consumption

For feminists, liking Barbie is tough.  This top selling American toy has long been criticized for fueling sexist stereotypes, because women are not actually focused on dream houses, dream dates, beauty, and unbridled consumption. 

And yet Mattel has made attempts to refashion the doll as women’s positions in society have changed.  By the 1990s Barbie had careers as a firefighter, police officer, and in the military.  She had also been a racecar driver, a pilot, and a presidential candidate.  However, the 90s also gave us the infamous Teen Talk Barbie whose voice box had been programmed to say, “Math class is tough.”

The Barbie Liberation Organization (B.L.O.) switched Teen Talk Barbie’s voice box with that of talking G.I. Joe, and put the altered dolls back into their original packages and back onto store shelves.  They released videotapes to major television news outlets explaining their action and calling attention to Mattel’s outdated gender ideology.  With G.I. Joe saying, “Let’s sing with the band tonight” or “Wanna go shopping?” and Barbie saying, “Dead men tell no tales” the B.L.O.’s media-savvy culture jam threw our gendered expectations into sharp relief.   

In addition to the B.L.O., women’s groups expressed concern that Barbie’s math-anxious statement would discourage girls from pursuing math and math-related fields, and so Mattel removed the offending remark from Barbie’s voice box.

Inspired by the B.L.O. and other culture jammers, for Barbie’s 50th anniversary in 2009 I initiated a “Barbies We Would Like to See” exhibition on my campus.  The exhibition included Muslim Girl Barbie (made from a 1960s Skipper doll), Stay-At-Home-Dad Ken, Public Breastfeeding Barbie, and Lesbian Wedding Barbie—to name a few.

Public Breastfeeding Barbie and Lesbian Wedding Barbie (Photos by Martha McCaughey)

And now, as Barbie turns 60, we can see how participatory social media has made it possible for anyone with a dream for Barbie to share it instantaneously and widely.  For example, Black Moses Barbie videos on YouTube use Barbie dolls to depict imagined moments in history with Harriet Tubman, and photographer Mariel Clayton creates elaborate scenes with Barbies—sometimes violent, sometimes sexual, sometimes both—which she photographs and shares on her public Facebook page.  There are entire Instagram accounts devoted to depictions of Barbie and social critiques made through Barbie, for instance Sociality Barbie, the anonymous Instagram feed with over 800,000 followers that depicts Barbie as a Portland, Oregon hipster.  In our documentary video on Barbie in the age of digital reproduction (produced by Martha McCaughey and Beth Davison, linked above), we see how these artists and Barbie hackers go much farther than Mattel to re-imagine gender and pop culture.  Indeed, they make curvy Barbie, released in 2016, and the gender-neutral Creative WorldTM dolls, released this year, look pretty conventional.

In line with Rentschler and Thrift’s (2015) argument that feminist meme propagators do feminist cultural production, Barbie artists and activists sharing their altered dolls on social media are doing feminist cultural production and creating “feminist community-building media” (Rentschler 2019).  In this age of digital reproduction Mattel can neither thwart nor ignore what people want to do with their dolls.  Indeed, the changes Mattel has been making to their dolls can be seen as a direct result of the willingness of artists, activists, and fans to playfully engage with—rather than simply criticize—their dolls. 

Barbie has always been malleable.  Thanks to feminist media, perhaps Mattel can now acknowledge what Barbie hackers have long known: that gender, like the doll itself, is plastic.  

Martha McCaughey is Professor of Sociology at Appalachian State.  She is the author of The Caveman Mystique: Pop-Darwinism and the Debates Over Sex, Violence, and Science, and Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women’s Self-Defense.She blogs on sexual assault prevention at See Jane Fight Back.

Works Cited

Rentschler, Carrie, 2019.  “Making Culture and Doing Feminism.” Pp. 127-147 in Routledge International
Handbook on Contemporary Feminism
Ed. by Tasha Oren and Andrea Press.

Rentschler,
Carrie and Samantha Thrift, 2015. “Doing Feminism in the Network: Networked
Laughter and the Binders Full of Women Meme” Feminist Theory 16:3:329–359.

From music to movies and restaurants, genres are a core part of popular culture. The rules we use to classify different scenes and styles help to shape our tastes and our social identities, and so we often see people sticking to clear boundaries between what they like and what they don’t like (for example: “I’ll listen to anything but metal.”). 

But bending the rules of genre can be the quickest way to shake up expectations. Mashups were huge a few years ago. This past summer we saw “Old Town Road” push boundaries in the country music world on its way to becoming a mega-hit. Zeal & Ardor’s mix of black metal and gospel, country blues, and funk is breaking new ground in heavier music.

Blending genres can also backfire. A new fusion concept could be a hit, or it could just be confusing. Sociological research on Netflix ratings and Yelp reviews finds that people with a high preference for variety, who like to consume many different things, are not necessarily interested in atypical work that blends genres in a new or strange way.

One of the more interesting recent examples is this new gameshow concept from Hillsong—a media channel tied to the charismatic megachurch organization:

What is this show? Is it preaching? Is it a game show? Do millennials even watch prime time game shows? Don’t get me wrong, I’ll hate-watch The Masked Singer every once in a while, but the mix seems a little out of place here. Gerardo Martí makes a good point in the tweet above. This show may be a way to repackage religious messaging in a new style. Given what we know about cultural consumption, however, I wonder if this is just too risky to pull anyone in.

It is easy to chase atypicality today, both for media organizations and religious groups trying to retain a younger viewership and find the next big thing. For all the pressure to innovate, this trailer for SOUTHPAW shows us just how much we still rely on genre rules to figure out what to consume.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

Social scientists rely on the normal distribution all the time. This classic “bell curve” shape is so important because it fits all kinds of patterns in human behavior, from measures of public opinion to scores on standardized tests.

But it can be difficult to teach the normal distribution in social statistics, because at the core it is a theory about patterns we see in the data. If you’re interested in studying people in their social worlds, it can be more helpful to see how the bell curve emerges from real world examples.

One of the best ways to illustrate this is the “Galton Board,” a desk toy that lets you watch the normal distribution emerge from a random drop of ball-bearings. Check out the video below or a slow motion gif here.

The Galton Board is cool, but I’m also always on the lookout for normal distributions “in the wild.” There are places where you can see the distribution in real patterns of social behavior, rather than simulating them in a controlled environment. My absolute favorite example comes from Ed Burmila:

The wear patterns here show exactly what we would expect a normal distribution to tell us about weightlifting. More people use the machine at a middle weight setting for the average strength, and the extreme choices are less common. Not all social behavior follows this pattern, but when we find cases that do, our techniques to analyze that behavior are fairly simple.

Another cool example is grocery shelves. Because stores like to keep popular products together and right in front of your face (the maxim is “eye level is buy level“), they tend to stock in a normally-distributed pattern with popular stuff right in the middle. We don’t necessarily see this in action until there is a big sale or a rush in an emergency. When stores can’t restock in time, you can see a kind of bell curve emerge on the empty shelves. Products that are high up or off to the side are a little less likely to be picked over.

Paul Swansen, Flickr CC

Have you seen normal distributions out in the wild? Send them my way and I might feature them in a future post!

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

I love this episode on Supreme and streetwear from Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, especially for the explainer on conspicuous consumption with a nod to “O.G. Hypebeast” Thorstein Veblen.

Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class is a classic on how people use wealth and taste to make status, and conspicuous consumption is a good way to explain how hype happens. It got me thinking about other classic sociological explanations for how luxury brands blow up.

Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism is also important for understanding luxury brands and other Veblen goods. While conspicuous consumption focuses on why people buy, this idea gets to the core of how these goods get associated with status. We often venerate all the labor that supposedly goes into a luxury product, like a fancy watch, or we venerate the creative processes in branding or appropriating ideas. For Marx, the important part is that we transfer the value of that labor into the product and treat the product like it just has that value on its own.

This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself…There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.

Karl Marx. 1887. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume 1

Marx goes on to compare this process to the development of religious beliefs, and here we could also look at Émile Durkheim and collective effervescence. Part of the reason these products get hype is that they create big social events around shopping. The long lines and limited edition “drops” force people to get together in large crowds at special times to get the product. This makes shopping less of an individual experience and more of a collective one, where just being in the crowd contributes to the excitement.

All these theories make an important point about the social dynamics of popular products. As Matt Powell says in an interview earlier in the episode, you can’t take hype to the bank. But maybe you can; the generation of hype isn’t just an ephemeral, “fake” thing, but an example of a core truth in sociology—if people define hype as real it is real in its consequences.

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

In the United States, men have higher rates of life-threatening health conditions than women — including uncontrolled high blood pressure and heart disease. Recent research published in Socius shows they are also less likely than women to consider becoming vegetarian, and changing these eating habits may be important for their health and for the environment.

To learn more about meat and masculinity, Researchers Sandra Nakagawa and Chloe Hart conducted experiments to test whether a threat to masculinity influences men’s affinity to meat. In one experiment, the researchers told some men their answers from a previous gender identity survey fell in the “average female” range, while others fell into the “average male” range. The authors expected men who received “average female” results to feel like their masculinity was in question, and possibly express stronger attachment to meat on later surveys.

Men who experienced a threat to their masculinity showed more attachment to meat than those who did not experience the threat. They were also more likely to say they needed meat to feel full and were less likely to consider switching to a diet with no meat. This study shows how gendered assumptions about diet matter for how men think about maintaining their health, highlighting the standards men feel they must meet — and eat.

Allison Nobles is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota and Graduate Editor at The Society Pages. Her research primarily focuses on sexuality and gender, and their intersections with race, immigration, and law.

Content Note: This post discusses racist memorabilia in sociological context and provides an image of one collection critical of this memorabilia below the page break.

Why do some people collect racist memorabilia and artifacts? Objects depicting African Americans in derogatory and stereotypical ways are commonly referred to as “black memorabilia” or “black Americana,” although scholar Patricia Turner more aptly names them “contemptible collectibles.” 

As documented by David Pilgrim, founder and curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, these artifacts include everyday objects like toys and games, household items such as cookie jars, and postcards. Although usually associated with the Jim Crow era, many of the items are still produced or reproduced today, and all draw on racial caricatures, such as the “mammy,” “Tom,” “picanniny,” and “brute,” among others. 

Not without controversy, “contemptible collectibles” have different meanings to different people. Some collectors embrace the racist meanings attached to the items. Others buy the objects with the intent of destroying them. Still others hope to “liberate” the artifacts from their previous racist history and hold the objects in “high esteem” instead.

Les Whittington, the grandson of an enslaved person and whose life history is the focus of my recent research, has another reason for collecting. Ignorance or denial of the history of African Americans—especially in Appalachia, where he is from—motivates him to document the existence of slavery and the ensuing Jim Crow era.

Part of Les’s collection includes multiple “mammy” figurines, which he displays in a case, where they look like a small army of racist caricatures. The objects are shocking to see, not just because such iconographic pieces of racist memorabilia are disturbing, but also because seeing so many together is a reminder of the objects’ pervasiveness in the past.

This history may seem long past, but not to Les for whom the legacy of slavery is immediate. His grandfather, “John Myra” Stepp, was enslaved, and died the same year that Les was born.

Les himself grew up in a mostly racially segregated world. Though Brown v. Board of Education ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional in 1954, it wasn’t until 1966, when he was in the sixth grade, that Les’s school became the first middle school in his hometown to fully integrate. And another of his relatives, Barbara Hawkins, also one of John Myra’s grandchildren, was one of four Black students to attend the newly integrated high school in 1965.

His family members faced adversity with great resolve, and Les has told me, “And no matter what, they persevered. They were resilient. And they were smart. Because even though they had all those obstacles in front of them, they were still a success.”

But don’t mistake Les’s comments for a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative. Nor should his comments be taken as a way to obscure past or present racism and white supremacy, as Robin Di’Angelo argues is far too common. Instead, as Les has explained to me, his collection is “physical documentation of a lot of hate,” and represents “a history that doesn’t need to be forgotten, [. . .] even though it’s painful to people.” 

Les also acknowledges that the objects are relevant to today, a message repeated by more well-known collectors, such Alan Page (a former NFL player) and his wife Diane Page. Echoing Les’s concerns about the objects, Diane has noted that “contemptible collectibles” are a “constant reminder that we have to be vigilant,” especially because “people have become more comfortable of late expressing racist views publicly.”

Jacqueline Clark, PhD is a professor of sociology at Ripon College. Her teaching and research interests include social inequalities, the sociology of health and illness, and the sociology of jobs and work. 

That large (and largely trademarked) sporting event is this weekend. In honor of its reputation for massive advertising, Lisa Wade tipped me off about this interesting content analysis of last year’s event by the Media Education Foundation.

MEF watched last year’s big game and tallied just how much time was devoted to playing and how much was devoted to ads and other branded content during the game. According to their data, the ball was only in play “for a mere 18 minutes and 43 seconds, or roughly 8% of the entire broadcast.”

MEF used a pie chart to illustrate their findings, but readers can get better information from comparing different heights instead of different angles. Using their data, I quickly made this chart to more easily compare branded and non-branded content.

Data Source: Media Education Foundation, 2018

One surprising thing that jumps out of this data is that, for all the hubbub about commercials, far and away the most time is devoted to replays, shots of the crowd, and shots of the field without the ball in play. We know “the big game” is a big sell, but it is interesting to see how the thing it sells the most is the spectacle of the event itself.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

The rise of craft beer in the United States gives us more options than ever at happy hour. Choices in beer are closely tied to social class, and the market often veers into the world of pointlessly gendered products. Classic work in sociology has long studied how people use different cultural tastes to signal social status, but where once very particular tastes showed membership in the upper class—like a preference for fine wine and classical music—a world with more options offers status to people who consume a little bit of everything.

Photo Credit: Brian Gonzalez (Flickr CC)

But who gets to be an omnivore in the beer world? New research published in Social Currents by Helana Darwin shows how the new culture of craft beer still leans on old assumptions about gender and social status. In 2014, Darwin collected posts using gendered language from fifty beer blogs. She then visited four craft beer bars around New York City, surveying 93 patrons about the kinds of beer they would expect men and women to consume. Together, the results confirmed that customers tend to define “feminine” beer as light and fruity and “masculine” beer as strong, heavy, and darker.

Two interesting findings about what people do with these assumptions stand out. First, patrons admired women who drank masculine beer, but looked down on those who stuck to the feminine choices. Men, however, could have it both ways. Patrons described their choice to drink feminine beer as open-mindedness—the mark of a beer geek who could enjoy everything. Gender determined who got “credit” for having a broad range of taste.

Second, just like other exclusive markers of social status, the India Pale Ale held a hallowed place in craft brew culture to signify a select group of drinkers. Just like fancy wine, Darwin writes,

IPA constitutes an elite preference precisely because it is an acquired taste…inaccessible to those who lack the time, money, and desire to cultivate an appreciation for the taste.

Sociology can get a bad rap for being a buzzkill, and, if you’re going to partake, you should drink whatever you like. But this research provides an important look at how we build big assumptions about people into judgments about the smallest choices.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.