In 1985, Zeneca Pharmaceuticals (now AstraZeneca) declared October “National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.” Their original campaign promoted mammography screenings and self-breast exams, as well as aided fundraising efforts for breast cancer related research.  The month continues with the same goals, and is still supported by AstraZeneca, in addition to many other organizations, most notably the American Cancer Society.

The now ubiquitous pink ribbons were pinned onto the cause, when the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation distributed them at a New York City fundraising event in 1991. The following year, 1.5 million Estée Lauder  cosmetic customers received the promotional reminder, along with an informational card about breast self-exams. Although now a well-known symbol, the ribbons elide a less well-known history of Breast Cancer Awareness co-opting grassroots’ organizing and activism targeting women’s health and breast cancer prevention.

The “awareness” campaign also opened the floodgates for other companies to capitalize on the disease. For example, Avon, New Balance, and Yoplait have sold jewelry, athletic shoes, and yogurt, respectively, using the pink ribbon as a logo, while KitchenAid still markets a product line called “Cook for the Cure” that includes pink stand mixers, food processors, and cooking accessories, items which the company first started selling in 2001.  Not to be left out, Smith and Wesson, Taurus, Federal, and Bersa, among other companies, have sold firearms with pink grips and/or finishing, pink gun-cases, and even pink ammo with the pink ribbon symbol emblazoned on the packaging. Because breast cancer can be promoted in corporate-friendly ways and lacks the stigma associated with other diseases, like HIV/AIDS, these companies and others, have been willing to endorse Breast Cancer Awareness Month and, in some cases, donate proceeds from their merchandise to support research affiliated with the disease.

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Yet companies’ willingness to profit from the cause has also served to commodify breast cancer, and to support what sociologist Gayle Sulik calls “pink ribbon culture.” As Sulik notes, marking breast cancer with the color pink not only feminizes the disease, but also reinforces gendered expectations about how women are “supposed” to react to and cope with the illness, claims also corroborated by my own research on breast cancer support groups.

Based on participant observation of four support groups and in-depth interviews with participants, I have documented how breast cancer patients are expected to present a feminine self, and to also be positive and upbeat, despite the pain and suffering they endure as a result of being ill. The women in the study, for example, spent considerable time and attention on their physical appearance, working to present a traditionally feminine self, even while recovering from surgical procedures and debilitating therapies, such as chemotherapy and radiation. Similarly, members of the groups frequently joked about their bodies, especially in sexualized ways, making light of the physical disfigurement resulting from their disease. Like the compensatory femininity in which they engaged, laughing about their plight seemed to assuage some of the emotional pain that they experienced.  However, the coping strategies reinforced traditional standards of beauty and also prevented members of the groups from expressing anger or bitterness, feelings that would have been justifiable, but seen as (largely) culturally inappropriate because they were women.

Even when they recovered physically from the disease, the women were not immune to the effects of the “pink ribbon culture,” as other work from the study demonstrates. Many group participants, for instance, reported that friends and family were often less than sympathetic when they expressed uncertainty about the future and/or discontent about what they had been through.  As “survivors,” they were expected to be strong, positive, and upbeat, not fearful or anxious, or too willing to complain about the aftermath of their disease. The women thus learned to cover their uncomfortable emotions with a veneer of strength and courage. This too helps to illustrate how the “pink ribbon culture,” which celebrates survivors and survivorhood, limits the range of emotions that women who have had breast cancer are able to express. It also demonstrates how the myopic focus on survivors detracts attention from the over 40,000 women who die from breast cancer each year in the United States, as well as from the environmental causes of the disease.

Such findings should give pause. If October is truly a time to bring awareness to breast cancer and the women affected by it, we need to acknowledge the pain and suffering associated with the disease and resist the “pink ribbon culture” that contributes to it.

Jacqueline Clark, PhD is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Ripon College. Her research focuses on inequalities, the sociology of health and illness, and the sociology of jobs, work, and organizations.

Flashback Friday.

Does the modeling industry fetishize whiteness?

It turns out that the answer is: it does and it doesn’t.  Ashley Mears, a model turned sociologist, found that high fashion models are overwhelmingly white, but that commercial modeling — the kind you see in catalogs for stores like Target, TJ Maxx, and JC Penney — is much more racially inclusive.  Similarly, extreme thinness is more pronounced among high fashion models, whereas commercial models tend to have a few more inches around their waists.

Mears says that the difference has to do with the contrasting purposes of the different modeling worlds.  High fashion is supposed to be, by definition, unattainable.  The women used in high fashion, then, should be the most idealized, with bodies that are among the most difficult to attain and beauty that is the most rareified.  In this context, whiteness is a marker of elite status because white femininity, thanks to white supremacy in U.S. culture, is the most purely feminine femininity of all.

In contrast, the commercial market is actually designed to sell clothes to everyday people.  In this case, they want consumers to identify with their models.  Their models aren’t supposed to signify social distance, they’re supposed to be just like us.  Using more diverse models and models who are less waif-like helps accomplish those goals.

Screen shot from the JC Penney catalog, thanks to reader Chelsea S.:

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

I heard stories this week about dung beetles and cuttlefish.  Both made me think about the typical stories we hear in the media about evolved human mating strategies.  First, the stories:

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Story #1 :The Dung Beetle

Photo from flickr by Camilo Hdo.
Photo by Camilo Hdo, retrieved from flickr.

A story on Quirks and Quarks discussed the mating strategies of the dung beetle.  The picture above is of a male beetle; only the males have those giant horns.  He uses it to defend the entrance to a tiny burrow in which he keeps a female.  He’ll violently fight off other dung beetles who try to get access to the burrow.

So far this sounds like the typical story of competitive mating that we hear all the time about all kinds of animals, right?

There’s a twist: while only male dung beetles have horns, not all males have horns.  Some are completely hornless.  But if horns help you win the fight, how is hornlessness being passed down genetically?

Well, it turns out that when a big ol’ horned male is fighting with some other big ol’ horned male, little hornless males sneak into burrows and mate with the females.  They get discovered and booted out, of course, and the horned male will re-mate with the female with the hopes of displacing his sperm.

But.

Those little hornless males have giant testicles, way gianter than the horned males.  While the horned males are putting all of their energy into growing horns, the hornless males are making sperm.  So, even though they have limited access to females, they get as much mileage out of their access as they can.

The result: two distinct types of male dung beetles with two distinct mating strategies.

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Story #2: The Giant Australian Cuttlefish

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Photo by Paul Oughton, retrieved from Flickr.

The Naked Scientists podcast featured a story about Giant Australian Cuttlefish.  During mating season the male cuttlefish, much larger than the females, collect “harems” and spend their time mating and defending access.  Other males try to “muscle in,” but the bigger cuttlefish “throws his weight around” to scare him off. The biggest cuttlefish wins.

So far this sounds like the typical story of competitive mating that we hear all the time about all kinds of animals, right?

Well, according The Naked Scientists story, researchers have discovered an alternative mating strategy.  Small males, who are far too small to compete with large males, will pretend to be female, sneak into the defended territory, mate, and leave.

How do they do this?  They change their color pattern and rearrange their tentacles in a more typical female arrangement (they didn’t specify what this was) and, well, pass.  The large male thinks he’s another female. In the video below, the cuttlefish uses his ability to change the pattern on his body. He simultaneously displays a male pattern to the female and a female pattern to the large male on the other side.

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So, can the crossdressing cuttlefish and dodge-y dung beetle tell us anything about evolved human mating strategies?

Probably not.

But I do think it tells us something about how we should think about evolution and the reproduction of genes. If you listen to the media cover evolutionary psychological explanations of human mating, you only hear one story about the strategies that males use to try to get sex. That story sounds a lot like the one told about the horned beetle and the large male cuttlefish.

But these species have demonstrated that there need not be only one mating strategy. In these cases, there are at least two. So, why in Darwin’s name would we assume that human beings, in all of their beautiful and incredible complexity, would only have one? Perhaps we see a diversity in types of human males (different body shapes and sizes, different intellectual gifts, etc) because there are many different ways to attract females. Maybe females see something valuable in many different kinds of males! Maybe not all females are the same!

Let’s set aside the stereotypes about men and women that media reporting on evolutionary psychology tends to reproduce and, instead, consider the possibility that human mating is at least as complex as that of dung beetles and cuttlefish.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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

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

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

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

Indeed the numbers support the claim that barbershops are dwindling, and it may indeed be due to white well-to-do men’s shifting attitudes about what a barbershop is, what it can offer, and who goes there. (In my earlier research on a small women’s salon, one male client told me the barbershop is a place for the mechanic, or “grease-monkey,” who doesn’t care how he looks, and for “machismo” men who prefer a pile of Playboy magazines rather than the finery of a salon). According to Census data, there is a fairly steady decline in the number of barbershops over twenty years. From 1992-2012, we saw a 23% decrease in barbershops in the United Stated, with a slight uptick in 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

Kristen Barber, PhD is a sociologist at Southern Illinois University and the author of Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry. She blogs at Feminist Reflections, where this post originally appeared.

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

Rose Eveleth’s piece for Fusion on gender and bodyhacking was something I didn’t know I needed in my life until it was there. You know how you’ve always known something or felt something, but it isn’t until someone else articulates it for you that you truly understand it, can explain it to yourself, think you might be able to explain it to others – or, even better, shove the articulation at them and be all THAT RIGHT THERE, THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. You know that kind of thing?

Yeah, that.

Eveleth’s overall thesis is that “bodyhacking” isn’t new at all, that it’s been around forever in how women – to get oversimplified and gender-essentialist in a way I try to avoid, so caveat there – alter and control and manage their bodies (not always to positive or uncoercive ends), but that it’s not recognized as such because we still gender the concept of “technology” as profoundly masculine:

Men invent Soylent, and it’s considered technology. Women have been drinking SlimFast and Ensure for decades but it was just considered a weight loss aid. Quantified self is an exciting technology sector that led tech giants such as Apple to make health tracking a part of the iPhone. But though women have been keeping records of their menstrual cycles for thousands of years, Apple belatedly added period tracking to its Health Kit. Women have been dieting for centuries, but when men do it and call it “intermittent fasting,” it gets news coverage as a tech trend. Men alter their bodies with implants and it’s considered extreme bodyhacking, and cutting edge technology. Women bound their feet for thousands of years, wore corsets that altered their rib cages, got breast implants, and that was all considered shallow narcissism.

As a central personal example, Eveleth uses her IUD, and this is what especially resonated with me, because I also have one. I’ve had one for about seven years. I love it. And getting it was moderately life-changing, not just because of its practical benefits but because it altered how I think about me.

The insertion process was not comfortable (not to scare off anyone thinking of getting one, TRUST ME IT IS GREAT TO HAVE) and more than a little anxiety-inducing ahead of time, but I walked out of the doctor’s office feeling kind of cool. I had an implant. I had a piece of technology in my uterus, that was enabling me to control my reproductive process. I don’t want children – at least not right now – and my reproductive organs have never been significantly important to me as far as my gender identity goes (probably not least because I don’t identify as a woman), but managing my bits and what they do and how they do it has naturally been a part of my life since I became sexually active.

And what matters for this conversation is that the constant task of managing them isn’t something I chose. Trying to find a method that worked best for me and (mildly) stressing about how well it was working was a part of my identity inasmuch as it took up space in my brain, and I wasn’t thrilled about that. I didn’t want it to be part of my identity – though I didn’t want to go as far as permanently foreclosing on the possibility of pregnancy – and it irked me that it had to be.

Then it didn’t have to be anymore.

And it wasn’t just about a little copper implant being cool on a pure nerd level. I felt cool because the power dynamic between my self and my body had changed. My relationship between me and this set of organs had become voluntary in a way entirely new to me.

I feel like I might not be explaining this very well.

Here: Over thirty years ago, Donna Haraway presented an image of a new form of self and its creation – not creation, in fact, but construction. Something pieced together with intentionality, the result of choices – something “encoded.” She offered a criticism of the woman-as-Earth-Mother vision that then-contemporary feminists were making use of, and pointed the way forward toward something far stranger and more wonderfully monstrous.

The power of an enmeshing between the organic and the technological lies not only in what it allows one to do but in what it allows one to be – and often there’s no real distinction to be made between the two. We can talk about identity in terms of smartphones, but when we come to things like technologies of reproductive control, I think the conversation often slips into the purely utilitarian – if these things are recognized as technologies at all.

Eveleth notes that “technology is a thing men do,” and I think the dismissal of female bodyhacking goes beyond dismissal of the utilitarian aspects of these technologies. It’s also the dismissal of many of the things that make it possible to construct a cyborg self, to weave a powerful connection to the body that’s about the emotional and psychological just as much as the physical.

I walked out of that doctor’s office with my little copper implant, and the fact that I no longer had to angst about accidental pregnancy was in many respects a minor component of what I was feeling. I was a little less of a goddess, and a little more of a cyborg.

Sunny Moraine is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Maryland and a fiction author whose work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Shimmer, Nightmare, and Strange Horizons, as well as multiple Year’s Best anthologies; they are also responsible for both the Root Code and Casting the Bones novel trilogies. Their current dissertation work concerns narrative, temporality, and genocidal violence. They blog at Cyborgology, where this post originally appeared, and can be followed on Twitter at @dynamicsymmetry.

Flashback Friday.

Russ Ruggles, who blogs for Online Dating Matchmaker, makes an argument for lying in your online dating profile. He notes, first, that lying is common and, second, that people lie in the direction that we would expect, given social desirability. Men, for example, tend to exaggerate their height; women tend to exaggerate their thinness:

Since people also tend to restrict their searches according to social desirability (looking for taller men and thinner women), these lies will result in your being included in a greater proportion of searches. So, if you lie, you are more likely to actually go on a date.

Provided your lie was small — small enough, that is, to not be too obvious upon first meeting — Ruggles explains that things are unlikely to fall to pieces on the first date. It turns out that people’s stated preferences have a weak relationship to who they actually like. Stated preferences, one study found, “seemed to vanish when it came time to choose a partner in physical space.”

“It turns out,” Ruggles writes, that “we have pretty much no clue what we actually want in a partner.”

So lie! A little! Lie away! And, also, don’t be so picky. You never know!

Originally posted in 2010. Crossposted at Jezebel.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

TSP_Assigned_pbk_978-0-393-28445-4Assigned: Life with Gender is a new anthology featuring blog posts by a wide range of sociologists writing at The Society Pages and elsewhere. To celebrate, we’re re-posting four of the essays as this month’s “flashback Fridays.” Enjoy! And to learn more about this anthology, a companion to Wade and Ferree’s Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, please click here.

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When Your Brown Body is a White Wonderland, by Tressie McMillan Cottom, PhD

This may meander.

Miley Cyrus made news this week with a carnival-like stage performance at the MTV Video Music Awards that included life-size teddy bears, flesh-colored underwear, and plenty of quivering brown buttocks. Almost immediately after the performance many black women challenged Cyrus’ appropriation of black dance (“twerking”). Many white feminists defended Cyrus’ right to be a sexual woman without being slut-shamed. Yet many others wondered why Cyrus’ sad attempt at twerking was news when the U.S. is planning military action in Syria.

I immediately thought of a summer I spent at UNC Chapel Hill. My partner at the time fancied himself a revolutionary born too late for all the good protests. At a Franklin Street pub one night we were the only black couple at a happy hour. It is one of those college places where concoctions of the bar’s finest bottom shelf liquor is served in huge fishbowls for pennies on the alcohol proof dollar. I saw a few white couples imbibing and beginning some version of bodily grooving to the DJ. I told my partner that one of them would be offering me free liquor and trying to feel my breasts within the hour.

He balked, thinking I was joking.

I then explained to him my long, storied, documented history of being accosted by drunk white men and women in atmospheres just like these. Women asking to feel my breasts in the ladies’ restroom. Men asking me for a threesome as his drunk girlfriend or wife looks on smiling. Frat boys offering me cash to “motorboat” my cleavage. Country boys in cowboy hats attempting to impress his buddies by grinding on my ass to an Outkast music set. It’s almost legend among my friends who have witnessed it countless times.

My partner could not believe it until not 30 minutes later, with half the fishbowl gone, the white woman bumps and grinds up to our table and laughing tells me that her boyfriend would love to see us dance. “C’mon girl! I know you can daaaaannnce,” she said. To sweeten the pot they bought our table our own fishbowl.

My partner was stunned. That summer we visited lots of similar happy hours. By the third time this scene played out my partner had taken to standing guard while I danced, stonily staring down every white couple that looked my way. We were kicked out of a few bars when he challenged some white guy to a fight about it. I hate such scenes but I gave my partner a break. He was a man and not used to this. He didn’t have the vocabulary borne of black breasts that sprouted before bodies have cleared statutory rape guidelines. He didn’t know the words so he did all he knew how to do to tell me he was sorry this was my experience in life: he tried to kick every white guy’s ass in Chapel Hill.

I am not beautiful. I phenotypically exist in a space where I am not usually offensive looking enough to have it be an issue for my mobility but neither am I a threat to anyone’s beauty market. There is no reason for me to assume this pattern of behavior is a compliment. What I saw in Cyrus’ performance was not just a clueless, culturally insensitive attempt to assert her sexuality or a simple act of cultural appropriation at the expense of black bodies. Instead I saw what kinds of black bodies were on that stage with Cyrus.

Cyrus’ dancers look more like me than they do Rihanna or Beyonce or Halle Berry. The difference is instructive.

Fat non-normative black female bodies are kith and kin with historical caricatures of black women as work sites, production units,  subjects of victimless sexual crimes, and embodied deviance. As I said in my analysis of hip-hop and country music cross-overs, playing the desirability of black female bodies as a “wink-wink” joke is a way of lifting up our deviant sexuality without lifting up black women as equally desirable to white women. Cyrus did not just have black women gyrating behind her. She had particularly rotund black women. She gleefully slaps the ass of one dancer like she intends to eat it on a cracker. She is playing a type of black female body as a joke to challenge her audience’s perceptions of herself  while leaving their perceptions of black women’s bodies firmly intact.  It’s a dance between performing sexual freedom and maintaining a hierarchy of female bodies from which white women benefit materially.

The performance works as spectacle precisely because the background dancers embody a specific kind of black female body. That spectacle unfolds against a long history of how capitalism is a gendered enterprise and subsequently how gendered beauty norms are resisted and embraced to protect the dominant beauty ideal of a certain type of white female beauty.

Being desirable is a commodity. Capital and capitalism are gendered systems. The very form that money takes — paper and not goods — is rooted in a historical enterprise of controlling the development of an economic sphere where women might amass wealth. As wealth is a means of power in a capitalistic society, controlling this means of acceptable monies was a way of controlling the accumulation, distribution and ownership of capital.

For black women, that form of money was embodied by the very nature of how we came to be in America.

Our bodies were literally production units. As living cost centers we not only produced labor as in work but we produced actual labor through labor, i.e. we birthed more cost centers. The legendary “one drop” rule of determining blackness was legally codified not just out of ideological purity of white supremacy but to control the inheritance of property. The sexual predilections of our nation’s great men threatened to transfer the wealth of white male rapists to the children born of their crimes through black female bodies.

Today much has changed and much has not. The strict legal restriction of inheritable black deviance has been disrupted but there still exists a racialized, material value of sexual relationships. The family unit is considered the basic unit for society not just because some god decreed it but because the inheritance of accumulated privilege maintains our social order.

Thus, who we marry at the individual level may be about love but at the group level it is also about wealth and power and privilege.

Black feminists have critiqued the material advantage that accrues to white women as a function of their elevated status as the normative cultural beauty ideal. As far as privileges go it is certainly a complicated one but that does not negate its utility. Being suitably marriageable privileges white women’s relation to white male wealth and power.

The cultural dominance of a few acceptable brown female beauty ideals is a threat to that privilege. Cyrus acts out her faux bisexual performance for the white male gaze against a backdrop of dark, fat black female bodies and not slightly more normative cafe au lait slim bodies because the juxtaposition of her sexuality with theirs is meant to highlight Cyrus, not challenge her supremacy. Consider it the racialized pop culture version of a bride insisting that all of her bridesmaids be hideously clothed as to enhance the bride’s supremacy on her wedding day.

Only, rather than an ugly dress, fat black female bodies are wedded to their flesh. We cannot take it off when we desire the spotlight for ourselves or when we’d rather not be in the spotlight at all.

This political economy of specific types of black female bodies as a white amusement park was ignored by many, mostly because to critique it we have to critique ourselves.

When I moved to Atlanta I was made aware of a peculiar pastime of the city’s white frat boy elite. They apparently enjoy getting drunk and visiting one of the city’s many legendary black strip clubs rather than the white strip clubs. The fun part of this ritual seems to be rooted in the peculiarity of black female bodies, their athleticism and how hard they are willing to work for less money as opposed to the more normative white strippers who expect higher wages in exchange for just looking pretty naked. There are similar racialized patterns in porn actresses’ pay and, I suspect, all manner of sex workers. The black strip clubs are a bargain good time because the value of black sexuality is discounted relative to the acceptability of black women as legitimate partners.

There is no risk of falling in love with a stripper when you’re a white guy at the black strip club. Just as country music artists strip “badonkadonk” from black beauty ideals to make it palatable for to their white audiences, these frat boys visit the black body wonderland as an oddity to protect the supremacy of white women as the embodiment of more and better capital.

My mentor likes to joke that interracial marriage is only a solution to racial wealth gaps if all white men suddenly were to marry up with poor black women. It’s funny because it is so ridiculous to even imagine. Sex is one thing. Marrying confers status and wealth. Slaveholders knew that. Our law reflects their knowing this. The de rigueur delineation of this difference may have faded but cultural ideology remains.

Cyrus’ choice of the kind of black bodies to foreground her white female sexuality was remarkable for how consistent it is with these historical patterns. We could consider that a coincidence just as we could consider my innumerable experiences with white men and women after a few drinks an anomaly. But, I believe there is something common to the bodies that are made invisible that Cyrus might be the most visible to our cultural denigration of bodies like mine as inferior, non-threatening spaces where white women can play at being “dirty” without risking her sexual appeal.

I am no real threat to white women’s desirability. Thus, white women have no problem cheering their husbands and boyfriends as they touch me on the dance floor. I am never seriously a contender for acceptable partner and mate for the white men who ask if their buddy can put his face in my cleavage. I am the thrill of a roller coaster with safety bars: all adrenaline but never any risk of falling to the ground.

I am not surprised that so many overlooked this particular performance of brown bodies as white amusement parks in Cyrus’ performance. The whole point is that those round black female bodies are hyper-visible en masse but individually invisible to white men who were, I suspect, Cyrus’ intended audience.

No, it’s not Syria but it is still worth commenting upon when in the pop culture circus the white woman is the ringleader and the women who look like you are the dancing elephants.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is a professor in the sociology department at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is the author of Lower Ed: How For-Profit Colleges Deepen Inequality in America. This essay first appeared at her blog, Some of Us Are Brave, in 2013. You can follow her on twitter at @tressiemc.

Until as late as the 1950s, there was no widely accepted set of terms that referred to whether people were attracted to the same or the other sex. Same-sex sexual activity happened, and people knew that, but it was thought of as a behavior, not an identity. It was believed that people had sex with same-sex others not because they were constitutionally different, but because they gave in to an urge they were supposed to resist. People who never indulged homosexual desires weren’t considered straight; they were simply morally upright.

Today our sexual object choices are generally believed to reflect more than a feeling; they are part of who we are: as a static, essential identity, one that it inborn and unchanging. And we have a plethora of language to describe one’s “sexual orientation”: asexual, heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, demisexual, and more. It has been, as Michel Foucault put it, “a multiplication of sexualities.”

Undoubtedly, this has value. These words, for example, give a name to feelings that have in recent history been difficult to understand. They also enable sexual minorities to find community and organize. If they can come together under the same label, they can join together for self-care and the promotion of social change.

These labels, though — and the belief in sexual orientation as an identity instead of just a behavior — also create their own voids of possibility. It’s significantly less possible today, for example, for a person to feel sexual urges for someone unexpected and dismiss them as irrelevant to their essential self. Because sexual orientation is an identity, those feelings jump start an identity crisis. If a person has those feelings, it’s difficult these days to shrug them off (but see Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men). Once one comes to embrace an identity, then all sexual urges that conflict with it must be repressed or explained away, lest the person undergo yet another identity crisis that results in yet another label.

This train of thought was inspired by these anonymous secrets sent into the Post Secret project:

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“Even though I’m a gay man,” the first confessor says, “I still sometimes think about women’s breasts.” I AM, he says, a GAY MAN. It is something he is, essential and unchanging. Yet he has a feeling that doesn’t obey his identity: an interest in women’s breasts. So, “even though” he is gay, he finds himself distracted by something about the female body. It is a conundrum, a identity problem, even a secret that he perhaps confesses only anonymously. To be open about it would be to call into question who he and others think he is, to embark on a crisis. “I’m trying not to think about what that might mean,” says the other.

But none of this is at all necessary. It is only because we’ve decided that our sexual urges should be translated into an identity that thinking about women’s breasts seems incompatible with a primary orientation toward men. In a world of no labels at all, one in which sexual orientation is not an idea that we acknowledge, people’s sexual urges would be nothing more than that. And if that world was free of homophobia and heterocentrism, then we would act or not act on whichever urges we felt as we wished. It wouldn’t be a thing.

Most people think that the multiplication of sexualities is a good thing. From this point of view, language that can describe our urges, however imperfectly, makes those urges more visible and normalized, especially if we can make a case that they are inborn and unchanging, just a part of who we are. I don’t disagree.

But I see advantages, too, to a different system in which we don’t use any labels at all, where the object of one’s sexual attraction is an irrelevant detail or, at least, just one of the many, many, many things that come together to make someone sexy to us. In this world, we would be no more surprised to find ourselves attracted to a man one day and a woman the next than a construction worker one day and a lawyer the next, or a tall person one day and a short one the next, or an extrovert one day and an introvert the next. It would be just part of the messy, complicated, ever-shifting, works in mysterious ways thing that is the chemistry of sexual attraction. Nobody would have to have angst about it, seek support for it, defend it, or confess it as a secret. We would just… be.

Maybe the idea of sexual orientation was critical to the Gay Liberation movement’s goals of normalizing same-sex love and attraction, but I wonder if sexual liberation in the long run would be better served by abandoning the concept altogether. Perhaps a real sexual utopia doesn’t fetishize privilege genitals as the one true determinant of our sexualities. Maybe it simply puts them in their rightful place as tools for pleasure and reproduction, but not the end-all and be-all of who we are.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.