gender: masculinity

Originally posted at the Gender & Society blog.

Two songs that seemed like they were on the radio every time I tuned into a pop station last summer were Omi’s single, “Cheerleader” (originally released in 2015) and Andy Grammar’s song, “Honey, I’m good” (originally released in 2014). They’re both songs written for mass consumption. Between 2014 and 2015, “Cheerleader” topped the charts in over 20 countries around the world. And, while “Honey, I’m Good” had less mass appeal, it similarly found its way onto top hit lists around the world.

They’re different genres of music. But they both fall under the increasingly meaningless category of “pop.”  And, because they both gained popularity around the same time, it was possible to hear them back to back on radio stations across the U.S.  Both songs are about the same issue: each are ballads sung by men celebrating themselves for being faithful in their heterosexual relationships.  Below is Omi’s “Cheerleader.” Here is the chorus:

“All these other girls are tempting / But I’m empty when you’re gone / And they say / Do you need me? / Do you think I’m pretty? / Do I make you feel like cheating? / And I’m like no, not really cause / Oh I think that I found myself a cheerleader / She is always right there when I need her / Oh I think that I found myself a cheerleader / She is always right there when I need her”

In Omi’s song, he situates himself as uninterested in cheating because he’s found a woman who believes in him more than he does. And this, he suggests, is worth his fidelity. Though, he does admit to being tempted, which also works to situate him as laudable because he “has options.”

Andy Grammar’s song is a different genre. And like Omi’s song, it’s catchy (though, apparently less catchy if pop charts are a good measure). Grammar’s video is dramatically different as well. It’s full of couples lip syncing his song while claiming amounts of time they’ve been faithful to one another. Again, and for comparison, below is the chorus:

“Nah nah, honey I’m good / I could have another but I probably should not / I’ve got somebody at home, and if I stay I might not leave alone / No, honey I’m good, I could have another but I probably should not / I’ve gotta bid you adieu and to another I will stay true”

Unlike Omi’s song, Grammar’s single is a song about a man at a bar without his significant other. He’s turning down drinks from a woman (or women), claiming that he doesn’t trust himself to be faithful if he gives into the drink. Instead, he opts to leave the bar to ensure he doesn’t give in to this temptation.

Both songs are written in the same spirit. They’re songs that appear to be about women, but are actually anthems about what amazing men these guys are because… well, because they don’t cheat, but could.

I was struck by the common message, a message at least partially to blame for why we all heard them so much. And the message is that, for men in heterosexual relationships, resisting the temptation to be unfaithful is hard work. And this message helps to highlight key ingredients of contemporary hegemonic masculinities: heterosexuality and promiscuity. Both men are identifying as heterosexual throughout each song. But, you might think, they’re not identifying as promiscuous. So, how are they supporting this cultural ideal if they appear to be challenging it? The answer to that is all in the delivery.

Amy C. Wilkins studied the ways that a group of college Christian men navigated what she terms the “masculinity dilemma” of demonstrating themselves to be heterosexual and heterosexually active when they were in a group committed to abstinence. Wilkins discovered that they navigated this dilemma by enacting what she refers to as “collective processes of temptation” whereby they crafted a discourse about just how masculine they were by resisting the temptation to be heterosexually active. They ritualistically discussed the problem of heterosexual temptation. And, in so doing, Wilkins argues that the men she studied, “perform their heterosexuality collectively, aligning themselves with conventional assumptions about masculinity through the ritual invocation of temptation” (here: 353). It’s hard to craft an identity based on not doing something. But if you’re going to, Wilkins argues that temptation is key.

Similarly, Sarah Diefendorf found that young evangelical Christian men navigate their gender identities alongside pledges of sexual abstinence until marriage. Men in Diefendorf’s study used one another as “accountability partners” to make sure they didn’t cheat on their pledges if they were in relationships, but even with things like pornography or masturbation. As Diefendorf writes, “These confessions… enable these men to demonstrate a connection with hegemonic masculinity through claims of desire for future heterosexual practices” (here: 658-659). In C.J. Pascoe’s study of high school boys navigating tenuous gender and sexual identities, she refers to this process more generally as “compulsive heterosexuality.”

Both songs are meant to situate the two singers as great men, men to be admired. But, being able to listen to this message and “get it” means that you can take for granted the premise on which the songs are based—in this case, that men are hard-wired to be sexual scoundrels and that heterosexual women should count themselves lucky if they are fortunate enough to have landed a man committed to not living up to his wiring. Without understanding men as having a natural and apparently insatiable sexual wanderlust, these songs don’t make sense.

Both Omi and Grammar need the discourse of temptation to frame themselves as noble. If we want to challenge men to not cheat, we should be challenge the idea that they’re working against biologically deterministic inclinations to do so. I’m not sure it would make a top 20 hit, but neither would it recuperate forms of gendered inequality through the guise of dismantling them.

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*Thanks to Sarah Diefendorf for her edits and smart feedback on this post.

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.

Late last year Covergirl announced a new spokesmodel, a 17-year-old named James Charles. Their Instagram announcement currently boasts over 53,000 likes, though the comments on the post were decidedly mixed. They ranged from “I will never buy another (coverGIRL) because of this” to  “love love love” and “the world is coming to equality and acceptingness.”

In my circles, the overwhelming response was enthusiasm. Charles’ ascendance to Covergirl status was evidence that gender flexibility was going mainstream. And, I suppose it is.

I am always suspicious, though, of corporate motives. Covergirl’s decision to feature Charles does serve to break down the gender binary, but it does other things, too. Most notably, if makeup companies could convince boys and men that their product is as essential for them as it is for girls and women, it would literally double the size of their market.

That this hasn’t happened yet, in fact, is evidence of the triumph of gender ideology over capitalism. Either companies have decided that there’s (almost) no market in men or men have resisted what marketing has been applied. It’s an impressive resistance to what seems like an obvious expansion. There’s just no money in men thinking their faces look just fine as they are; the fact that we’ve allowed them to do so thus far is actually pretty surprising when you think about it.

If Covergirl had its way, though, I have no doubt that it would make every 17-year-old boy in America into a James Charles. Such a change would contribute to breaking down the gender binary, at least as we know it (though no doubt there are more and less feminist ways of doing this). Of course, if it was advantageous to do so, Covergirl would claim that it had something to do with feminism. But, I wouldn’t buy it.

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.

1Recently Nadya Tolokonnikova was interviewed by NPR about Pussy Riot’s latest video. In it, Tolokonnikova explores themes of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny and its influence on governance through a graphic and violent imagined America under a Trump presidency. Trigger warning for… most things:

Tolokonnikova is making a statement about American politics, but she is clearly informed by Putin’s performance of masculinity and how that has translated into policy measures and electoral success. When he took office in early 2000, Putin needed to legitimize his power and counteract the global impression of Russian weakness after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The projection of masculinity was a PR strategy: fishing and riding a horse shirtless, shooting a Siberian tiger, and emerging from the Black Sea in full scuba gear. These actions combined with bellicose foreign policy initiatives to portray Putin as assertive and unrelenting.

In the book, Sex, Politics, & Putin, Valerie Sperling makes a case that his strategy was successful. She investigates the political culture under Putin and argues there is popular support for Putin’s version of masculinity and its implications for femininity, even among young women. As a consequence, the gender and sexual politics of Russia have deviated from those of wider Europe, as indicated by the rise of the Russian slur “gayropa.”

The machismo and misogyny embodied by Putin have also translated into policy: the “gay propaganda” law, for example, and the ban on international adoption to gay couples. In his 2013 address to the Federal Assembly, Putin framed these policies as necessary to combat the “destruction of traditional values.”

While there is no systematic research on the role of masculinity in Trump’s rise to the national political stage in the US just yet, and while the nature of the link between Putin and Trump remains unclear (if one truly even exists), we should consider Putin’s Russia a cautionary tale. His performances of masculinity – his so-called “locker room talk,” discussion of genitalia size, and conduct towards pageant contestants — could go from publicity stunt to public support to actual policy measures. His bombastic language about defeating ISIS and the need for more American “strength” at home and abroad, for example, could easily translate into foreign policy.

Coverage of Trump during this election cycle is credited for hundreds of millions in profits for news agencies and Trump himself has enjoyed an unprecedented level of coverage. While Trump has benefited from far more airtime than Putin did in 2000, he has not been able to find the same level of popular support. At least not yet. When Putin rose to status as a national figure in Russia his approval rating was approximately 60%, and it grew from there to levels most American politicians only dream of. If Trump is willing and able to adopt other components of Putin’s leadership style, there is precedent for the possibility that his presidency could truly turn American back.

Alisha Kirchoff is a sociology PhD student at Indiana University-Bloomington. She has previously lived and worked in Russia and is currently working on research in political sociology, law and society, organizations, and gender. Her latest project is on fertility intentions and family policies in Putin’s Russia. You can follow her on twitter.

1America woke up this weekend to the news of the Orlando massacre, the deadliest civilian mass shooting in the nation’s history. The senseless tragedy will undoubtedly evoke anger, sadness and helplessness.

In the meantime, many will forget to think and talk about Stanford swimmer Brock Turner’s crime and his “summer vacation” jail sentence: three months for the vile sexual assault of an unconscious woman.

As a sociologist, I was struck not by the abrupt shift to a new moral crisis, but by the continuity. Sociologists look for the bigger picture, and in my mind, Mateen’s crime didn’t displace Turner’s. Yet the media simply replaced one outrage with another, moving our attention away from Stanford and toward Orlando, as if these two crimes were unrelated. They’re not.

Status, masculinity and sexual assault

Brock Turner was an all-American boy: a white, Division I swimmer at one of the nation’s top universities. What he did to his victim was arguably all-American, too, confirmed by decades of research tying rape to a sense of male superiority and entitlement.

I study sex on campus, where sexual violence is perpetrated disproportionately by “high-status” men – fraternity men and certain male athletes in particular. These men are more likely than other men to endorse the sexual double standard, believing that they are justified in praising sexually active men, while condemning and even abusing women who are less sexually active.

They are also more likely to promote homophobia, hypermasculinity and male dominance; tolerate violent and sexist jokes; endorse misogynistic attitudes and behaviors; and endorse false beliefs about rape. Accordingly, athletes are responsible for an outsized number of sexual assaults on campus, and women who attend fraternity parties are significantly more likely to be assaulted than those who attend other parties with alcohol and those who don’t go to parties at all.

Status, masculinity and violent homophobia

Omar Mateen’s crime is related to this strand of masculinity. Mateen’s father told the media that his son had previously been angered by the sight of two men kissing, and reports claim that he was a “regular” at the Pulse nightclub and was known to use a gay hookup app.

Anti-gay hate crimes, like violence against women (Mateen also reportedly beat his ex-wife), are tied closely to rigid and hierarchical ideas about masculinity that depend on differentiating “real” men from women as well as gay and bisexual men. Men who experience homoerotic feelings themselves sometimes erupt into especially aggressive homophobia.

As the sociologist Michael Kimmel has argued, while we talk ad infinitum about guns, mental illness and, in this case, Islamic identity, we miss the strongest unifying factor: these mass murderers are men, almost to the last one. In his book Guyland,” Kimmel argues that as many boys grow into men, “they learn that they are entitled to feel like a real man, and that they have the right to annihilate anyone who challenges that sense of entitlement.”

He means “annihilate” literally.

We now know that many boys who descend on their schools with guns are motivated by fears that they are perceived as homosexual and that attacking suspected or known homosexuals is a way for boys to demonstrate heterosexuality to their peers.

It makes sense to me, as a woman, that men would fear gay men because such men threaten to put other men under the same sexually objectifying, predatory, always potentially threatening gaze that most women learn to live with as a matter of course. Being looked at by a gay man threatens to turn any man into a figurative woman: subordinate, weak, penetrable. That can be threatening enough to a man invested in masculinity, but discovering that he enjoys being the object of other men’s desires – being put in the position of a woman – could stoke both internalized and externalized homophobia even further.

Meanwhile, gay men, by their very existence, challenge male dominance by undermining the link between maleness and the sexual domination of women. It’s possible that Mateen, enraged by his inability to stop men from kissing in public and struggling with self-hatred, took it upon himself to annihilate the people who dared pierce the illusion that manhood and the righteous sexual domination of women naturally go hand-in-hand.

The common denominator

Mass shootings, frighteningly, appear to have become a part of our American cultural vernacular, a shared way for certain men to protest threats to their entitlement and defend the hierarchy their identities depend on. As the sociologists Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober wrote last year for the website Feminist Reflections:

This type of rampage violence happens more in the United States of America than anywhere else… Gun control is a significant part of the problem. But, gun control is only a partial explanation for mass shootings in the United States. Mass shootings are also almost universally committed by men. So, this is not just an American problem; it’s a problem related to American masculinity and to the ways American men use guns.

Some members of the media and candidates for higher office will focus exclusively on Mateen’s Afghan parents. But he – just like Brock Turner – was born, raised and made a man right here in America. While it appears that he had (possibly aspirational) links to ISIS, it in no way undermines his American-ness. This was terrorism, yes, but it was domestic terrorism: of, by and aimed at Americans.

I don’t want to force us all to keep Turner in the news (though I imagine that he and his father are breathing a perverse sigh of relief right now). I want to remind us to keep the generalities in mind even as we mourn the particulars.

Sociologists are pattern seekers. This problem is bigger than Brock Turner and Omar Mateen. It’s Kevin James Loibl, who sought out and killed the singer Christina Grimmie the night before the massacre at Pulse. It’s James Wesley Howell, who was caught with explosives on his way to the Los Angeles Pride Parade later that morning. It’s the grotesque list of men who used guns to defend their sense of superiority that I collected and documented last summer.

The problem is men’s investment in masculinity itself. It offers rewards only because at least some people agree that it makes a person better than someone else. That sense of superiority is, arguably, why men like Turner feel entitled to violating an unconscious woman’s body and why ones like Mateen will defend it with murderous rampages, even if it means destroying themselves in the process. And unless something changes, there will be another sickening crisis to turn to, and another sinking sense of familiarity.

Cross-posted at The Conversation, New Republic, Special Broadcasting Company (SBS)United Press InternationalNewsweek Japan (in Japanese), and Femidea (in Korean).

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.

Controversy erupted in 2014 when video of National Football League (NFL) player Ray Rice violently punched his fiancé (now wife) and dragged her unconscious body from an elevator. Most recently, Deadspin released graphic images of the injuries NFL player Greg Hardy inflicted on his ex-girlfriend. In both instances, NFL officials insisted that if they had seen the visual evidence of the crime, they would have implemented harsher consequences from the onset.

Why are violent images so much more compelling than other evidence of men’s violence against women? A partial answer is found by looking at whose story is privileged and whose is discounted. The power of celebrity and masculinity reinforces a collective desire to disbelieve the very real violence women experience at the hands of men. Thirteen Black women collectively shared their story of being raped and sexually assaulted by a White police officer, Daniel Holtzclaw, in Oklahoma. Without the combined bravery of the victims, it is unlikely any one woman would have been able to get justice. A similar unfolding happened with Bill Cosby. The first victims to speak out against Cosby were dismissed and treated with suspicion. The same biases that interfere with effectively responding to rape and sexual assault hold true for domestic violence interventions.

Another part of the puzzle language. Anti-sexist male activist Jackson Katz points out that labeling alleged victims “accusers” shifts public support to alleged perpetrators. The media’s common use of a passive voice when reporting on domestic violence (e.g., “violence against women”) inaccurately emphasizes a shared responsibility of the perpetrator and victim for the abuser’s violence and generally leaves readers with an inaccurate perception that domestic violence isn’t a gendered social problem. Visual evidence of women’s injuries at the hands of men is a powerful antidote to this misrepresentation.

In my own research, published in Sociological Spectrum, I found that the race of perpetrators also matters to who is seen as accountable for their violence. I analyzed 330 news articles about 66 male celebrities in the headlines for committing domestic violence. Articles about Black celebrities included criminal imagery – mentioning the perpetrator was arrested, listing the charges, citing law enforcement and so on – 3 times more often than articles about White celebrities. White celebrities’ violence was excused and justified 2½ times more often than Black celebrities’, and more often described as mutual escalation or explained away due to mitigating circumstances, such as inebriation.

Data from an analysis of 330 articles about 66 Black and White celebrities who made headlines for perpetrating domestic violence (2009-2012):

Caption: Data from an analysis of 330 articles about 66 Black and White celebrities who made headlines for perpetrating domestic violence (2009 – 2012).

Accordingly, visual imagery of Ray and Hardy’s violence upholds common stereotypes of Black men as violent criminals. Similarly, White celebrity abusers, such as Charlie Sheen, remain unmarked as a source of a social problem. It’s telling that the public outcry to take domestic violence seriously has been centered around the NFL, a sport in which two-thirds of the players are African American. The spotlight on Black male professional athletes’ violence against women draws on racist imagery of Black men as criminals. Notably, although domestic violence arrests account for nearly half of NFL players’ arrests for violent crimes, players have lower arrest rates for domestic violence compared to national averages for men in a similar age range.

If the NFL is going to take meaningful action to reducing men’s violence against women, not just protect its own image, the league will have to do more than take action only in instances in which visual evidence of a crime is available. Moreover, race can’t be separated from gender in their efforts.

Joanna R. Pepin a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland. Her work explores the relationship between historical change in families and the gender revolution.

Ever since Hillary Clinton became the Democratic nominee for president, commentators have been speculating as to how much being a woman will hurt her chances for election. The data suggest it won’t. In fact, if anything, what we know about American voting patterns suggests that being a woman is a slight advantage over being a man.

It’s not that there’s no sexism at all. Parents are more likely to encourage their sons to aspire to political office than their daughters. Women are more likely to be overburdened by childcare and housework when they’re married to men. Women are less likely than men to be tapped by powerful political party gatekeepers. And the media continues to produce biased news coverage.

But when women actually get on the ballot they are as likely to win an election as men. In fact, men in the United States seem rather indifferent towards a candidate’s sex, whereas women tend to prefer females.

Gender stereotypes still apply: voters tend to think that men are better at handling masculine areas of governance like foreign affairs and the economy, but they tend to think that women are better at feminized areas like health care and education. This means that being female can help or hurt a candidate, depending on which issues dominate the election. But, when looked at as an aggregate, gender stereotypes don’t hurt women more than men.

So, there’s one thing we can be reasonably sure of this November: If Clinton loses and Trump wins, it is unlikely to be because the American electorate is too sexist to elect a woman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s time to go buy your dad a tie! What are you getting your father for Father’s Day this year? One Father’s Day when I had no money, I decided to concoct some homemade barbecue sauce on the stovetop for my dad. I don’t even remember what ingredients I used, but for years afterward, Dad would bring up how good that jar of barbecue sauce was and ask if I could make it again (I was never able to recreate it, for some reason). Barbecue and men just seem to go together, don’t they?

The gifts that are promoted on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day often reflect society’s conception of what roles mothers and fathers are supposed to serve within the stereotypical heterosexual nuclear family. There are perhaps no other holidays that are quite so stereotypically gendered. Hanukkah, Christmas, birthdays, and anniversaries have us seeking out unique gifts that are tailored to the recipient’s particular personality, likes, or hobbies. But Mother’s Day and Father’s Day gift ideas appear to fall back on socially constructed family roles.

Examining the most popular types of gifts to give can help us see how society (helped by marketers) conceptualizes mothers and fathers. Google Image searches, while unscientific, can allow us to see at a glance what types of gifts are considered most appropriate for mothers and fathers in our society. This type of content analysis is based on Goffman’s (1978) examination of magazine advertisements. Goffman encouraged social scientists to more critically examine what appears to be everyday common sense, especially those images presented in popular culture.

I began looking at the differences between gifts for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day by typing in “gifts for Mother’s Day” on Google Images. Mothers are apparently obsessed with their children, as the majority of gifts reflect the children that she is responsible for. These types of child-centered gifts tend to emphasize the number of children, names of children, or birthdates of her children. Mothers also apparently drink copious amounts of tea and want flowers. In addition, the color scheme on a Google Image search for gifts for moms is predominantly pink and lilac.

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When I searched for “gifts for Father’s Day” the color scheme changed to blue, orange, and black. Gifts for dad assume that a father grills, fishes, has money, and has a fantastic sense of humor. I saw few gifts emphasizing the number of children or names of children.

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The Google Image search emphasizes several differences between mothers and fathers. For mothers, the day should be all about their children. Motherhood is no laughing matter, as it was difficult to find “gag” or “funny” Mother’s Day gifts (as was so easily found for Father’s Day gifts). Images of Mother’s Day gifts reflect quiet contemplation of a serious and weighty job.

For fathers, the day should be outdoorsy with grilled steaks and funny aprons that give credit to the theory that men grill but do not cook. One of the more interesting finds from this Google Search was the preponderance of the dad money clip phenomenon. There is simply no equivalent for mothers. While women carry purses and theoretically do not need money clips, purses do not appear. This suggests that fathers are still thought of as the breadwinners. Gifts to fathers often emphasize the idea that it is the fathers who financially support children, while the mothers emotionally support children.

Theories on Motherhood and Fatherhood

According to sociologist Sharon Hays (1998), contemporary beliefs posit motherhood as intensive and sacred. Motherhood is based on the assumption that all women need to be mothers in order to be fulfilled. The gifts promoted for Mother’s Day certainly reflect this theory.

On the other side of the heterosexual parental unit, anthropologist Nicholas Townsend (2002) argues that masculinity today is now a “package deal” that includes marriage, fatherhood, employment, and home ownership.

In other words, motherhood is the primary identity for women who become mothers, but fatherhood is merely one facet of what it means to be a man. (Note: these theorists are clearly situating idealized parenthood within a middle-class context.)

This quick comparison of Google Image search results supports the idea that when we celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day we reinforce societal ideas of motherhood and fatherhood. Instead of tailoring our gifts/cards to the unique interests of the individual father or mother, we are pressed to celebrate the generic role fathers and mothers are supposed to play in stereotypical heterosexual, middle class nuclear families.

Cross-posted at Sociology in Focus.

Ami E. Stearns is in the sociology and women’s and gender studies programs at the University of Oklahoma. She studies sociology and popular literature.