gender

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).  

Originally Posted at There’s Research On That! 

Photo by Tom Lee, Flickr CC

If you like Halloween, you know that witches are a popular costume choice and decoration this time of year. But the history of witches involves much more than bubbling cauldrons and flying broomsticks. Social science shows us that witchcraft has a long history of empowering marginalized groups, like women and sexual minorities, who question more traditional religious practices.

While popular images of witches often focus on magic spells, brooms, and pointed hats, witchcraft and other forms of neo-paganism have historically been used by women to push back against male-dominated religions. More traditional, hierarchical interpretations of religions like Christianity and Islam often place women in a subordinate role to men, and research finds that many women are drawn to witchcraft and other alternative spiritualities because they emphasize female empowerment, embodied rituals, and sexual freedom.

People who practice witchcraft and neo-paganism typically see sexuality and gender as key sites for social transformation and personal healing, pushing back against the Christian idea that sex and bodies are sinful. Since neo-paganism values sexual freedom and sexual diversity, LGBTQ folks and people practicing polyamory often feel a sense of belonging that they don’t find in other religious spaces.

This has also been true for young adults. In general, young adults practice religion and spirituality differently than do older generations. For example, millennials are the least likely to participate in traditional religious institutions or identify with one single religious belief system, but many still desire some combination of spirituality and community. The increase in portrayals of witchcraft and other neo-pagan religions in popular media has exposed younger generations to these communities, and research finds that teens are more often drawn to these alternative spiritual practices as a means of self-discovery and community, rather than the promise of magical powers.

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

Jacqui Frost is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota and the managing editor at The Society Pages. Her research interests include non-religion and religion, culture, and civic engagement.

Mild Spoiler Alert for Season 3 of House of Cards

Where is Rachel Posner?

Representations of sex workers on popular shows such as Game of Thrones, The Good Wife, and, of course, any version of CSI, are often stereotypical, completely incorrect, and infuriatingly dehumanizing. Like so many of these shows, House of Cards offers more of the same, but it uses a somewhat different narrative for a former sex worker and central character, Rachel Posner. Rachel experiences many moments of sudden empowerment that are just as quickly taken away. She is not entirely disempowered, often physically and emotionally resisting other characters and situations, but her humanization only lasts so long.  

The show follows Rachel for three full seasons, offering some hope to the viewer that her story would not end in her death, dehumanization, or any other number of sensational and tumultuous storylines. So, when she is murdered in the final episode of Season 3, viewers sensitive to her character’s role as a sex worker and invested in a new narrative for current and former sex worker characters on popular TV shows probably felt deeply let down. Her death inspired us to go back and analyze how her role in the series was both intensely invisible and visible.  

Early in the show, we learn that Rachel has information that could reveal murder and corrupt political strategizing orchestrated by the protagonist Frank Underwood.  She is the thread that weaves the entire series together. Despite this, most characters on the show do not value Rachel beyond worrying about how she could harm them. Other characters talk about her when she’s not present at all, often referring to her as “the prostitute” or “some hooker,” rather than by her name or anything else that describes who she is.

The show, too, devalues her. At the beginning of an episode, we watch Rachel making coffee one morning in her small apartment.  Yet, instead of watching her, we watch her body parts; the camera pans over her torso, her breasts in a lace bra, and then her legs before we finally see her entire body and face.  There is not one single scene even remotely like this for any other character on the show. Even the promotional material for Season 1 (pictured above) fails to include a photo of Rachel while including images of a number of other characters who were less central to the storyline and appeared in fewer episodes. Yet, whoever arranged the photoshoot didn’t think she was important enough to include.

Another major way that Rachel is marginalized in the context of the show is that she is not given many scenes or storylines that are about her—her private life, time spent with friends, or what’s important to her. This is in contrast to other characters with a similar status. For instance, the audience is made to feel sympathy for Gavin, a hacker, when an FBI agent threatens the life of his beloved guinea pig. In contrast, it is Rachel’s ninth episode before the audience sees her interact with a friend, and we never really learn what motivates her beyond fear and survival. In this sense, Rachel is almost entirely invisible in her own storyline. She only exists when people want something from her.

Rachel is also made invisible by the way she is represented or discussed in many scenes.  For instance, although she’s present, she has zero lines in her first couple scenes. After appearing (without lines) in Episodes 1 and 2, Rachel reappears in Episode 7, although she’s not really present; she re-emerges in the form of a handwritten note to Doug Stamper (Underwood’s indispensable assistant).  She writes: “I need more money.  And not in my mouth.” These are Rachel’s first two lines in the entire series; however, she’s not actually saying them, she’s asking for something and one of the lines draws attention to a sexualized body part and sexual act that she engaged in with Doug. Without judging the fact that she engaged in a sexual act with a client, what’s notable here is the fact that she isn’t given a voice or her own resources. She is constantly positioned in relation to other characters and often without the resources and ability to survive on her own.

This can clearly be seen in the way Rachel is easily pushed around by other characters in the show, who are able to force their will upon her. When viewers do finally see her in a friendship, one that blossoms into a romance, the meaning that Rachel gives the relationship is overshadowed by the reaction Doug Stamper has to it. Doug has more contact with Rachel than any other character on the show; in the beginning of the series, he acts as a sort of “protector” to Rachel, by finding her a safe place to stay, ensuring that she can work free from sexual harassment in her new job, and getting her an apartment of her own. However, all these actions highlight the fact that she does not have her own resources or connections to be able to function on her own, and they are used to manipulate her. Over Rachel’s growing objections, Doug is able to impose his wishes upon her fairly easily. The moment she is able to overpower him and escape, she disappears from the show for almost a whole season, only to reappear in the episode where she dies. In this episode, we finally see Rachel standing on her own two feet. It seems like a hard life, working lots of double shifts and living in a rundown boardinghouse, but we also see her enjoying herself with friends and building something new for herself. And yet, it is also in this episode where she has leveraged her competence into a new life that she also meets her demise. Unfortunately, after seeing this vision of Rachel on the road to empowerment, more than half of her scenes relate to her death, and in most of them she is begging Doug for her life, once again reduced to powerlessness. 

Every time we begin to see a new narrative for Rachel, one that allows her to begin a life that isn’t entirely tethered to Doug Stamper and her past, she is almost immediately drawn back into his web.  Ultimately, in this final episode, she can no longer grasp her new narrative and immediately loses hold of it.  In her final scenes, after kidnapping her, Doug temporarily lets her go.  She begins to walk in the opposite direction of his van before, only moments later, he flips the van around and heads back in her direction.  The next scene cuts suddenly to her lifeless body in a shallow grave.  The sudden shock of this scene is jarring, yet oddly expected, given how the show has treated Rachel’s character throughout the series.  It’s almost as if the show does not have any use for a sex worker character who can competently manage their own affairs.  Perhaps that idea didn’t even occur to the writers because of the place in our society in which sex workers are currently situated, perhaps it disrupts the fallen woman narrative, or perhaps for some reason, a death seems more “interesting” than a storyline where a sex worker has agency and takes an active role in shaping her own life and affecting those around her.  Whatever the reason, House of Cards ultimately fails Rachel and sex workers, in general.

Paige Connell is an undergraduate sociology student at Chico State University. Her areas of interest include intimate relationships, gender, and pop culture. 

Dr. Danielle Antoinette Hidalgo is an Assistant Professor in Sociology at California State University, Chico, specializing in theory, gender and sexuality, and embodiment studies.

In February, CBS Sunday Morning aired a short news segment on the bro hug phenomenon: a supposedly new way heterosexual (white) men (i.e., bros) greet each other. According to this news piece, the advent of the bro hug can be attributed to decreased homophobia and is a sign of social progress.

I’m not so sure.

To begin, bro-ness isn’t really about any given individuals, but invokes a set of cultural norms, statuses, and meanings. A stereotypical bro is a white middle-class, heterosexual male, especially one who frequents strongly masculinized places like fraternities, business schools, and sport events. (The first part of the video, in fact, focused on fraternities and professional sports.) The bro, then, is a particular kind of guy, one that frequents traditionally male spaces with a history of homophobia and misogyny and is invested in maleness and masculinity.

The bro hug reflects this investment in masculinity and, in particular, the masculine performance in heterosexuality. To successfully complete a bro hug, the two men clasp their right hands and firmly pull their bodies towards each other until they are or appear to be touching whilst their left hands swing around to forcefully pat each other on the back. Men’s hips and chests never make full contact. Instead, the clasped hands pull in, but also act as a buffer between the men’s upper bodies, while the legs remain firmly rooted in place, maintaining the hips at a safe distance. A bro hug, in effect, isn’t about physical closeness between men, but about limiting bodily contact.

Bro hugging, moreover, is specifically a way of performing solidarity with heterosexual men. In the CBS program, the bros explain that a man would not bro hug a woman since a bro hug is, by its forcefulness, designed to be masculinity affirming. Similarly, a bro hug is not intended for gay men, lesbians, or queer people. The bro hug performs and reinforce bro identity within an exclusively bro domain. For bros, by bros. As such, the bro hug does little to signal a decrease in homophobia. Instead, it affirms men’s identities as “real” men and their difference from both women and non-heterosexual men.

In this way, the bro-hug functions similarly to the co-masturbation and same-sex sexual practices of heterosexually identified white men, documented by the sociologist Jane Ward in her book, Not Gay. Ward argues that when straight white men have sex with other straight white men they are not necessarily blurring the boundaries between homo- and heterosexuality. Instead, they are shifting the line separating what is considered normal from what is considered queer.  Touching another man’s anus during a fraternity hazing ritual is normal (i.e., straight) while touching another man’s anus in a gay porn is queer.  In other words, the white straight men can have sex with each other because it is not “real” gay sex. 

Similarly, within the context of a bro hug, straight white men can now bro hug each other because they are heterosexual. Bro hugging will not diminish either man’s heterosexual capital. In fact, it might increase it. When two bros hug, they signal to others their unshakable strength of and comfort in their heterosexuality. Even though they are touching other men in public, albeit minimally, the act itself reinforces their heterosexuality and places it beyond reproach.

Hubert Izienicki, PhD, is a professor of sociology at Purdue University Northwest. 

Monday is Labor Day in the U.S. Though to many it is a last long weekend for recreation and shopping before the symbolic end of summer, the federal holiday, officially established in 1894, celebrates the contributions of labor.

Here are a few dozen SocImages posts on a range of issues related to workers, from the history of the labor movement, to current workplace conditions, to the impacts of the changing economy on workers’ pay:

The Social Construction of Work

Work in Popular Culture

Unemployment, Underemployment, and the “Class War”

Unions and Unionization

Economic Change, Globalization, and the Great Recession

Work and race, ethnicity, religion, and immigration

Gender and Work

The U.S. in International Perspective

Academia

Just for Fun

Bonus!

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Originally posted at Gender & Society.

Photo by JCDecaux Creative Solutions flickr creative commons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flashback Friday.

In Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality, Joane Nagel looks at how these characteristics are used to create new national identities and frame colonial expansion. In particular, White female sexuality, presented as modest and appropriate, was often contrasted with the sexuality of colonized women, who were often depicted as promiscuous or immodest.

This 1860s advertisement for Peter Lorillard Snuff & Tobacco illustrates these differences. According to Toby and Will Musgrave, writing in An Empire of Plants, the ad drew on a purported Huron legend of a beautiful white spirit bringing them tobacco.

There are a few interesting things going on here. We have the association of femininity with a benign nature: the women are surrounded by various animals (monkeys, a fox and a rabbit, among others) who appear to pose no threat to the women or to one another. The background is lush and productive.

Racialized hierarchies are embedded in the personification of the “white spirit” as a White woman, descending from above to provide a precious gift to Native Americans, similar to imagery drawing on the idea of the “white man’s burden.”

And as often occurred (particularly as we entered the Victorian Era), there was a willingness to put non-White women’s bodies more obviously on display than the bodies of White women. The White woman above is actually less clothed than the American Indian woman, yet her arm and the white cloth are strategically placed to hide her breasts and crotch. On the other hand, the Native American woman’s breasts are fully displayed.

So, the ad provides a nice illustration of the personification of nations with women’s bodies, essentialized as close to nature, but arranged hierarchically according to race and perceived purity.

Originally posted in 2010.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

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

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

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

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

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

Lisa Wade, PhD is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming Introduction to Sociology text. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.