Way back in 1996 sociologist Susan Walzer published a research article pointing to one of the more insidious gender gaps in household labor: thinking. It was called “Thinking about the Baby.”
In it, Walzer argued that women do more of the intellectual and emotional work of childcare and household maintenance. They do more of the learning and information processing (like buying and reading “how-to” books about parenting or researching pediatricians). They do more worrying (like wondering if their child is hitting his developmental milestones or has enough friends at school). And they do more organizing and delegating (like deciding when towels need washing or what needs to be purchased at the grocery store), even when their partner “helps out” by accepting assigned chores.
For Mother’s Day, a parenting blogger named Ellen Seidman powerfully describes this exhausting and almost entirely invisible job. I am compelled to share. Her essay centers on the phrase “I am the person who notices…” It starts with the toilet paper running out and it goes on… and on… and on… and on. Read it.
She doesn’t politicize what she calls an “uncanny ability to see things… [that enable] our family to basically exist.” She defends her husband (which is fine) and instead relies on a “reduction to personality,” that technique of dismissing unequal workloads first described in the canonical book The Second Shift: somehow it just so happens that it’s her and not her husband that notices all these things.
But I’ll politicize it. The data suggests that it is not an accident that it is she and not her husband that does this vital and brain-engrossing job. Nor is it an accident that it is a job that gets almost no recognition and entirely no pay. It’s work women disproportionately do all over America. So, read it. Read it and remember to be thankful for whoever it is in your life that does these things. Or, if it is you, feel righteous and demand a little more recognition and burden sharing. Not on Mother’s Day. That’s just one day. Everyday.
Despite the maxim about familiarity breeding contempt, we usually like what’s familiar. With music for example, familiarity breeds hits in the short run and nostalgia in the long run. The trouble is that it’s tempting to attribute our liking to the inherent quality of the thing rather than its familiarity. With movies, film buffs may make this same conflation between what they like and what they easily recognize.
That’s one of the points of Scott Lemieux’s takedown of Peter Suderman’s Vox article about Michael Bay.
Suderman hails Bay as “an auteur — the author of a film — whose movies reflect a distinctive, personal sensibility. Few filmmakers are as stylistically consistent as Bay, who recycles many of the same shots, editing patterns, and color schemes in nearly all of his films.”
But what’s so great about being an auteur with a recognizable style? For Lemieux, Michael Bay is a hack. His movies aren’t good, they’re just familiar. Bay’s supporters like them because of that familiarity but then attribute their liking to some imagined cinematic quality of the films.
My students, I discovered last week, harbor no such delusions about themselves and the songs they like. As a prologue to my summary of the Salganik-Watts MusicLab studies, I asked them to discuss what it is about a song that makes it a hit. “Think about hit songs you like and about hit songs that make you wonder, ‘How did that song get to be #1?’” The most frequent answers were all about familiarity and social influence. “You hear the song a lot, and everyone you know likes it, and you sort of just go along, and then you like it too.” I had to probe in order to come up with anything about the songs themselves – the beat, the rhymes, even the performer.
Lemieux cites Pauline Kael’s famous essay “Circles and Squares” (1963), a response to auteur-loving critics like Andrew Sarris. She makes the same point – that these critics conflate quality with familiarity, or as she terms it “distinguishability.”
That the distinguishability of personality should in itself be a criterion of value completely confuses normal judgment. The smell of a skunk is more distinguishable than the perfume of a rose; does that make it better?
Often the works in which we are most aware of the personality of the director are his worst films – when he falls back on the devices he has already done to death. When a famous director makes a good movie, we look at the movie, we don’t think about the director’s personality; when he makes a stinker we notice his familiar touches because there’s not much else to watch.
Assessing quality in art is difficult if not impossible. Maybe it’s a hopeless task, one that my students, in their wisdom, refused to be drawn into. They said nothing about why one song was better than another. They readily acknowledged that they liked songs because they were familiar and popular, criteria that producers, promoters, and payola-people have long been well aware of.
“In the summer of 1957,” an older friend once told me, “My family was on vacation at Lake Erie. There was this recreation hall – a big open room where teenagers hung out. You could get ice cream and snacks, and there was music, and some of the kids danced. One afternoon, they played the same song – ‘Honeycomb’ by Jimmie Rodgers – about twenty times in a row, maybe more. They just kept playing that song over and over again. Maybe it was the only song they played the whole afternoon.”
It wasn’t just that one rec hall. The people at Roulette Records must have been doing similar promotions all around the country and doing whatever they had to do to get air play for the record. By the end of September, “Honeycomb” was at the top of the Billboard charts. Was it a great song? Assessment of quality was irrelevant, or it was limited to the stereotypical critique offered by the kids on American Bandstand: “It’s got a good beat. You can dance to it.” Of course, this was before the 1960s and the rise of the auteur, a.k.a. the singer-songwriter.
Hollywood uses the same principle when it churns out sequels and prequels – Rocky, Saw, Batman. They call it a “franchise,” acknowledging the films had the similarity of Burger Kings. The audience fills the theaters not because the movie is good but because it’s Star Wars. Kael and the other anti-auteurists argue that auteur exponents are no different in their admiration for all Hitchcock. Or Michael Bay. It’s just that their cinema sophistication allows them to fool themselves.
Over at Politics Outdoors, sociologist and political scientist David Meyer has argued that Trump is a charismatic leader. The idea comes from Max Weber, widely seen as a founding father of sociology, who argued that there are three types of authority: traditional, legal, and charismatic. Traditional authority derives its power from custom, legal from bureaucracy, and charismatic from cult of personality.
Weber argues that charismatic leaders are seen as somehow superhuman, exemplary, or ordained. They are different than the average human with exceptional qualities that can be depended upon to ensure that everything they do will be right. It is because Trump is a charismatic leader that he can say “trust me” and give few details as to his priorities or policies, even on something as serious as foreign conflict. It’s why he can say, when asked who he’s consulting: “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.”
His followers don’t need to know what he might do or who he might listen to because they believe in him, not what he stands for. That’s why it makes sense to them to pledge allegiance to Trump instead of the flag.
Meyer adds that charismatic leaders are especially attractive during “turbulent times.” “[F]ew people would be willing throw in with someone who obviously lacks all of the qualities for the job he seeks,” Meyer writes, “unless times were truly desperate.” This is part of why Trump’s constant emphasis on inept politicians, broken policies, and the threat of terror and immigration works in his favor. Even his slogan, “Make American Great Again,” ominously implies that we are no longer great.
Charismatic authority is also, paradoxically, unstable. While followers tend to believe their leader to be infallible, the moment they no longer believe so, his power has vanished. At that time, movements either fall apart or find a charismatic successor. If Trump stumbles enough to reveal a weakness, and his supporters are willing to see it, this particular anti-establishment movement could disappear and more quickly than one might think. Unless, of course, they find someone who can step into Trump’s shoes.
“It is fair to say,” writes historian Heather Williams about the Antebellum period in America, “that most white people had been so acculturated to view black people as different from them that they… barely noticed the pain that they experienced.”
She describes, for example, a white woman who, while wrenching enslaved people from their families to found a distant plantation, describes them as “cheerful,” in “high spirits,” and “play[ful] like children.” It simply never occurred to her or many other white people that black people had the same emotions they did, as the reigning belief among whites was that they were incapable of any complex or deep feeling at all.
It must have created such cognitive dissonance, then — such confusion on the part of the white population — when after the end of slavery, black people tried desperately to reunite with their parents, cousins, aunties and uncles, nieces and nephews, spouses, lovers, children, and friends.
And try they did. For decades newly freed black people sought out their loved ones. One strategy was to put ads in the paper. The “Lost Friends” column was one such resource. It ran in the Southwestern Christian Advocate from 1879 until the early 1900s and a collection of those ads — more than 330 from just one year — has been released by the Historic New Orleans Collection. Here is an example:
The ads would have been a serious investment. They cost 50 cents which, at the time, would have been more than a day’s income for most recently freed people.
Williams reports that reunions were rare. She excerpted this success story from the Southwestern in her book, Help Me To Find My People, about enslaved families torn asunder, their desperate search for one another, and the rare stories of reunification.
A FAMILY RE-UNITED
In the SOUTHWESTERN of March 1st, we published in this column a letter from Charity Thompson, of Hawkins, Texas, making inquiry about her family. She last heard of them in Alabama years ago. The letter, as printed in the paper was read in the First church Houston, and as the reading proceeded a well-known member of the church — Mrs. Dibble — burst into tears and cried out “That is my sister and I have not seen her for thirty three years.” The mother is still living and in a few days the happy family will once more re-united.
I worry that white America still does not see black people as their emotional equals. Psychologists continue to document what is now called a racial empathy gap, both blacks and whites show lesser empathy when they see darker-skinned people experiencing physical or emotional pain. When white people are reminded that black people are disproportionately imprisoned, for example, it increases their support for tougher policing and harsher sentencing. Black prisoners receive presidential pardons at much lower rates than whites. And we think that black people have a higher physical pain threshold than whites.
How many of us tolerate the systematic deprivation and oppression of black people in America today — a people whose families are being torn asunder by death and imprisonment — by simply failing to notice the depths of their pain?
Psychologist Paul Thibodeau and three colleagues decided that it was time to take a closer look at the word “moist,” writing:
The word “moist” … has been the subject of a Facebook page (called “I HATE the word MOIST”) with over 3,000 followers and was rated as the least liked word in the English language by a Mississippi State Poll … ; feature articles have been written in Slate Magazine … and The New Yorker … ; and popular TV shows like“How I Met Your Mother” (“Stuff”) and “The New Girl” (“Birthday”) have devoted entire plot-lines to the comic consequences of word aversion.
Now it’s not just anecdotal. Thibodeau found that between 13 and 21% of people have an aversion to the word.
Is it just a gross-sounding word? If so, then people who hate moist should also hate foist and rejoiced. Verdict: No. Hating the sound moist is independent of one’s appreciation for words that rhyme.
Is it because it makes people think of sex? Verdict: Yes! Priming people to think of sex versus, say, cake, makes people dislike the word more. Bonus: People who scored higher on a measure of disgust for bodily functions were more likely than those who scored lower to claim an aversion to the word.
So, if you don’t like the word moist, get your mind out of the gutter. And, if your aversion is severely hampering your life, just think about cake!
Compared to the less powerful, more powerful people feel more entitled to be treated fairly, are quicker to identify an instance in which they are mistreated, and more likely to take action in response.
These are the findings of a new study by social psychologist Takuya Sawaoka and colleagues. They defined power as “disproportionate control over other people’s individuals’ outcomes.” I imagine someone who is a boss, perhaps, or a police officer, professor in a classroom, or patriarch of a family, or even just people who are wealthy and can pretty much pay people to do anything they want.
The scholars review the literature showing that people with power are entitled to a disproportionate share of resources and more likely to cheat, steal, and lie. They hypothesize that this “individual variability in entitlement shapes people’s reactions to injustices that they experience” and designed a series of studies to test it.
In the first study, participants were primed to feel either powerful or powerless by being asked to write about and reflect on a situation in which they felt they had power over someone else or, alternatively, someone had power over them. They were then instructed to play a game with a confederate (unknown to them) who had ten tokens that they could divide up however they pleased. Participants who had been primed to feel low power expected to get less than half the tokens, but participants who had been primed to feel powerful expected a fair outcome.
They then tested individuals’ sensitivity to unfairness. They showed people primed to feel powerful and powerless distributions of tokens that looked liked this, but with varying amounts, and asked them to indicate whether the distribution was fair or unfair.
Their measure of sensitivity was how quickly the person identified the distribution as unfair. Their findings showed that, when they were the victim of unfairness (see the second pair of columns from the left), people feeling powerful were quicker to identify it as unfair (a lower bar = faster) than were people feeling powerless.
But, when they benefited from unfairness (see the pair of columns on the far right), people feeling powerful were slower to identify it as unfair than when they were the victims and slower than people who felt powerless.
They had similar findings when people primed to feel powerful didn’t directly benefit, but simply observed other people being treated unfairly. And, they tested whether their findings extended to interpersonal justice, too, by asking how people responded to being socially excluded. They found the same pattern.
Finally, they found that, when being treated unfairly, participants primed to feel powerful were quicker to take action than those primed to feel powerless. The two columns on the left below show that high power people quickly left a hypothetical employer for a different one if they were treated unfairly.
So, to conclude, people who are primed to feel powerful feel entitled to fair treatment — both economically and socially — and are quick to recognize and correct it when they are treated unfairly, but they are significantly less likely to notice or care when the less powerful are injustice’s victims.
Tristan Bridges PhD and CJ Pascoe PhD on December 29, 2015
Robin Thicke’s song, “Blurred Lines,” achieved international recognition in 2013. But the lyrics were also heavily criticized as promoting sexual violence by celebrating “blurred lines” around sexual consent. Indeed, the song and video prompted an online photo essay in which women and men are depicted holding up signs with words they heard from their own rapists — some of which were almost direct quotes from Thicke’s song. The song received a great deal of negative and positive press all at the same time.
It’s not a new argument to suggest that many elements of what feminist scholars refer to as “rape culture” are embedded in seemingly pleasurable elements of pop culture, like songs, movies, and television shows. And Robin Thicke’s song served as an example to many of how we not only tolerate rape culture, but celebrate it and render it “sexy.”
Recently, Rebecca Traister discussed just how much rape culture even informs what we think of as “good sex” in her piece “The Game is Rigged.” In it, Traister challenges the notion that all consensual sex is good and shows just how messy the debate about what qualifies as “consensual” really is. In many ways, our national discussion around sexual assault and consent is taking up themes raised by feminists in the 1980s about what actually qualifies as consent in a society in which violence against women is considered sexy.
Compared with “Blurred Lines,” Justin Bieber’s newly released hit single, “What Do You Mean?” has been subject to less critique, though it reproduces the notion that women do not actually know what they want and that they are notoriously bad and communicating their desires (sexual and otherwise). In the song, Bieber asks the woman with whom he’s interacting:
What do you mean?
Ohh ohh ohh
When you nod your head yes
But you wanna say no
What do you mean?
The lack of clear consent isn’t just present in the song; it is what provides the sexual tension. It’s part of what is intended to make the song “sexy.”
Sexualizing women’s sexual indecision is an important part of the way rape culture works. It is one way that conversations about consent often over-simplify a process that is and should be much more complex. The song itself presents Bieber nagging the woman to whom he’s singing to make a decision about their relationship. But there are many elements suggesting that the decision she’s being asked to make is more immediate as well — not only about the larger relationship, but about a sexual interaction in the near future. Throughout the song, the click of a stopwatch can be heard as a beat against which Bieber presses the woman to make a decision while berating her for the mixed signals she has been sending him.
Bieber is presented as the “good guy” throughout the song by attempting to really decipher what the woman actually means. Indeed, this is another element of rape culture: the way in which we are encouraged to see average, everyday guys as “not-rapists,” because rapists are the bad guys who attack women from bushes (at worst) or simply get them drunk at a party (at best).
The controversy over the ad in Bloomingdale’s 2015 holiday catalog urging readers to “spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking” shows that this kind of rape culture is also casually promoted in popular culture as well. But, the larger discourse that Bieber’s song plays a role in promoting is the notion that women do not know what they mean or want. Bieber plays the role of someone simultaneously pressuring her for sexual advance (“Said we’re running out of time”), helping her work through her feelings (“What do you mean?”), and demanding results (“Better make up your mind”). And, like the Bloomingdale’s advertisement, this is not sexy.
Indeed, the music video takes this a step further. Bieber is shown at the beginning paying John Leguizamo on a street corner and asking him to make sure “she doesn’t get hurt.” We later find out that John was paid to orchestrate a kidnapping of both Justin and the woman. Both are taken by men in masks, driven to a warehouse in the trunk of a car, and tied up. Justin is able to free them, but they are still in a room with their kidnappers.
They back up to a door that leads outside the building and see that they are one of the top floors. Justin turns to the woman, holds out his hand and asks, “Do you trust me?” She takes his hand and they both jump out of the building. They jump and fall to the ground, landing on a parachute pillow only to discover that the whole thing was a trick. The kidnapping was actually an orchestrated ruse to bring her to a party that they entered by leaping from the building away from the men who’d taken them. The men in masks all reveal themselves to be smiling beneath. She smiles at Justin, recognizing that it was all a trick, grabs his face, kisses him and they dance the night away in the underground club.
Even though the song is about feeling like a woman really can’t make up her mind about Justin, their relationship, and sexual intimacy, the woman in the video is not depicted this way at all. She appears sexually interested in Justin from the moment the two meet in the video and not bothered by his questions and demands at all. Though it is worth mentioning that he is terrorizing her in the name of romance, indeed the terror itself is a sign of how much he loves her — also a part of rape culture. This visual display alongside the lyrics works in ways that obscure the content of the lyrics, content that works against much of what we are shown visually.
Part of what makes rape culture so insidious is that violence against women is rendered pleasurable and even desirable. Thicke and Bieber’s songs are catchy, fun, and beg to be danced to. The women in Thicke’s video also appear to be having fun strutting around nude while the men sing. The woman in Bieber’s video is being kidnapped and terrified for sport, sure, but it’s because he wants to show his love for her. She’s shown realizing and appreciating this at the conclusion of the video.
Rape culture hides the ways that sexual violence is enacted upon women’s bodies every day. It obscures the ways that men work to minimize women’s control over their own bodies. It conceals the ways that sexual violence stems not just from dangerous, deviant others, but the normal everydayness of heterosexual interactions. And all of this works to make sexualized power arrangements more challenging to identify as problematic, which is precisely what makes confronting rape culture so challenging.
In his book named after the idea, sociologist Stjepan Meštrović describes contemporary Western societies as postemotional. By invoking the prefix “post,” he doesn’t mean to suggest that we no longer have any emotions at all, but that we have become numb to our emotions, so much so that we may not feel them the way we once did.
This, he argues, is a result of being exposed to a “daily diet of phoniness”: a barrage of emotional manipulation from every corner of culture, news, entertainment, infotainment, and advertising. In this postemotional society, our emotions have become a natural resource that, like spring water, is tapped at no cost to serve corporations with goals of maximizing mass consumption and fattening their own wallets. Even companies that make stuff like gum.
As examples, Meštrović describes how our dramas and comedies feed us fictionalized stories that take us on extreme emotional roller coasters, while their advertisements manipulate our emotions to encourage us to buy. Serious media like the news lead with the most emotionally intense stories of the day. Our own lives are usually rather humdrum, but if you watch the news, you vicariously experience trauma every day. A cop killed another kid. An earthquake has killed thousands. Little girls are kidnapped by warlords. Immigrants die by the boatload. Do you feel sad? Angry? Scared? Your friends do; you know because of Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Do you need a pick me up? Here’s a kitten. Feel happy.
Importantly for Meštrović, the emotions that we encounter through these media are not our own. The happiness you feel watching a baby laughing on YouTube isn’t really your happiness, nor is it your sadness when you watch a news story about a tragedy. It’s not your daughter who has treasured your tiny offerings of love for 18 years, but you spend emotional energy on these things nevertheless.
In addition to being vicarious, the emotions we are exposed to are largely fake: from the voiceover on the latest blockbuster movie trailer, to the practiced strain in the voice of the news anchor, to the performative proposal on The Bachelor, to the enthusiasm for a cleaning product in the latest ad. These emotions are performed after being carefully filtered through focus groups and designed to appeal to the masses.
But they are so much more intense than those a typical human experiences in their daily lives, and the onslaught is so constant. Meštrović thinks we are emotionally exhausted by this experience, leaving us little energy left to feel our own, idiosyncratic emotions. We lose our ability to detect our own more nuanced emotions, which are almost always small and mundane compared the extraordinary heights of grief, rage, lust, and love that we are exposed to when the news chases down the latest mass tragedy or the movies offer up never-ending tales of epic quests. Meanwhile, in consuming the emotions of others, we get lost. We end up confused by the dissolving of the boundary between personal and vicarious; our bodies can’t tell the difference between friends on TV and those in real life.
Meštrović is worried about this not just on our behalf. He’s worried that it inures us to real tragedies because our hearts are constantly being broken, but only a little. When we are triggered to constantly feel all the feelings for all the people everywhere — real ones and fake ones — we don’t have the energy to emotionally respond to the ones that are happening right in front of us. His work was originally inspired by the bland global response to the Bosnian genocide in the ’90s, but applies equally well to the slow, stuttering response — both political and personal — to the refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War and the constant news of yet another mass shooting in America. The emotional dilution that characterizes a postemotional society makes us less likely to take action when needed. So, when action is needed, we change our Facebook profile picture instead of taking to the streets.