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.

America woke up this weekend to the news of 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.

Nowadays, women are much more likely to earn more income than their spouse than they used to. But this is a shift, not a revolution, because very very few women are the kind of breadwinner that some men used to be.

Using data on 18-64 year-old married wives and their spouses (95.5% of which were men) from Decennial Censuses and the 2014 American Community Survey, here are some facts from 2014:

  • In 2014, 25% of wives earn more than their spouses (up from 15% in 1990 and 7% in 1970).
  • The average wife-who-earns-more takes home 68% of the couple’s earnings. The average for higher-earning men is 82%.
  • In 40% of the wife-earns-more couples, she earns less than 60% of the total, compared with 18% for higher earning men.
  • It is almost 9-times more common for a husband to earn all the money than a wife (19.6% versus 2.3%).

Here is the distribution of income in married couples (wife ages 18-64; the bars add to 100%):

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Male and female breadwinners are not equivalent; making $.01 more than your spouse doesn’t make you a 1950s breadwinner, or the “primary earner” of the family.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality, where this post originally appeared. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Rose Eveleth’s piece for Fusion on gender and bodyhacking was something I didn’t know I needed in my life until it was there. You know how you’ve always known something or felt something, but it isn’t until someone else articulates it for you that you truly understand it, can explain it to yourself, think you might be able to explain it to others – or, even better, shove the articulation at them and be all THAT RIGHT THERE, THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT. You know that kind of thing?

Yeah, that.

Eveleth’s overall thesis is that “bodyhacking” isn’t new at all, that it’s been around forever in how women – to get oversimplified and gender-essentialist in a way I try to avoid, so caveat there – alter and control and manage their bodies (not always to positive or uncoercive ends), but that it’s not recognized as such because we still gender the concept of “technology” as profoundly masculine:

Men invent Soylent, and it’s considered technology. Women have been drinking SlimFast and Ensure for decades but it was just considered a weight loss aid. Quantified self is an exciting technology sector that led tech giants such as Apple to make health tracking a part of the iPhone. But though women have been keeping records of their menstrual cycles for thousands of years, Apple belatedly added period tracking to its Health Kit. Women have been dieting for centuries, but when men do it and call it “intermittent fasting,” it gets news coverage as a tech trend. Men alter their bodies with implants and it’s considered extreme bodyhacking, and cutting edge technology. Women bound their feet for thousands of years, wore corsets that altered their rib cages, got breast implants, and that was all considered shallow narcissism.

As a central personal example, Eveleth uses her IUD, and this is what especially resonated with me, because I also have one. I’ve had one for about seven years. I love it. And getting it was moderately life-changing, not just because of its practical benefits but because it altered how I think about me.

The insertion process was not comfortable (not to scare off anyone thinking of getting one, TRUST ME IT IS GREAT TO HAVE) and more than a little anxiety-inducing ahead of time, but I walked out of the doctor’s office feeling kind of cool. I had an implant. I had a piece of technology in my uterus, that was enabling me to control my reproductive process. I don’t want children – at least not right now – and my reproductive organs have never been significantly important to me as far as my gender identity goes (probably not least because I don’t identify as a woman), but managing my bits and what they do and how they do it has naturally been a part of my life since I became sexually active.

And what matters for this conversation is that the constant task of managing them isn’t something I chose. Trying to find a method that worked best for me and (mildly) stressing about how well it was working was a part of my identity inasmuch as it took up space in my brain, and I wasn’t thrilled about that. I didn’t want it to be part of my identity – though I didn’t want to go as far as permanently foreclosing on the possibility of pregnancy – and it irked me that it had to be.

Then it didn’t have to be anymore.

And it wasn’t just about a little copper implant being cool on a pure nerd level. I felt cool because the power dynamic between my self and my body had changed. My relationship between me and this set of organs had become voluntary in a way entirely new to me.

I feel like I might not be explaining this very well.

Here: Over thirty years ago, Donna Haraway presented an image of a new form of self and its creation – not creation, in fact, but construction. Something pieced together with intentionality, the result of choices – something “encoded.” She offered a criticism of the woman-as-Earth-Mother vision that then-contemporary feminists were making use of, and pointed the way forward toward something far stranger and more wonderfully monstrous.

The power of an enmeshing between the organic and the technological lies not only in what it allows one to do but in what it allows one to be – and often there’s no real distinction to be made between the two. We can talk about identity in terms of smartphones, but when we come to things like technologies of reproductive control, I think the conversation often slips into the purely utilitarian – if these things are recognized as technologies at all.

Eveleth notes that “technology is a thing men do,” and I think the dismissal of female bodyhacking goes beyond dismissal of the utilitarian aspects of these technologies. It’s also the dismissal of many of the things that make it possible to construct a cyborg self, to weave a powerful connection to the body that’s about the emotional and psychological just as much as the physical.

I walked out of that doctor’s office with my little copper implant, and the fact that I no longer had to angst about accidental pregnancy was in many respects a minor component of what I was feeling. I was a little less of a goddess, and a little more of a cyborg.

Sunny Moraine is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Maryland and a fiction author whose work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Shimmer, Nightmare, and Strange Horizons, as well as multiple Year’s Best anthologies; they are also responsible for both the Root Code and Casting the Bones novel trilogies. Their current dissertation work concerns narrative, temporality, and genocidal violence. They blog at Cyborgology, where this post originally appeared, and can be followed on Twitter at @dynamicsymmetry.

Flashback Friday.

Russ Ruggles, who blogs for Online Dating Matchmaker, makes an argument for lying in your online dating profile. He notes, first, that lying is common and, second, that people lie in the direction that we would expect, given social desirability. Men, for example, tend to exaggerate their height; women tend to exaggerate their thinness:

Since people also tend to restrict their searches according to social desirability (looking for taller men and thinner women), these lies will result in your being included in a greater proportion of searches. So, if you lie, you are more likely to actually go on a date.

Provided your lie was small — small enough, that is, to not be too obvious upon first meeting — Ruggles explains that things are unlikely to fall to pieces on the first date. It turns out that people’s stated preferences have a weak relationship to who they actually like. Stated preferences, one study found, “seemed to vanish when it came time to choose a partner in physical space.”

“It turns out,” Ruggles writes, that “we have pretty much no clue what we actually want in a partner.”

So lie! A little! Lie away! And, also, don’t be so picky. You never know!

Originally posted in 2010. Crossposted at Jezebel.

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.

Vox released the following figure this month, illustrating the results of an analysis by social media analytics company Crimson Hexagon. Excluding neutral stories, it shows the percentage of positive and negative media coverage for the final five candidates in the presidential primary. Clinton has received the most negative coverage and the least positive coverage.

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As Jeff Stein at Vox notes, there may be more negative scrutiny of Clinton compared to Sanders because she’s widely considered to be the front-runner and that might not be good for Sanders, despite the greater positive coverage, because it could mark him as a non-contender.

Being the front-runner, though, doesn’t explain why Trump has received comparably less negative and more positive coverage.

Are these numbers reliable?

Well, the numbers were generated by algorithm. First Crimson Hexagon picked news outlets to include in their analysis. They did so by choosing the outlets that generated the most conversation on social media: Washington Post, Politico, Fox News, the Huffington Post, and CNN. So, one caveat is: if you’re using social media to get your news, you’re probably getting more negative coverage of Clinton compared to the other candidates. If you’re not, you may be exposed to a different balance of stories.

Next, they ran over 170,000 posts from these outlets through an “auto-sentiment” tool. It’s a computer program they built by hiring staff to manually code and enter hundreds of thousands of stories into a database as examples. The computer then searches for patterns between the positive, negative, and neutral stories and compares those patterns with un-coded stories that it sorts, anew, into those three categories.

So, a second caveat is, if you agree with their coding procedures (and trust their coders), then you will likely feel confident with the results. Their coding procedures, as far as I can tell, are proprietary, so we don’t get to evaluate them for ourselves.

One thing you might find easy to swallow though, even if you’re a skeptic, is how little positive news there is about anybody.

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.

Jane Mayer’s recent book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right is a powerful account of how the Right influences public opinion via a network of think-tanks, lobbyists and other forms of direct and indirect funding in the guise of objectivity, but which in fact support right-wing values.

As someone with an interest in masculinity, one name that jumped out of Mayer’s book at me was Harvey Mansfield, a Harvard professor of government and author of Manliness published in 2006 by Yale University Press. Mansfield’s book is a lament to the loss of manliness in contemporary society (a state of being he traces back to the ancient Greeks and follows through to Rick in Casablanca), which is being eradicated by a “gender neutral” ideology. In short, Manliness is a manifesto for normative masculinity.

It always seemed curious to me why Manliness was ever taken seriously by such a prestigious publisher as Yale University Press when its argument was so outdated relative to most academic discourse on masculinity, combined with the fact that Mansfield had little research track record in the subject. Mayer’s book offers two facts that can be speculatively connected to address this curiosity.

Mansfield is cited in Dark Money as being one of numerous professors who received funding from the Olin Foundation, a trust established to promote freemarket ideology and other conservative ideas on America’s campuses. Mayer does not state that Manliness was funded by the Olin Foundation, but later she quotes Steve Wasserman of Yale University Press, who noted how the Right saw the value of funding books, whereas the philanthropic Left did not assign the same value.

In general, funding, either in full or in part, can make a substantial difference to the economic viability of a book for a publisher. In normal circumstances this is called a “subvention,” and while many believe this to be a sign of vanity publishing, it is a reality of academic publishing. Academic books in some circumstances (and in particular, some subjects), can be fully funded, which can only have a positive influence on whether or not the book sees the light of day.

But what of it? What does it really matter if a book peddling antiquated ideas about masculinity is published? First, anything published by Yale University Press is going to be taken seriously. Further still, the support network around Mansfield and his ideas made sure that his book received more media attention than most other books on the subject that were of greater merit. Second, if we look at Google search trends we can see some interesting changes, keeping in mind that correlation does not (necessarily) imply causation. Consider the following chart that looks at the popularity of the term “masculinity” relative to “manliness”:

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In 2005 there was a high usage of the term “masculinity” and very little usage of the term “manliness.” In 2006 there was a massive spike in the term “manliness” which immediately matches that of “masculinity.” 2006 was the year of publication of Mansfield’s Manliness. Certainly, that spike of activity swiftly drops off, but it slowly builds again until around 2011 when manliness again surpasses masculinity and this remained the case until very recently.

It is reasonable to assume that the 2006 spike in search activity using “manliness” was down to Mansfield’s book. It is less reasonable to say that the slow increase in the use of the term was discussion of Mansfield’s book, but it may well have planted a seed that might not otherwise have grown.

Do not make the mistake of thinking these are different but value-free words for describing the same thing. In general, people who use the term “manliness” are referring to a fixed and essentialist idea of sex and gender (usually glossing over the distinction between the two), whereas the use of the term “masculinity” accommodates a critique as well as celebration of normative masculinity.

And do not make the mistake of thinking this is just about sex and gender. In his book The Political Mind, George Lakoff shows how manliness (which he describes as the “strict father model”) is one of the most basic metaphors we use for constructing national identity. Lakoff actually cites Mansfield’s Manliness as being written to cement the conservative strict father model in order to consolidate conservative political power.

Locating the strict father model as one of the core metaphors of the political mind adds further understanding to how masculinity has played out in the 2016 presidential campaign. Numerous articles on this subject are chronicled at the excellent Presidential Gender Watch project which mostly argue how Trump has appealed to a specific model of masculinity in his speeches. Yes, these speeches reveal an unsavory streak of misogyny in Trump, and yes, they reveal him to be capitalizing upon a perceived crisis of masculinity, particularly among the working class. However, an explicit appeal to masculinity also mobilizes that strict father model, which enables Trump to draw on the traditional conservative base even as he critiques it.

It is also worth considering how these deep metaphors play out in the Democratic imagination. Opposite the strict father model of the conservatives, Lakoff identifies the “nurturing parent model” of the progressives. According to Lakoff, Democrats should appeal to the nurturing parent metaphor at all times. However, one could argue that despite Clinton’s playing the “woman card” her style is more that of the strict father than the nurturing parent, again appealing to that traditional conservative base. So who is the nurturing parent? As Obama quipped in his final correspondents’ dinner speech about Malia wanting to go to Burning Man, “Bernie might have let her go. Not us.”

Joseph Gelfer, PhD is a researcher of men and masculinities. He is the editor of Masculinities in a Global Era and 2012: Decoding the Countercultural Apocalypse.

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.