This November, a wave of student activism drew attention to the problem of racism at colleges and universities in the US.  Sparked by protests at the University of Missouri, nicknamed Mizzou, we saw actions at dozens of colleges. It was a spectacular show of strength and solidarity and activists have won many concessions, including new funding, resignations, and promises to rename buildings.

Activists’ grievances are structural — aimed at how colleges are organized and who is in charge, what colleges teach and who does the teaching, and what values are centered and where they come from — but they are also interpersonal. Student activists of color talked about being subject to overtly racist behavior from others and being on the receiving end of microaggressions, seemingly innocuous commentary from others that remind them that they do not, as a Claremont McKenna dean so poorly put it, “fit the mold.” That dean lost her job after that comment. Many student activists seem to embrace the policing of offensive speech, both the hateful and the ignorant kind.

Negative reactions to this activism was immediate and widespread. Much of it served only to affirm the students’ claims: that we are still a racist society and that we, at best, tolerate our young people of color only if they stay “in their place.” Other times, it was confusion about the kind of world these young people seemed to want to live in. Why, some people asked, would anyone — especially a member of a marginalized population — want to shut down free speech?

Well, it may be that the American love of free speech is waning. The Pew Research Center released data measuring attitudes about censorship. They asked Americans whether they thought the government should be able to prevent people from saying things that are “offensive to minorities.” Millennials — that is, today’s college students — are significantly more likely than any other generation to say that they should.

In fact, the data show a steady decrease in the proportion of Americans who are eager to defend speech that is offensive to minorities. Only 12% of the Silent generation is in favor of censorship, compared to 24% of the Baby Boomers, 27% of Gen X, and 40% of Millennials. Notably, women, Democrats, and non-whites are all more likely than their counterparts to be willing to tolerate government control of speech.

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Americans still stand out among their national peers. Among European Union countries, 49% of citizens are in favor of censorship, compared to 28% of Americans. If the Millennials have anything to say about it, though, that might be changing. Assuming this is a cohort effect and not an age effect (that is, assuming they won’t change their minds as they age), and with the demographic changes this country will see in the next few decades, we may  very soon look more like Europe on this issue than we do now.

Re-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Barbie has never exactly been a feminist icon, but last week Mattel was celebrated for a new advertising campaign that some say empowers young girls. In the “Imagine the Possibilities” commercial, the viewer sees young girls in professional settings — a science museum, a veterinary office, a soccer field — where they lead adults as if they are the ones in charge. At the end of the ad, the scene shifts to a girl acting out her role as a college professor with Barbie dolls in her bedroom. Across the screen flashes, “When a girl plays with Barbie, she imagines everything she can become.”

But does the Barbie commercial really send an affirmative message about women in male-dominated occupations? And how does it stack up against actual Barbie products?

To answer the first question, I invite you to watch the commercial with a special focus on how the adult observers treat the young girls who are acting out their career fantasies. From the very first scene, everyone the girls encounter has the same reaction: laughter. The idea that these girls can fill the roles they’re imagining strikes the adults as so silly that the only complete sentence any of the adults says to these girls is, “You’re kidding.”

The girls are cute or funny, but never a force to be taken seriously. While the storyline may seem to encourage women’s participation in the labor force, the laughter throughout the commercial suggests that the girls’ aspirations are seen as adorable or silly.

Is it just because they’re kids? I don’t think so. Compare the Barbie ad to toy commercials that target boys. The clearest example I found was the commercial for the i-Que Robot. Like in the Barbie commercial, children take the central speaking roles as adults react to them. Unlike the Barbie commercial, these adults appear captivated and impressed by the boys’ pitches about their toy. By the end of the commercial, it’s easy to imagine these boys as successful salesmen or engineers, everyone has already treated them as such.

Does Barbie back up their message, though, with actual opportunities for play? My quick search on Amazon for the phrase “Barbie office” was pretty disappointing. The commercial, in other words, is disingenuous; it’s out of line with the actual Barbie products available for purchase. After limiting the results to only those produced by Mattel or Barbie, the only office settings I found were a pediatrician’s office and a bright pink veterinary office — which are both associated with stereotypically feminine careers — and a post office that was discontinued in 1995.

There was also a computer and desk intended to be placed in a home setting. From my search for “Barbie office,” I more commonly found  career sets for Ken than viable work-oriented play sets for Barbie. Given the options, I find it hard to image how Mattel sees girls playing with Barbie the way the newest ad suggests they might.

As it turns out, Barbie’s new advertising campaign is just the latest in a long string of commercials that try to go viral by appealing to feminist audiences. I would be more impressed if the ad made girls aspiring to male-dominated occupations seem like forces to be reckoned with or, at least, made products that reflected their appropriation of feminist ideals.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Nicole Bedera is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is currently studying college sexual assault and construction of young men’s sexualities.

Flashback Friday.

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The image above is a photograph of a snowflake taken in the late 1800s by Wilson Bentley. Bentley, a 19-year-old farmer in Vermont, was the first person to ever photograph snowflakes. From the Guardian:

Bentley’s obsession with snow crystals began when he received a microscope for his 15th birthday. He became spellbound by their beauty, complexity and endless variety.

“Under the microscope, I found that snowflakes were miracles of beauty; and it seemed a shame that this beauty should not be seen and appreciated by others. Every crystal was a masterpiece of design and no one design was ever repeated. When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind,” he said.

Bentley started trying to draw the flakes but the snow melted before he could finish. His parents eventually bought him a camera and he spent two years trying to capture images of the tiny, fleeting crystals.

He caught falling snowflakes by standing in the doorway with a wooden tray as snowstorms passed over. The tray was painted black so he could see the crystals and transfer them delicately onto a glass slide.

To study the snow crystals, Bentley rigged his bellows camera up to the microscope but found he could not reach the controls to bring them into focus. He overcame the problem through the imaginative use of wheels and cord.

Bentley took his first successful photomicrograph of a snow crystal at the age of 19 and went on to capture more than 5,000 more images.

What struck me about this story, other than the pretty pictures and neat historical trivia, was the fact that nearly every schoolchild in the Western world knows what a snowflake looks like under a microscope, even as their experience of snowflakes  is mostly of them as cold, fuzzy, frozen blobs, if they have any regular experience with snow at all.  They know because we teach them.

The idea of the meme is one way to discuss our ability to transfer elusive knowledge like this. A meme is a unit of knowledge or a type of behavior that’s passed on from generation to generation culturally. The gene is its evolutionary cousin, passing along knowledge and behavior genetically.  In the US, this particular knowledge meme is found in books or scientific discussions, but it has also become a common arts and craft project: many of us learn about snowflakes when we are shown how to make them from construction paper:

It’s quite amazing to consider how every human generation since Bentley understands the snowflake just a little bit differently than anyone before him.  Because of the advantage that human culture gives each new generation, nearly every child learns to appreciates their beauty.

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See a slide show of his photographs at The Telegraph. This post originally appeared in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

The term “fetal alcohol syndrome” (FAS) refers to a group of problems that include mental retardation,  growth problems, abnormal facial features, and other birth defects.  The disorder affects children whose mothers drank large amounts of alcohol during pregnancy.

Right?

Well, not exactly.

It turns out that only about 5% of alcoholic women give birth to babies who are later diagnosed with FAS. This means that many mothers drink excessively, and many more drink somewhat (at least 16 percent of mothers drink during pregnancy), and yet many, many children born to these women show no diagnosable signs of FAS. Twin studies, further, have shown that sometimes one fraternal twin is diagnosed with FAS, but the other twin, who shared the same uterine environment, is fine.

So, drinking during pregnancy does not appear to be a sufficient cause of FAS, even if it is a necessary cause (by definition?). In her book, Conceiving Risk, Bearing Responsibility, sociologist and public health scholar Elizabeth M. Armstrong explains that FAS is not just related to alcohol intake, but is “highly correlated with smoking, poverty, malnutrition, high parity [i.e., having lots of children], and advanced maternal age” (p. 6). Further, there appears to be a genetic component. Some fetuses may be more vulnerable than others due to different ways that bodies breakdown ethanol, a characteristic that may be inherited. (This may also explain why one fraternal twin is affected, but not the other.)

To sum, drinking alcohol during pregnancy appears to contribute to FAS, but it by no means causes FAS.

And yet… almost all public health campaigns, whether sponsored by states, social movement organizations, public health institutes, or the associations of alcohol purveyors tell pregnant women not to drink alcohol during, before, or after pregnancy… at all… or else.

The Centers for Disease Control (U.S.):

The National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome:

Best Start, Ontario’s Maternal Newborn and Early Child Development Resource Centre:

Nova Scotia Liquor Commission:

These campaigns all target women and explain to them that they should not drink any alcohol at all if they are trying to conceive, during pregnancy, during the period in which they are breastfeeding and, in some cases, if they are not trying to conceive but are using only somewhat effective birth control.

So, the strategy to reduce FAS is reduced to the targeting of women’s behavior.

But “women” do not cause FAS. Neither does alcohol. This strategy replaces addressing all of the other problems that correlate with the appearance of FAS — poverty, stress, and other kinds of social deprivation — in favor of policing women. FAS, in fact, is partly the result of individual behavior, partly the result of social inequality, and partly genetic, but our entire eradication strategy focuses on individual behavior. It places the blame and responsibility solely on women.

And, since women’s choices are not highly correlated with the appearance of FAS, the strategy fails. Very few women actually drink at the levels correlated with FAS. If we did not have a no-drinking-during-pregnancy campaign and pregnant women continued drinking at the rates at which they drank before being pregnant, we would not see a massive rise in FAS. Only the heaviest drinking women put their fetus at risk and they, unfortunately, are the least likely to respond to the no-drinking campaign (largely due to addiction).

Originally posted in 2010 and developed into a two-page essay for Contexts magazine.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

In this 15min TED talk, the eminent masculinities scholar Michael Kimmel argues that feminism is in everyone’s best interest. After discussing the robust research on the benefits of gender equality, he concludes:

Gender equality is in the interest of countries, of companies, and of men, and their children and their partners… [It is] is not a zero sum game, it’s not a win-lose, it is a win-win for everyone.

Watch!

On September 2, the photograph of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down on a Turkish beach circulated internationally on social media. Amid discussions of whether or not it was ethical to post, tweet, and share such a heart-wrenching image, The New York Times rightly noted that the powerful image has spurred international public attention to a crisis that has been ongoing for years. As Anne Barnard and Karam Shoumali said:

“Once again, it is not the sheer size of the catastrophe—millions upon millions forced by war and desperation to leave their homes—but a single tragedy that has clarified the moment.”

The conflict in Syria has lasted almost five years now. With more than half the population forced to leave, the United Nations reported that the Syrian conflict now represents the largest displacement crisis in the world. Over 12 million people require some form of humanitarian assistance. And almost half of those displaced are children. Like Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation that sparked Arab Spring (and, coincidentally, the current civil war in Syria), the image of Aylan, too, has the capacity to change the world. Bouazizi was not the first person to set himself alight in protest, just as Aylan was not the first child to wash ashore on Mediterranean beaches.

Indeed, those who have been following the refugee crisis over the past four years have viewed countless tragic images. But there is — for the moment, at least — something significant about this particular photograph. It could be because the image is deceptively peaceful, failing to reflect the violence that pushed his parents to flee or the family’s terrifying experience at sea that ultimately led to the deaths of Aylan, his brother Galip, and their mother Rehan. It may also be because of his clothing: red shirt, blue shorts, and Velcro sneakers. He could be anyone’s son, brother, nephew.

Aylan’s image has galvanized attention from around the world, especially the West. The public’s concern and outrage after the photo circulated on social media has already had a significant impact on the refugee crisis. This single tragedy has become the symbol of the refugee crisis in the Middle East. The image and subsequent public outcry has led to an increase in charitable donations, impacted election campaigns, and prompted the public to demand more of their governments, resulting in Western nations around the world pledging to increase the number of refugees they will take.

Although it is unfortunate that it takes something as tragic as the body of a boy lying alone on a beach to solidify public resolve, it is also an important reminder that we are, as Goffman suggested, “dangerous giants.” We have the capacity to enact change on a level that is difficult to imagine as an individual.

The graph below shows Twitter activity both before and after the photo of Aylan went viral. Tweet volume about Syria has more than doubled since the world was shown the image.  Tweets welcoming refugees from the region showed and even larger increase. And, although tweets with Aylan’s name appear to have been short-lived, perhaps the international attention they produced can be harnessed as people are forced to learn more about why this tragedy occurred and pledge support.

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When we georeference and map tweets containing the hashtags #RefugeesWelcome and #AylanKurdi, we can also see how this unfolded around the world. Twitter is a crude measure of impact.  Yet, just as Barnard and Shoumali suggested, a single tragedy amidst a conflict that has led to the deaths of so many seems to have helped to capture the attention of the world. See the snapshot of Twitter activity around the world using the hashtags #AylanKurdi (green) and #RefugeesWelcome (blue) two days after the photograph went viral (below):

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So, can an image of a child change the world? Typically, no. But, a powerful image under the right conditions might have an impact no one could have predicted.

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

Tara Leigh Tober and Tristan Bridges are sociologists at the College at Brockport (SUNY). You can follow them on at @tristanbphd and @tobertara.

A child that was 7 years old when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans will be 17 today. When the storm hit, he would have just started 2nd grade. Today, that 17-year-old is more likely than his same age peers in all but two other cities to be both unemployed and not in school. He is part of the Katrina generation.

(September 3, 2005 New Orleans) -- Evacuees and patients arive at New Orleans airport where FEMA's D-MATs have set up operations.  Photo: Michael Rieger/FEMA
(September 3, 2005 New Orleans) — Evacuees and patients arive at New Orleans airport where FEMA’s D-MATs have set up operations.
Photo: Michael Rieger/FEMA

When the city was evacuated, many families suffered a period of instability. A report published nine months after the storm found that families had moved an average of 3.5 times in the first nine months. One-in-five school-age children were either not enrolled in school or were only partially attending (missing more than 10 days a month).

Five years later, another study found that 40% of children still did not have stable housing and another 20% remained emotionally distressed. 34% of children had been held back in school (compared to a 19% baseline in the South).

(September 3, 2005 New Orleans) -- Evacuees and patients arive at New Orleans airport where FEMA's D-MATs have set up operations.  Photo: Michael Rieger/FEMA
(September 3, 2005 New Orleans) — Evacuees and patients arive at New Orleans airport where FEMA’s D-MATs have set up operations.
Photo: Michael Rieger/FEMA

With so much trauma and dislocation, it is easy to imagine that even young people in school would have trouble learning; for those who suffered the greatest instability, it’s likely that their education was fully on pause.

At The Atlantic, Katy Reckdahl profiles such a family. They evacuated to Houston, where they suffered abuse from locals who resented their presence. At school, boys from New Orleans were getting picked on and getting in fights. So the mother of three kept her 11- and 13-year-old boys at home, fearful for their safety. Indeed, another New Orleanian boy that they knew was killed while in Houston. The boys missed an entire year of school.

“An untold number of kids,” writes Reckdahl, “probably numbering in the tens of thousands—missed weeks, months, even years of school after Katrina.” She quotes an educator who specializes in teaching students who have fallen behind, who estimates that “90-percent-plus” of his students “didn’t learn for a year.”

When the brothers profiled by Reckdahl returned to New Orleans one year later, they were placed in the correct grade for their age, despite having missed a year of school. The system was in chaos. Teachers were inexperienced thanks to charter schools replacing the public school system. One of the boys struggled to make sense of it all and eventually dropped out and got his GED instead.

No doubt the high number of unemployed and unenrolled young people in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities devastated by Katrina is due, in part, to the displacement, trauma, and chaos of disaster. Optimistically, and resisting the “at risk” discourse, the Cowen Institute calls them “opportunity youth.” If there is the political will, we have the opportunity to help empower them to become healthy and productive members of our communities.

For more, pre-order sociologist Alice Fothergill and Lori Peek’s forthcoming book, Children of Katrina, watch an interview about their research, or read their preliminary findings here.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

I just have to say “wow” to this ad for Quartz counter tops, sent it by Lisa Ray of Parents for Ethical Marketing and Corporate Babysitter:

The ad depicts a little girl fantasizing about growing up, but growing up means (extremely) high patent leather pumps; growing up means sexualizing herself.

And the ad does sexualize the little girl who, from the top-scanning-down, looks like a sweet girl trying on mommy’s shoes, but from the bottom-scanning-up, looks like an adult woman who suddenly transforms into a child. The white cotton dress implies innocence and purity, but it’s a costume we regularly see adult women wear when we want to both sexualize and infantilize them. In other words, this ad nicely plays into the mythology endorsed by pedophiles that even little girls want to feel sexy, even little girls want men’s attention, even little girls want sex.

And, yet, we are supposed to think this is sweet. The text, “Harmonizing Beautifully with Life” is, of course, ostensibly about the counter tops. But aligned with the image, it naturalizes both the girl’s fantasy and the conflation of female sex with the performance of sexualized femininity (it’s just “life”; as if there’s a gene for Christian Louboutin shoes that activates in the presence of double X chromosomes). More than simply naturalizing the girl’s fantasy of self-objectification, it endorses it (it’s beautiful harmony).

Notice also the class story in the ad. Who exactly is class privileged enough to have the freedom to allow “the quiet moments” to “steal the show”? Well, apparently people who are rich enough to wear Louboutin shoes. Louboutin began putting red soles on all his shoes as a not-so-subtle way to advertise that the shoe was Louboutin and, therefore, a very expensive shoe. It worked.  Fashion writers started pointing out the red soles with glee, as in this story about Angeline Jolie on a red carpet. The fact that the sole of this shoe is red is no accident, it’s meant to add class to the counter tops, in both senses of the word.

A final word on race: That the girl in the ad is white is no accident. And it’s not only because marketers expect the majority of their customers to be white, but because of what whiteness represents. Her white skin symbolizes the same thing that the white counter tops and white dress symbolize: purity, cleanliness, even innocence. It is only because all those symbolic elements are there that we can put a black patent leather heel with a red sole on her and still think “sweet.”  Imagine the same ad with a black child. In the U.S., black women are often stereotyped as sexually loose, morally corrupt, irresponsible teen mothers on welfare. With that symbolic baggage, this ad would be a morality lesson on the hypersexuality of black girls and their propensity to “grow up too fast.” It wouldn’t look sweet, it’d look dangerous.

“Harmonizing beautifully,” indeed.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.