Originally posted at Race, Politics, Justice.

A few days after Donald Trump won the electoral votes for president, some people started suggesting that pro-immigrant people in the US wear safety pins in emulation of the movement in Britain after Brexit to signal support for immigrants. A social media debate quickly ensued about what this might mean, some asserting that the safety pin meant that an immigrant could view one as a “safe” White person, some ridiculing the exercise as a “feel-good” effort by Whites to distance themselves from the White nationalist vote, some interpreting its meaning as “I don’t agree with Trump.” (This latter interpretation was offered by both pro- and anti-Trump people.)

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My entirely unsystematic observations were that it was African Americans who were mostly negative and White liberals (like me) who were trying to figure out what the “meaning” of the pin would turn out to be. I’m not sure what immigrants thought about safety pins, although I know they are generally frightened by the election results.

Through a neighborhood email newsletter I learned that a family in the area received a racist hate letter using the N-word after the election and that a resident who is also a minister ordered a bunch of yard signs that say “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor” in English, Spanish and Arabic. I bought one and will put it in my yard. I really don’t know how this action will be viewed by actual immigrants.

There are some non-Muslim women who have taken to wearing scarves as a symbol of solidarity with Muslims (one story circulating talks about attacks on a non-Muslim woman who was wearing a scarf due to hair loss from cancer treatment), an action that has received (so far as I know) little endorsement from Muslims and some responses that say that this subtracts from the religious symbolism of wearing hijab. After Trayvon Martin was killed, many Black people put up pictures of themselves in a hoodie with “I am Trayvon Martin,” but also often objected when Whites did the same, because the point was that a White person in a hoodie was not treated the same.

In the 1990s, Madison had a flurry of protests and counter-protests in which out-of-town anti-gay protesters were picketing pro-gay churches. Many Madison residents, including me, put up yard signs distributed primarily through churches that said “Madison supports its gays and lesbians.” About the same time, the KKK came through, and we also put up “Let your Light Shine, Fight Racism” signs in our yards. (I recall having both in my yard in the same winter.) Also in the 1990s, many of us wore rainbow ribbons (I kept mine pinned to my purse so I didn’t have to remember to put it on), again as a symbol of support for gays and lesbians. During the first Gulf War, Madison’s lawns often featured either anti-war signs or “support our troops” signs or, often, both. Earlier this year, after a lot of Black Lives Matter protests here as well as around the country, in addition to the relatively small number of yard signs or flags supporting BLM, some streets blossomed the “Support our Police” yard signs. And, of course, yard signs are a staple of political campaigns, most Decembers see a flurry of “Keep Christ in Christmas” yard signs, and Wisconsin Badger and Green Bay Packer pennants fly all around town on particular weekends.

So how should we think about these visible symbols and the varying reactions they elicit?

Let’s begin with the obvious. Symbols are symbols, and displaying a symbol is not the same thing as showing up for a protest or taking other active steps to pursue social policies you believe in. Wearing or displaying some sort of symbol of support for a minority is not the same thing as being a minority, nor will the symbol necessarily be interpreted by others in the way it is meant. This does not make symbols meaningless. They are visible symbols of adherence to some cause or belief system and, as such, open the wearer to reactions from others. But, as symbols, they are subject to multiple interpretations and their meaning varies with context. So those displaying symbols and those viewing others’ displays of symbols need to do interpretive work to understand the symbol and to assess the consequences of displaying it.

If you display or wear a symbol that you are sure others around you will approve of, you have little to lose from the symbol and something to gain. Signaling support for a cause the majority supports signals your affiliation with the majority. Supporting a beleaguered minority in a context where the majority is at least tolerant is also a low-cost gesture. When I displayed pro-gay ribbons and yard signs, I had no expectation of negative reaction, and I doubt any other straight person in Madison did either.

But that does not mean it was meaningless. Gays and lesbians I knew personally were feeling attacked and the visible support was meaningful to them. The signs and ribbons were passed out at church by people I knew. In that context, I could either display the symbol or not display it but, either way, my action would be interpreted as having meaning. I felt the same way about this latest “welcome neighbor” sign. When confronted with the question, I could either put up a sign or not put up a sign, but either choice carried meaning. I know of at least some instances in the 1990s in which gay and lesbian people stated that the signs made them feel supported and better about living in Madison. Of course, you can “do” support without yard signs or ribbons. After 9/11, Christian churches and Jewish congregations reached out to Muslim congregations (and Muslim congregations for their parts held open houses) and Muslims generally felt supported in Madison, even without yard signs or ribbons.

In places where the symbol is low cost, one can justly be suspected of displaying the symbol just to go along with the majority or as a low cost way of feeling good about a problem you don’t plan to do anything more about.

The same yard signs and ribbons (or safety pins) in some areas would not be safe gestures but would open up a person to verbal or physical assaults, or worse. Whites who visibly supported Blacks in the old rural South or Chicago’s segregated White neighborhoods in the 1950s were violently attacked and had their houses bombed. Displaying pro-gay symbols in areas dominated by conservative Christians in the 1990s could lead to hostile interactions. Even displaying the wrong sports team colors can get you hurt in some contexts.

Displaying a symbol where you know you are an opinion minority, and especially where it opens you to attack, is a very different gesture than where it is safe. In these contexts, it is an act of dissent. It is especially meaningful to dissent visibly in contexts where a dangerous segment of the majority feels empowered to commit violence against minorities. In these contexts, the symbol does not necessarily mean “I am a safe person” but “I am willing to draw the attention of dangerous people” or “not everybody supports those people.” If the intent is actually to shelter minorities from violence, the goal usually is to get as many people as possible to wear the symbol of dissent, to signal to those who intend violence that they cannot act with impunity and cannot count on community support.

Conversely, yard signs and other symbols are sometimes used by majorities to coerce compliance or intimidate minorities. Pro-police, pro-KKK, anti-gay, anti-immigrant symbols and yard signs signal to minorities that they are not safe in the area. When you know that you are in an area where your views are contested, your visible symbol chooses sides.

Another dimension is the clarity or ambiguity of a symbol. This also is contextual. In the US today, it is not quite clear what a safety pin is supposed to signal. Does it merely signal opposition to violent attacks on minorities, or does it also signal opposition to deportations and registries? Can I assume that a safety pin wearer supports DACA and keeping DACA students in the US?  Does a safety pin also mean the wearer supports Black Lives Matter? Expanded immigration policies? Or is it merely a signal that one voted Democratic and is vaguely against “hate”? Or that the person voted for Trump (or Stein?) and wants to disguise the fact in a liberal area? In the late 1960s during the anti-war movement I once tied a white scarf to the sleeve of my dark jacket when biking at night across campus so I could be seen. Several people stopped and asked me what my white scarf “meant.” Was it a new anti-war symbol? If so, they did not want to be late to adopt.

But non-verbal symbols can come to have very clear meanings. In Britain, the safety pin has a clear meaning, from what I’ve read, although its meaning in the US is not clear. In the US, a spray-painted swastika can be safely assumed to be the work of neo-Nazis meant to intimidate minorities and not a Hindu religious symbol. Text is often clearer: The phrase “let your light shine, oppose racism” is hopefully a clearer symbol that merely lighting a candle in your window in December, and “Madison supports its gays and lesbians” is also relatively clear. The latest sign about being happy my neighbors are here, written in Spanish and Arabic, also conveys pretty clear meaning in its language choices as well as its content, although could be criticized for its ambiguity about racism (as the impetus for the signs was a hate letter that used the N-word) and immigration policy (as the sign does not mention your document status).

The ambiguity of a symbol can make signaling one’s actual opinions complex. This is a Christian-majority country and there is a strong politicized Christian movement that is affiliated with White nationalism and/or strong anti-abortion sentiments and/or hostility to gays, lesbians, transgender and other sexual minorities and/or hatred of Muslims or, possibly, Jews. This makes any overt Christian symbol (a cross, a crucifix, a “keep Christ in Christmas” yard sign) an ambiguous symbol that is likely to be interpreted both by non-Christians and also Christians one does not know as a symbol of adherence to the Christian Right or at least Republicanism. Muslim women have a similar problem, as their hijab is often interpreted as symbolizing things other than what they think it symbolizes.

The minister who organized the welcome neighbor signs in Madison told reporters that part of his motivation was that as a White Evangelical Christian, he wanted to distance himself from White Evangelical Christians who are advocating messages that he considers hateful. In the 1990s, pro-gay churches similarly sought to distance themselves from the association of Christianity with anti-gay movements.

But even text symbols can “mean” something other than what the user thinks it meant. I interpret the pro-police yard signs in Madison as “meaning” opposition to Black Lives Matter, as I interpret “Blue Lives Matter” to have a similar meaning. I make this interpretation because there were no pro-police signs in Madison before Black Lives Matter, because the only contextual factor that could be construed as anti-police would be Black Lives Matter, and because the last time pro-police signs and bumper stickers were common it was the “Support Your Local Police” bumper sticker campaign launched by the far-right John Birch Society in 1963. In fact, a quick Google search reveals that the JBS has revived this campaign and there is now a movement among police to spread this slogan as opposition to federal attempts to supervise and rein in the excesses of local police. It could be that someone who put up that sign lives next door to a police officer and couldn’t say no when asked to put it up, despite the person’s private support for Black Lives Matter and concern about racial disparities in Madison. But the “meaning” of the sign still encodes opposition to BLM, regardless of private motives. Likewise, some of my neighbors referred to pro-Trump yard signs in the area as evidence of “hate,” a characterization which other neighbors objected to.

Symbols have to be collective to have any meaning at all, and that is why they tend to have a fad-like character and are typically promulgated and distributed by organizations. That is also why people may contest the meaning of symbols. They are superficial and elusive conveyors of meaning. There are no clear guidelines about when to display symbols and how they will be interpreted. But the use of symbols to convey one’s identity and stance with respect to important issues is an important part of how people come to perceive the opinions of those around them. And that is important.

Pamela Oliver, PhD is a professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her specialty is collective action and social movements and, since 1999, she has been working intensely on the issue of racial disparities in criminal justice. You can follow her at Race, Politics, Justice.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Is Donald Trump undermining the legitimacy of the office of the presidency? He has been at it a while. His “birther” campaign – begun in 2008 and still alive – was aimed specifically at the legitimacy of the Obama presidency. Most recently, he has been questioning the legitimacy of the upcoming presidential election and by implications all presidential elections.

If he is successful, if the US will soon face a crisis of legitimacy, that’s a serious problem. Legitimacy requires the consent of the governed. We agree that the government has the right to levy taxes, punish criminals, enforce contracts, regulate all sorts of activities…  The list is potentially endless.

Legitimacy is to the government what authority is to the police officer – the agreement of those being policed that the officer has the right to enforce the law. So when the cop says, “Move to the other side of the street,” we move. Without that agreement, without the authority of the badge, the cop has only the power of the gun. Similarly, a government that does not have legitimacy must rule by sheer power. Such governments, even if they are democratically elected, use the power of the state to lock up their political opponents, to harass or imprison journalists, and generally to ensure the compliance.

Trump is obviously not alone in his views about legitimacy.  When I see the posters and websites claiming that Obama is a “tyrant” – one who rules by power rather than by legitimate authority; when I see the Trump supporters chanting “Lock Her Up,” I wonder whether it’s all just good political fun and hyperbole or whether the legitimacy of the US government is really at risk.

This morning, I saw this headline at the Washington Post:

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Scary. But the content of the story tells a story that is completely the opposite. The first sentence of the story quotes the Post’s own editorial, which says that Trump, with his claims of rigged elections, “poses an unprecedented threat to the peaceful transition of power.” The second sentence evaluates this threat.

Trump’s October antics may be unprecedented, but his wild allegations about the integrity of the elections might not be having much effect on voter attitudes.

Here’s the key evidence. Surveys of voters in 2012 and 2016 show no increase in fears of a rigged election. In fact, on the whole people in 2016 were more confident that their vote would be fairly counted.

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The graph on the left shows that even among Republicans, the percent who were “very confident” that their vote would be counted was about the same in 2016 as in 2012. (Technically, one point lower, a difference well within the margin of error.)

However, two findings from the research suggest a qualification to the idea that legitimacy has not been threatened. First, only 45% of the voters are “very confident” that their votes will be counted. That’s less than half. The Post does not say what percent were “somewhat confident” (or whatever the other choices were), and surely these would have pushed the confident tally well above 50%.

Second, fears about rigged elections conform to the “elsewhere effect” – the perception that things may be OK where I am, but in the nation at large, things are bad and getting worse. Perceptions of Congressional representatives, race relations, and marriage follow this pattern (see this post). The graph on the left shows that 45% were very confident that their own vote would be counted. In the graph on the right, only 28% were very confident that votes nationwide would get a similarly fair treatment.

These numbers do not seem like a strong vote of confidence (or a strong confidence in voting). Perhaps the best we can say is that if there is any change in the last four years, it is in the direction of legitimacy.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Flashback Friday.

Sociologists distinguish between the terms norm, normal, and normative.

  • The norm refers to what is common or frequent.  For example, celebrating Christmas is the norm in America.
  • Normal is opposed to abnormal.  Even though celebrating Christmas is the norm, it is not abnormal to celebrate Hanukkah.  To celebrate Hanukkah is perfectly normal.
  • In contrast to both of these, normative refers to a morally-endorsed ideal. Some Americans make a normative argument that Americans should celebrate Christmas because they believe (wrongly) that this is a Christian country.

A thing can be the norm but not be normative. For example, a nuclear family with a married man and woman and their biological children is normative in the U.S., but it is certainly not the norm. Likewise, something can be normal but not the norm. It’s perfectly normal, for example, to date people of the same sex (so say the scientists of our day), but it’s not the norm. And something can be both normal and the norm, but not be normative, like Americans’ low rates of physical activity.

These three terms do not always work in sync, which is why they’re interesting.

I thought of these distinctions when I looked at a submission by Andrew, who blogs at Ethnographer. Bike lanes in Philadelphia used to be designated with this figure:

Today, however, they’re designated by this one:

Do you see the difference? The new figures are wearing bike helmets. The addition is normative. It suggests that bikers should be wearing bike helmets. It may or may not be the norm, and it certainly isn’t normal or abnormal either way, but the city of Philadelphia is certainly attempting to make helmets normative.

Originally posted in 2010.

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.

Rumors are circulating that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has plans to euthanize 44,000 wild horses. The rumor is partly true. An advisory board has authorized the BLM to do so; they have yet to make a decision as to whether they will. Even the possibility of such a widespread cull, though, has understandably sparked outrage. Yet the reality of the American mustang is not as simple as the love and admiration for these animals suggests.

Mustangs are powerful symbols of the American West. The modern mustang is the descendant of various breeds of horses worked by everyone from Spanish conquistadors to pioneers in wagon trains into the Western US. Some inevitably escaped over time and formed herds of feral horses. Wild herds in the east were generally either driven west or recaptured over time as the frontier moved ever westward (the wild ponies of Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia being a famous exception). Over time, they became inextricably entwined with perceptions of the West as still wild and free, not yet fully domesticated. The image of a herd of beautiful horses against a gorgeous but austere Western landscape is a striking one, perhaps something like this:

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So how do we get from that to these mustangs penned up in a pasture running after a feed truck in Oklahoma (a screenshot from the video below):

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It’s a complicated story involving conflicts surrounding federal land management, public attitudes toward mustangs, and unintended consequences of public policies.

Wild horses fall under the purview of the BLM because most live on public range (particularly in Nevada, California, and Idaho, as well as Washington, Wyoming, and other Western states). Mustangs have no natural predators in the West; mountain lions, bears, and wolves kill some horses each year, but their numbers simply aren’t large enough to be a systematic form of population control for wild horse herds, especially given that horses aren’t necessarily their first choice for a meal. So wild horse herds can grow fairly rapidly. Currently the BLM estimates there are about 67,000 wild horses and burros on public land in the West, 40,000 more than the BLM thinks the land can reasonably sustain.

Of course, managing wild horses is one small part of the BLM’s mission. The agency is tasked with balancing various uses of federal lands, including everything from resource extraction (such as mining and logging), recreational uses for the public, grazing range for cattle ranchers, wildlife habitat conservation, preservation of archaeological and historical sites, providing water for irrigation as well as residential use, and many, many more. And many of these uses conflict to some degree. Setting priorities among various potential uses of BLM land has, over time, become a very contentious process, as different groups battle, often through the courts, to have their preferred use of BLM land prioritized over others.

The important point here is that managing wild horse numbers is part, but only a small part, of the BLM’s job. They decide on the carrying capacity of rangeland — that is, how many wild horses it can sustainably handle — by taking into account competing uses, like how many cattle will be allowed on the same land, its use as wildlife habitat, possible logging or mining activities, and so on. And much of the time the BLM concludes that, given their balance of intended uses, there are too many horses.

So what does the BLM do when they’ve decided there are too many horses?

For many years, the BLM simply allowed them to be killed; private citizens had a more or less free pass to kill them. There wasn’t a lot of oversight regarding how many could be killed or the treatment of the horses during the process. Starting in the late 1950s, the BLM began to get negative press, and a movement to protect wild horses emerged. It culminated in the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed in 1971. The law didn’t ban killing wild horses, but it provided some protection for them and required the BLM to ensure humane treatment, guarantee the presence of wild horses on public lands, and encourage other methods of disposing of excess horses.

One such method is making such horses (and burros) available to the general public for adoption. The BLM holds periodic adoption events. However, currently the demand for these animals isn’t nearly large enough to absorb the supply. For instance, in 2010, 9,715 wild horses were removed from public lands, while 2,742 were adopted.

So, there aren’t enough people to adopt them and killing them has become increasingly unpopular. Controlling herd populations through some form of birth control hasn’t been widely implemented and has led to lawsuits. What to do?

One solution was for the federal government to pay private citizens to care for mustangs removed from public lands. Today there are 46,000 wild horses penned up on private lands, fed by feed trucks. Something for which the American taxpayer pays $49 million dollars a year. Holding wild horses has become a business. Here’s a news segment about one of these wild horse operations:

The ranch in video is owned by the Drummond family, a name that might ring a bell if you’re familiar with the incredibly popular website The Pioneer Woman, by Ree Drummond. They are just one of several ranching families in north central Oklahoma that have received contracts to care for wild horses.

In addition to the sheer cost involved, paying private citizens to hold wild horses brings a whole new set of controversies, as well as unintended consequences for the region. Federal payments for the wild horse and burro maintenance program are public information. A quick look at the federal contracts database shows that in just the first three financial quarters of 2009, for example, the Drummonds (a large, multi-generational ranching family) received over $1.6 million. Overall, two-thirds of the BLM budget for managing wild horses goes to paying for holding animals that have been removed from public lands, either in short-term situations before adoptions or in long-term contracts like the ones in Oklahoma.

This is very lucrative. Because prices are guaranteed in advance, holding wild horses isn’t as risky as raising cattle. And, if a horse dies, the BLM just gives the rancher a new one. But this income-generating opportunity isn’t available to everyone; generally only the very largest landowners get a chance. From the BLM’s perspective, it’s more efficient to contract with one operation to take 2,000 horses than to contract with 20 separate people to take 100 each. So almost all small and mid-size operations are shut out of the contracts. This has led to an inflow of federal money to operations that were already quite prosperous by local standards. These landowners then have a significant advantage when it comes to trying to buy or lease pastures that become available in the area; other ranchers have almost no chance of competing with the price they can pay. The result is more concentration of land ownership as small and medium-sized ranchers, or those hoping to start up a ranch from scratch, are priced out of the market. In other words, the wild horse holding program contributes to the wealth of the 1%, while everyone else’s economic opportunities are harmed.

This is why the BLM is considering a cull. Not because they love the idea of killing off mustangs, but because they’re caught between a dozen rocks and hard places, trying to figure out how to best manage a very complicated problem, with no resolution in sight.

Revised and updated; originally posted in 2011. Cross-posted at Scientopia and expanded for Contexts.

Gwen Sharp, PhD is a professor of sociology and the Associate Dean of liberal arts and sciences at Nevada State College. 

Today is Labor Day in the U.S. Though many think of it mostly as a last long weekend for recreation and shopping before the symbolic end of summer, the federal holiday, officially established in 1894, celebrates the contributions of labor.

Here are some SocImages posts on a range of issues related to workers, from the history of the labor movement, to current workplace conditions, to the impacts of the changing economy on workers’ pay:

The Social Construction of Work

Work in Popular Culture

Unemployment, Underemployment, and the “Class War”

Unions and Unionization

Economic Change, Globalization, and the Great Recession

Work and race, ethnicity, religion, and immigration

Gender and Work

The U.S. in International Perspective

Academia

Just for Fun

Bonus!

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

TSP_Assigned_pbk_978-0-393-28445-4Assigned: Life with Gender is a new anthology featuring blog posts by a wide range of sociologists writing at The Society Pages and elsewhere. To celebrate, we’re re-posting four of the essays as this month’s “flashback Fridays.” Enjoy! And to learn more about this anthology, a companion to Wade and Ferree’s Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, please click here.

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Compulsory Monogamy in The Hunger Games, by Mimi Schippers, PhD

NPR’s Linda Holmes wrote a great article about the gender dynamics in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and concluded, “…you could argue that Katniss’ conflict between Peeta and Gale is effectively a choice between a traditional Movie Girlfriend and a traditional Movie Boyfriend.”  I do love the way Holmes puts this.  Gender, it seems, is not what one is, but what one does.  Different characteristics we associate with masculinity and femininity are available to everyone, and when Peeta embodies some characteristics we usually see only in women’s roles, Peeta becomes the Movie Girlfriend despite being a boy.

Though I find this compelling, I want to take a moment to focus on the other part of this sentence… the part when Holmes frames Katniss’ relationship to Peeta and Gale as a “conflict between” and a “choice.”  I think that, in some ways, the requirement to choose one or the other forces Katniss’ to, not only “choose” a boyfriend, but also to choose gender—for herself.

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Depending on whether she’s relating to Peeta or Gale, she is either someone who takes charge, is competent in survival, and protects her partner (traditionally the masculine role) or someone who lets another lead and nurtures instead of protects (the feminine role).  As Candace West and Don Zimmerman suggested many years ago in their article “Doing Gender,” we do gender in relationship to other people.  It’s a conversation or volley in which we’re expected to play the part to the way others are doing gender.

When Katniss is with Peeta, she does a form of masculinity in relationship and reaction to his behavior and vice versa.  Because Peeta “calls out” protection, Katniss steps up.  When Gale calls out nurturing, she plays the part.  In other words, not only is gender a “doing” rather than a “being,” it is also an interactive process.  Because Katniss is in relationship to both Peeta and Gale, and because each embodies and calls out different ways of doing gender, Katniss oscillates between being the “movie boyfriend” sometimes and the “movie girlfriend” other times and, it seems, she’s facile and takes pleasure in doing all of it.  If Katniss has to “choose” Peeta or Gale, she will have to give up doing gender in this splendid, and, dare I say, feminist and queer way in order to “fit” into her and her “girlfriend’s” or “boyfriend’s” relationship.

Now imagine a world in which Katniss wouldn’t have to choose.

What if she could be in a relationship with Peeta and get her needs for being understood, nurtured, and protective while also getting her girl on with Gale?  In other words, imagine a world without compulsory monogamy where having two or more boyfriends or girlfriends was possible.

I’m currently working on a book on monogamy and the queer potential for open and polyamorous relationships. I’m writing about the ways in which compulsory monogamy fits nicely into and perpetuates cultural ideas about masculinity and femininity and how different forms of non-monogamy might open up alternative ways of doing, not just relationships, but also gender.

Forcing Katniss to choose is forcing Katniss into monogamy, and as I suggested above, into doing gender to complement her partner.  Victoria Robinson points out in her article, “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” that monogamy compels women to invest too much time, energy, and resources into an individual man and limits their autonomy and relationships with others.  What Robinson doesn’t talk about is how it also limits women’s range of how they might do gender in relationship to others.

It also limits men’s range of doing gender in relationships.  Wouldn’t it be nice if Peeta and Gale never felt the pressure to be something they are not?  Imagine how Peeta’s and Gale’s masculinities would have to be reconfigured to accommodate and accept each other?

Elisabeth Sheff, in her groundbreaking research on polyamorous people, found that both women and men in polyamorous relationships say that the men have to rethink their masculinities to be less possessive, women have room to be more assertive about their needs and desires, and men are more accommodating.

What this suggests is that monogamy doesn’t just limit WHO you can do; it also limits WHAT you can do in terms of gender.  Might I suggest that Katniss is such a well-rounded woman character precisely because she is polyamorous?  She’s not just the phallic girl with the gun… or bow in this case… or the damsel in distress.  She’s strong, vulnerable, capable, nurturing, and loyal, and we get to see all of it because she does gender differently with her boyfriends.  And therein, I believe, is one way that polyamory has a queer and feminist potential.  It can open up the field of doing gender within the context of relationships.

I don’t know how her story ends, but I for one, am hoping that, if there is a happily-ever-after for Katniss, it’s not because girl gets boy; its because girl gets both boys.

Mimi Schippers, PhD is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Tulane University.  Her new book on the radical potential of non-monogamy is called Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Polyqueer Sexualities. You can follow her at Marx in Drag.

Originally posted in 2013 at Marx in Drag. Cross-posted at Huffington Post, and Jezebel. Images from IMDB

Many hope that Misty Copeland is ushering in a new era for ballet. She is the first female African American ballet dancer to have the role of Principal Dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. She has literally changed the face of the dance.

Race is a central and important part of her story, but in A Ballerina’s Tale, the documentary featuring her career, she describes herself as defying not just one, but three ideas about what ballerinas are supposed to look like: “I’m black,” she says, and also: “I have a large chest, I’m muscular.”

In fact, asked to envision a prima ballerina, writes commentator Shane Jewel, what comes to most of our minds is probably a “perilously thin, desperately beautiful, gracefully elongated girl who is… pale as the driven snow.” White, yes, but also flat-chested and without obvious muscularity.

It feels like a timeless archetype — at least as timeless as ballet itself, which dates back to the 15th century — but it’s not. In fact, the idea that ballerinas should be painfully thin is a new development, absorbing only a fraction of ballet’s history, as can clearly be seen in this historical slideshow.

It started in the 1960s — barely more than 50 years ago — in response to the preferences of the influential choreographer George Balanchine. Elizabeth Kiem, the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy, calls him “the most influential figure in 20th century dance,” ballet and beyond. He co-founded the first major ballet school in America, made dozens of dancers famous, and choreographed more than 400 performances. And he liked his ballerinas wispy: “Tall and slender,” Kiem writes, “to the point of alarm.” It is called, amongst those in that world, the “Balanchine body.”

 

We’re right to view Copeland’s rise with awe, gratitude, and hope, but it’s also interesting to note that two of the the ceilings she’s breaking (by being a ballerina with breasts and muscles) have only recently been installed. It reminds me how quickly a newly introduced expectation can feel timeless; how strongly it can ossify into something that seems inevitable; how easily we accept that what we see in front of us is universal.

In The Social Construction of Reality, the sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann explain how rapidly social inventions “harden” and “thicken.” Whoever initiates can see it for what it is — something they created — but to whoever comes next it simply seems like reality. What to Balanchine was “I will do it this way” became to his successors “This is how things are done.” And “a world so regarded,” Berger and Luckmann write, “attains a firmness in consciousness; it becomes real in an ever more massive way, and it can no longer be changed so readily.”

Exactly because the social construction of reality can be so real, even though it was merely invented, Copeland’s three glass ceilings are all equally impressive, even if only one is truly historic.

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.