gender: androcentrism

Originally posted at Gender & Society.

Photo by JCDecaux Creative Solutions flickr creative commons.

I recently took in a poignant guest lecture on hookup culture by Lisa Wade. During the talk, Wade detailed the link between rape culture and hookup culture. While hooking up encourages women to behave “like men,” it simultaneously creates an environment that rejects feminine traits (kindness, care, empathy). Since then I’ve continuously noticed how we celebrate women who display traditionally masculine characteristics (be aggressive! lean in!). But, we often do so in ways that devalue feminine attributes. It is with this framework in mind that I went to see Wonder Woman.

Donning my “feminist mama” sweatshirt, I expected to be underwhelmed given the mediocre reviews describing the film as just another boilerplate superhero movie. With my critical 3D glasses on, I understood why many were frustrated. Steven Trevor always has a protecting arm over Diana, even after she demonstrates that she’s indestructible. The persistence of the male gaze was also disappointing. I recognize the need to reflect Marston’s 1940’s creation, but expecting Diana to run through forests, scale mountains, and beat down villains in a sensible wedge was as laughable as Steven Trevor’s ridiculous assurance to the audience that his genitalia was “above average.” It is no coincidence that Wonder Woman’s strong but “sexy” image was the one chosen by Douglas to represent her concept of enlightened sexism nearly a decade ago.

At the same time, I think it is important to recognize the film’s strengths. The women cast as Amazonians are athletes in real life with muscular bodies that challenge anglocentric beauty ideals. Diana is a unique combination of sex appeal, acumen, and wit. She is fierce but nurturing, emboldened to take down Ares but driven by her desire to protect children. Her outfit choices are elegant but practical and she even managed to stash a sword in her stolen evening gown. Diana asserted confidence and ability while her male sidekicks over-promised and under-delivered. In short, Wonder Woman seems to encapsulate the kind of feminism Wade described as lost: embracing aggression and kindness, strength and beauty.

Given Diana’s character complexity, I find language lauding the film for its ability to break the “curse of Catwoman” particularly offensive. Perhaps if Hollywood had chosen to produce Joss Whedon’s version of Wonder Woman, where Diana’s uses a “sexy dance” to thwart the villain, it might warrant a film comparison. After all, the Catwoman “plot” was a lurid focus on Halle Berry in a tight-fitting costume, a hypersexualized (de)evolution of a female protagonist. It tanked in the box office because, like most female characters in superhero films, Patience Phillips was a two-dimensional stereotype of femininity – meek, fickle, a tease. She had to “overcome” her feminine traits to succeed and used sex appeal as a weapon. Comparing the films conflates the presence of a female lead with the notion that both films were made for women. It’s like those who questioned if Clinton supporters might vote for McCain in 2008 because he put Palin on the ticket. Having a woman lead doesn’t mean women’s interests are being considered.

Despite these attempts at male wish fulfillment, Wonder Woman’s success was not due to men aged 15-25. Unlike other superhero flicks, Wonder Woman’s audience was roughly 52% women, and women and older audience viewers continue to build its momentum. When the Alamo Drafthouse risked litigation to host an all-female screening it sold out so quickly it added more women-only events to respond to the demand. Nevertheless, the comparison to Catwoman persists as does the dominant narrative that films outside of the Captain America framework are a “gamble.”  Ignoring the success of films like Wonder Woman (Arrival or Get Out or Moonlight) allows executives to deflect the fact that most “flops” were made with an exclusively white, heterosexual, male audience in mind (I’m looking at you Cowboys & Aliens).  Yet celebrating Wonder Woman as a “triumph,” allows us to pretend that similar female protagonists dominate the screen instead of calling more attention to the fact that women still only accounted for 32% of all speaking roles in 2015 or that non-white actors are continuously overlooked at the Oscars.

Diana showcases a physical resilience seldom credited to women – let’s celebrate that. She encapsulates a kind of feminism that Wade rightfully notes is nearly nonexistent. Diana is a warrior who is agentic, driven, nurturing, protective, and merciful. She exhibits masculine strength without having to cast aside her feminine traits.  She voices concern for those who cannot protect themselves but she is a trained killer. By labeling Wonder Woman not feminist enough we overlook the crux of the problem: Wonder Woman’s empowerment narrative was likely tempered because Hollywood doesn’t really care about appealing to women. Highlighting the importance of Diana’s feminist dichotomy challenges Hollywood to build on that momentum and make a sequel without pandering to young, heterosexual, male audiences. In doing so, my hope is that in the future we have so many superheroes like Diana (strong because of their femininity, not strong despite it) that critics will have ample — and equivalent — characters for comparison.

Francesca Tripodi, PhD is a sociologist who studies how participatory media perpetuates systems of inequality. This year she is researching how partisan groups interact with media and the role community plays in legitimating what constitutes news and information as a postdoctoral scholar at Data & Society. Francesca would like to thank Caroline Jack and Tristan Bridges for their helpful feedback on this piece.

Both men and women face a lot of pressure to perform masculinity and femininity respectively. But, ironically, people who rigidly conform to rules about gender, those who enact perfect performances of masculinity or femininity, are often the butt of jokes. Many of us, for example, think the male body builder is kind of gross; we suspect that he may be compensating for something, dumb like a rock, or even narcissistic. Likewise, when we see a bleach blond teetering in stilettos and pulling up her strapless mini, many of us think she must be stupid and shallow, with nothing between her ears but fashion tips.

The fact that we live in a world where there are different expectations for men’s and women’s behavior, in other words, doesn’t mean that we’re just robots acting out those expectations. We actually tend to mock slavish adherence to those rules, even as we carefully negotiate them (breaking some rules, but not too many, and not the really important ones).

In any case, I thought of this when I saw this ad. The woman at the other end of the table is doing (at least some version of) femininity flawlessly.  The hair is perfect, her lips exactly the right shade of pink, her shoulders are bare. But… it isn’t enough.  The man behind the menu has “lost interest.”

It’s unfortunate that we spend so much time telling women that the most important thing about them is that they conform to expectations of feminine beauty when, in reality, living up to those expectations means performing an identity that we disdain.

We do it to men, too.  We expect guys to be strictly masculine, and when they turn out to be jocks and frat boys, we wonder why they can’t be nicer or more well-rounded.

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 average man thinks he’s smarter than the average woman. And women generally agree.

It starts early. At the age of five, most girls and boys think that their own sex is the smartest, a finding consistent with the idea that people tend to think more highly of people like themselves. Around age six, though, right when gender stereotypes tend to take hold among children, girls start reporting that they think boys are smarter, while boys continue to favor themselves and their male peers.

They may have learned this from their parents. Both mothers and fathers tend to think that their sons are smarter than their daughters. They’re more likely to ask Google if their son is a “genius” (though also whether they’re “stupid”). Regarding their daughters, they’re more likely to inquire about attractiveness.

Image via New York Times.

Once in college, the trend continues. Male students overestimate the extent to which their males peers have “mastered” biology, for example, and underestimate their female peers’ mastery, even when grades and outspokenness were accounted for.  To put a number on it, male students with a 3.00 G.P.A. were evaluated as equally smart as female students with a 3.75 G.P.A.

When young scholars go professional, the bias persists. More so than women, men go into and succeed in fields that are believed to require raw, innate brilliance, while women more so than men go into and succeed in fields that are believed to require only hard work.

Once in a field, if brilliance can be attributed to a man instead of a woman, it often will be. Within the field of economics, for example, solo-authored work increases a woman’s likelihood of getting tenure, a paper co-authored with a woman has an effect as well, but a paper co-authored with a man has zero effect. Male authors are given credit in all cases.

In negotiations over raises and promotions at work, women are more likely to be lied to, on the assumption that they’re not smart enough to figure out that they’re being given false information.

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Overall, and across countries, men rate themselves as higher in analytical intelligence than women, and often women agree. Women are often rated as more verbally and emotionally intelligent, but the analytical types of intelligence (such as mathematical and spatial) are more strongly valued. When intelligence is not socially constructed as male, it’s constructed as masculine. Hypothetical figures presented as intelligent are judged as more masculine than less intelligent ones.

All this matters.

By age 6, some girls have already started opting out of playing games that they’re told are for “really, really smart” children. The same internalized sexism may lead young women to avoid academic disciplines that are believed to require raw intelligence. And, over the life course, women may be less likely than men to take advantage of career opportunities that they believe demand analytical thinking.

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.

Sexism in American society has been on the decline. Obstacles to female-bodied people excelling in previously male-only occupations and hobbies have lessened. And women have thrived in these spaces, sometimes even overtaking men both quantitatively and qualitatively.

Another kind of bias, though, has gotten worse: the preference for masculinity over femininity. Today we like our men manly, just like we used to, but we like our women just a little bit manly, too. This is true especially when women expect to compete with men in masculine arenas.

A recent study by a team of psychologists, led by Sarah Banchefsky, collected photographs of 40 male and 40 female scientists employed in STEM departments of US universities. 50 respondents were told they were participating in a study of “first impressions” and were asked to rate each person according to how masculine or feminine they appeared. They were not told their occupation. They were then asked to guess as to the likelihood that each person was a scientist, then the likelihood that each was an early childhood educator.

Overall, women were rated as more feminine than men and less likely to be scientists. Within the group of women, however, perceived femininity was also negatively correlated with the estimated likelihood of being a scientist and positively correlated with the likelihood of being an educator. In other words, both having a female body and appearing feminine was imagined to make a woman less inclined to or suited to science. The same results were not found for men.

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Banchefsky and her colleagues conclude that “subtle variations in gendered appearance alter perceptions that a given woman is a scientist” and this has important implications for their careers:

First, naturally feminine-appearing young women and those who choose to emphasize their femininity may not be encouraged or given opportunities to become scientists as a result of adults’ beliefs that feminine women are not well-suited to the occupation.

Second, feminine-appearing women who are already scientists may not be taken as seriously as more masculine-appearing ones. They may have to overperform relative to their male and masculine female peers to be recognized as equally competent. Femininity may, then, cost them job opportunities, promotions, awards, grants, and valuable collaboration.

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.

“Manspreading” is a relatively new term.  According to Google Trends (below), the concept wasn’t really used before the end of 2014.  But the idea it’s describing is not new at all.  The notion that men occupy more space than women is one small piece of what Raewyn Connell refers to as the patriarchal dividend–the collection of accumulated advantages men collectively receive in androcentric patriarchal societies (e.g., wages, respect, authority, safety).  Our bodies are differently disciplined to the systems of inequality in our societies depending upon our status within social hierarchies.  And one seemingly small form of privilege from which many men benefit is the idea that men require (and are allowed) more space.


It’s not uncommon to see advertisements on all manner of public transportation today condemning the practice of occupying “too much” space while other around you “keep to themselves.”  PSA’s like these are aimed at a very specific offender: some guy who’s sitting in a seat with his legs spread wide enough in a kind of V-shaped slump such that he is effectively occupying the seats around him as well.

I recently discovered what has got to be one of the most exhaustive treatments of the practice ever produced.  It’s not the work of a sociologist; it’s the work of a German feminist photographer, Marianne Wex.  In Wex’s treatment of the topic, Let’s Take Back Our Space: Female and Male Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures (1984, translated from the German edition, published in 1979), she examines just shy of 5,000 photographs of men and women exhibiting body language that results from and plays a role in reproducing unequal gender relations.

The collection is organized by an laudable number of features of the various bodily positions.  Interestingly, it was published in precisely the same year that Erving Goffman undertook a similar sociological study of what he referred to as “gender display” in his book, Gender Advertisements–though Goffman’s analysis utilized advertisements as the data under consideration.

Like Goffman, Wex examined the various details that made up bodily postures that seem to exude gender, addressing the ways our bodies are disciplined by society.  Wex paired images according to the position of feet and legs, whether the body was situated to put weight on one or two legs, hand and arm positions, and much much more.  And through this project, Wex also developed an astonishing vocabulary for body positions that she situates as the embodied manifestations of patriarchal social structures.  The whole book organizes this incredible collection of (primarily) photographs she took between 1972 and 1977 by theme.  On every page, men are depicted  above women (as the above image illustrates)–a fact Wex saw as symbolizing the patriarchal structure of the society she sought to catalog so scrupulously.  She even went so far as to examine bodily depiction throughout history as depicted in art to address the ways the patterns she discovered can be understood over time.

If you’re interested, you can watch the Youtube video of the entire book.

Tristan Bridges, PhD is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the co-editor of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Inequality, and Change with C.J. Pascoe and studies gender and sexual identity and inequality. You can follow him on Twitter here. Tristan also blogs regularly at Inequality by (Interior) Design.

Flashback Friday.

Eden H. sent in an exploratory study about kids’ stereotypes of scientists. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermilab asked 7th graders to draw and describe a “scientist” before and after visiting the lab on a class trip. They first read about the Fermilab, then came to the lab and meet with some of the scientists and talk about their work. From the Fermilab website:

What we changed for this field trip was the before and after descriptions and small group sessions for each student to meet with two of three physicists rather than one large group session. We deliberately chose a typical white male, a young female and an African American physicist. We let the students and physicist take their discussion where they wanted.

Here are some of the before-and-after pictures and descriptions (all 31 are available here):

In general, the students seemed to come away with an idea of scientists as being more like “normal” people, not just stereotypical geeks in lab coats. But some of the other changes are interesting, too. The author of a post about the study at Restructure! analyzed the before-and-after images (as best as she could identify the sex of the drawings):

  • Among girls (14 in total), 36% portrayed a female scientist in the “before” drawing, and 57% portrayed a female scientist in the “after” drawing.
  • Among boys (17 in total), 100% portrayed a male scientist in the “before” drawing, and 100% portrayed a male scientist in the “after” drawing.

I looked through all of them and only saw one instance (posted above) where the child changed the scientists to be clearly non-White.

Of course this is a small sample, but the results seem to reproduce what other studies have found regarding the importance of role models and gender stereotyping, in particular, that girls are more likely to imagine themselves  in careers when they see women doing them. For instance, the relative lack of female professors in male-dominated departments such as engineering may play a role in discouraging women from choosing to major in such fields (as well as other factors such as steering, concerns about family/work conflicts, etc.).

Originally posted in 2010.

Gwen Sharp, PhD is a professor of sociology and the Associate Dean of liberal arts and sciences at Nevada State College. 

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.

Cross-posted and in print at Money.

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.

Musician Ryan Adams recently released an album cover. A cover, that is, of an entire album written and performed by Taylor Swift. Both albums are titled 1989.

7via TheVine.com.

Critical praise for Adams’ version was immediate, turning quickly to a comparison of the two. At There’s Research on That!, Jacqui Frost explained that there was…

…a media frenzy about which album is “better” and who deserves credit for the “depth and complexity” that many say Adams brought to Swift’s poppier original. Some reviews argue Adams “vindicated” Taylor Swift as an artist; others argue that emotional depth was already present in Swift’s songwriting…

Swift’s 1989 was the best selling album of 2014 — by popular vote, it was obviously an excellent album — but many people seemed not to notice. Instead, they wanted to talk about who should get credit for the quality of Adams’ album, as if whether there was anything good there to begin with was an open question.

Frost draws on sociological research to suggest that gender might help explain why we have such a hard time giving credit to Swift.

First, she notes that musical genres are gendered and we tend to take feminized genres less seriously than masculinized ones. “Many publications that reviewed Adams’ version [of 1989],” for example, “did not review Swift’s original.” This may be because serious music critics don’t review pop.

Second, research shows that male creatives in the music industry are generally more likely to get credit than females ones. Frost writes:

[M]ale musicians, regardless of genre, are more likely to receive critical recognition and be “consecrated” into the popular music canon. Women are less likely to be seen as “legitimate” artists and are more often judged on their emotional authenticity and connections with “more” legitimate, male artists.

In fact, Frost notes, “the albums will be competing for a Grammy this year, and many think Adams will take it over Swift

Whatever you think of the two albums, the instinct to dismiss Swift’s album as “just pop” and Adams’ version as “artistic” is likely tied to the powerful ways in which the music industry, and our own experience of music, has a thumb on the scale in favor of men and masculine genres.

This post borrows heavily from Jacqui Frost at TROT! and you can find links to the original research there.

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.