Controversy erupted in 2014 when video of National Football League (NFL) player Ray Rice violently punched his fiancé (now wife) and dragged her unconscious body from an elevator. Most recently, Deadspin released graphic images of the injuries NFL player Greg Hardy inflicted on his ex-girlfriend. In both instances, NFL officials insisted that if they had seen the visual evidence of the crime, they would have implemented harsher consequences from the onset.

Why are violent images so much more compelling than other evidence of men’s violence against women? A partial answer is found by looking at whose story is privileged and whose is discounted. The power of celebrity and masculinity reinforces a collective desire to disbelieve the very real violence women experience at the hands of men. Thirteen Black women collectively shared their story of being raped and sexually assaulted by a White police officer, Daniel Holtzclaw, in Oklahoma. Without the combined bravery of the victims, it is unlikely any one woman would have been able to get justice. A similar unfolding happened with Bill Cosby. The first victims to speak out against Cosby were dismissed and treated with suspicion. The same biases that interfere with effectively responding to rape and sexual assault hold true for domestic violence interventions.

Another part of the puzzle language. Anti-sexist male activist Jackson Katz points out that labeling alleged victims “accusers” shifts public support to alleged perpetrators. The media’s common use of a passive voice when reporting on domestic violence (e.g., “violence against women”) inaccurately emphasizes a shared responsibility of the perpetrator and victim for the abuser’s violence and generally leaves readers with an inaccurate perception that domestic violence isn’t a gendered social problem. Visual evidence of women’s injuries at the hands of men is a powerful antidote to this misrepresentation.

In my own research, published in Sociological Spectrum, I found that the race of perpetrators also matters to who is seen as accountable for their violence. I analyzed 330 news articles about 66 male celebrities in the headlines for committing domestic violence. Articles about Black celebrities included criminal imagery – mentioning the perpetrator was arrested, listing the charges, citing law enforcement and so on – 3 times more often than articles about White celebrities. White celebrities’ violence was excused and justified 2½ times more often than Black celebrities’, and more often described as mutual escalation or explained away due to mitigating circumstances, such as inebriation.

Data from an analysis of 330 articles about 66 Black and White celebrities who made headlines for perpetrating domestic violence (2009-2012):

Caption: Data from an analysis of 330 articles about 66 Black and White celebrities who made headlines for perpetrating domestic violence (2009 – 2012).

Accordingly, visual imagery of Ray and Hardy’s violence upholds common stereotypes of Black men as violent criminals. Similarly, White celebrity abusers, such as Charlie Sheen, remain unmarked as a source of a social problem. It’s telling that the public outcry to take domestic violence seriously has been centered around the NFL, a sport in which two-thirds of the players are African American. The spotlight on Black male professional athletes’ violence against women draws on racist imagery of Black men as criminals. Notably, although domestic violence arrests account for nearly half of NFL players’ arrests for violent crimes, players have lower arrest rates for domestic violence compared to national averages for men in a similar age range.

If the NFL is going to take meaningful action to reducing men’s violence against women, not just protect its own image, the league will have to do more than take action only in instances in which visual evidence of a crime is available. Moreover, race can’t be separated from gender in their efforts.

Joanna R. Pepin a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland. Her work explores the relationship between historical change in families and the gender revolution.

Media have tended to depict childfree people negatively, likening the decision not to have children to “whether to have pizza or Indian for dinner.” Misperceptions about those who do not have children have serious weight, given that between 2006 and 2010 15% of women and 24% of men had not had children by age 40, and that nearly half of women aged 40-44 in 2002 were what Amy Blackstone and Mahala Dyer Stewart refer to as “childfree,” or purposefully not intending to have children.

Trends in childlessness/childfreeness from the Pew Research Center:


Blackstone and Stewart’s forthcoming 2016 article in The Family Journal, “There’s More Thinking to Decide”: How the Childfree Decide Not to Parent, engages the topic and extends the scholarly and public work Blackstone has done, including her shared blog, We’re Not Having a Baby.

When researchers explore why people do not have children, they find that the reasons are strikingly similar to reasons why people do have children. For example, “motivation to develop or maintain meaningful relationships” is a reason that some people have children – and a reason that others do not. Scholars are less certain on how people come to the decision to to be childfree. In their new article, Blackstone and Stewart find that, as is often the case with media portrayals of contemporary families, descriptions of how people come to the decision to be childfree have been oversimplified. People who are childfree put a significant amount of thought into the formation of their families, as they report.

Blackstone and Stewart conducted semi-structured interviews with 21 women and 10 men, with an average age of 34, who are intentionally childfree. After several coding sessions, Blackstone and Stewart identified 18 distinct themes that described some aspect of decision-making with regard to living childfree. Ultimately, the authors concluded that being childfree was a conscious decision that arose through a process. These patterns were reported by both men and women respondents, but in slightly different ways.

Childfree as a conscious decision

All but two of the participants emphasized that their decision to be childfree was made consciously. One respondent captured the overarching message:

People who have decided not to have kids arguably have been more thoughtful than those who decided to have kids. It’s deliberate, it’s respectful, ethical, and it’s a real honest, good, fair, and, for many people, right decision.

There were gender differences in the motives for these decisions. Women were more likely to make the decision based on concern for others: some thought that the world was a tough place for children today, and some did not want to contribute to overpopulation and environmental degradation. In contrast, men more often made the decision to live childfree “after giving careful and deliberate thought to the potential consequences of parenting for their own, everyday lives, habits, and activities and what they would be giving up were they to become parents.”

Childfree as a process

Contrary to misconceptions that the decision to be childfree is a “snap” decision, Blackstone and Stewart note that respondents conceptualized their childfree lifestyle as “a working decision” that developed over time. Many respondents had desired to live childfree since they were young; others began the process of deciding to be childfree when they witnessed their siblings and peers raising children. Despite some concrete milestones in the process of deciding to be childfree, respondents emphasized that it was not one experience alone that sustained the decision. One respondent said, “I did sort of take my temperature every five, six, years to make sure I didn’t want them.” Though both women and men described their childfree lifestyle as a “working decision,” women were more likely to include their partners in that decision-making process by talking about the decision, while men were more likely to make the decision independently.

Blackstone and Stewart conclude by asking, “What might childfree families teach us about alternative approaches to ‘doing’ marriage and family?” The present research suggests that childfree people challenge what is often an unquestioned life sequence by consistently considering the impact that children would have on their own lives as well as the lives of their family, friends, and communities. One respondent reflected positively on childfree people’s thought process: ‘‘I wish more people thought about thinking about it… I mean I wish it were normal to decide whether or not you were going to have children.’’

Braxton Jones is a graduate student in sociology at the University of New Hampshire, and serves as a Graduate Research and Public Affairs Scholar for the Council on Contemporary Families, where this post originally appeared.

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.


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.


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.

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%):


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.

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.

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”:


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.

The dining rooms are coming. It’s how I know my neighborhood is becoming aspirationally middle class.

My neighborhood is filled with “shotgun” houses. Probably from West Africa, they are designed for a hot, humid climate. The homes consist of several rooms in a row. There are no hallways (and no privacy). High ceilings collect the heat and the doorways are placed in a row to encourage a breeze to blow all the way through.

Around here, more often than not, they have been built as duplexes: two long skinny houses that share a middle wall. The kitchen is usually in the back leading to an addition that houses a small bathroom. Here’s my sketch:


As the neighborhood has been gentrifying, flippers have set their sights on these double shotguns. Instead of simply refurbishing them, though, they’ve been merging them. Duplexes are becoming larger single family homes with hallways (which substantially changes the dynamic among its residents) and makes space for dining rooms. Check out the new dining room on this flip (yikes):


At NPR, Mackensie Griffin offered a quick history of dining rooms, arguing that they were unusual in the US before the late 1700s. Families didn’t generally have enough room to set one aside strictly for dining. “Rooms and tables had multiple uses,” Griffin wrote, “and families would eat in shifts, if necessary.”

Thomas Jefferson would be one of the first Americans to have a dining room table. Monticello was built in 1772, dining room included. Wealthy families followed suit and eventually the trend trickled down to the middle classes. Correspondingly, the idea that the whole family should eat dinner together became a middle class value, a hallmark of good parenting, and one that was structurally — that is, architecturally — elusive to the poor and working class.

The shotgun house we find throughout the South is an example of just how elusive. Built before closets, all the rooms in a traditional shotgun are technically multi-purpose: they can be used as living rooms, bedrooms, offices, dining rooms, storage, or whatever. In practice, though, medium to large and sometimes extended families live in these homes. Many residents would be lucky to have a dedicated living room; a dining room would be a luxury indeed.

But they’re coming anyway. The rejection of the traditional floor plan in these remodels — for being too small, insufficiently private, and un-dining-roomed — hints at a turn toward a richer sort of resident, one that demands a lifestyle modeled by Jefferson and made sacred by the American middle class.

Cross-posted at Inequality by (Interior) Design.

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.

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.


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.