gender

Screenshot used with permission

As I was scrolling through Facebook a few weeks ago, I noticed a new trend: Several friends posted pictures (via an app) of what they would look like as “the opposite sex.” Some of them were quite funny—my female-identified friends sported mustaches, while my male-identified friends revealed long flowing locks. But my sociologist-brain was curious: What makes this app so appealing? How does it decide what the “opposite sex” looks like? Assuming it grabs the users’ gender from their profiles, what would it do with users who listed their genders as non-binary, trans, or genderqueer? Would it assign them male or female? Would it crash? And, on a basic level, why are my friends partaking in this “game?”

Gender is deeply meaningful for our social world and for our identities—knowing someone’s gender gives us “cues” about how to categorize and connect with that person. Further, gender is an important way our social world is organizedfor better or worse. Those who use the app engage with a part of their own identities and the world around them that is extremely significant and meaningful.

Gender is also performative. We “do” gender through the way we dress, talk, and take up space. In the same way, we read gender on people’s bodies and in how they interact with us. The app “changes people’s gender” by changing their gender performance; it alters their hair, face shape, eyes, and eyebrows. The app is thus a outlet to “play” with gender performance. In other words, it’s a way of doing digital drag. Drag is a term that is often used to refer to male-bodied people dressing in a feminine way (“drag queens”) or female-bodied people dressing in a masculine way (“drag kings”), but all people who do drag do not necessarily fit in this definition. Drag is ultimately about assuming and performing a gender. Drag is increasingly coming into the mainstream, as the popular reality TV series RuPaul’s Drag Race has been running for almost a decade now. As more people are exposed to the idea of playing with gender, we might see more of them trying it out in semi-public spaces like Facebook.

While playing with gender may be more common, it’s not all fun and games. The Facebook app in particular assumes a gender binary with clear distinctions between men and women, and this leaves many people out. While data on individuals outside of the gender binary is limited, a 2016 report from The Williams Institute estimated that 0.6% of the U.S. adult population — 1.4 million people — identify as transgender. Further, a Minnesota study of high schoolers found about 3% of the student population identify as transgender or gender nonconforming, and researchers in California estimate that 6% of adolescents are highly gender nonconforming and 20% are androgynous (equally masculine and feminine) in their gender performances.

The problem is that the stakes for challenging the gender binary are still quite high. Research shows people who do not fit neatly into the gender binary can face serious negative consequences, like discrimination and violence (including at least 28 killings of transgender individuals in 2017 and 4 already in 2018).  And transgender individuals who are perceived as gender nonconforming by others tend to face more discrimination and negative health outcomes.

So, let’s all play with gender. Gender is messy and weird and mucking it up can be super fun. Let’s make a digital drag app that lets us play with gender in whatever way we please. But if we stick within the binary of male/female or man/woman, there are real consequences for those who live outside of the gender binary.

Recommended Readings:

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

Originally Posted at TSP Discoveries

Photo by oddharmonic, Flickr CC

In the United States we tend to think children develop sexuality in adolescence, but new research by Heidi Gansen shows that children learn the rules and beliefs associated with romantic relationships and sexuality much earlier.

Gansen spent over 400 hours in nine different classrooms in three Michigan preschools. She observed behavior from teachers and students during daytime classroom hours and concluded that children learn — via teachers’ practices — that heterosexual relationships are normal and that boys and girls have very different roles to play in them.

In some classrooms, teachers actively encouraged “crushes” and kissing between boys and girls. Teachers assumed that any form of affection between opposite gender children was romantically-motivated and these teachers talked about the children as if they were in a romantic relationship, calling them “boyfriend/girlfriend.” On the other hand, the same teachers interpreted affection between children of the same gender as friendly, but not romantic. Children reproduced these beliefs when they played “house” in these classrooms. Rarely did children ever suggest that girls played the role of “dad” or boys played the role of “mom.” If they did, other children would propose a character they deemed more gender-appropriate like a sibling or a cousin.

Preschoolers also learned that boys have power over girls’ bodies in the classroom. In one case, teachers witnessed a boy kiss a girl on the cheek without permission. While teachers in some schools enforced what the author calls “kissing consent” rules, the teachers in this school interpreted the kiss as “sweet” and as the result of a harmless crush. Teachers also did not police boys’ sexual behaviors as actively as girls’ behaviors. For instance, when girls pulled their pants down teachers disciplined them, while teachers often ignored the same behavior from boys. Thus, children learned that rules for romance also differ by gender.

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

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

Photo Credit: Brian Gonzalez (Flickr CC)

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

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

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

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

Sociology can get a bad rap for being a buzzkill, and, if you’re going to partake, you should drink whatever you like. But this research provides an important look at how we build big assumptions about people into judgments about the smallest choices.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Over the last few weeks, commentary about alleged sexual predator Roy Moore’s failure to secure a seat in the U.S. Senate has flooded our news and social media feeds, shining a spotlight on the critical role of Black women in the election. About 98% of Black women, comprising 17% of total voters, cast their ballots for Moore’s opponent Doug Jones, ensuring Jones’s victory. At the same time, commentators questioned the role of White women in supporting Moore. Sources estimate that 63% of White women voted for Moore, including the majority of college-educated White women.

Vogue proclaimed, “Doug Jones Won, but White Women Lost.” U.S. News and World Reports asked, “Why do so many White women vote for misogynists?” Feminist blog Jezebel announced succinctly: “White women keep fucking us over.” Fair enough. But we have to ask, “What about Black and White men?” The fact that 48% of Alabama’s voting population is absent from these conversations is not accidental. It’s part of an incomplete narrative that focuses solely on the impact of women voters and continues the false narrative that fixing inequality is solely their burden.

Let’s focus first on Black men. Exit poll data indicate that 93% of Black men voted for Jones, and they accounted for 11% of the total vote. Bluntly put, Jones could not have secured his razor-thin victory without their votes. Yet, media commentary about their specific role in the election is typically obscured. Several articles note the general turnout of Black voters without explicitly highlighting the contribution of Black men. Other articles focus on the role of Black women exclusively. In a Newsweek article proclaiming Black women “Saved America,” Black men receive not a single mention. In addition to erasing a key contribution, this incomplete account of Jones’s victory masks concerns about minority voter suppression and the Democratic party taking Black votes for granted.

White men comprised 35% of total voters in this election, and 72% of them voted for Moore. But detailed commentary on their overwhelming support for Moore – a man who said that Muslims shouldn’t serve in Congress, that America was “great” during the time of slavery, and was accused of harassing and/or assaulting at least nine women in their teens while in his thirties – is frankly rare. The scant mentions in popular media may best be summed up as: “We expect nothing more from White men.”

As social scientists, we know that expectations matter. A large body of work indicates that negative stereotypes of Black boys and men are linked to deleterious outcomes in education, crime, and health. Within our academic communities we sagely nod our heads and agree we should change our expectations of Black boys and men to ensure better outcomes. But this logic of high expectations is rarely applied to White men. The work of Jackson Katz is an important exception. He, and a handful of others have, for years, pointed out that gender-blind conversations about violence perpetrated by men, primarily against women – in families, in romantic relationships, and on college campuses – serve only to perpetuate this violence by making its prevention a woman’s problem.

The parallels to politics in this case are too great to ignore. It’s not enough for the media to note that voting trends for the Alabama senate election were inherently racist and sexist. Pointing out that Black women were critically important in determining election outcomes, and that most White women continued to engage in the “patriarchal bargain” by voting for Moore is a good start, but not sufficient. Accurate coverage would offer thorough examinations of the responsibility of all key players – in this case the positive contributions of Black men, and the negative contributions of White men. Otherwise, coverage risks downplaying White men’s role in supporting public officials who are openly or covertly racist or sexist. This perpetuates a social structure that privileges White men above all others and then consistently fails to hold them responsible for their actions. We can, and must, do better.

Mairead Eastin Moloney is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Kentucky. 
Photo Credit: Meagan Fisher, Flickr CC

2017 was a big year for conversations about representation in popular media—what it means to tell stories that speak to people across race, gender, sexuality, ability, and more. Between the hits and the misses, there is clearly much more work to do. Representation is not just about who shows up on screen, but also about what kinds of stories get told and who gets to make them happen.

For example, many people are now familiar with “The Bechdel Test” as a pithy shortcut to check for women’s representation in movies. Now, proposals for a new Bechdel Test cover everything from the gender composition of a film’s crew to specific plot points.

These conversations are especially important for the stories we make for kids, because children pick up many assumptions about gender and race at a very young age. Now, new research published in Sociological Forum helps us better understand what kinds of stories we are telling when we seek out a diverse range of children’s books.

Krista Maywalt Aronson, Brenna D. Callahan, and Anne Sibley O’Brien wanted to look at the most common themes in children’s stories with characters from underrepresented racial and cultural groups. Using a special collection of picture books for grades K-3 from the Ladd Library at Bates College, the authors gathered a data set of 1,037 books published between 2008 and 2015 (see their full database here). They coded themes from the books to see which story arcs occurred most often, and what groups of characters were most represented in each theme.

The most common theme, occurring in 38% of these books, was what they called “beautiful life”—positive depictions of the everyday lives of the characters. Next up was the “every child” theme in which main characters came from different racial or ethnic backgrounds, but those backgrounds were not central to the plot. Along with biographies and folklore, these themes occurred more often than stories of oppression or cross-cultural interaction.

These themes tackle a specific kind of representation: putting characters from different racial and ethnic groups at the center of the story. This is a great start, but it also means that these books are more likely to display diversity, rather than showing it in action. For example, the authors write:

Latinx characters were overwhelmingly found in culturally particular books. This sets Latinx people apart as defined by a language and a culture distinct from mainstream America, and sometimes by connection to home countries.

They also note that the majority of these books are still created by white authors and illustrators, showing that there’s even more work to do behind the scenes. Representation matters, and this research shows us how more inclusive popular media can start young!

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo via Oli (Flickr CC)

Whether you’re taking a long flight, taking some time on the treadmill, or just taking a break over the holidays, ’tis the season to catch up on podcasts. Between long-running hits and some strong newcomers this year, there has never been a better time to dive into the world of social science podcasts. While we bring the sociological images, do your ears a favor and check these out.

Also, this list is far from comprehensive. If you have tips for podcasts I missed, drop a note in the comments!

New in 2017

If you’re new to sociology, or want a more “SOC 101” flavor, The Social Breakdown is perfect for you. Hosts Penn, Ellen, and Omar take a core sociological concept in each episode and break it down, offering great examples both old and new (and plenty of sass). Check out “Buddha Heads and Crosses” for a primer on cultural appropriation from Bourdieu to Notorious B.I.G.

Want to dive deeper? The Annex is at the cutting edge of sociology podcasting. Professors Joseph Cohen, Leslie Hinkson, and Gabriel Rossman banter about the news of the day and bring you interviews and commentary on big ideas in sociology. Check out the episode on Conspiracy Theories and Dover’s Greek Homosexuality for—I kid you not—a really entertaining look at research methods.

Favorite Shows Still Going Strong

In The Society Pages’ network, Office Hours brings you interviews with leading sociologists on new books and groundbreaking research. Check out their favorite episode of 2017: Lisa Wade on American Hookup!

Felling wonky? The Scholars Strategy Network’s No Jargon podcast is a must-listen for the latest public policy talk…without jargon. Check out recent episodes on the political rumor mill and who college affirmative action policies really serve.

I was a latecomer to The Measure of Everyday Life this year, finding it from a tip on No Jargon, but I’m looking forward to catching up on their wide range of fascinating topics. So far, conversations with Kieran Healy on what we should do with nuance and the resurrection of typewriters have been wonderful listens.

And, of course, we can’t forget NPR’s Hidden Brain. Tucked away in their latest episode on fame is a deep dive into inconspicuous consumption and the new, subtle ways of wealth in America.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

All hell broke loose online in Pakistan this winter after their first Oscar winner, Sharmeen Obaid, tweeted a complaint against a doctor who sent an unsolicited friendship request on Facebook to her sister following an E.R. visit. Sharmeen’s tweet provoked a firestorm of debate amongst Pakistani social media users, who shared a picture of Sharmeen posing with American film producer Harvey Weinstein “as proof” of Sharmeen’s double standards on sexual harassment.

Sharmeen Obaid, World Economic Forum (via Wikimedia Commons)

Sharmeen is not the first Pakistani to incite calls to violence by going public about abuse. Member of Parliament Ayesha Gulalai received severe and terrifying censure from social media trolls for her public accusations of sexual harassment against former-cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan. Similar critiques have also been used against Malala Yusufzai, Pakistan’s only woman Nobel laureate, when social media users suggested that photographs of her at Oxford University wearing a bomber jacket and jeans, under a modest headscarf, looked just like porn actress Mia Khalifa.

These issues are not limited to Pakistan alone, of course. Digital harassment has been a prominent issue in the United States as well, and the tactics trolls use to challenge women who speak out about harassment are strikingly similar in both countries. Trolls in both contexts deploy words like “feminazi,” or “man-hater,” accusing women of “exaggerating,” “attention-seeking,” or of “trivializing” “real” cases of abuse to further their own taste for drama. They create fake Facebook or Twitter accounts in the name of a woman (or other abused person) going public, using these accounts to post humiliating status updates or embarrassing personal details about the survivor. Women in both cases are quickly accused of being traitors, airing their dirty laundry on a global stage with implications for the reputation of their social groups or organizations.

Comparing American and Pakistani harassment cases highlights how geographically distant and culturally different locations draw on similar vocabularies of silencing, giving rise to global patterns of sex-based subjection. They also show how assumptions about gender and power work to screen men perpetrating abuse against women and others.

Malala Yousafzai (via Claude Truong-Ngoc/Wikimedia Commons)

In the Pakistani setting, social media backlash against women who speak out about abuse taps into longer-running anxieties around women, publicity and the West. Seeing women who go public about abuse as excessively westernized, these anxieties suggest such women are exaggerating local problems before foreign audiences in order to win accolades from an unspecified “west” willing to pay “traitorous” women in visas, prizes, and scholarships for help in defaming Pakistan and Islam. While a cultural logic of purdah, (literally “screen,” a logic of gendered segregation) technically separates men who abuse women; these same logics don’t protect women against men’s invasion of their privacy once women have entered public domains. Wearing jeans, studying at Oxford, going to a hospital, or having a Facebook account or a cell phone all become avenues for men to take non-intimate, public interactions into the private zone, seeking an unsolicited and unwelcome intimacy, or hiding behind the cloak of online anonymity to create humiliating memes about these women.

While gender arrangements in the US don’t operate according to purdah norms, the Harvey Weinstein case, including the doubt and shaming of women who participated in the #metoo campaign afterwards, highlights the repertoires men can use to screen their abuse of vulnerable colleagues. Bullying, browbeating, pay offs, and threats of job loss or legal action act as a kind of purdah to silence women. Similarly, American women complain about receiving unsolicited “dick pics” over various digital formats from men they barely know. Indeed, the prevalence of digital forms of harassment across both geographical settings renders online anger against people who come out about abuse inexplicable.

If there is any virtue at all to the recent firestorm, it is that Pakistanis and Americans have begun to ask: what constitutes abuse? How should people respond? Are micro-harassments, such as pictures and friendship requests still inconsequential if they are widespread and relentless? These cases invite us to dwell more deeply on connections between geographically distant cases of sex-based oppression. Mobile feminists, moving back and forth between different contexts, can reflect more deeply on the ways that various binaries, West/Islam, Public/Private, and offline/online complicate discussions about sexual identity, abuse and power in both locations. Highlighting how different geographic locations and cultural contexts share these problems in common can developing a common vocabulary for talking about sex-based subjection.

Fauzia Husain is an AAUW International Doctoral Fellow and a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia, Department of Sociology. Her current research examines how Pakistani women security workers experience their work, contend with the stigma of breaching purdah (gender segregation), and enact agency at the interstices of state, gender, work and globalization.

Originally Posted at Marx in Drag

I have been interested in and reading about the creators of the comic book super hero Wonder Woman for a few years now. My interest began in 2014.

I was half-heartedly listening to Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and Gross was interviewing historian Jill LePore, the author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman. At the time, I hadn’t read LePore’s book or the Wonder Woman comics, and so I was mildly but not wildly interested in their conversation. When Gross asked LePore to talk about William Marston’s family life, LePore began to describe the relationship between Marston, Elizabeth Holloway, Marston’s wife, and Olive Byrne, the woman who lived with them and was, in Terry Gross’s words, Marston’s “mistress.”

Holy shit!, I said to myself. These people were polyamorous! Of course, I knew that they couldn’t have seen themselves as “polyamorous” in the contemporary sense of the word, for the word would not be invented for another fifty years or so after Marston and Holloway invited Byrne into their relationship. However, it sounded to me like they were doing something akin to a poly relationship—as in they had chosen to forge an intimate relationship that included more than two people, and they had built a life together.

In a word, I was hailed. I felt a sense of connection to Holloway, Byrne, and Marston—dare I say queer kinship. I am poly and so were these people from almost a century ago. These are my people! And here were Terri Gross and Jill Lepore talking about it on the usually rather conventional National Public Radio. This doesn’t happen often, so I stopped what I was doing and turned up my radio.

After LePore described the relationship between Holloway, Byrne, and Marston, Terri Gross said, “That’s just so bizarre.” And LePore agreed, “Yeah. It’s so bizarre…hilariously bizarre.”

My bubble burst. Instead of being hailed, I felt slapped in the face. I don’t know what Gross’s or LePore’s relationship history looks like, but they certainly sounded like monogamists looking in at us poly freaks from the outside, and they were calling us bizarre and laughing at us. A much too common experience.

That is why Angela Robinson’s film, Professor Marston and The Wonder Woman, is the real breath of Fresh Air.

I’ll be honest, I went to this film with some trepidation. I wanted to believe I wouldn’t be mocked or depicted as a bizarre spectacle given Angela Robinson’s resume, but polyamory? Between a man and two women? With kink? It would be very easy for Robinson to spill this very tall order.

I was worried that it wouldn’t do justice to just how unconventional the Marstons were. I was concerned it would perpetuate stereotypes about polygamy–dominant, selfish, and exploitive yet lucky (wink wink) men have multiple and suffering wives. I read LePore’s book, and as I write in my forthcoming book, The Poly Gaze, she often interprets the Marston family through this lens. I also didn’t want to see yet another film about a man with a wife and mistress and the bitter, catty, and destructive rivalry between the women.

Though understandable given the lack of feminist and/or queer representations of threesomes or poly triads in mainstream media, my fears and worries turned out to be completely unfounded. Rather than make a spectacle out of the perverts or freaks, Robinson adeptly turns the tables and asks the viewer to question their own assumptions about what is normal. It renders polyamory possible and highlights the dire social sanctions that often come with not living within the boundaries of monogamy. The film also offers a truly rare representation of sexual threesomes as a loving and sexy way to forge intimate bonds, and presents BDSM as a component of healthy relationships rather than a result of psycho-pathology or sexual trauma (think Fifty Shades of Gray).

All of this is rather groundbreaking, and I was, quite literally, in tears as I watched. Tears of joy and relief for being hailed as polyamorous, an enthusiastic participant in threesomes, and a dabbler in kink and not getting slapped in the face with mocking laughter or the pointing fingers of shame.

But these things were not, for me personally, the most unique and striking aspect of this film—though, to be perfectly clear, I do not want to diminish just how significant this film is in its bravery and beauty around polyamory, bisexuality, and kink. The most astonishingly wonderful thing about Angela Robinson’s film version of this story, as seen from my theatre seat, was being hailed as a feminist. Gazing at Elizabeth and Olive admire, fall in love with, and express desire for each other as lovers, not rivals. And even more significant was to witness them consciously and deliberatively (not deliberately, though that works too) choose to forge an unconventional and poly life together with Marston.

Unlike narratives about polygamy where women are passive objects of men’s brutality or desire, this film shows Elizabeth and Olive actively creating a life together and with a man who is an equal partner. Refusing to reproduce tropes about women’s competition with each other for the attention of a man, Angela Robinson situates the women’s admiration and desire for each other at the center of the story. Both women are brilliant feminists. And both women are, as Olive says about Elizabeth, ‘magnificent” and desirous of an unconventional life.

In other words, Angela Robinson has succeeded in transforming a story about a man with a wife and a mistress (as told by Gross and LePore) into two women and a man who bravely forge an unconventional, poly and feminist life.

Whether or not it is an accurate portrayal of the lived experience of Holloway, Byrne, and Marston is impossible to know, and to be perfectly frank, completely uninteresting to me. I am interested in the stories we tell—as historians and as filmmakers and what those stories say about people who live unconventional lives.

I cherish the story told in this film by Angela Robinson because of what it says about those of us who live unconventional, poly lives. Yes, we are freaks, but only in the eyes of those who live conventional lives and want everyone else to follow the rules. Yes, we are sometimes ridiculed and shunned, and yet, because of it, we are brave, strong, and resilient. And some of us, like Elizabeth Holloway, Olive Byrne, and William Marston, and the character Wonder Woman, for that matter, are capable of changing the world. Thank you, Angela Robinson, for telling this part of the story.

Mimi Schippers is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Tulane University. She is the author of Beyond Monogamy: Polamory and the Future of Polyqueer Sexualities  (New York University Press, 2016) and Rockin’ Out of the Box: Gender Maneuvering in Alternative Hard Rock (Rutgers University Press, 2002).