put the blame back on women and something she calls the “sexy baby vocal virus.”

Bell expanded on this idea further in another interview:

There is one statement in this film and I am vocal about it: There is a vocal plague going on that I call the sexy baby plague, where very smart women have taken on this affectation that evokes submission and sexual titillation to the male species,” she says.

“This voice says ‘I’m not that smart,’ and ‘don’t feel threatened’ and ‘don’t worry, I don’t want to take charge,’ which is a problem for me because it’s telling women to take on this bimbo persona in order to please a man.

The problem of the sexy baby voice

To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of Bell’s criticism of the women who use the “sexy baby” voice. She asserts that “these women” have been “victimized” and “fallen pray to something”, but then clearly seems to be angry at them for their use of the voice. Furthermore Bell’s critique of women’s voices takes a social issue (patriarchy and the devaluing of all things feminine) and redefines it as an individual problem. If the women who use the “sexy baby” voice are using it to present themselves as non-threatening or highly sexual, then where did they get the idea in the first place? I’m not sure if Bell is arguing that the “sexy baby” voice is a reaction to a patriarchal society or that it the creates a patriarchal society.

In a world working through the issue of patriarchy, it would seem that even movies that are critiquing patriarchy can reinforce it.

Nathan Palmer, MA is a visiting lecturer at Georgia Southern University. He is a passionate educator, the founder of Sociology Source, and the editor of Sociology in Focus, where this post originally appeared.

1The phrase “social construction” refers to the fact that things, symbols, places, sounds — basically everything — is devoid of meaning until we, collectively, agree as to what something means.  Once that happens, it has been “socially constructed” and we can refer to it as a “social construct.”

The fact that gestures have any meaning at all, and that they can have different meanings in different places, is a simple example of this basic sociological concept.  Enjoy this one minute compilation of examples!

Via Blame It On The Voices.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

As a sociologist who happens to DJ — or is that the other way around? — I’m always curious to see how DJing is depicted in popular culture and advertising. Ever since the 1970s, when the disco craze helped push the prominence of DJs into the public realm, disc jockeys have become iconic symbols of nightlife culture. Within the milieu of the dance floor, DJs serve as what Sarah Thornton once described as “orchestrators of a ‘living’ communal experience.”

As such, the image of the DJ standing behind a pair of turntables has become ripe for appropriation by liquor and cigarette companies in particular. For them, especially in print ads, the DJ serves as a visual shorthand for any number of values they want their product associated with: culturally hip/cool, entertainment/musical mavens, the source of good times, etc. However, when it comes to that shorthand, this Smirnoff ad from last summer may have come up just a little too short.

At first glance, this image of a DJ working the turntables, with a cleavage-baring admirer looking on, seems uncomplicated: Smirnoff promises a fun, sexy time. However, a closer examination of the mise en scéne yields some instant problems.

  • There are no records on the turntables.
  • There’s not a mat on the turntables. Especially in a nightclub setting, DJs always use felt mats that sit between the platter and record. This not only protects the vinyl surface from the platter but by reducing friction between the record and platter, the DJ can “slip” a record into play at just the right moment. Hence, felt mats are called “slip mats.” In short, it’s very strange to see a turntable without a slip mat.
  • There’s no needle on the turntable arm. Therefore, even if they had bothered to put records on the turntables, Mr. Hip DJ wouldn’t have been able to actually play them.
  • There’s no visible DJ mixer. The mixer is absolutely crucial, allowing the DJ to switch between two audio sources, i.e. what makes “disc jockeying” possible to begin with. Normally, the mixer would sit between the two turntables so its absence in the image is conspicuous.
  • The gesture — hands posed over both turntables — doesn’t make sense; it’s not a pose that any DJ would ever employ. Normally, you would have one hand on a turntable, the other hand working the mixer but no nightclub DJ would  be manipulating both turntables, simultaneously. He looks like he’s trying to play bongos. (A scratch DJ, aka turntablist, may work both turntables for certain techniques but scratch DJs aren’t typically nightclub DJs – hard to dance to someone scratching).

When this ad made its rounds on social media, theories were bandied about to explain just what went wrong in this ad. The most plausible explanation is that the Smirnoff campaign selected a stock image hastily but that still opens up the question of how no one, from the original photographer, to the people in the image, to the people working on the Smirnoff ad itself, seemed to realize just how ridiculous this image was. It’d be akin to a car ad where someone is pretending to drive a car… from the backseat. With the wheels missing. And facing the wrong direction.

Of course, the vast majority of people know what driving a car is supposed to look like. One conclusion one might draw from the Smirnoff ad is that while the basic image of a DJ has some resonance in the public imagination, as a practice/craft, DJing isn’t actually well-understood at all.


Dr. Oliver Wang is an associate professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach. He contributes regularly on music and culture for NPR’s All Things Considered, KPCC’s Take Two, the LA Times, and KCET’s ArtBound. He also writes the audioblog

A resolution to the matter described below was announced yesterday.  In order to preserve the religious memorial without violating the separation of church and state, the Park Service has agree to give the land it sits on to two private citizens who take care of the monument.  Problem solved?


The Supreme Court is in the process of deciding whether a cross erected 75 years ago as a memorial to war veterans violates the constitutional separation between church and state. The cross sits on the Mojave National Preserve and, therefore, is on public land. After lower court rulings, the cross was covered in plywood.

In deliberations, Justice Scalia tried to argue that the cross is a neutral and universal symbol. He said:

It’s erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead… What would you have them erect?… Some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Muslim half moon and star?

Faced with an argument that the cross is distinctly Christian, he said:

I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that’s an outrageous conclusion.

Scalia’s comments reveal a common phenonemon that we’ve discussed in terms of race and gender, but not yet religion.  As Jay Livingston pointed out at MontClair SocioBlog, one can only think of Christian symbols as non-specific if one thinks of Christianity as somehow normal, neutral, and for everyone.  In the U.S., because Christianity is the dominant religion, many people simply see it as default.  You’re Christian unless you’re something else.  Something else that marks you as different and specific, Christianity does not.

This is one way that dominance works.  It makes itself invisible.

UPDATE! Dmitriy T.M. pointed out that Steven Colbert addressed this issue on The Colbert Report back in 2009:

See our other posts on how whiteness and maleness are the characteristics we attribute to “person,” unless there are reasons to do otherwise, herehere, here, and here.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

For the past few years I’ve been following a wonderful little blog, Hanzi Smatter. The author invites people to submit images of tattoos written in (what they think is) Japanese or Chinese, to find out what they actually mean. As it turns out, tattoos often do not mean what their bearers think they mean. The results can be hilarious, like Thought to mean: Loyalty. Actual meaning: Noodles.

It is quite trendy in the U.S. to get a word that means something to you in English (“love,” “strength” etc.) tattooed in Japanese or Chinese characters. Visit any tattoo parlor or online tattoo image gallery and you’ll see many Chinese and Japanese character options. So why is this so popular? Some argue that the beauty and simplicity of the symbols make Asian characters desirable for tattoos: “But what, besides the beauty of the art, would make these tattoos so popular? The main reason is that Chinese symbolism can be used to express so much, while still remaining simple and clean.” But couldn’t any written language be considered beautiful (cursive English, for instance)? And isn’t any language capable of expressing a lot in just a few simple characters (words have multiple meanings even in English)?

I don’t think this is just about beauty and simplicity. Using Japanese or Chinese characters makes a tattoo more exotic than getting the same word tattooed in English. And there is an added element of mystery—having a tattoo that not everyone in an English-speaking country can read is cool (even if the person with the tattoo can’t read it, either).

Cultural appropriation describes the adoption of specific aspects of a culture that is not your own. A Kanji tattoo when the wearer is not Japanese and has no specific connection to Japanese culture is an example of cultural appropriation. While we could debate whether or not cultural appropriation is ever positive (e.g. the popularity of yoga, or the interest in Italian food and culture when HBO’s The Sopranos was running), there are negative consequences to cultural appropriation. When language and symbolism are taken out of their original context, the meaning is over simplified or completely lost. Tattoos that attempt to translate English into Japanese or Chinese characters are a perfect example of lost meaning:

Intended meaning: None. Characters chosen for their appeal. Actual meaning: “Buy/trade”, “road, path”, and “card” which is like a type of prepaid card that allows its owner to access public transportation.

Thought to mean: Warrior. Actual meaning: Waterfall or rapids.

 Many tattoos are victims of what Hanzi Smatter calls “gibberish font.” There is no correlation between English letters and Japanese or Chinese characters, but some tattoo shops use this gibberish font for tattoos—using the font to spell out words letter by letter, when Chinese and Japanese don’t work that way.

Thought to mean: Initials of loved ones. Actual meaning: Nothing

Thought to mean: Beautiful. Actual meaning: “Calamity, disaster, catastrophe.”

 Thought to mean: As long as I breathe, I hope. Actual meaning: The five characters mean “living”, “air”, & “love” separately, but just the characters together do not create the intended sentence.

 Thought to mean: Outlaw. Actual meaning: “[In] hiding” and “criminal”, or the equivalent of “snitch” or “rat”.

 Thought to mean: Live for today. Actual meaning: None.

Hanzi Smatter discusses that last one:

As is, this gibberish means nothing in Japanese or at least nothing like “live for today” and I don’t think it means anything in Chinese either. The only meaning I can guess is that if it were written 生きて現れる, this would mean “to show up alive” or “turn up alive” as if someone thought dead had appeared alive. Anyway, it sounds pretty spooky, like seeing a zombie!

I think the person who made this up just looked in a dictionary for the word for “to live” 生 and a word that means something like “now” 現and thought you could stick them together to make “live for today.”

The fact that these tattoos, and countless more like them, don’t mean what people think they mean, illustrates the consequences of fetishizing aspects of a culture. Symbols and language don’t translate easily from one culture to another. Adopting aspects of a culture that might seem “exotic” without understanding what they mean in their specific contexts ends up creating cultural gibberish; tattoos that make no sense to anyone at all.