We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in.  Enjoy!

Oddly, three high profile female musicians find themselves in a public debate about what it means to be a feminist.  We can thank Miley Cyrus for the occasion.  After claiming that the video for Wrecking Ball was inspired by Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares to You, O’Connor wrote an open letter to the performer.  No doubt informed by Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs, she argued that the music industry would inevitably exploit Cyrus’ body and leave her a shell of a human being.  Amanda Palmer, another strong-minded female musician, responded to O’Connor.  She countered with the idea that all efforts to control women’s choices, no matter how benevolent, were anti-feminist.

I keep receiving requests to add my two cents.  So, here goes: I think they’re both right, but only half right.  And, when you put the two sides together, the conclusion isn’t as simple as either of them makes it out to be.  Both letters are kind, compelling, and smart, but neither capture the deep contradictions that Cyrus – indeed all women in the U.S. – face every day.

Cyrus in Wrecking Ball:

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O’Connor warns Cyrus that the music industry is patriarchal and capitalist.  In so many words, she explains that the capitalists will never pay Cyrus what she’s worth because doing so leaves nothing to skim off the top.  The whole point is to exploit her.  Meanwhile, her exploitation will be distinctly gendered because sexism is part of the very fabric of the industry.  O’Connor writes:

The music business doesn’t give a shit about you, or any of us. They will prostitute you for all you are worth… and when you end up in rehab as a result of being prostituted, “they” will be sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling your body…

Whether Cyrus ends up in rehab remains to be seen but O’Connor is, of course, right about the music industry. This is not something that requires argumentation, but is simply true in a patriarchal, capitalist society.  For-profit industries are for profit.  You may think that’s good or bad, but it is, by definition, about finding ways to extract money from goods and services and one does that by selling it for more than you paid for it.  And media companies of all kinds are dominated at almost all levels by (rich, white) men. These are the facts.

Disagreeing, Palmer claims that O’Connor herself is contributing to an oppressive environment for women.  All women’s choices, Palmer argues, should be considered fair game.

I want to live in a world where WE as women determine what we wear and look like and play the game as our fancy leads us, army pants one minute and killer gown the next, where WE decide whether or not we’re going to play games with the male gaze…

In Palmer’s utopia, no one gets to decide what’s best for women.  The whole point is to have all options on the table, without censure, so women can pick and choose and change their mind as they so desire.

This is intuitively pleasing and seems to mesh pretty well with a decent definition of “freedom.”  And women do have more choices – many, many more choices – than recent generations of women. They are now free to vote in elections, wear pants, smoke in public, have their own bank accounts, play sports, go into men’s occupations and, yes, be unabashedly sexual.  Hell they can even run for President.  And they get to still do all the feminine stuff too!  Women have it pretty great right now and Palmer is right that we should defend these options.

So, both are making a feminist argument.  What, then, is the source of the disagreement?

O’Connor and Palmer are using different levels of analysis.  Palmer’s is straightforwardly individualistic: each individual woman should be able to choose what she wants to do.  O’Connor’s is strongly institutional: we are all operating within a system – the music industry, in this case, or even “society” – and that system is powerfully deterministic.

The truth is that both are right and, because of that, neither sees the whole picture.  On the one hand, women are making individual choices. They are not complete dupes of the system.  They are architects of their own lives.   On the other hand, those individual choices are being made within a system.  The system sets up the pros and cons, the rewards and punishments, the paths to success and the pitfalls that lead to failure.  No amount of wishing it were different will make it so.  No individual choices change that reality.

So, Cyrus may indeed be “in charge of her own show,” as Palmer puts it.  She may have chosen to be a “raging, naked, twerking sexpot” all of her own volition.  But why?  Because that’s what the system rewards.  That’s not freedom, that’s a strategy.

In sociological terms, we call this a patriarchal bargain.  Both men and women make them and they come in many different forms. Generally, however, they involve a choice to manipulate the system to one’s best advantage without challenging the system itself.  This may maximize the benefits that accrue to any individual woman, but it harms women as a whole.  Cyrus’ particular bargain – accepting the sexual objectification of women in exchange for money, fame, and power – is a common one.  Serena Williams, Tila Tequila, Kim Kardashian, and Lady Gaga do it too.

We are all Miley, though.  We all make patriarchal bargains, large and small.  Housewives do when they support husbands’ careers on the agreement that he share the dividends.  Many high-achieving women do when they go into masculinized occupations to reap the benefits, but don’t challenge the idea that occupations associated with men are of greater value.  None of us have the moral high ground here.

So, is Miley Cyrus a pawn of industry patriarchs?  No.  Can her choices be fairly described as good for women?  No.

That’s how power works. It makes it so that essentially all choices can be absorbed into and mobilized on behalf of the system.  Fighting the system on behalf of the disadvantaged – in this case, women – requires individual sacrifices that are extraordinarily costly.  In Cyrus’ case, perhaps being replaced by another artist who is willing to capitulate to patriarchy with more gusto.  Accepting the rules of the system translates into individual gain, but doesn’t exactly make the world a better place.  In Cyrus’ case, her success is also an affirmation that a woman’s worth is strongly correlated with her willingness to commodify her sexuality.

Americans want their stories to have happy endings.  I’m sorry I don’t have a more optimistic read.  If the way out of this conundrum were easy, we’d have fixed it already.  But one thing’s for sure: it’s going to take collective sacrifice to bring about a world in which women’s humanity is so taken-for-granted that no individual woman’s choices can undermine it.  To get there, we’re going to need to acknowledge the power of the system, recognize each other as conscious actors, and have empathy for the difficult choices we all make as we try to navigate a difficult world.

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.

In 1990 I was still an American Culture major in college, but I was getting ready to jump ship for sociology. That’s when Madonna’s “Justify My Love” video was banned by MTV, which was a thing people used to use to watch videos. And network TV used to be a major source of exposure.

I was watching when Madonna went on Nightline for an interview.  The correspondent intoned:

…nudity, suggestions of bisexuality, sadomasochism, multiple partners. Finally, MTV decided Madonna has gone to far.

They showed the video, preceded by a dire parental warning (it was 11:30 p.m., and there was no way to watch it at any other time).  In the interview, Forrest Sawyer eventually realize he was being played:

Sawyer: This was a win-win for you. If they put the video on, you would get that kind of play. And if they didn’t you would still make some money. It was all, in a sense, a kind of publicity stunt. … But in the end you’re going to wind up making even more money than you would have.

Madonna: Yeah. So, lucky me.

The flap over Miley Cyrus completely baffles me. This is a business model (as artistic as any other commercial product), and it hasn’t changed much, just skinnier, with more nudity and (even) less feminism. I don’t understand why this is any more or less controversial than any other woman dancing naked. Everyone does realize that there is literally an infinite amount of free hardcore porn available to every child in America, right? There is no “banning” a video. (Wrecking Ball is pushing 250 million views on YouTube.)
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No one is censoring Miley Cyrus — is there some message I’m missing? When she talked to Matt Lauer he asked, “Are you surprised by the attention you’re getting right now?” And she said, “Not really. I mean, it’s kind of what I want.”

I think the conversation has slid backward. In Lisa Wade’s excellent comment, she draws on a 1988 article, “Bargaining With Patriarchy,” which concluded:

Women strategize within a set of concrete constraints, which I identify as patriarchal bargains. Different forms of patriarchy present women with distinct “rules of the game” and call for different strategies to maximize security and optimize life options with varying potential for active or passive resistance in the face of oppression.

I think it applies perfectly to Miley Cyrus, if you replace “security” and “life options” with “celebrity” and “future island-buying potential.” Lisa is 1,000-times more plugged in to kids these days than I am, and the strategies-within-constraints model is well placed. But that article is from 1988, and it applies just as well to Madonna. So where’s the progress here?

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Interviewed by Yahoo!, Gloria Steinem said, “I wish we didn’t have to be nude to be noticed … But given the game as it exists, women make decisions.” That is literally something she could have said in 1990.

The person people are arguing about has (so far) a lot less to say even than Madonna did. When Madonna was censored by MTV, Camile Paglia called her “the true feminist.”

She exposes the puritanism and suffocating ideology of American feminism, which is stuck in an adolescent whining mode. Madonna has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising total control over their lives. She shows girls how to be attractive, sensual, energetic, ambitious, aggressive and funny — all at the same time.

When Miley Cyrus caused a scandal on TV, Paglia could only muster, “the real scandal was how atrocious Cyrus’ performance was in artistic terms.”

Madonna was a bonafide challenge to feminists, for the reasons Paglia said, but also because of the religious subversiveness and homoerotic stuff. Madonna went on, staking her claim to the “choice” strand of feminism:

I may be dressing like the typical bimbo, whatever, but I’m in charge. You know. I’m in charge of my fantasies. I put myself in these situations with men, you know, and… people don’t think of me as a person who’s not in charge of my career or my life, okay. And isn’t that what feminism is all about, you know, equality for men and women? And aren’t I in charge of my life, doing the things I want to do? Making my own decisions?

And she embraced some other feminist themes. When Madonna was asked on Nightline, “Where do you draw the line?” she answered, “I draw the line with violence, and humiliation and degradation.”

I’m not saying there hasn’t been any progress since 1990. It’s more complicated than that. On matters of economic and politics gender has pretty well stalled. The porn industry has made a lot of progress. Reported rape has become less common, along with other forms of violence.

But — and please correct me if I’m wrong — I don’t see the progress in this conversation about whether it’s feminist or anti-feminist for a women to use sex or nudity to sell her pop music. As Lisa Wade says, “Because that’s what the system rewards. That’s not freedom, that’s a strategy.” So I would skip that debate and ask whether the multi-millionaire in question is adding anything critical to her product, or using her sex-plated platform for some good end.  Madonna might have. So far Miley Cyrus isn’t.

Cross-posted at Family Inequality and Pacific Standard.

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

Trigger warning: Graphic descriptions of sexual assault.  Note: The opinions expressed in this post belong to Sezin Koehler alone and should not be attributed to anyone involved with Project Unbreakable.

Robin Thicke’s summer hit Blurred Lines addresses what he considers to be sounds like a grey area between consensual sex and assault. The images in this post place the song into a real-life context.  They are from Project Unbreakable, an online photo essay exhibit, and feature images of women and men holding signs with sentences that their rapist said before, during, or after their assault.   Let’s begin.

I know you want it.

Thicke sings “I know you want it,” a phrase that many sexual assault survivors report their rapists saying to justify their actions, as demonstrated over and over in the Project Unbreakable testimonials.

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You’re a good girl.

Thicke further sings “You’re a good girl,” suggesting that a good girl won’t show her reciprocal desire (if it exists). This becomes further proof in his mind that she wants sex: for good girls, silence is consent and “no” really means “yes.”

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Calling an adult a “good girl” in this context resonates with the the virgin/whore dichotomy. The implication in Blurred Lines is that because the woman is not responding to a man’s sexual advances, which of course are irresistible, she’s hiding her true sexual desire under a facade of disinterest. Thicke is singing about forcing a woman to perform both the good girl and bad girl roles in order to satisfy the man’s desires.

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Thicke and company, as all-knowing patriarchs, will give her what he knows she wants (sex), even though she’s not actively consenting, and she may well be rejecting the man outright.

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Do it like it hurt, do it like it hurt, what you don’t like work?

This lyric suggests that women are supposed to enjoy pain during sex or that pain is part of sex:

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The woman’s desires play no part in this scenario – except insofar as he projects whatever he pleases onto her — another parallel to the act of rape: sexual assault is generally not about sex, but rather about a physical and emotional demonstration of power.

The way you grab me.
Must wanna get nasty.

This is victim-blaming.  Everybody knows that if a woman dances with a man it means she wants to sleep with him, right? And if she wears a short skirt or tight dress she’s asking for it, right? And if she even smiles at him it means she wants it, right?  Wrong.  A dance, an outfit, a smile — sexy or not — does not indicate consent.  This idea, though, is pervasive and believed by rapists.

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And women, according to Blurred Lines, want to be treated badly.

Nothing like your last guy, he too square for you.
He don’t smack your ass and pull your hair like that.

In this misogynistic fantasy, a woman doesn’t want a “square” who’ll treat her like a human being and with respect. She would rather be degraded and abused for a man’s gratification and amusement, like the women who dance around half naked humping dead animals in the music video.

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The pièce de résistance of the non-censored version of Blurred Lines is this lyric:

I’ll give you something to tear your ass in two.

What better way to show a woman who’s in charge than violent, non-consensual sodomy?

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Ultimately, Robin Thicke’s rape anthem is about male desire and male dominance over a woman’s personal sexual agency. The rigid definition of masculinity makes the man unable to accept the idea that sometimes his advances are not welcome. Thus, instead of treating a woman like a human being and respecting her subjectivity, she’s relegated to the role of living sex doll whose existence is naught but for the pleasure of a man.

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In Melinda Hugh’s Lame Lines parody of Thicke’s song she sings, “You think I want it/ I really don’t want it/ Please get off it.”  The Law Revue Girls “Defined Lines” response to Blurred Lines notes, “Yeah we don’t want it/ It’s chauvinistic/ You’re such a bigot.”  Rosalind Peters says in her one-woman retort, “Let’s clear up something mate/ I’m here to have fun/ I’m not here to get raped.”

There are no “blurred lines.” There is only one line: consent.

And the absence of consent is a crime.

Sezin Koehler is an informal ethnographer and novelist living in Florida. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.  

Screenshot_1This is the third post in a four part series.  Start at the beginning with: Whimsical Branding Obscures Apple’s Troubled Supply Chain.

I cannot watch this 2003 Apple iPod commercial without shaking my hips, even in the midst of delivering a lecture or conference presentation. In fact, I struggle deeply to refrain from jumping around in an ecstatic dance of joy.

This commercial moves me. But, why? Yes, it has rocking music and popping colors. But, I suspect, more importantly, it has hip young things gyrating to the music, lost in the euphoria provided by an iPod and earbuds, with seemingly no cares in the world. For four years Apple aired a string of these, which became known as the “Silhouette” commercials, each featuring a different soundtrack and style of dance. In my previous posts, I’ve focused on two important elements of Apple’s brand promise: whimsicality and  sentimentality. In this post I spotlight another key finding from our research: the association of Apple products with coolness, hipness, youth, and a carefree attitude.

This trend was introduced into the brand by the iPod commercial above, and it continues to be an important part of Apple’s brand promise today. Similar qualities are present in this ad from early 2012, titled “Road Trip,” which showcases the utility of the voice-activated assistant, Siri, on the iPhone 4S:

And, early this summer, Apple released this commercial that emphasizes the musical enjoyment that an iPhone can provide:

This ad, which seems a re-imagining of the “Silhouette” campaign, depicts these young, fit, and beautiful iPhone owners as indulgent in their passions, carefree, too cool to care about dancing in public, and thus hip, energetic, and fun to be around.

These three ads and the many like them in Apple’s oeuvre suggest that the product makes users spontaneous, proud to embrace their unique individuality, and happy to “let their freak flag fly,” so to speak. In this case, the brand promises uninhibited enjoyment. With their bouncing, lithe bodies and shiny, happy faces, these Apple users are the epitome of cool in today’s American culture.

Like the promise of playfulness, and sentimental connection to others, this aspect of Apple’s brand promise acts as a powerful fetish, in the Marxist sense, that obscures the troubling labor conditions and environmental pollution in the company’s Chinese supply chain. Who has the presence of mind to think about global social, economic, and environmental problems when they are busy rocking out, road-tripping, and dancing in the shower?

Next: Apple’s Seductive Brand Promise of Cultural Capital & Social Mobility.

Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D. is a lecturer in sociology at Pomona College. She studies the connections between consumer culture, labor, and environmental issues in global supply chains. You can follwer her at 21 Century Nomad, visit her website, and learn more about her research into Apple here.

Here’s a random creepy fact: one of the tunes that float out of ice cream trucks all summer is a racist song called “Nigger Love a Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!,” first recorded 1916 or before.  Have a listen.

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During slavery, the African population’s supposed taste for watermelon was used to suggest that they were stupid.  As I wrote in an earlier post:

…defenders of slavery used the watermelon as a symbol of simplicity.  African Americans, the argument went, were happy as slaves.  They didn’t need the complicated responsibilities of freedom; they just needed some shade and a cool, delicious treat.

Googling around, I learned almost nothing about the song.  It seems clear that it’s not an inside joke between Black people, making fun of the stereotype.  Instead, it’s an earnest, intended-to-be-humorous song meant to make fun of Black people.  But I could find little contextualizing information.  I also don’t know if the tune was also set to other lyrics that were or weren’t racist.

Still, the fact that the tune is an ice cream truck classic reveals how our racist history is still part and parcel of our everyday lives.

Hat tip to Theodore Johnson.

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.

Here at SocImages, we typically use the phrase “cultural appropriation” to describe rather frivolous borrowing of cultural practices and objects for the purposes of fun and fashion.  We’ve posted on examples ranging from the appropriation of American Indian fashion,  the mocking of the Harlem Shake, and an Orthodox Jew-inspired fashion show.

A slideshow of members of the punk scene in Burma, however, offers another version of cultural appropriation.  Their fashion is clearly inspired by the punk scenes of Britain and the U.S., which started in the 1970s.

Youths dressed as punks drink beer as they wait for a punk music show during the Myanmar New Year Water Festival in Yangon A punk smokes a cigarette at a punk music show in Yangon Young men attend a punk show during the water festival at a music bar in Yangon

Accordingly to an interview with Ko Gyi at Vice and an article at Spiegel Online, some members of the sub-culture believe themselves to be rebelling against an oppressive state, others are interested in “non-political anarchism.”  While their music has to pass through state censors, they are talented in pushing their lyrics right up to the limit and deft in using metaphor to get their point across.

This is a fully different kind of appropriation, the kind that is about fighting the establishment, not spicing it up with “colorful” bits of marginalized groups.  It is more akin to feminists and gay liberation activists borrowing the tactics of the civil rights movement.  Alexander Dluzak writes:

In Burma, punk is far more than just a superficial copy of its Western counterpart. Here, what is probably the most rebellious of all subcultures in the Southeast Asian country is going up against one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes.

Cultures can borrow from one another, then, in ways that both empower and disempower.  It will be fascinating to see if this particular appropriation can shape the future of Burma.

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.

Cross-posted at Osocio.

We’ve been covering the saga of Russian protest punk group Pussy Riot for over a year now. The feminist collective performed guerrilla musical protests around Russia against Vladimir Putin. One in particular, in a church, ended with members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina sentenced to two years imprisonment for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. The human rights implications of this sentence attracted much worldwide attention, with Amnesty International and celebrities like Sting, Yoko Ono and Madonna speaking out for the women.

But something else happened. The “Free Pussy Riot” movement, with its iconic knitted balaclavas and provocative language, became a popular meme. The cause célèbre was even appropriated by the fashion industry.

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Which is what makes this video by Blush lingerie an intriguing conundrum. While it legitimately promotes the freepussyriot.org fundraising site to help the women, it is also promoting a product using a woman’s sexuality as the bait:

On the first anniversary of the Pussy Riot concert in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the Berlin based Lingerie label blush supports the free pussy riot movement with a sexy protest march through icy Moscow (-15° C). Support Freepussyriot.org!

This is no Femen action, in which women’s bodies become weapons of protest. It is a commercial for sexy underwear that pays for its appropriation of a radical feminist cause by directing people to that cause.

Is this irony?

Tom Megginson is a Creative Director at Acart Communications, a Canadian Social Issues Marketing agency. He is a specialist in social marketing, cause marketing, and corporate social responsibility. You can follow Tom at workthatmatters.blogspot.com.

Cross-posted at Racialicious.1The Harlem Shake is a syncopated dance form that first appeared on the New York hip-hop scene in the early 1980s.  Here is what it looks like:

In 2012 music producer Baueer created an electronic dance tune, unfortunately calling it The Harlem Shake. Baueer’s song inspired an Internet meme in which people rhythmlessly shake their upper bodies and grind their hips in a tasteless perversion of the original dance.  For example:

This fake Harlem Shake meme has become so ubiquitous that it has been “performed” by the English National Ballet, and gone further globally with a video from the Norwegian army, and in Tunisia and Egypt, where the song and imitation dance has become a protest anthem.

The irony of an African-American cultural relic being white-washed to the point where other people of color perform its bastardized version is not lost, and this takes on a whole new level as teams with majority African-American members such as the Miami Heat and Denver Nuggets add to the fake Shake canon. Personally, I’ve been “video bombing” anyone I see incorrectly referring to the new version as the Harlem Shake with this:

A major problematic of this meme is that it takes an already marginalized group in America, one whose history and culture has often been appropriated and co-opted in fetishistic ways by the white majority, and makes a mockery of not just them, but an entire dance tradition.  This is not lost on residents of Harlem, many of whom recognize cultural appropriation and malrepresentation when they see it:

In spite of a number of calls online from African-American writers, artists, scholars and supporters like myself to bring attention to the real Harlem Shake, every day there is instead a new group adding to the misappropriated dance. When you Google “The Harlem Shake” you must scroll through pages before you reach any posts about the actual hip-hop tradition.

This literal erasure of black culture and its replacement with an absurdist movement and meme needs to be considered in light of African-American oppression and institutionalized racism in the United States. Supplanting the sinuous artistry of the Harlem Shake with frenetic styleless arm flailing and hip thrusting is yet another brick in a grand wall of symbolic and structural violence that further relegates an entire culture to the margins, both on and offline.

As the Harlem residents said in response to the meme: “Stop that shit.”

P.S. Here’s how to actually do the Harlem Shake. 

Sezin Koehler is a half-American half-Sri Lankan informal ethnographer and novelist living in Lighthouse Point, Florida.