Eve P. recently went to Firmoo, an online eyeglasses company, to look for frames. She noticed they have a virtual try-on option where you can see what frames would look like on either a photo of yourself or on different models. If you decide to “try with model,” you get four options for men and four for women.  But when she looked at the options, she noticed something a little odd:

While neither set includes a great range of diverse faces to choose from, the male model options at least include some variety in terms of age, skin tone, and face shape/features. The female models, on the other hand, all look young, pale, flawless, and blond except for the one woman with very light brown hair. Their face shapes are fairly similar, too. They even seem to have the same taste in makeup.

Of course, when you decide to pare the entire range of human characteristics down to four exemplars, y0u’re going to ignore the vast majority of everything — although it seems odd that a company that describes itself as a “global online optical store” would provide so little diversity in the options available to potential customers. But even given those constraints, the options for women are narrower than for the male models, particularly in terms of age and skin tone. As Eve pointed out, there are certainly famous women who have dark hair, different skin tones, and who — gasp! — have wrinkles, as do some of the male model options.The choice of such a narrow range to represent women reminds Eve of Lisa’s recent post regarding Susan Sontag’s discussion of the double standard of attractiveness and aging. It’s also a nice example of the use of Whiteness as a default to represent all of humanity.

Last year I wrote about a series of billboards in Atlanta that re-framed the abortion debate as a race issue. The billboards featured a child’s face and read “Black Children are an Endangered Species.” A new billboard, in the same theme, has appeared in New York City and was sent in by Kristy H. and Kelly.  Featuring a young girl, it reads: “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb”:

Three points:

(1) People without economic resources —  including, disproportionately, black women — are more likely to end pregnancies in abortion. This is not a trivial matter; many women in the U.S. have abortions because they can’t afford (more) children.  It’s terribly saddening to think that some women abort children they want.  And some members of the Black community do argue that this is a form of genocide.

(2) This ad, however, doesn’t come across to me as sympathetic to Black women.  The language in the ad leaves the aborting woman unstated, but still culpable.  She is simultaneously reduced to a womb and accused of placing her child in danger (of being a murderer?).  As Michael Shaw at BagNewsNotes suggests, this ad appears to happily trigger our thoughts of Black people and Black spaces as violent.  Is this ad appealing to the Black community?  Or is it appealing to stereotypes about Black people as a strategic move in the anti-abortion debate?

(3) Finally, as I wrote in my previous post, and on a different note, the message illustrates something very interesting about social movements and framing.

The fact that abortion is highly politicized in the United States, deeply connected to feminism (but not race or class movements), and framed as a specifically-gendered contest between “life” and “choice” seems natural to most Americans. Indeed, it’s hard for many Americans to imagine a world in which the procedure is less politicized or debated differently.  But the politics of abortion in the U.S. is not the only kind of abortion politics that could exist… [see, for example, Shaping Abortion Discourse].  So, whether you agree or disagree with the claims in these billboards, they nicely jolt us out of our acceptance of abortion politics as is.  How might thinking about abortion as a race issue or a class issue change the debate?

Source: Gawker.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Melissa sent in a trailer for the video game, inFAMOUS2.  The game features a white male protagonist who is advised by a bad influence and a good influence.  Melissa notes that these are a black woman dressed skimpily and a white woman dressed (relatively) modestly, respectively.  So here we have, again, an affirmation that black is bad and white is good.


Trailer (2 minutes):

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Most of the men and women who were brought from Africa by slave traders to the U.S. lost track of what part of Africa they came from.  Africa, don’t forget, is a giant continent, comprising about 25% of the entire global dry land and including six different climate zones.  Pre-colonial Africa consisted of over 10,000 meaningful social tribes and polities.  So while we talk about “Africa” as if it’s a meaningful word, we’re describing a land mass at best and, at worst, erasing the complexity of 15% of the world’s people.  For more, see our post featuring Chimamanda Adichie on the “single story of Africa.”

Meanwhile, American Blacks — slaves and descendants of slaves — had the children of everyone from their white friends and lovers (beginning with indentured servants in early America) to the very men and women who enslaved them.  Many American blacks, then, are often perceived as essentially white when they visit Africa because their skin color is much less black those of “African” groups who never left Africa.

Enter Beyoncé.

Carly M. sent along a story about a fashion shoot for a French fashion magazine, L’Officiel Paris, in which she has her face blackened and wears a dress inspired by her “African roots.”

Beyoncé is born to an African-American father and a Creole mother; though this is not something I can confirm, her specific connection to Africa was likely cut by slave traders.  So, to refer to her African roots is to fetishize this thing-called-Africa that Americans recognize, but is a fiction in our imaginations.  And indeed, while some sort of African roots are no fiction for Beyoncé, her light skin and mixed history (Creole refers to someone of mixed African, Native American, and French ancestry) is far more American than African.

Which makes the blackening of her skin all the more interesting.  In the U.S., blackface has an ugly racist history featuring white men mocking black people, but it’s recently enjoyed a supposedly “edgy” resurgence in the fashion industry.  Yet, Beyoncé is famous in part because U.S. audiences are more tolerant of light-skinned Blacks than dark-skinned Blacks.  So what does it mean that she is appearing in blackface?

Dodai Stewart, at Jezebel, notes:

…Beyoncé’s skin looked a lot lighter in L’Oréal ads, and women like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Gabourey Sidibe had their faces lightened for magazine covers, and black models are so rarely seen on designers’ runways, the message we’re getting from the fashionistas is that it’s bad to actually have dark skin, but totally cool to pretend you have it.

So we have a situation in which slave traders ripped African people from their homes, landed them in the U.S., and erased their personal origins.  Then these individuals were mixed (voluntarily and not) with non-Africans, struggling to build a culture unique to American Blacks (one that the rest of us have happily appropriated again and again).  And then, in the year 2011, they appear in “African” garb and painted faces, because they’re just black enough/not black enough?*  I don’t even know.

Coverage of the photoshoot:

* Language changed from “they are dressed in”, in response to commenters, so as to not erase Beyonce’s agency here.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

The sexual assault of CBS reporter Lara Logan in Tahrir Square last week has resulted in two predictable, but utterly depressing types of commentary.

Muslims are backwards

On the one hand are the anti-Islam culture warriors, eager to find in this incident proof of how degenerate Muslims (and Arabs) are. This, despite the fact that there’s no proof the assailants were Muslims, nor that they had any connection to the overwhelmingly peaceful and harassment-free demonstrations. In fact, there’s reason to believe that Logan’s attackers may have been pro-Mubarak thugs or apolitical opportunists. The right wing response to this story was inevitable, but liberal response was also problematic. Film critic and outspoken liberal Roger Ebert tweeted this today:

“The attack on Lara Logan brings Middle East attitudes toward women into sad focus.”


I’d like to call Roger Ebert’s attention to the case of Roman Polanski, who has enjoyed a long and celebrated movie career, in spite of his status as a fugitive child rapist. When Polanski was arrested in September of 2009, while attempting to accept an award at a film festival in Switzerland, supporters circulated a petition on his behalf. Over a hundred people in the film industry signed that petition which gratuitously called Polanski’s crime “a case of morals.” Some weeks later, Gore Vidal went so far as to smear Polanski’s 13 year old victim as “a young hooker.”

Has Ebert ever decried the Polanski case for the way it “brings Hollywood’s attitudes towards women into sad focus?” Has he ever criticized Polanski, Vidal, David Lynch, Wong Kar Wai, Harvey Weinstein or any of the dozens of cinematic luminaries who signed off on this petition? Nope. On the contrary, he gave a big thumbs up to a documentary which argued Polanski should be given a pass for his crime.

I hardly expected Russ Meyers’ former writing pal to be an exemplar of feminist discourse, but his tweet yesterday was especially myopic. Does he really believe that the West is so much more enlightened about rape and sexual violence than those primitive, backwards Middle Easterners?

The opportunistic use of feminism is a common feature of the “liberal” discourse in the culture war against Islam. Just look at how Ayaan Hirsi Ali is trotted out by the media (especially Bill Maher and Steven Colbert) to justify imperialist wars and burqa bans, all in the name of protecting Arab and Muslim women from their own cultures. Meanwhile, many of these same commentators ignore the fact that rape and misogyny are also endemic to our own culture. (And that includes our movies, Roger.)

Rape is sexy

The other type of response to Logan’s assault was the usual victim blaming, made extra creepy by the focus on Logan’s good looks and alleged sexual history. The worst offender was LA Weekly blogger Simone Wilson, who, in an extraordinarily trashy piece of writing had this to say:

Logan was in Tahrir Square with her “60 Minutes” news team when Mubarak’s announcement broke. Then, in a rush of frenzied excitement, some Egyptian protesters apparently consummated their newfound independence by sexually assaulting the blonde reporter.

Wilson conflates the historic Egyptian revolution with gang rape. Classy stuff. But she’s not through. In addition to “blonde reporter” we’re also treated to these descriptors of Logan:

“it girl”
“shocking good looks”
“Hollywood good looks”
“gutsy stunner”
(this courtesy of a NY Post article from 2008)

As has already been noted, focusing on a sexual assault victim’s good looks and allegedly dubious sexual character amounts to victim blaming. But it also does something even more insidious. It makes rape sexy.

This is par for the course at the LA Weekly, where almost anything can be sexed up. LA Weekly‘s cover art department in the last couple of years has managed to make nearly every topic sexy, from murder to toxic mold and overpopulation.

Murder is sexy:

Toxic mold is sexy:

Overpopulation is sexy:

Rarely do the sexy women adorning the covers of the LA Weekly figure as the subjects of these stories. They’re splayed on the cover to boost circulation, because sex sells and, after all, “what’s wrong with being sexy?” (This isn’t even to mention the content of the Weekly– its abundance of ads for plastic surgery, or its routine back page ads from American Apparel– subjects for a longer post.)

Given this particular aesthetic, it is not at all surprising that an LA Weekly blogger would choose to play up the sexy side of the Logan assault story, taking extra pains to emphasize her “Hollywood good looks.” Even an “alternative” newspaper upholds the local value system. Arab Muslim rapists are bad. Sexy women make great victims. And cinematic geniuses should get a pass.

UPDATE, after the jump:


Duff McDuffee forwarded this clip by Hennessey Youngman. In it, he explains how to be a successful artist. The recipe is simple. Enjoy (language is NSFW):

But what if you can’t help but be black? Youngman has some advice for you too:

Youngman is pointing to the fact that, whereas white men can make unmarked art — art that is just art, not art of a particular kind — the art of people of color and women is always interpreted in light of their race or gender. Accordingly, if members of these groups want to be successful artists, they must make marked art, art that audiences recognize as the kind of art black people or women make. Further, they must perform “black artist” or “female artist” by adopting the identities that art critics expect and desire to see.

For an example of this phenomena, see our post titled What Counts as Indian Art? or our related, more extensive Contexts article by a similar name.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Cross-Posted at BagNewsNotes.

We have posted in the past about how airlines use images of female flight attendants in ads to appeal to customers with promises of caretaking, eye candy, flirtation, and emotion work. Katrin sent in another example. This Cathay Pacific ad, which appeared in the U.K.,  presents Karina Yau, a flight attendant, to customers as the perfect caretaking woman — one who just wants to listen to you, not talk:

Notice also the passive stance — arms pulled into the body, her face turned away and eyes averted, hand fiddling with her coat sleeve. The text reads:

Karina went from fashion model to flight attendant — and still doesn’t think that life has had any real ups and downs. You can meet her and other members of the Cathay Pacific team at www.cathaypacific.co.uk. And while you’re there, check out our great fares to over 110 destinations worldwide. If you see Karina on your next flight, you might recommend a favourite book — she loves to read.

A post on the Cathay Pacific blog about Yau describes her as “modest.” At Cathay’s website you can “meet the team who go the extra mile to make you feel special.” It includes photos and bios of some employees, and I found Yau’s. The text they chose to highlight reinforces the emotion work she engages in for customers — “of course” she “smiled and apologised immediately.”

The ad and the features present customers with the promise of more than just a flight attendant who will do her job well. This flight attendant is the ideal of femininity: she’s beautiful (a former model), she’s submissive (apologizes immediately!), and she’s interested in you — your thoughts, your taste in books — whoever you are.

I wonder to what degree this draws on a specifically racialized femininity — the stereotypical depiction of Asian women as particularly submissive and docile. But since this ad ran in the U.K., I don’t know if that stereotype is as relevant. Readers, what say you?

If you are alive these days, and not already part of the undead masses yourself, you probably have noticed a staggering increase of zombie references in film, television, pop culture, videogames and the internet.

(Still from Dead Snow, 2009)

For instance, the big screen and small screen have both hosted a plethora of zombie films, e.g., 28 Days Later (2002), Shaun of the Dead (2004), and I Am Legend (2007). On television, we have seen the recent success of AMC’s The Walking Dead. And if you are on a college campus, you have probably seen undergraduates playing “Zombies Vs. Humans,” a game of tag in which “human” players must defend against the horde of “zombie” players by “stunning” them with Nerf weapons and tube socks. In videogames, we have seen the success of the Resident Evil franchise, Left 4 Dead, and Dead Rising. Finally, the internet is awash with zombie culture. From viral videos of penitentiary inmates dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” to post-apocalyptic zombie societies, fansites, and blogs.

Annual “Zombie Walks” in Pittsburgh:

But what is the zombie and where does it come from?

What makes the zombie unique from other movie monsters is its unique place of origin. Whereas Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman all have ties to the Gothic literary tradition, the zombie stands apart in having a relatively recent (and proximal) origin. Theorists of zombie culture (such as Kyle Bishop or Jamie Russell), attribute the origin of the zombie to Haitian folklore and the hybrid religion of voodoo. But the zombie didn’t make its away into American culture until the 1920s and 30s, when sensationalist travel narratives were popular with Western readers. Specifically, W.B. Seabrook’s book The Magic Island, is often credited as the first popular text to describe the Haitian zombie. Additionally, the work of Zora Neale Hurston (specifically her 1937 book Tell My Horse) explores the folklore surrounding the zombie in Haitian mythology.

(Still from I Walked with a Zombie, 1943)

With the development of the motion picture, the zombie became a staple of horror, and a popular movie monster. The zombies of White Zombie (1932), Revolt of the Zombies (1936), King of the Zombies (1941), and I Walked with a Zombie (1943), however, were not the cannibalistic creatures we now know. These zombies were people put under a spell, the spell of voodoo and mystical tradition. In these films, the true terror is not be being killed by zombies, but of becoming a zombie oneself.

Bela Lugosi as ‘Murder’ Legendre, the mad scientist and his zombie slave:


What all these films have in common is their depiction of Voodoo and Haitian culture more generally as dangerous, menacing, and superstitious. Those who study colonial history note that the messages contained in these films present stereotyped versions of Haitian culture aimed largely at satisfying a predominantly white audience. Many of these films also contain an all white cast, with several members in blackface serving as comedic relief for the more “serious” scenes.

It’s interesting to see how the zombie has morphed into the cannibalistic creatures we now know. While the original zombie is a powerful metaphor for fears of the non-white Other and reverse colonization, the contemporary zombie largely reflects contemporary fears of loss of individuality, the excesses of consumer capitalism, environmental degradation, the excesses of science and technology, and fears of global terrorism (especially more recent renditions of the zombie post-9/11).

For instance, George A. Romero’s famous Night of the Living Dead (1968), the first film to feature the flesh-eating zombie, is often remarked as a not-so-subtle allegory to the Civil Rights Era and the militant violence perpetuated by Southern states against the Black protestors, as well as a critique of the Vietnam War. Romero himself has stated that he wanted to draw attention to the war through the images of violence contained in the film.

Cannibal zombies in Night of the Living Dead (1968):

Similarly, the Italian zombie horror film Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974) reflects fears of environmental degradation and pollution. In this film, the zombie epidemic is caused by an experimental pest-control machine, which sends radio waves into the ground. Although it solves the local pest problem for farmers, it also reanimates the dead in a nearby cemetery.

Zombie consumers in Romero’s second zombie flick Dawn of the Dead (1978):

Later zombies are used to symbolize the excesses of capitalism and militarism, respectively.  For example, in 28 Weeks Later (2007), we see the decay of social structures across the globe, as institutions that are supposed to protect us inevitably fail to do their job.  In this scene, protagonists attempt to escape the city just before the military firebombs it:

As we can see, the zombie has a unique cultural history and serves as a powerful metaphor for social anxieties. This movie monster might have come out of the Caribbean, but it became a powerful representation of modern fears when it met the silver screen. Perhaps the current failure of global social structures (global terrorism, environmental catastrophes, and the current economic downturn) has prompted the most recent “Zombie Renaissance.” Or maybe we are just gluttons for the “everyman” tales contained in each rendition of the zombie apocalypse, a point made by SocProf several months back. I do not know what the future holds, but one thing is certain: the zombie will continue to haunt us from beyond the grave.

David Paul Strohecker is getting his PhD in Sociology at the University of Maryland. He studies cultural sociology, theory, and intersectionality. He is currently working on a larger project about the cultural history of the zombie in film.