Search results for symbols

Jessica F. and Dmitriy T.M. alerted us to a really interesting photo project by Duncan McNicholl, a member of Engineers Without Borders Canada. Frustrated with the portrayals of “poor Africans” he saw at home in Canada, he decided to take pictures of his acquaintances in Malawi “dressed to kill” and “dressed very poorly.” He explains his motivation:

We’ve all seen it: the photo of a teary-eyed African child, dressed in rags, smothered in flies, with a look of desperation that the caption all too readily points out. Some organization has made a poster that tells you about the realities of poverty, what they are doing about it, and how your donation will change things.

I reacted very strongly to these kinds of photos when I returned from Africa in 2008. I compared these photos to my own memories of Malawian friends and felt lied to. How had these photos failed so spectacularly to capture the intelligence, the laughter, the resilience, and the capabilities of so many incredible people?

The truth is that the development sector, just like any other business, needs revenue to survive. Too frequently, this quest for funding uses these kind of dehumanizing images to draw pity, charity, and eventually donations from a largely unsuspecting public…

This is not to say that people do not struggle, far from it, but the photos I was seeing only told part of the story… [To contribute to correcting this,] I am taking two photos of the same person; one photo with the typical symbols of poverty (dejected look, ripped clothes, etc.), and another of this person looking their very finest, to show how an image can be carefully constructed to present the same person in very different ways.

McNicholl asked his acquaintances to participate and to choose their own clothes and pose as they like. Here are two examples of the result:

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.

Jersey Shore has come to end, we’re (genuinely) sad to say. We know we had fun. But is it possible we also saw something, dare I say it, subversive about beauty, gender and sexuality? I think so.

A panel discussion on the show and “Guido culture” at Queens College yesterday (you read that right), included New York State Senator and Jezebel heroine Diane Savino, who knows from stinging cultural analysis.

[Savino] explained, “‘guido’ was never a pejorative.” It grew out of the greaser look and became a way for Italian-Americans who did not fit the standard of beauty to take pride in their own heritage and define cool for themselves.

When she was growing up, everybody listened to rock; girls were supposed to be skinny with straight blonde hair (like Marcia Brady on “The Brady Bunch”); guys wore ripped jeans, sneakers and straggly hair.

The 1977 film “Saturday Night Fever” marked a turning point. “It changed the image for all of us,” Ms. Savino said. As Tony Manero, John Travolta wore a white suit, had slicked short hair, liked disco music and was hot. “It was a way we could develop our own standard of beauty,” she added.

In the same way, Virginia Heffernan writes in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Italian-Americans in the Northeast originally disdained their own accents until movies like “Mean Streets, Saturday Night Fever, Working Girl and, of course, Taxi Driver.” Those representations, she says, led to a “hammy” reclamation of an identity that had been mirrored back to them through Hollywood. These were second and third generation immigrants, who had mostly reached the middle class but maybe didn’t feel wholly a part of the mainstream, who telegraphed their identity through stylized symbols like Italian flags and red sauce that felt potent but no longer limited their social mobility.

That goes for the ladies too. Female beauty that took on a showily “ethnic cast” was distinct from what was already being sold. As Regina Nigro recently put it on The Awl:

We (I) laugh at bon mots like “You don’t even look Italian!” (the insult that Sammi “Sweetheart” flings at the blonde blue-eyed “grenade” …) but, ridiculous as it is, that assessment betrays a value system: Skinny blonde pale WASP princesses are deemed not attractive when measured by the JS aesthetic. And this seems curious and laughable to us.

“You don’t even look Italian!” is crazy funny but is the underlying judgment (dark hair/olive skin/Italian-looking = pretty; the inverse = not pretty) any worse than any other standard of beauty? It’s an alternative perspective, one that I suspect is so funny partly because it is so unfamiliar.

Of course, there is plenty about the Jersey Shore sexual aesthetic that is broadly familiar. The worst insult is to call a woman fat (or a “hippo”); big, exposed boobs are a baseline requirement, and the men are judged by the attractiveness of the women they acquire. (The other guys repeatedly mock The Situation about the looks of the women he brings home; Ronnie taunts him that he hasn’t brought home a girl anywhere near as pretty as Sammi).

And yet it’s oddly refreshing how much artifice itself is celebrated, with everyone participating mightily, and openly, in becoming the ideal Guido. No one is just born one, or supposed to make it look effortless. There are communal visits to tanning salons and unblinking references to fake breasts, and everyone takes hours to get ready. Vinny describes a girl admiringly: “Fake boobs, nice butt, said she was a model.”

Heffernan, writing about regional accents being reinforced by the show, uses Sammi as an example: “Every part of Sweetheart’s identity – including her skin color, which on the show is not an inborn marker of ethnicity but a badge of achievement (in the tanning bed) – is the product of intense calculation.” And Heffernan didn’t even get to Sammi’s hair extensions, which are brandished for emphasis.

No character more desperately self-produces than The Situation and his third-person pronouncements. Men are not inscluded [sic] from all this ritual artifice. In the last episode, J-Woww practically goes into heat when she sees some “juicehead gorillas” on the beach, and she lists “Human Growth Hormone” among the attractions. This, by the way, leads The Situation to mumble defensively, “Big is out and lean is in.”

That’s because on The Jersey Shore, men’s bodies are just as scrutinized as women’s, and their beauty rituals are as elaborate, expensive, and time-consuming as those of the women. Maybe even more so — in addition to blowouts, tanning sessions, and agonizing over which appliqued shirt will set them apart from the gelled masses, they spend hours at the gym, something we never see the girls do.

As much as the cast performed all this around the clock during the show’s taping, the audition tapes seen here and in the video below are even more extreme, mixing ethnic calculation with the general famewhoring savviness reality producers have become accustomed to.

Looking at this through what we know now: Sammi calls herself a “hookup slut” but aside from a few flirtations, turned out to be conventionally monogamous on the show. Vinny, in straight-up costume, claims he has to take off his pants “to really show you the magic,” but turned out to be the mildest-mannered cast member, one who unashamedly adores his doting mother. Underneath playing to the producers, though, is a more personal kind of construction, and a more particular one. And ironically, although the cast members’ self-creation was one of the most entertaining parts of the show, some underlying sense of unembarrassed authenticity, even wholesomeness, made it most worth watching.


Irin Carmon is a reporter at, from where we’re super pleased to have borrowed the post below. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe, The Village Voice, and others; more information is at

If you would like to write a post for Sociological Images, please see our Guidelines for Guest Bloggers.

We at Sociological Images are having fun with forms lately (see here and here). This time the fun is thanks to Bri A. who sent us some screen shots from the website Trillian.

Against heteronormativity, you can choose your sexual orientation.  If you choose female and gay, you are represented by two side-by-side female symbols (on the right):


However, if you choose straight, you aren’t represented by a male and female symbol, you’re just represented by a female symbol:


This reveals that straight is the default (without  a male by her side, everyone assumes she’s straight), and gay is the different, odd, marked category.

Bri then added “in a relationship” and noticed that, despite choosing gay and female, the “in a relationship” icon featured a man and a woman:

Oops.  Heteronormatity is back!

And, if she clicked “single,” the icon simply represented her as a man:

Presumably all people are represented by a male figure.  And we can’t even pretend that it’s neutral and supposed to represent “person,” because the “in a relationship icon” clearly includes a male and a female figure.

What’s funny is that these seem like really easy problems to fix, but either no has noticed or no one cares.

For  more posts on default and marked figures, see our posts on traffic lights with female figures, stick figures and stick figures who parent, and default avatars.

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.

V. and Anna G. sent in this ad for a LOLCats T-shirt.  Notice that the woman’s t-shirt is for women only, but the man’s t-shirt also doubles as a unisex shirt.


Both Emily W. and Sabine M. sent in this example of the same phenomenon at Mental Floss:


Mindy J. sent us a third example from Secret Society of Vegans:

From Johanna G:

Finally, Jessica S. sent in this example from Kung Fu Nation:


This is just another example of the phenomenon of how we take one half of a (false) binary (such as man vs. woman) and make one generic and the other specific.   Men can be human, but women are always female humans; white people can be just people, but non-white people are always other; Christian symbols are for everyone, but non-Christian symbols are exclusive; and so on and so on.

For more examples, see these posts on how racial and ethnic identity adds spice, Sotomayor’s racial bias, male neutrality in stick figures (here and here), male-default avatars, flesh-colored products, for normal to darker skin, Michelle Obama’s “flesh-colored” gown.

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.


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We’d like to draw your attention to the comments thread on an old post, Marketing Asian Women to Anti-Feminist Men.  While, to be frank, I don’t think the post was very strong in itself, it attracted the attention of the very men to whom I argued Asian women were being marketed.  Their comments are a really fascinating insight into the logics of white men who prefer Asian women.  It’s a pretty amazing read.

If anyone without access to journal databases would like a copy of my most recent publication, “Defining Gendered Oppression in U.S. Newspapers: The Strategic Value of ‘Female Genital Mutilation’” (Gender & Society, 2009), I’d be happy to email you a copy.  Just send us a note at


One year ago in September, we dissected a news story about “black and white twins.” The story reveals a great deal about how Americans think about race and so we decided to revive it for today.

Two years ago in September, when we were but a wee blog, we posted our first PostSecret about the pressure one man feels to perform masculinity.

NEWLY ENRICHED POSTS (Look for what’s NEW!):


We found more examples of black models (Naomi Campbell again, Iman, and Grace Jones) being posed with or as animals and added them to our post on the topic (not safe for work).  Bri A. also sent in some photos of Bratz Nighty Night dolls; only the dark-skinned doll is in leopard print pajamas.

We added an image that questions why we accept American Indian sports mascots when we’d surely express outrage if other minorities were used as mascots to our post on Native American mascots.


Man poisons wife; Reuters says it was an act of love.  Screenshot here (scroll down).

Gender and Symbols

I snapped two pictures at the Dublin airport of warning signs for moving sidewalks that, like an earlier example, mark stick figures as female as soon as a child is involved.  Also new to the same post, Emanuelle sent us an example of a sign showing a stick figure with a child… and the figure isn’t clearly marked as female.

We also added a photograph to our collection of traffic signals that feature a female instead of a male figure.  This one, from New Zealand, was spotted by Pharmacopaeia.

Sarah D. sent in another example of the feminization of sugar.

Socialization and Gendered Products

We added commercials for two more toys that socialize girls into cooking and other housework to our post about the Hasbro Rose Petal cottage.

The trailer for the movie Teenage Doll, another old movie about teens going crazy with lust, made a nice addition to our post with other examples on the same theme.

As we often do, we have more examples of gendered kids’ products: boys’ and girls’ versions of a book on “how to be the best at everything.” They make a nice pair with the girls’ and boys’ doodle books we posted here.

More pointlessly gendered products! Now sunscreen comes in a version just for girls (scroll all the way to the bottom of the post).

Objectification of Women

Giorgos sent us another fantastic PETA ad, this one implying that you might get to see “explicit footage” of Pamela Anderson. We added it to our post on how PETA objectifies women.

How many boob-focused ads for the video game Evony can there be? At least three more.  Thanks to D.R.S., Alex B., Wtfcats, and Kim H. for sending them in!

Jean Piaget, a psychologist who published his most influential works from the late 1920s through the 1950s, is most known for his theory of stages of cognitive development. He suggested a four-stage model that children go through as they develop more complex reasoning skills.

Children start out in the sensorimotor stage, which lasts until they’re roughly 2. They have no sense of themselves as individuals, obviously, and wouldn’t recognize their hand as “theirs.” They aren’t afraid of heights or touching something hot because they can’t grasp the idea of falling or something being hot–those ideas are too abstract.

Here’s a video that illustrates some of the limits of reasoning at this age:

In the preoperational stage (Piaget said it lasted from around age 2 until about 7), kids start being able to grasp symbols. For instance, they can draw a series of squares with a triangle on top to represent a house. They also start to learn the alphabet, which is, of course, the set of symbols we use to read and write.

On the other hand, they don’t understand abstract concepts like amounts, speed, or weight. In one of Piaget’s most famous experiments, he showed that children at this stage can’t comprehend that if you pour liquid from a short, wide glass into a tall, narrow glass, it’s still the same amount:

By the concrete operational stage (roughly 7-12 years old) kids comprehend ideas like weight, amount, and speed, and can understand that the amount of liquid in the two glasses is the same:

They can also understand causal relationships, though not necessarily explain the reasoning behind them. Here, the younger kid says what would happen if you hit a glass with a feather based on what he knows about feathers, whereas the older child reasons from the previous statement and answers according to the logic proposed (despite it being obviously inaccurate):

Finally, Piaget said that in the formal operational stage (after about age 12) kids can understand abstract concepts and reason logically. If you ask them what “justice” means, they can explain it. The girl in the last video, who reasoned from the previous statement (which had been presented as true), illustrates formal operational thinking.

Of course, there are questions about Piaget’s model (described in Kimmel and Aronson, 2009, Sociology Now). Do we really only go through each stage once? Might we have to go through some of them again when we hit new life challenges or milestones? Do we have to completely master one stage before we can progress, or is it possible to have some overlap? Are these stages universal? Would we expect childhood mental development to occur in the same way in a society where people are middle-aged by 20 as they would in one where they aren’t middle aged until 35 or 40? Might the fact that kids in some societies are given more “adult” tasks at a young age affect their mental development?

Of course, another issue comes up about the formal operational stage…Kohlberg and Gilligan (1971, “The Adolescent as Philosopher,” Daedalus, p. 1051-1086) estimated that about 30% of people in the U.S. never actually develop advanced abstract reasoning skills. I will make no further comment on that.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.


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Germany! I’ll be in Munich for the month of September!  If there are any Sociological Images fans in the area, I’d love to have a cocktail hour!  Email me at and we’ll set it up.

Our New Look:  We’d like to thank Jon Smajda, our IT and all-around tech fix-it guy, for the great redesign of the site. As you may have noticed, it’s now easier to search for posts, comments are threaded, and the page looks less cluttered overall. Jon, your work is greatly appreciated!

Better Searchage! We updated some of our tags to make it easier to search for posts. There were two major changes:

(1) While we still have a generic “race/ethnicity” tag, we also created tags for the major racial/ethnic groups recognized in the U.S.  You can now search for “race/ethnicity: Asians/Pacific Islanders” and so on. In some cases we struggled with how to define groups or which labels to use. We settled on terms that are generally recognizable and that were short enough to fit in our tags box.  Most posts that are labeled with the “race/ethnicity” tag are now also assigned to at least one specific racial/ethnic tag.

(2) Previously we had individual countries listed alphabetically in the tags list. We decided it would be better to have them all listed as “nation: [specific country]” so they show up together as a group rather than scattered throughout the tags list. So, for instance, Egypt is now listed as “nation: Egypt.”

Changes to Comment Moderation Policy: We have always taken a hands-off approach to reader comments so as to not stifle discussion.  First, while we try to read every comment, we prefer to focus on putting up new content and we found that readers did a pretty good job of responding to each other.  Second, we often found even hateful and mean-spirited comments useful for illustrating some of the points we were trying to make, particularly how groups who fear loss of privilege will lash out and attempt to invalidate any critiques of their social position.  Finally, we have pretty thick skins and don’t really get too worked up about people insulting us.

However, as we posted about earlier in the month, we had an incident in which readers of an anti-feminist website left extremely hateful and threatening comments targeting a specific reader, including posting personal information (such as location) and encouraging physical violence against her and her dog. As a result we rethought our attitude toward comments. We’re not adopting a formal policy, but we decided some moderation is necessary. In general, comments that are hateful or threatening toward other commenters, or that are mean-spirited toward particular social groups (i.e., “I hate Black people”) and do not in any way contribute to a discussion of the issue will be deleted. We will undoubtedly miss some comments or not notice them immediately. We certainly won’t delete comments just because they disagree with us or are rather snarky, and we of course can’t protect readers from any comment they might find unpleasant or offensive–the comments section would have to be shut down completely. Basically, our policy toward comments is: Don’t be an ass, and if you are, we’ll delete your comments when we have time.

We also decided not to provide direct links to racist or misogynistic sites. We’ll provide the web address in posts about such sites so readers know where images came from but won’t have a link; this prevents their administrators from tracking back to our site and posting a barrage of threatening or overtly offensive comments.

We know these changes in how we handle comments won’t please everyone, or maybe anyone–some will want us to moderate more and others would prefer that we don’t moderate at all. But it seemed like the best compromise for preserving the ability for readers to discuss–and criticize–posts while not allowing some commenters to intimidate other readers to the point that they fear commenting.


In light of the recent scandal over Caster Semenya’s sex, we thought we’d resurrect a post from August 2008 about the sexualization of female Olympic athletes.

And, to mark the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we’d love for you to visit our post from August 2007 about racist interpretations of survival strategies in the aftermath of the storm.


You might have noticed that when we revamped the website (thanks Jon!), our names appeared in the right-hand column alongside neutral avatars which, as we’ve discussed many times, are actually male avatars (there is some delicious irony here).  It turns out that WordPress not only has the male as default, but there is no female option at all.  You can, however, choose to be a monster.  We eventually went with no avatar at all.  We documented the saga, including all of the options offered by WordPress, in our post on default avatars. Scroll down. [Gwen notes: I kinda want to be the monster.]


Sea Monkeys!  We added new ads for sea monkeys to our post on heteronormativity and a new collection we’re starting on ads that use sex to sell the most unlikely things.

Speaking of, remember our post full of ads that place the product or tagline in front of a woman’s crotch?  We thought so.  We added an ad for London Fog, sent in by Dmitriy T. M.

Oh geez. We added more examples to our ejaculation imagery ad. We’re sorry, but there was no getting around it. The new material includes images from a campaign for The IceCreamists and an ad for a water gun called the Oozinator (you’ve got to see it).

We also added another image to our recent post on using women’s bodies to symbolize HIV infection.


We found a rodent control ad comparing the Chinese to rats and added it to our long list of anti-Chinese propaganda circa 1900.  We also added an image of lemon ice cream marketed with a caricatured Asian image to a prior post about Italian candies in a blackface-reminiscent wrapper.

Jason K. sent us another example of Obama depicted as a pre-modern and/or savage African, this time a poster showing Obama as a “witch doctor,” so we added it to our post of him presented as a Barbarian and a cannibal.

To our post discussing how people of color are often included in ads as symbols of flavor, color, or spice, we added a comparison of two McDonald’s french fry containers sent in by Joshua B.


Emily M. sent us another laxative ad in which a small child finally gets the loving mother she deserves because of the wonderful powers of laxatives, which we added to our earlier post on the topic.

You can also check out the vintage ad for Lane Bryant girls’ clothing that we added to our post on fashion for “chubby” girls.


We added more gendered products–masculinized ear plugs, ahem, “ear screws,” feminized tape “Just for girls!” and boys’ and girls’ sandwich bags–to our post on pointlessly gendered products.

Relatedly, both Danielle F. and Sara S.-P. sent us a link to the new Playstation Portable for omg! girlz!  We added it to our post on girlified games (like the Ouija Board).

Moving on to creepily gendered products, we added a photo of the storefront of Sweet Taters Cafe, sent in by Dmitiry T.M., featuring a “hot” potato, if you get my drift, to our post on sexualized food.

Evony has released more cleavage-fixated ads so we updated our post on the evolution, and increasing boob-centricness, of their recent ad campaign.

Kyle M. alerted us to the advertising campaign for the sci-fi show Surrogates. We added it to our post looking at how gender intersects with (real and fictional) robotics.

Ronni S. found a “Thank God you’re a man commercial” in which a woman becomes hysterical and men drink beer.  We added it to our post featuring ads that suggest that being a woman sucks.

And also in overtly sexist, we found another commercial that portrays women as batshit insane, this time for shoes.  It’s delightful.

Thanks for reading everyone!

Birdseed sent in this photo he took at a grocery store in Stockholm (which he posted at his blog as well):


The product is a new beverage, Fanta World Pineapple: Inspired by Jamaica. The two guys in the photo were hired to promote it at the little tiki-style counter. Johan says,

A couple of things leap out at me straight away:

* The continued (post-)colonial association of Jamaica with its plantation produce. The “inspiration” seems limited to the fact that pineapples are grown there for the consumption of the global North. (Canned goods like pineapples still have the charming moniker “kolonialvaror” (colonial merchandise) in Swedish retail jargon.)

* The ridiculous (verging on blackface) stereotypical representation of “Jamaicans” that the kids are suppsed to portray. It seems to have been done with extreme sloppiness – for instance, the Polynesian lava lava (a type of sarong) that they wear has absolutely nothing to do with Jamaica at all, but rather acts to represent an identity-less generalised tropics, dehumanised exotica.

The music was, of course, bad reggae.

I think Johan hits on an important issue here–how often the cultures of non-Westernized countries are mixed together into an undifferentiated image of exoticness–for instance, “tribal” fashion and “traditional” handicrafts often supposedly represent “Africa,” which is a meaningless category given the enormous diversity of cultures, languages, clothing styles, artistic motifs, and so on. But if you put some geometric designs and maybe an elephant on some cloth, it evokes “Africa.”

it’s also interesting that a certain hat shape and dreads have become such easily-identifiable shorthand symbols of Jamaica, and that Fanta is commodifying the idea of Jamaica to sell a product that has no reason to be more “inspired” by Jamaica than anywhere else pineapple is grown–Hawaii, Mexico, Costa Rica, etc. etc. etc.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.