TSP_Assigned_pbk_978-0-393-28445-4Assigned: Life with Gender is a new anthology featuring blog posts by a wide range of sociologists writing at The Society Pages and elsewhere. To celebrate, we’re re-posting four of the essays as this month’s “flashback Fridays.” Enjoy! And to learn more about this anthology, a companion to Wade and Ferree’s Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, please click here.

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When Your Brown Body is a White Wonderland, by Tressie McMillan Cottom, PhD

This may meander.

Miley Cyrus made news this week with a carnival-like stage performance at the MTV Video Music Awards that included life-size teddy bears, flesh-colored underwear, and plenty of quivering brown buttocks. Almost immediately after the performance many black women challenged Cyrus’ appropriation of black dance (“twerking”). Many white feminists defended Cyrus’ right to be a sexual woman without being slut-shamed. Yet many others wondered why Cyrus’ sad attempt at twerking was news when the U.S. is planning military action in Syria.

I immediately thought of a summer I spent at UNC Chapel Hill. My partner at the time fancied himself a revolutionary born too late for all the good protests. At a Franklin Street pub one night we were the only black couple at a happy hour. It is one of those college places where concoctions of the bar’s finest bottom shelf liquor is served in huge fishbowls for pennies on the alcohol proof dollar. I saw a few white couples imbibing and beginning some version of bodily grooving to the DJ. I told my partner that one of them would be offering me free liquor and trying to feel my breasts within the hour.

He balked, thinking I was joking.

I then explained to him my long, storied, documented history of being accosted by drunk white men and women in atmospheres just like these. Women asking to feel my breasts in the ladies’ restroom. Men asking me for a threesome as his drunk girlfriend or wife looks on smiling. Frat boys offering me cash to “motorboat” my cleavage. Country boys in cowboy hats attempting to impress his buddies by grinding on my ass to an Outkast music set. It’s almost legend among my friends who have witnessed it countless times.

My partner could not believe it until not 30 minutes later, with half the fishbowl gone, the white woman bumps and grinds up to our table and laughing tells me that her boyfriend would love to see us dance. “C’mon girl! I know you can daaaaannnce,” she said. To sweeten the pot they bought our table our own fishbowl.

My partner was stunned. That summer we visited lots of similar happy hours. By the third time this scene played out my partner had taken to standing guard while I danced, stonily staring down every white couple that looked my way. We were kicked out of a few bars when he challenged some white guy to a fight about it. I hate such scenes but I gave my partner a break. He was a man and not used to this. He didn’t have the vocabulary borne of black breasts that sprouted before bodies have cleared statutory rape guidelines. He didn’t know the words so he did all he knew how to do to tell me he was sorry this was my experience in life: he tried to kick every white guy’s ass in Chapel Hill.

I am not beautiful. I phenotypically exist in a space where I am not usually offensive looking enough to have it be an issue for my mobility but neither am I a threat to anyone’s beauty market. There is no reason for me to assume this pattern of behavior is a compliment. What I saw in Cyrus’ performance was not just a clueless, culturally insensitive attempt to assert her sexuality or a simple act of cultural appropriation at the expense of black bodies. Instead I saw what kinds of black bodies were on that stage with Cyrus.

Cyrus’ dancers look more like me than they do Rihanna or Beyonce or Halle Berry. The difference is instructive.

Fat non-normative black female bodies are kith and kin with historical caricatures of black women as work sites, production units,  subjects of victimless sexual crimes, and embodied deviance. As I said in my analysis of hip-hop and country music cross-overs, playing the desirability of black female bodies as a “wink-wink” joke is a way of lifting up our deviant sexuality without lifting up black women as equally desirable to white women. Cyrus did not just have black women gyrating behind her. She had particularly rotund black women. She gleefully slaps the ass of one dancer like she intends to eat it on a cracker. She is playing a type of black female body as a joke to challenge her audience’s perceptions of herself  while leaving their perceptions of black women’s bodies firmly intact.  It’s a dance between performing sexual freedom and maintaining a hierarchy of female bodies from which white women benefit materially.

The performance works as spectacle precisely because the background dancers embody a specific kind of black female body. That spectacle unfolds against a long history of how capitalism is a gendered enterprise and subsequently how gendered beauty norms are resisted and embraced to protect the dominant beauty ideal of a certain type of white female beauty.

Being desirable is a commodity. Capital and capitalism are gendered systems. The very form that money takes — paper and not goods — is rooted in a historical enterprise of controlling the development of an economic sphere where women might amass wealth. As wealth is a means of power in a capitalistic society, controlling this means of acceptable monies was a way of controlling the accumulation, distribution and ownership of capital.

For black women, that form of money was embodied by the very nature of how we came to be in America.

Our bodies were literally production units. As living cost centers we not only produced labor as in work but we produced actual labor through labor, i.e. we birthed more cost centers. The legendary “one drop” rule of determining blackness was legally codified not just out of ideological purity of white supremacy but to control the inheritance of property. The sexual predilections of our nation’s great men threatened to transfer the wealth of white male rapists to the children born of their crimes through black female bodies.

Today much has changed and much has not. The strict legal restriction of inheritable black deviance has been disrupted but there still exists a racialized, material value of sexual relationships. The family unit is considered the basic unit for society not just because some god decreed it but because the inheritance of accumulated privilege maintains our social order.

Thus, who we marry at the individual level may be about love but at the group level it is also about wealth and power and privilege.

Black feminists have critiqued the material advantage that accrues to white women as a function of their elevated status as the normative cultural beauty ideal. As far as privileges go it is certainly a complicated one but that does not negate its utility. Being suitably marriageable privileges white women’s relation to white male wealth and power.

The cultural dominance of a few acceptable brown female beauty ideals is a threat to that privilege. Cyrus acts out her faux bisexual performance for the white male gaze against a backdrop of dark, fat black female bodies and not slightly more normative cafe au lait slim bodies because the juxtaposition of her sexuality with theirs is meant to highlight Cyrus, not challenge her supremacy. Consider it the racialized pop culture version of a bride insisting that all of her bridesmaids be hideously clothed as to enhance the bride’s supremacy on her wedding day.

Only, rather than an ugly dress, fat black female bodies are wedded to their flesh. We cannot take it off when we desire the spotlight for ourselves or when we’d rather not be in the spotlight at all.

This political economy of specific types of black female bodies as a white amusement park was ignored by many, mostly because to critique it we have to critique ourselves.

When I moved to Atlanta I was made aware of a peculiar pastime of the city’s white frat boy elite. They apparently enjoy getting drunk and visiting one of the city’s many legendary black strip clubs rather than the white strip clubs. The fun part of this ritual seems to be rooted in the peculiarity of black female bodies, their athleticism and how hard they are willing to work for less money as opposed to the more normative white strippers who expect higher wages in exchange for just looking pretty naked. There are similar racialized patterns in porn actresses’ pay and, I suspect, all manner of sex workers. The black strip clubs are a bargain good time because the value of black sexuality is discounted relative to the acceptability of black women as legitimate partners.

There is no risk of falling in love with a stripper when you’re a white guy at the black strip club. Just as country music artists strip “badonkadonk” from black beauty ideals to make it palatable for to their white audiences, these frat boys visit the black body wonderland as an oddity to protect the supremacy of white women as the embodiment of more and better capital.

My mentor likes to joke that interracial marriage is only a solution to racial wealth gaps if all white men suddenly were to marry up with poor black women. It’s funny because it is so ridiculous to even imagine. Sex is one thing. Marrying confers status and wealth. Slaveholders knew that. Our law reflects their knowing this. The de rigueur delineation of this difference may have faded but cultural ideology remains.

Cyrus’ choice of the kind of black bodies to foreground her white female sexuality was remarkable for how consistent it is with these historical patterns. We could consider that a coincidence just as we could consider my innumerable experiences with white men and women after a few drinks an anomaly. But, I believe there is something common to the bodies that are made invisible that Cyrus might be the most visible to our cultural denigration of bodies like mine as inferior, non-threatening spaces where white women can play at being “dirty” without risking her sexual appeal.

I am no real threat to white women’s desirability. Thus, white women have no problem cheering their husbands and boyfriends as they touch me on the dance floor. I am never seriously a contender for acceptable partner and mate for the white men who ask if their buddy can put his face in my cleavage. I am the thrill of a roller coaster with safety bars: all adrenaline but never any risk of falling to the ground.

I am not surprised that so many overlooked this particular performance of brown bodies as white amusement parks in Cyrus’ performance. The whole point is that those round black female bodies are hyper-visible en masse but individually invisible to white men who were, I suspect, Cyrus’ intended audience.

No, it’s not Syria but it is still worth commenting upon when in the pop culture circus the white woman is the ringleader and the women who look like you are the dancing elephants.

Tressie McMillan Cottom is a professor in the sociology department at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is the author of Lower Ed: How For-Profit Colleges Deepen Inequality in America. This essay first appeared at her blog, Some of Us Are Brave, in 2013. You can follow her on twitter at @tressiemc.

Almost all of the representations of breasts we encounter in the mass media are filtered through the hypothetical heterosexual male gaze. Breasts are objects, things that people desire. Women’s personal, subjective experiences of having breasts is almost never discussed in pop culture. I mean, yes, occasionally two female characters might talk about their breasts, but usually in reference to whether and how they do or fail to attract male attention (e.g., “Is this too much cleavage?” and “I wish I had more cleavage!”). What it feels like to have breasts outside of the context of being a sex object isn’t talked about. There’s a void, a black hole of experience.

The only other common discourse about breasts that comes to mind centers around breastfeeding. In that discourse, the idea that breasts are for men is challenged, but only in favor of the idea that breasts are for babies. In neither discursive context does anyone make the case that breasts are primarily for the people who have them. That the pleasure (and pain) and comfort (and discomfort) that comes with breasts belongs — first and foremost — to female-bodied people.

Last week, I saw something different. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is an odd little TV show with a couple musical numbers in each episode and one of the numbers last week was called “Heavy Boobs.” It’s safe for work but… maybe not safe for work.

 

Rachel Bloom‘s song names and describes one subjective experience of breasts. Breasts are “heavy boobs,” she sings, just “sacks of yellow fat” that can weigh on women. In the song, the breast-haver’s experience is centered to the exclusion of what men or babies might want or think or experience. I can’t ever remember seeing that on TV before.

And that’s plenty, but what she and her fellow dancers do with their bodies is even more extraordinary. They defy the rules of sexiness. Their movements are about embodying heavy boobs and that’s it. It’s as if they don’t care one iota about whether a hypothetical heterosexual male will see them. The dance is unapologetically unsexy. No, it’s more than unsexy; it’s asexy. It’s danced neither to repulse or attract men; instead, it’s danced as if sexiness is entirely and completely irrelevant. There’s no male gaze because, in that two minutes, there’s not a man in sight.

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

Sometimes the sexy goes too far. These are some of those times.

Sexy pizza rat (Yandy):

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Sexy Cecil the Lion (Yandy):

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Sexy Donald Trump (Yandy):

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Sexy Rosie the Riveter (Party City):

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Sexy Frankenstein (Yandy):

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Sexy infant (Yandy):
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Sexy Charlie Brown (Yandy):

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For more Sexy What!?, see our past posts featuring Sexy Chinese Take-OutSexy Yoda, and Sexy Chuckie.

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

Serena Williams, the winner of 21 Grand Slam titles and arguably the greatest living female athlete, was understandably exhausted after defeating her sister and best friend Venus Williams in the U.S. Open earlier this week. So she wasn’t having it when, during a post-match press conference on Tuesday, a reporter had the gall to ask why she wasn’t smiling.

Williams looked down and gave an exasperated sigh before shelling out the best response an athlete has given in an interview since football player Marshawn Lynch’s “I’m just here so I won’t get fined” trademark phrase.

It’s 11:30. To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t want to be here. I just want to be in bed right now and I have to wake up early to practice and I don’t want to answer any of these questions. And you keep asking me the same questions. It’s not really … you’re not making it super enjoyable.

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Nervous laughter may have broken out in the crowd, but what Williams expressed wasn’t a joke. All women are expected to perform femininity at the cost of being their authentic selves in the public sphere. Williams had just experienced what was likely one of the most emotionally and physically draining matches in her career. Taking on your sister in a high-stakes game isn’t easy. She had told the Associated Press before her win:

She’s the toughest player I’ve ever played in my life and the best person I know. It’s going against your best friend and at the same time going against the greatest competitor, for me, in women’s tennis.

It makes sense that she would not be smiling ear-to-ear during the media conference. But it turns out no matter how insanely accomplished or famous you become, you will still be subjected to the innocuous-sounding but ever-so-pernicious “why don’t you smile?” interjection from those who feel entitled to make demands of women. Williams’ retort was her attempt at dismantling that sense of entitlement. For those who say the reporter’s question was a harmless jest, they should ask themselves if Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal would ever be expected to defend their stern or tired expressions.

And the problem exists not just in the image-heavy world of professional sports. On Wednesday, Apple did little to change the public’s perception of the tech industry as a sexist one. During a launch presentation in San Francisco, the first woman to be seen on stage at the male-dominated event wasn’t a keynote speaker or even a presenter, but a model in a magazine photo. Adobe’s director of design used her image to show off the Photoshopping capabilities of the new iPad Pro.

What did he decide to Photoshop one might ask? A smile onto her face. He could have altered literally any aspect of any image he wanted but decided instead to force a woman’s visage into a grin.

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What happened at the tennis conference and the tech launch are symptoms of the same problem. Women, whether athletes or models, are often seen as products. They’re meant to be consumed and enjoyed, and expressions of personality — like not constantly grinning — distract from their role as ornaments.

It’s the reason projects like Stop Telling Women to Smile by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh have cropped up to address the microaggressions women face on a daily basis. Women don’t exist to smile for men and aren’t obligated to present a cheerful disposition to the world. To expect that denies us our humanity and only reinforces male privilege.

Anita Little is the associate editor at Ms., where this post originally appeared. You can follow her on Twitter.

From an angry tweet to an actual change.

On September 1st I objected to the description of the Disney movie Pocahontas at Netflix. It read:

An American Indian woman is supposed to marry the village’s best warrior, but she years for something more — and soon meets Capt. John Smith.

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I argued that, among other very serious problems with the film itself, this description reads like a porn flick or a bad romance novel. It overly sexualizes the film, and only positions Pocahontas in relation to her romantic options, not as a human being, you know, doing things.

Other Disney lead characters are not at all described this way. Compare the Pocahontas description to the ones for a few other Disney films on Netflix:

The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “Inspired by Victor Hugo’s novel, this Disney film follows a gentle, crippled bell ringer as he faces prejudice and tries to save the city he loves.”

The Emperor’s New Groove. “In this animated Disney adventure, a South American emperor experiences a reversal of fortune when his power-hungry adviser turns him into a llama.”

Tarzan. After being shipwrecked off the African coast, a lone child grows up in the wild and is destined to become lord of the jungle.”

Hercules. “The heavenly Hercules is stripped of his immortality and raised on earth instead of Olympus, where he’s forced to take on Hades and assorted monsters.”

I picked these four because they have male protagonists and, with the exception of Emperor’s New Groove which has a “South American” lead, the rest are white males. I have problems with the “gentle, crippled” descriptor but, the point is, these movies all have well developed romance plot lines, but their (white, male) protagonists get to save things, fight people, have adventures, and be “lord of the jungle” – they are not defined by their romantic relationships in the film.

We cannot divorce the description of Pocahontas from it’s context. We live in a society that sexualizes Native women: it paints us as sexually available, free for the taking, and conquerable – an extension of the lands that we occupy. The statistics for violence against Native women are staggeringly high, and this is all connected.

NPR Codeswitch recently posted a piece about how watching positive representations of “others” (LGBT, POC) on TV leads to more positive associations with the group overall, and can reduce prejudice and racism. This is awesome, but what if the only representations are not positive? In the case of Native peoples, the reverse is true – seeing stereotypical imagery, or in the case of Native women, overly sexualized imagery, contributes to the racism and sexual violence we experience. The research shows that these seemingly benign, “funny” shows on TV deeply effect real life outcomes, so I think we can safely say that a Disney movie (and its description) matters.

So, my point was not to criticize the film, which I can save for another time, but to draw attention to the importance of the words we use, and the ways that insidious stereotypes and harmful representations sneak in to our everyday lives.

In any case, I expressed my objection to the description on Twitter and was joined by hundreds of people. And… one week later, I received an email from Netflix:

Dear Dr. Keene,

Thanks for bringing attention to this synopsis. We do our best to accurately portray the plot and tone of the content we’re presenting, and in this case you were right to point out that we could do better. The synopsis has been updated to better reflect Pocahontas’ active role and to remove the suggestion that John Smith was her ultimate goal.

Appreciatively,

<netflix employee>

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Text:

A young American Indian girl tries to follow her heart and protect her tribe when settlers arrive and threaten the land she loves.

Sometimes I’m still amazed by the power of the internet.

Adrienne Keene, EdD is a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is now a postdoctoral fellow in Native American studies at Brown University. She blogs at Native Appropriations, where this post originally appeared. You can follow her on Twitter.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

In this two minute clip, comedian Kate Berlant casually makes the case that women should steal cosmetics because, to paraphrase Berlant, no one should have to constantly pay for their own domination.

Enjoy!

Thanks Letta!

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

Flashback Friday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Harmonizing beautifully,” indeed.

Originally posted in 2010.

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

Most women in the U.S. go to considerable lengths to consistently protect the majority of men from their unmasked faces (it’s a “disguise,” remember?). Comedian Amy Schumer wonders what might happen if men saw the real us…

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