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

Serena Williams, the winner of 21 Grand Slam titles and arguably the greatest living female athlete, was understandably exhausted after defeating her sister and best friend Venus Williams in the U.S. Open earlier this week. So she wasn’t having it when, during a post-match press conference on Tuesday, a reporter had the gall to ask why she wasn’t smiling.

Williams looked down and gave an exasperated sigh before shelling out the best response an athlete has given in an interview since football player Marshawn Lynch’s “I’m just here so I won’t get fined” trademark phrase.

It’s 11:30. To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t want to be here. I just want to be in bed right now and I have to wake up early to practice and I don’t want to answer any of these questions. And you keep asking me the same questions. It’s not really … you’re not making it super enjoyable.

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Nervous laughter may have broken out in the crowd, but what Williams expressed wasn’t a joke. All women are expected to perform femininity at the cost of being their authentic selves in the public sphere. Williams had just experienced what was likely one of the most emotionally and physically draining matches in her career. Taking on your sister in a high-stakes game isn’t easy. She had told the Associated Press before her win:

She’s the toughest player I’ve ever played in my life and the best person I know. It’s going against your best friend and at the same time going against the greatest competitor, for me, in women’s tennis.

It makes sense that she would not be smiling ear-to-ear during the media conference. But it turns out no matter how insanely accomplished or famous you become, you will still be subjected to the innocuous-sounding but ever-so-pernicious “why don’t you smile?” interjection from those who feel entitled to make demands of women. Williams’ retort was her attempt at dismantling that sense of entitlement. For those who say the reporter’s question was a harmless jest, they should ask themselves if Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal would ever be expected to defend their stern or tired expressions.

And the problem exists not just in the image-heavy world of professional sports. On Wednesday, Apple did little to change the public’s perception of the tech industry as a sexist one. During a launch presentation in San Francisco, the first woman to be seen on stage at the male-dominated event wasn’t a keynote speaker or even a presenter, but a model in a magazine photo. Adobe’s director of design used her image to show off the Photoshopping capabilities of the new iPad Pro.

What did he decide to Photoshop one might ask? A smile onto her face. He could have altered literally any aspect of any image he wanted but decided instead to force a woman’s visage into a grin.

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What happened at the tennis conference and the tech launch are symptoms of the same problem. Women, whether athletes or models, are often seen as products. They’re meant to be consumed and enjoyed, and expressions of personality — like not constantly grinning — distract from their role as ornaments.

It’s the reason projects like Stop Telling Women to Smile by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh have cropped up to address the microaggressions women face on a daily basis. Women don’t exist to smile for men and aren’t obligated to present a cheerful disposition to the world. To expect that denies us our humanity and only reinforces male privilege.

Anita Little is the associate editor at Ms., where this post originally appeared. You can follow her on Twitter.

In a previous post, I wrote about a University of Illinois football coach forcing injured players to go out on the field even at the risk of turning those injuries into lifelong debilitating and career-ending injuries. The coach and the athletic director both stayed on script and insisted that they put the health and well-being of the scholar athletes “above all else.” Right.

My point was that blaming individuals was a distraction and that the view of players as “disposable bodies” (as one player tweeted) was part of a system rather than the moral failings of individuals.

But systems don’t make for good stories. It’s so much easier to think in terms of individuals and morality, not organizations and outcomes. We want good guys and bad guys, crime and punishment. That’s true in the legal system. Convicting individuals who commit their crimes as individuals or in small groups is fairly easy. Convicting corporations or individuals acting as part of a corporation is very difficult.

That preference for stories is especially strong in movies. In that earlier post, I said that the U of Illinois case had some parallels with the NFL and its reaction to the problem of concussions. I didn’t realize that Sony pictures had made a movie about that very topic (title – “Concussion”), scheduled for release in a few months.

Hacked e-mails show that Sony, fearful of lawsuits from the NFL, wanted to shift the emphasis from the organization to the individual.

Sony executives; the director, Peter Landesman; and representatives of Mr. Smith discussed how to avoid antagonizing the N.F.L. by altering the script and marketing the film more as a whistle-blower story, rather than a condemnation of football or the league…

Hannah Minghella, a top [Sony] executive, suggested that “rather than portray the N.F.L. as one corrupt organization can we identify the individuals within the N.F.L. who were guilty of denying/covering up the truth.” [source: New York Times]

I don’t know what the movie will be like, but the trailer clearly puts the focus on one man – Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith. He’s the good guy.

Will the film show as clearly how the campaign to obscure and deny the truth about concussions was a necessary and almost inevitable part of the NFL? Or will it give us a few bad guys – greedy, ruthless, scheming NFL bigwigs – and the corollary that if only those positions had been staffed by good guys, none of this would have happened?

The NFL, when asked to comment on the movie, went to the same playbook of cliches that the Illinois coach and athletic director used.

We are encouraged by the ongoing focus on the critical issue of player health and safety. We have no higher priority.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog. Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

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.

The common sense assumption about success in sport often involves the belief that success is a result of innate talent and intensive practice. The more of both you have, the better you are. However, who is good at a particular sport is also the result of how that sport is organized. Sports have rules and those rules are made by the people who have the power to enforce their own ideas about what the rules should be over and against less powerful people with other ideas.

Long distance ski jumpers benefit from maximizing their surface area while simultaneously decreasing their weight. The less they weigh and the more drag they can produce, the farther they go. Their bodies are the primary source of weight and, as a result, there is incredible pressure for competing ski jumpers to be as thin as possible.

After criticism that the sport was creating an incentive for disordered eating, the International Ski Federation began penalizing jumpers who had a body mass index below 20. These skiers were required to jump with shorter skis, the primary source of drag. The hope was that the shorter skis would balance out the incentive for thinness, allowing jumpers to be competitive without starving themselves.

So, who wins isn’t only related to talent and practice. It is also a consequence of rules that no longer make the ability to train while starving oneself an advantage. This is a great example of the way that we write rules that shape the context for success in a sport.

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In light of this, it’s really interesting to consider the fact that ski jumping was the last Olympic event that excluded women. Women were given their first ski jumping event in 2014, though they still have one and the men have three.

The International Olympics Committee and the International Ski Federation listed a myriad of reasons for this, ranging from claims that the sport is not yet developed enough, to the idea that adding women would crowd an already overwhelmed Olympic schedule, to the assertion that the sport is not “…appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view.”

The rationales seem transparently thin, leading to the suggestion that the real reason that women weren’t allowed to compete — and still aren’t on parity with men — is because they might kick ass. If being lighter is an advantage, then women might beat men at the sport. In fact, during the time women’s future in Olympic ski jumping was being debated, the world record holder on the ski jump track at that year’s Olympics was held by a woman: Lindsey Van.

Sociologists recognize sport as a terrain on which social claims about gender are demonstrated. Not letting women play is one way that the mythology of men’s physical dominance has been maintained. Football is an excellent example. Women aren’t allowed to play football, it is asserted, because they are not big enough and would get hurt. Of course, rules that make size so critical to success in football also exclude the majority of men (who aren’t big enough to play either). If we organized football by weight classes, instead of gender, women could play football, and so could all of the men who are excluded as well. But, if we organized football by weight classes, we couldn’t claim that women were too small, weak, and fragile to play it.

It will be interesting to see how the future of women’s ski jumping plays out.

Originally posted in 2010.

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

Flashback Friday.

Toban B. sent in some photographs and a discussion of how energy drinks are gendered.

Energy drinks are already gendered to begin with in a couple of different ways at least: (1) they are marketed as hydration for athletes and sports is a masculine arena and (2) women aren’t usually encouraged to consume “extra” calories. But, in addition to being seen as somehow for men, Toban shows how a particularly violent and aggressive kind of masculinity is reproduced in the marketing, even across different companies.

Monster energy drinks include slashes on the packaging that look like a vicious scratch and what appears to be a crosshair and bullet holes (bad aim?):

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Notice that the “flavor” in the picture above is “Sniper.”  Toban notes that “Assault” and “M-80” are also flavors:

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The can for the Assault-flavored drink also features a camouflage design, invoking militarism.

They call their “shooters” “Hitman”:

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Both Monster and Guru link their product directly to (extreme) sports:

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Full Throttle and Amp (“Overdrive”) go for a connection to aggressive driving:

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Full Throttle energy drinks make it explicit with the tagline, “Let Your Man Out.”

Toban notes that it’s ironic that a lot of these products are marketed as health drinks when, in fact, internalizing an aggressive form of masculinity is associated with taking health risks (e.g., refusing to wear seat belts or hard hats, drinking hard). “In any case,” Toban concludes, “this marketing normalizes and makes light of a lot of aggression and danger that we should be opposing.” And which, I will add, isn’t good for men or women.

See also our post with hilarious fake commercials making fun of energy drinks and hypermasculinity.

Originally posted in 2009.

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

“No. We’re Italian. We don’t Irish dance,” said Kristi Corcione’s mother in 1973. The proscription wouldn’t last a generation. Today her daughter trains for the World Irish Dance Championships

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Irish dance has left Ireland and the ethnic communities in which it used to be quietly practiced.

Irish dancing schools have sprung up in Israel, Japan, Norway, Romania, Russia and many other countries not known for their Irish populations. Competitions… can now be found in Hong Kong, Prague and St. Petersburg, among other far-flung cities. More than 5,000 competitors from 20 countries are expected in April at this year’s World Championships in London.

At the New York Times, Siobhan Burke gives the credit to Riverdance, a phenom that “exporting [Irish dance] to an international audience of more than 24 million.”

The spread of Irish dance is a great example of the social construction and evolution of our invented concepts of race and ethnicity.

When it was whites who made up the majority of U.S. immigrants, it really mattered if you were Irish, Italian, or some other white ethnicity. The Irish, in particular, were denigrated and dehumanized. If one wasn’t Irish, it certainly wasn’t a group that most people would want to associate themselves with.

Over generations, though, and as new immigrant groups came in and were contrasted to Europeans, the distinctions between white ethnics began to fade. Eventually, ethnicity became optional for white people. They could claim an ethnicity, or several, of their choice; others would accept whatever they said without argument; or they could say they were just American.

Once the distinctions no longer mattered and the stigma of being Irish had faded, then Irish dance could be something anyone did and others would want to do. And, so, now anyone does. The three-time winner of the All-Ireland Dancing Championship in Dublin is a biracial, black, Jewish kid from Ohio.

Today, the big Irish dance production is “Heartbeat of Home,” a show that Burke describes as a “multicultural fusion” that delivers “plenty of solid Irish dance steps.” Irish dance is evolving, borrowing and melding with other cultural traditions — and it increasingly belongs to everyone — in the great drama of ethnic and racial invention and re-invention.

7Thanks so much to @Mandahl, a proud grandmother of two world class Irish dancers, for suggesting I write about this!

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

Flashback Friday.

I have always found it bizarre that lipstick is supposed to make a woman’s lips more irresistible, yet kissing a woman with lipstick gets sticky red or pink smudge all over both faces. So women dress up and look all gorgeous and then their dates can’t kiss them. Or, it’s the end of the night and a woman wants her date to kiss her, does she put on lipstick or go for the chapstick?  Gah, being a woman is hard. And I supposed it can’t be that easy being the person who wants to kiss her in that situation either.

It’s odd to me that this kiss-ability paradox is never addressed in lipstick advertising.  So I was intrigued to see it in this vintage ad:

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Text:

Now water cannot mar your lipstick… it’s protected by a coat of clear Lip-Stae.  Just brush on its liquid lustre… lips stay brillint, alluring for hours.  And clothes, cigarettes, glasses and the man in your life can’t carry lipstick’s tell-tale marks!  Safe, economical, and easy to use. At cosmetic counters everywhere. (my emphasis)

There is so much to unpack here, but I think it all revolves around the fact that women are supposed to wear makeup, but pretend that the face that they put on is their real face.  As the copy reads, lipstick leaves “tell-tale marks.”  Those marks reveal a degree of deception regarding her true attractiveness and, in fact, this is exactly how makeup was characterized in the Victorian era.  This is why a woman’s lipstick must remain on her lips (and be left nowhere else) even when swimming or kissing.  Because, in principle, she’s not wearing lipstick at all.

This post originally appeared in 2009.

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

I am so grateful to reader Emma Farais for recommending that I look into the history of the leotard. It was invented by — well, who else — Jules Léotard.

Born in 1842, Jules grew up to be an acrobat. He is credited with inventing trapeze and performed with French circuses. He invented and then began performing in leotards and he was a big hit. According to the Victoria and Albert Museum:

The original leotard was an all-in-one knitted suit. It allowed freedom of movement, was relatively aerodynamic and there was no danger of a flapping garment becoming entangled with the ropes. Even more importantly, it showed off his physique to its best advantage.

He was a huge hit with the ladies. Alas, he died at age 28. Or 32, depending on the source.

But the leotard lived on. Leotards were adapted for women, but the form and function were similar. Think vintage muscle men and women.

Jules Léotard, circa 1850 (left); Circus Strong Man and Women, circa 1890 (right):4

Male dancers, athletes, and thespians wore leotards well into the ’70s. Eventually, though, disco happened. Disco fashion emphasized leotard fashion for women, as this roller disco shot from the Empire Rollerdome reveals:

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(Oh, to be a roller disco queen in ’70s Brooklyn. Sigh.)

Men eventually abandoned leotards as they became increasingly popular with women. We saw the same pattern, of course, with high heels and cheerleading: male flight from feminizing fashions and activities. The more women wore leotards, the less men wore them. Eventually, companies stopped making leotards for men altogether.

To the disappointment of all the (het) ladies, I’m sure.

Today, a Google Image search for leotard returns all ladies. Mostly girls, in fact. Not a guy in the bunch:

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I can only think of two arenas in which leotards for men still hold sway: wrestling and professional weight lifting. And, now I guess we know why.

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