Photo courtesy of John Fekner

By Rachael Liberman

As endless rhetoric surrounding youth and body image continues to proliferate both in and outside of the academy, it appears that ephemeral panic has taken the place of organized action. The profitable persistence of homogenized and suggestive messages/imagery coupled with the lack of media (and sex) education in the United States has resulted in a version of empty empathy: a fleeting visceral response unsupported by contextual comprehension (E. Ann Kaplan). While Americans are becoming increasingly “empathetic” to the issues surrounding youth and body image – perhaps through exposure to a Media Education Foundation video – it remains that there is no national initiative to combat this social effect that owes most (not all) of its influence from the cultural/creative industries. However, while the United States is held hostage by both a dismantled media literacy movement and an increasing business-oriented attitude toward media for youth, Australia is trying something different. Yes, the United States is home to many non-profit organizations, media literacy programs (typically relegated to “after –school” status), eating disorder campaigns, etc. However, the Australian government has found a way to merge all of these initiatives and promote it on a massive scale by holding both individuals and industry responsible.

Based on advice and suggestions from the National Advisory Group on Body Image, Kate Ellis, the Australian Minister for Youth, announced (June 27, 2010) government initiatives to promote positive body image for Australia’s youth. In her statement, she writes, “It is vital that we recognize the serious implications of negative body image and take action to promote positive body image among young Australians. There is no simple fix for the problem of negative body image. However, this complexity is not an excuse for inaction.” Based on findings from the National Advisory Group on Body Image, the initiative involves two key areas: “industry and popular culture” and “individuals and their immediate social environment.” Breaking away from the traditional media effects paradigm, this initiative recognizes that negative body image is the result of a combination of forces, not just media message absorption. For individuals, the initiative involves education (including media literacy), skills training, and the improvement of the school environment and at the structural, or industry level, the initiative includes body image friendly awards and a body image friendly symbol. more...

Hillary Clinton ran to be the democratic nominee for president. Sarah Palin ran to be the vice president. There are more women than ever before running for governor (e.g. Whitman, Haley, Hutchison and Brewer, to name a few), for the senate, and for all levels of political office. Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed as a supreme court justice and this week, Elena Kagan may become the fourth woman to sit on the supreme court. Surely, over the last several decades, women have been elected to public office and their gender, while still a major issue, has become less of a central one. In the last few years, however, the number of women in public office has rapidly increased and there is a regularity to seeing women in positions of political power. Do these event clusters lead to more powerful, more marked, more rapid change? Or are they simply the process of social change in and of themselves?

As I watch the confirmation hearings of Elena Kagan, I continually think about social change, which can be defined as a, “succession of events which produce over time a modification or replacement of particular patterns or units by other novel ones.” I wonder – surely, social change takes place over time (usually a long succession of events leading to others and on and on) but events are not uniform. For instance, this hearing right on the tail of another women confirmed to the supreme court is much different than, for instance, Ginsburg’s confirmation in 1993, about a decade after O’Connor’s. Time compression and the rate at which these events occur seems to be vital here – but how vital? This is not yet clear.

Hillary Clinton talked about “shattering the glass ceiling” during her campaign. Did this campaign, coupled with others in short succession do just that? And what does that mean? A  large part of it is perception. It has taken decades for women to break into these arenas and we have all of their troubling stories of both overt and covert discrimination – Justice Ginsburg felt she had to hide her pregnancy for fear of not losing her job (see the NPR story below for a fantastic description of such stories). This was a tough and grueling history and without these women the current moment would not be. But what I wonder now is if we’re at a crucial moment where the breaking point has passed. And when was it? It is now normal to see women in these positions? Certainly, women are still marked when they sit before the senate judiciary committee or stump for a presidential nomination. We know this because the issue of gender is still a central one in the media and in everyday conversation. Today, as the confirmation hearings roll on, the pundits continually question whether senators are being too hard on Kagan because of her gender. Still others ask if senators are taking it too easy on her for the same reason. Regardless, the question about her gender is still a central one. But how will the close succession of these events impact future discussions and perceptions of female candidates for any public office? Again, when there are ten years in between the appointment of a supreme court justice, it’s harder to keep the conversation going, but when it happens twice in a year, how is that different? Will this, in fact, change the way we see women more broadly? And how so? Ultimately, a major question is also whether these events change things more quickly when they happen more quickly in succession or do they just make it seem as though change is sudden by eclipsing a long history of struggle? In any case, this is a fantastic moment to try to find answers to these questions and to watch social/political change in action.

How Women Changed the High Court…And Didn’t

Social Change

By Rachael Liberman

While it’s no secret that Facebook is renegotiating human interaction, the evidence is stacking up that this social media/networking site is redefining terms such as “community” and “friendship.” While many factors – including age, conflict and proximity – act as intervening variables when it comes to physical, face-to-face friendship and community, new factors – such as digital access, online activity and noteworthy status updates – are now influencing the degree to which someone is a (digital) “friend” or member of your “community.” In a recent New York Times Op-Ed column from Charles M. Blow, the realization that Americans were more likely to know their online friends’ names rather than their (physical) neighbors’ led to the writer’s further contemplation on findings from a social isolation study and data on children feeling widespread hurt, jealousy and competition while online. No longer categorized as a moral panic linked to technological determinism, questions regarding human bonding are starting to hit close to home.

For example (and this incident prompted this blog entry): A friend of mine traveled home to see family and friends and due to scheduling conflicts, was not able to visit with a particular long-term friend of his. After phone calls and apologies, he (my friend) assumed that the misconnection was no longer attached to any resentment, etc. until he noticed that his friend “defriended” him on Facebook. This assumed angry individual will not return any calls or explain why he decided to use Facebook to annul their friendship. What this story reveals (to me, at least) is that the conventions of friendship and community are being transferred to Facebook: apologies, wedding announcements, breaking off friendships, etc. Is this the kind of weight society wants to give to a social media/networking website? Is my friend supposed to take the “defriending” action as a valid dismissal of their friendship? In the end, many scholars have been tracking social media and its influence on subsequent human behavior – this is not a new or groundbreaking observation on my part. However, it does beg the question: Is Facebook facilitating a cultural environment where physical friends are easily disposable?

Online Social Networking from Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology

I was recently in a heated conversation about how to address sexual violence against women. During this chat, I was reminded that girls are almost always the focus in these kinds of discussions.  Increased attention has been paid in the last several decades to men who commit crimes against women, particularly rapists, (most of the public discourse is about heterosexual relationships) and yet, when it comes to solutions, there is very little talk about boys and men. While we tell girls to be careful – not to wear certain clothing, not to walk around alone at night and even how to fend off attackers – attacks still occur and far too often, at that. We also blame girls and women for the violence that is perpetrated against them – they weren’t careful enough, they wore the wrong clothing, they went to the wrong place at the wrong time, said the wrong thing, etc.  What about the boys? Girls are exposed to much more information about sexual violence and how to protect themselves than in the past (though in most cases still not enough), but what do we do to teach boys not to victimize women? Rape is about more than sex – it’s about power – and this desire for/misuse of power is condoned or, at the very least, mostly overlooked outside of academia/the mental health professions.

Though the manifestation of the problem may take a particular form in contemporary society, none of this is a new trend, as is evidenced by the artwork seen above, the Rape of Philomela by Tereus, an engraving by Virgil Solis for Ovid’s Metamorphoses and below, by Francisco Goya. While we pride ourselves on living in a “civil” society, one that is less violent than others and more progressive than our own once was, rape and violence against women more broadly remain a significant problem and we do very little to change the way men think about women as sexual objects. Accurate statistics are hard to come by due to under-reporting, but a conservative estimate of number of rapes per year in the US seems to be somewhere around 300,000, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey. It is likely significantly higher than that.

Last week, Maureen Dowd broached this subject in her op-ed piece in the New York Times. As a society, we do a horrendously poor job of teaching boys that women are not “prey.” In her piece, Dowd addresses a frightening trend at a prestigious private school outside of D.C. where boys were ranking girls and duping them into having sex, sometimes with multiple partners in the same night, to score points in a game. Dowd writes, “the mission was to invite the drafted girls and, unbeknownst to them, score points by trying to rack up as many sexual encounters with the young women as possible.” One of the parents of a “recruited” girl reports, “‘They evidently got points for first, second and third base…They were going to have parties and tally up the points, and money was going to be exchanged at the end of the season.’” Where is the education for these boys, who are no more than a few years away from manhood? Perhaps if boys were socialized to think of women differently, girls and women would have a lot less to be afraid of in society more generally. Most importantly, this would address the cause of the problem much more directly than telling girls how short their skirts are or how low their necklines should be, which has been a large part of the education about rape in the last few decades. And our lack of attention to this kind of problem is exemplified by the relative lack of coverage of this event at this private school – Dowd’s op-ed piece is the bulk of the national media coverage.

How we perceive a problem has serious consequences for what we consider the solution to be. If we identify the problem as girls dressing a certain way, etc. then the solution becomes training them to be more careful and wary of boys. None of that really solves the problem. If we accept the fact that boys will be boys and that some men are violent, then we are condoning that violence and ultimately training boys to think that it’s OK to victimize women. All of this is expressed quite acutely in the “rape culture” argument, summarized in the article below. For instance, Williams cites  Buchwald (1993) who explains that it is “…a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women … a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent.”  This blaming women, condoning rape, and lack of major changes to the way boys are socialized exists in a deadly (sometimes literally) combination with larger issues of violence in American and Global society.  Ultimately, we exist in a world where boys far too often act in violent ways towards girls and where rape is not an uncommon crime. There are many levels at which to address this problem, but socializing boys (not just girls) differently certainly seems like an important place to focus some (any!) energy.

Their Dangerous Swagger in the NY Times, Dowd

Rape Culture, Williams

Some were surprised to learn that young Facebook users -the folks who are most implicated in the game of “mass exhibitionism” and living in public- are also the ones who are most involved with privacy online. Some have described this as contradictory and counter-intuitive – are kids exhibitionists or not?

The findings are not contradictory and the larger point goes well beyond kids, but indicates a general rule of privacy and publicity: the degree to which one is involved in the game of living in public is the degree to which one is concerned with both revealing and concealing.

facebook as fandance: a game of reveal and conceal

Living in public was once reserved for celebrities of one sort or another. Their publicity also implied close attention paid to privacy (images of Michael Jackson hiding himself in various ways spring to mind). Today, living in public has been democratized. Many of us use Facebook and other technologies to document our selves, ideas, travels, friendships and so on. Many of our friends and peers are doing the same. As all of this is woven into everyday life, a new set of cultural norms emerge.

And those most involved with social media are trying to navigate these norms as best as they can. In short, they want their digital documentation to be successful. Their peers are watching. As they have to learn how to reveal successfully, it follows that they are also very interested in when not reveal, or when to conceal altogether. Of course the exhibitionists are the most concerned with privacy.

Privacy and publicity imply each other, and are increasingly interwoven and blurred together in everyday life. My favorite metaphore for this is borrowed from social media researcher Marc Smith who describes this as a fandance; a game of reveal and conceal.

All of this comes on the heels of the major privacy fiasco Facebook is currently weathering. While I am typically hard on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, he seems to get it. As quoted in the recent Time magazine cover story:

What people want isn’t complete privacy. It isn’t that they want secrecy. It’s that they want control over what they share and what they don’t.

Here, he’s dead-on. The people that want to live in public also want to control their publicity. Unfortunately, Facebook’s record has fallen pathetically short in living up to Zuckerberg’s rhetoric.

Before you ask: I did not make this picture up.  It is a screenshot taken directly from my email.  And, yeah, this is probably a bit of inexcusable narcissism.

I, like millions of other Americans (OkCupid has 500,000 active users, eHarmony has had more than 20 million registered users in its history, and sees more than 20,000 users register each day), have turned to the enigmatic world of online dating.  Being a less than affluent Ph.D. student, I naturally turned to the free option: OkCupid.

What has struck me most about online dating is the penchant these sites have for quantifying everything.  The latest, and perhaps, creepiest, instance of quantification is OkCupid’s announcement that is has developed an algorithm to determine other users’ subjective experience of your attractiveness.  The following is an excerpt from the email I received:

We are very pleased to report that you are in the top half of OkCupid’s most attractive users. The scales recently tipped in your favor, and we thought you’d like to know.

How can we say this with confidence? We’ve tracked click-thrus on your photo and analyzed other people’s reactions to you in QuickMatch and Quiver.


By Rachael Liberman

As a projectile oil spill continues to plague the Gulf of Mexico, most US mainstream media outlets are reacting to this relentless tragedy with a “blame BP” and/or “blame Obama” campaign that fails to capture the entire story. Q1: What about the Gulf residents and their reactions? Q2: What about the unreported organized and grassroots efforts to save the environment and wildlife? In other words, as Fox News and David Brooks of The New York Times, for example, continue to focus their energy on the disaster and its intersection with national politics, the reality of residents, wildlife, and the environment have turned into an abstract concern. Further, Media Matters recently noted that: “Fox and Friends guest hosts falsely suggested that there was a ‘lack of cleanup going on’ in the Gulf Coast oil spill and falsely suggested Louisiana’s barrier plan had been ignored.” The Media Matters report then lists information regarding ongoing cleanup efforts from on the Department of the Interior and the Army Corps of Engineers. Rather than question the existence of a “response,” newsworthy questions might include: Are the response strategies causing harm to the Gulf community? How are residents reacting to the efforts? After a brief scan of national newspapers and their attention to local efforts/ effects of the spill, it was no surprise to find that a New Orleans newspaper, The Times-Picayune is leading the charge on local and timely reporting.

Questioning the existence of a “response” and blaming President Obama or BP for this disaster has lost its timeliness. We know that Obama is launching an independent investigation on this matter and that this disaster will most likely continue into August. We know that efforts have been made – and contested – and that hurricane season is right around the corner. But what about local victims of this disaster? What about their voices? At present, many mainstream media outlets (not all) continue to focus on redundant structural – business and governmental – concerns as the main influence on their reporting. While these concerns are entirely valid, this direction, or frame, continues to place the experiences, efforts, and emotions of those directly impacted into a second-rate abstraction.

Environmental Disasters from A Dictionary of Contemporary History (Blackwell)

Oil has been gushing into the Gulf of Mexico for over a month as a result of an explosion atop a rig that was extracting crude from a 5,000-foot-deep well owned by British Petroleum. The horrific event, which killed 11 men working on that rig, set off a leak that experts say is pumping anywhere between 5,000 and 18,000 barrels of oil a day; that’s anywhere from 210,000 to 756,000 gallons of crude oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico per day. It’s an amount that’s hard to fathom. There is already way more oil in the gulf than the 11 million gallons that spilled into Prince William Sound from the Exxon Valdez tanker in 1989. The environmental and economic fallout from this are and will continue to be catastrophic for many years to come.  The damage to the sacred marshes off the coast of Louisiana that are responsible for the incubation of numerous sea and land creatures is so great that it’s impossible to even assess. The injury to the ecosystem more generally is bad at best. And the decimation of the fishing industry there is a fate sealed so clearly – in order to bring in a paycheck, instead of shrimping, many gulf coast residents are signing up with BP to help clean up oil in the same waters where many of them spent decades of their life fishing. A way of life, part of LA culture has also been obliterated by the sheen of oil that spans miles and miles of the gulf and by the tarry substance washing up on shore. It is likely that this leak will not be stopped until a relief well can be completed in August, at which point several million more barrels of oil will have merged with the millions already suffocating the gulf. There is a small chance that one of the various short-term solutions such as the “top hat” tactic will slow down the leak, though several intermediary solutions have already failed.

If you watch/read/listen to the media coverage of this man-made disaster, you will find extensive finger-pointing (and culpability is an important issue to address later) and people raise myriad questions- what is the role of government here? How should we alter the laws about offshore drilling? etc. – all of which are vital to answer and none of which I have space to address here. One central sociological question that is implicit in many of the other issues raised by this event and by the coverage of it has to do with who has expertise. Who has the expertise needed to solve this problem (if anyone) and how do we channel that expertise when it is seemingly held tightly in the fist of the very company that allowed poor safety measures and cheap materials to cause the blast in the first place?