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.

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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Is the “Mrs. Degree” Dead?, by Laura Hamilton, PhD

In 1998 I was a first-year student at DePauw University, a small liberal arts college in Indiana. A floor-mate of mine, with whom I hung out occasionally, told me over lunch that she was at college primarily to find a “good husband.” I nearly choked on my sandwich. I had assumed that the notion of the “Mrs. Degree” was a relic of my parents’ era—if not my grandparents’. Surely it had gone the way of the home economics major and women’s dormitory curfews.

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Photo via clemsonunivlibrary flickr creative commons

Years later, I — along with my co-director, Elizabeth A. Armstrong — would embark on a five year ethnographic and longitudinal study of a dormitory floor of women at a public flagship in the Midwest. As part of my dissertation, I also interviewed the women’s parents. What I found brought me back to my first year of college. A subset of parents wanted their daughters to be “cookie-baking moms”—not successful lawyers, doctors, or businesswomen. They espoused gender complementarity—a cultural model of how women should achieve economic security that relied on a co-constructed pairing of traditional femininity and masculinity. That is, men were to be economic providers and women supportive homemakers. This was a revised “Mrs.” Degree, in the sense that marriage during college, or even right after, was not desirable. College women were to build the traits and social networks that would hopefully land them a successful husband eventually, but it was assumed best to wait until men had proven themselves in the labor market before entering a marriage.

This was not the only cultural model to which women on the floor were exposed. In fact, those coming in primed for complementarity were in the minority. However, as I show in my article, “The Revised MRS: Gender Complementarity at College,” far more women left college leaning toward gender complementarity than their previous gender socialization suggested. Something was happening on the college campus — where women were, ironically, out-achieving men — that shifted them toward performing an affluent, white, and heterosexual femininity, marked by an emphasis on appearance, accommodation to men, and a bubbly personality.

I argue that gender complementarity is not just a characteristic of individual women, but is actually encouraged by the institutional and interactional features of the typical, four-year, public state school. Midwest U, like other schools of its kind, builds a social and academic infrastructure well-suited to high-paying, out-of-state students interested in partying. The predominately white Greek system — a historically gender-, class-, and racially-segregated institution — enjoys prominence on campus. An array of “easy” majors, geared toward characteristics developed outside of the classroom, allow women to leverage personality, looks, and social skills in the academic sphere. These supports make it possible for peer cultures in which gender complementarity is paramount to thrive. Women who want to belong and make friends find it hard — if not impossible — to avoid the influence of the dominant social scene on campus, located in fraternities and Greek-oriented bars.

This structure of campus life is not incidental. In recent years, cuts to state and federal support for higher education have led mid-tier public institutions like Midwest U to cater to the socially-oriented and out-of-state students who arrive with gender complementarity interests. These class-based processes have implications for the type of social and academic climate that all students find upon arriving at Midwest University.

The problem is, however, that most women need to accrue the skills and credentials that translate into a solid career. An institution supporting gender complementarity does them a serious disservice — potentially contributing to gendered differences in pay after college. The situation is particularly problematic for students not from the richest of families: Affluent women espousing complementarity form the type of networks that give them reasonable hope of rescue by a high-credentialed spouse, and heavy parental support means that they can afford to be in big cities where they mix and mingle with the “right” men. Women from less affluent backgrounds lack these resources, and are often reliant on their own human capital to make it after college.

The gradual shift from higher education as a public good — funded heavily by the state — to a private commodity — for sale to the highest bidder — has significantly stalled not only progress toward class equality, but certain forms of gender equality as well. Change is going to require unlinking the solvency of organizations like Midwest U from the interests of those can afford, and thus demand, an exclusionary and highly gendered social experience.

Laura T. Hamilton, PhD is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced. Her recently published article, “The Revised MRS: Gender Complementarity at College,” appears in the April 2014 issue of Gender & Society; this post originally appeared at their blog. She is the author of Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matter’s for College Women’s Success and, with Elizabeth Armstrong, Paying for the Party: How Colleges Maintain Inequality.

Many are aghast at a cartoon recently released by a well-known right-leaning cartoonist, Ben Garrison. Rightly, commentators are arguing that it reproduces the racist stereotype that African American women are more masculine than white women. I’ll briefly discuss this, but I want to add a twist, too.

The block versus cursive font, the muscularity and the leanness, the strong versus swishy stance, the color and cut of their dresses, the length of their hair, the confrontational versus the compliant facial expression, and the strategically placed, transphobic bulge in Michelle Obama’s dress — you could hardly do a better job of masculinizing Michelle and feminizing Melania.

This is a racist stereotype not only because it posits that black women are unattractive, unlikable, and even dangerous, but because it has its roots in American slavery. We put middle class white women on pedestals, imagining them to be fragile and precious. But if women were fragile and precious, how could we force some of them to do the hard labor we forced on enslaved women? The answer was to defeminize black women. Thanks for keeping the stereotype alive, Ben Garrison.

What I’d like to add as a twist, though, is about Michelle’s expression, purposefully drawn as both ugly and judgmental. Michelle’s face isn’t just drawn as masculine, it’s aimed at Melania and she isn’t just sneering, she’s sneering at this other women.

The cartoon also places women in competition. It tells a sexist story of ugly (black) women who are hateful toward beautiful (white) women. It tells a story in which women are bitter and envious of each other, a ubiquitous story in which women tear each other down and can’t get along. It’s a terrible stereotype, demeaning and untrue (except insofar as patriarchal relations make it so).

And it’s especially reprehensible when it’s layered onto race.

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

The Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Economics recently looked at wealth inequality.  The first chart taken from the post shows wealth differences by race and age of head of family.

wealth gap

Racial differences (white versus black and Hispanic) dominate whether looking at average or median net worth, and the gap grows as the head of the family ages.  Median figures are especially sobering, showing the limited wealth generation of representative black and Hispanic heads of families regardless of age.

So, do these advantages and disadvantages transfer to the next generation? Yes, and not just laterally. This second chart looks at the relationship between inheritance and wealth generation.

Inheritance

Inheritance was divided into ten groups.  WARNING: THE TENTH GROUP, WHICH RECEIVED THE LARGEST INHERITANCE, IS NOT SHOWN.

As Josh Zumrun, the author of the blog, explains:

The bottom 10% of inheritors received an inheritance averaging only about $2,000. Families receiving this much inheritance aren’t that wealthy.

But among families that received a $35,000 inheritance, their net worth is over half a million. Families that received a $125,000 inheritance are worth $780,000 on average and those that receive a $200,000 inheritance are, on average, millionaires. (The top 10% of inheritors, not pictured in this chart, inherit $1.6 million on average and have a net worth of $4.2 million.)

The take-away is pretty simple: Wealth inequality is real, with strong racial determinants, and is also, to a significant degree, self-reinforcing.

Originally posted at Reports from the Economic Front.

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Martin Hart-Landsberg is a professor of economics at Lewis and Clark College. You can follow him at Reports from the Economic Front.

Law professor and critical race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw developed the term” intersectionality” to draw attention to the way that all of our socially salient identities work together to shape the stereotypes that apply to us. The experience of being black, for example, is shaped by gender, just as the experience of being a man is shaped by race.

Once a person has internalized an intersectional lens, the old model — epitomized by the famous phrase “all the women are white, all the blacks are men” — can be jarring. It has a way of making certain kinds of people and their experience invisible. In the above case, women of color.

At this weekend’s debate, Bernie Sanders made exactly one of these jarring statements in response to an inquiry about “racial blind spots.”

When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor. You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car.

I imagine poor white people, middle class blacks, and women everywhere sat up and were like “What!?”

Author Joy Ann Reid noted on twitter that Sanders was conflating race and class, making poor white and middle and upper class black people invisible. Most African Americans are not poor and most poor people are white. She noted, as well, that white immigrants have lived in what we call the “ghetto” for much of American history.

I’ll add that one doesn’t need to be black to get hassled when walking down the street, as most women of all races can attest. Or, for that matter, how about being a feminine-presenting or gender queer man? And being dragged out of a car is something that happens to black people who are being accosted by the police, but also those who are being victimized by violent boyfriends or husbands.

Ironically, Sanders was saying that his racial blind spot was not being able to fully understand the black experience, but he revealed a different blind spot: intersectionality.

The comment starts at about a minute, twenty seconds:

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.

On Mardi Gras mornings before dawn, members of the North Side Skull and Bones Gang prowl the streets. It’s a 200 year old tradition belonging to African American residents of the city. They first prowled in 1819.

Members of the gang dress up like ominous skeletons. At nola.com, Sharon Litwin writes:

Because the origins of the Gang were with working class folk who had little money for silks and satins, the skeleton suits are made from everyday items and simple fabrics. Baling wire (to construct the shape of the head) along with flour and water to bind together old newspapers, create the head itself.

Their message is to “warn [people] away from violence” — says the North Side Chief, Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes — especially young people, and especially gun and domestic violence. He explains:

The bone gang represents people… waking people up about what they’re doing in life, if they don’t change their lifestyle. You know. We’re like the dead angels. We let you know, if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re gonna be with us.

Up before most residents, members of the gang cause a ruckus. They sing songs, bang on doors, and play-threaten their neighbors.

Here’s some footage:

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.

2 (1)February’s edition of Contexts had a fascinating article by Amin Ghaziani titled Lesbian Geographies. Most of us are familiar with the idea of a “gayborhood,” a neighborhood enclave that attracts gay men. It turns out that lesbians have enclaves, too, but they’re not always the same ones.

Here’s the frequency of same-sex female couples (top) and same-sex male couples (bottom) in U.S. counties. Census data tracks same-sex couples but not individuals, so the conclusions here are based on couples.

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What are the differences between where same-sex female and same-sex male couples live?

First, Same-sex female couples are more likely than their male counterparts to live in rural areas. Ghaziani thinks that “cultural cues regarding masculinity and femininity play a part.” As one interviewee told sociologist Emily Kazyak:

If you’re a flaming gay queen, they’re like, “Oh, you’re a freak, I’m scared of you.” But if you’re a really butch woman and you’re working at a factory, I think [living in the midwest is] a little easier.

If being “butch” is normative for people living in rural environments, lesbians who perform masculinity might fit in better than gay men who don’t.

Second, non-heterosexual women are about three times as likely as non-heterosexual men to be raising a child under 18. Whatever a person’s sexual orientation, parents are more likely to be looking for good schools, safe neighborhoods, and non-postage stamp-sized apartments.

Finally, there’s evidence that gay men price lesbians out. Gay men are notorious for gentrifying neighborhoods, but data shows that lesbians usually get there first. When non-heterosexual men arrive, they accelerate the gentrification, often making it less possible for non-heterosexual women to afford to stay. Thanks to the gender pay gap, times two, women living with women don’t generally make as much money as men living with men.

Or, they might leave because they don’t want to be around so many men. Ghaziani writes:

Gay men are still men, after all, and they are not exempt from the sexism that saturates our society. In reflecting on her experiences in the gay village of Manchester, England, one lesbian described gay men as “quite intimidating. They’re not very welcoming towards women.”

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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.

2 (1)Prior to the 1850s, writes cultural studies scholar Matthew Brower, men in America didn’t hunt. More specifically, they didn’t hunt for leisure. There was a hunting industry that employed professionals who hunted as a full time occupation, and there was a large market for wild animal products, but hunting for fun wasn’t a common pastime.

This changed in the second half of the 1800s. Americans were increasingly living in cities and being “citified.” Commenters worried that urban life was making men effeminate, effete, overly civilized, domesticated if you will. Cities were a threat to manliness and nature the salve.

Hunting trophies, taxidermied remains of wild animals, served as symbolic proof of one’s “hardiness.” Unlike the animal parts bought at market — whether for food or furs, as feathers on hats, or the then-popular elk tooth watch chain — animals a man killed himself reflected on his skill and character.

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As Theodore Roosevelt once put it:

Nothing adds more to a hall or a room than fine antlers when their owner has been shot by the hunter-displayer, but always there is an element of the absurd in a room furnished with trophies of the chase that the displayer has acquired by purchase.

New, elite recreational hunters castigated both lesser men, who purchased animal parts for display, and women who bought them purely for fashion.

This was the origin of the idea that hunting is a contest, as opposed to an occupation or necessity. To paraphrase Brower, a trophy can’t be bought, it must be earned. Thus, the notion of “sportsmanship” as applied to the hunt. If a kill is going to indicate skill, then the hunted must have a “sporting chance.” Thus, recreational hunters developed an etiquette for sportsmanlike hunting, spread through new hunting magazines and periodicals.

Not only did this allow men to claim manly cred, it allowed wealthy men to claim class cred. Brower writes:

Both subsistence and market hunters, the majority of hunters, were placed outside the purview of the sportsman’s code. Those who hunted out of necessity or for profit never could obtain the aesthetic detachment necessary to be considered sportsmen.

In fact, wealthy recreational hunters claimed that only they were “real hunters” and even organized against people who hunted for food and money. For example,

[Roosevelt himself] blamed the decline of game on market hunters, who he argued, had “no excuse of any kind” for the wanton slaughter of animals.

Trophy hunters successfully enacted statutes limiting other types of hunting, so as to preserve game for themselves.

The rarer and larger the animal, the more exquisite the specimen, and the more a man has killed, the better the animals speak to a his manliness and his elite economic and social class. This is perhaps the attraction of international trophy hunting today: the seeking of more exotic and elusive game to bring home and display. And it is perhaps why some people pay $50,000 to travel across the world, kill a lion, cut off its head, then post it on Facebook.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

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.