Wired describes the new documentary, The Mechanical Bride, as a “moving, weirdly human exploration of artificial companionship.”  Directed by Allison de Fren, explores the range of mechanical brides, from robots to Real Dolls (NSFW), and the “technosexuals who love them.” I can’t wait to see it.


Bonus clip:

The Mechanical Bride will be screened at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal (July 19-August 7).

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

I’m reposting this piece from 2008 in solidarity with Lisa Wade (no relation), whose (non-white) child was described by his teacher as  “the evolutionary link between orangutans and humans.”  It’s an amateur history of the association of Black people with primates. Please feel free to clarify or correct my broad description of many centuries of thought.

The predominant colonial theory of race was the great chain of being, the idea that human races could be lined up from most superior to most inferior.  That is, God, white people, and then an arrangement of non-white people, with blacks at the bottom.

Consider this drawing that appeared in Charles White’s An Account of the Regular Gradation in Man, and in Different Animals and Vegetables (1799). On the bottom of the image (but the top of the chain) are types of Europeans, Romans, and Greeks.  On the top (but the bottom of the chain) are “Asiatics,” “American Savages,” and “Negros.”  White wrote: “In whatever respect the African differs from the European, the particularity brings him nearer to the ape.”

Nearly 70 years later, in 1868, Ernst Haeckel’s Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte was published.  in the book, this image appeared (his perfect person, by the way, was German, not Greek):

In this image, we see a depiction of the great chain of being with Michelangelo’s sculpture of David Apollo Belvedere at the top (the most perfect human), a black person below, and an ape below him.

Notice that there seems to be some confusion over where the chain ends.  Indeed, there was a lot of discussion as to where to draw the line.  Are apes human?  Are blacks?  Carolus Linneaus, that famous guy who developed the classification system for living things, wasn’t sure.  In his book Systema Naturae (1758), he published this picture, puzzling over whether the things that separating apes from humans were significant.

In this picture (also appearing in White 1799) are depictions of apes in human-like positions (walking, using a cane).  Notice also the way in which the central figure is feminized (long hair, passive demeanor, feminized body) so as to make her seem more human.

Here we have a chimpanzee depicted drinking a cup of tea.  This is Madame Chimpanzee.  She was a travelling attraction showing how human chimps could be.

In any case, while they argued about where to draw the line, intellectuals of the day believed that apes and blacks were very similar.  In this picture, from a book by Robert Knox called The Races of Men (1851), the slant of the brow is used to draw connections between the “Negro” and the “Oran Outan” and differences between those two and the “European.”

The practice of depicting the races hierarchically occurred as late as the early 1900s as we showed in a previous post.

NEW! Nov ’09) The image below appeared in the The Evolution of Man (1874 edition) as part of an argument that blacks are evolutionarily close to apes (source):HLFig2
During this same period, African people were kept in zoos alongside animals.  These pictures below are of Ota Benga, a Congolese Pygmy who spent some time as an attraction in a zoo in the early 1900s (but whose “captivity” was admittedly controversial at the time).  (There’s a book about him that I haven’t read.  So I can’t endorse it, but I will offer a link.)  Ota Benga saw most of his tribe, including his wife and child, murdered before being brought to the Bronx Zoo.  (It was customary for the people of his tribe to sharpen their teeth.)

The theorization of the great chain of being was not just for “science” or “fun.”  It was a central tool in justifying efforts to colonize, enslave, and even exterminate people.  If it could be established that certain kinds of people were indeed less than, even less than human, then it was acceptable to treat them as such.

This is a “generalizable tactic of oppression,” by the way.  During the period of intense anti-Irish sentiment in the U.S. and Britain, the Irish were routinely compared to apes as well.

So, there you have it.  Connections have been drawn between black people and primates for hundreds of years.  Whatever else you want to think about modern instances of this association — the one Wade and her child are suffering now, but also the Obama sock monkey, the Black Lil’ Monkey doll, and a political cartoon targeting Obama — objections are not just paranoia.

(I’m sorry not to provide a full set of links.  I’ve collected them over the years for my Race and Ethnicity class.  But a lot of the images and information came from here.)

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Referring to the controversy over Pluto’s demotion, in this quick video C.G.P. Grey does a fun job of explaining why the icy rock is no longer a planet.  He closes with a discussion of why properly categorizing objects in space with words like “planets” may always elude us.  It’s a great example of social construction.

Via Blame it on the Voices.  For lots more examples, see our Pinterest pages on the social construction of everything and the social construction of race.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Cross-posted at Ms.

Paul (an Irish grad student), Carys G., Zeynep A., Marjan vdW., and one other reader all sent in a link to a new video released by the European Commission. The video, “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!”, is meant to encourage girls to consider careers in the natural and physical sciences, presenting science, as the title suggests, as an area compatible with femininity and other “girl things” — make-up, high heels, and fashion:

The video has been roundly criticized (check out the Twitter feed for #sciencegirlthing), both for presenting a stereotyped image of girls and for misrepresenting the scientific workplace (one female scientist Tweeted wondering what will happen to any girls possibly drawn in by this campaign when they learn that in many labs, open-toed heels violate safety codes).

I suspect the makers of the video believe they are doing that first thing — trying to push back against the idea that science is unfeminine. Indeed, the video is part of the larger Science: It’s a Girl Thing! campaign, and the website also contains 12 profiles of female European scientists, which provide more realistic depictions of women working in a range of scientific fields. But many viewers, including a lot of scientists (both women and men), see it as the second thing — another example of what I described in my original post of the cartoon as “superficial attempts to overcome the often structural constraints that keep women out of masculinized arenas of social life.”

Indeed, girls don’t just need to be told “you can do science and look cute too!” In fact, a post at New Scientist discusses the results of a recently-published article by Diana Betz and Denise Sekaquaptewa, “My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls”. Betz and Sekaquaptewa found that images of conventionally feminine women in science fields actually demotivated female middle school students and decreased their perceptions of their likelihood of success in science and math. Girls appeared to see these images and, instead of thinking “Oh, I can like makeup and clothes but still do science!”, they thought, not unreasonably, “Oh, great, so I have to be smart and still meet all the demands of conventional femininity, too?” Instead of inspiring girls, the images were threatening, making them feel less likely to succeed in science and math. This effect was most pronounced for those girls who weren’t already interested in such fields — presumably the exact group campaigns such as Science: It’s a Girl Thing! are meant to attract. As the authors conclude (p. 7), “Submitting STEM role models to Pygmalian-style makeovers…may do more harm than good.”

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

Dominant groups have the power to control representations of less-powerful groups.  They exert an out-of-proportion influence on their cultural portrayals.

We’ve previously featured objections to simplistic portrayals of the enormous continent of Africa, especially as a place that is primitive and hopelessly burdened by death, disease, poverty, corruption, and other problems.  Chimamanda Adichie, for example, objects to the “single story of Africa” and Binyavanga Wainaina tell us how not to write about Africa.  Elsewhere, we’ve illustrated how the bustling city of Nairobi is portrayed as a savanna with giraffes and elephants.

An organization called Mama Hope, sent in by Jennifer C., seeks to challenge this perception.  They want the world to think of Africa as a place of hope and possibility.  To this end, Mama Hope is producing videos that “…feature the shared traits that make us all human— the dancing, the singing, the laughter…”  They look like this:

The effort reminds me of the “Smiling Indians” and “More Than That” videos, sent in by Katrin and Anna W.  The first addressed the stereotype of the “stoic Indian,” while the second is designed to counterbalance the common portrayal of reservations as miserable places full of one-dimensional hopeless people (something we are certainly sometimes guilty of).

Smiling Indians:

More Than That…:

These videos are examples of the way that the democratizing power of new technologies (both the internet in general and the relatively easy ability to take video and edit) are offering marginalized peoples an opportunity to contest representations by dominant groups.

Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

PBS has a gallery of images of oral contraceptives that provides a nice illustration of the way product design can be used as a form of behavior modification, while also needing to adapt to the way people actual use products — or forget to do so, the ever-present problem with the pill.

Initially , the pill came in bottles, like other prescriptions:

Notice the bottle contains 100 pills; there was no effort to package it into quantities for a single month. Women were supposed to take 20 pills in a row, then none during their period. It was up to them to keep track of everything and remember when it was time to start taking the pills again.

In 1962, an engineer created a prototype of a dispenser pack, designed to hold exactly a month’s worth of pills and help women remember to take them correctly:

The first contraceptive in a pack of this type, Dialpak, appeared the next year; oral contraceptives packaging has been designed to help women remember to take them accurately ever since. This became a major selling point, with Dialpak 21 even offering a small calendar you could attach to a special watch band so you could more easily keep track of whether you’d taken the pill:

In 1965, Eli Lilly introduced a new packaging design, with differently-colored pills arranged in a sequence; however, it didn’t label the days of the week, so it didn’t help women figure out if they’d remembered to take their pill on any given day:

Norinyl came in a package that took the sequential design but added several features that enhanced compliance. An extra pill was added, so that pills with active ingredients were taken for 21 days, not 20. Then a row of placebo pills were added so that women took a pill every day of the month, so they were less likely to forget to start a new pack:

When we think about the emergence and success of the pill, we tend to focus on the product itself. But the packaging tells an interesting story on its own. The pharmacological effectiveness of oral contraceptives meant little if women forgot to take them reliably. The design of the packaging helped play a crucial role, increasing users’ ability to follow the prescribed schedule.

Today, there’s an entire trade organization, the Healthcare Compliance Packaging Council, dedicated to promoting attention to the design of packaging as an important element in all areas of healthcare. The pill was the first prescription drug sold in a so-called “compliance pack,” serving as an example of the potential effectiveness of packaging design as a way to encourage patients’ conformity to prescribed medication regimens.

Dmitriy T.M. sent in a TED talk in which Ben Goldacre discusses the problems with many of the scientific findings we hear about in the media, highlighting the importance of scientific literacy and critical consumption of science reporting:

And while we’re on the topic of potentially misleading statistics, Dolores R. and Sarah E. sent in an image posted at boing boing as one of “the best set of infographics ever,” helpfully illustrating the difference between correlation and causation:

Last Wednesday, January 20 18, over 7000 websites participated in a massive protest opposing bills H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and S. 968, the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). While these bills aimed to curb online piracy, many fear that they also pave the way for widespread internet censorship. Although consideration of SOPA and PIPA has now been “postponed,” the bills and the protests raise the issue of who has the authority to control access to knowledge. The different visual and technological ways that websites protested SOPA and PIPA demonstrate the importance we as a culture place on unfettered access to information. In imagining what a censored internet might be like, the protests also show how much the medium — in this case, technology — shapes our individual and collective knowledge and what kind of a threat censorship would be. In additional to concerns about free speech and access to information, the protests also remind us how many profitable businesses are based on assumptions that those things will remain uncensored.

Many sites (such as Craigslist, Pinterest, and icanhascheezburger, screencaps below) took a traditional web protest approach by posting informational messages encouraging visitors to take action against the bills:

Other websites (WordPress, Wired, Google), along with Facebook status updates and Tweets, visually depicted what internet censorship would look like. This kind of protest is particularly visually powerful — stark black blocks out the text, making the message unreadable:



Others shut down altogether (like Wikipedia, Reddit, MoveOn, and Mozilla), essentially removing their website’s resources and information for 24 hours:

Many of us are fortunate to take for granted open, easy access to information, including open access to everything on the internet (though the continued existence of a digital divide makes such information more available to some than others, and school districts routinely censor online content for students). The protests of SOPA and PIPA illustrate how much we rely on technology for access to information by raising important questions about what censorship would mean for access to knowledge. Seemingly boundless information is at the tips of our fingers everywhere we go:

(Via Shoebox Blog.)

As the cartoon shows, our knowledge is shaped by what medium is physically available to us for seeking new information. Students in my classes can’t fathom a time when they couldn’t look up any bit of information they needed on Google.  They can’t imagine the way I used to do research for a school paper– by consulting my family’s dusty encyclopedia set, or heading down to the library. Though their experience is physically removed from the research librarian’s desk, they have access to much more information than I ever did in my local library. The protests against SOPA and PIPA — the website outages and blacked out texts — make real the idea that if the internet were censored, our avenues for learning would shrink.