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

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)

2009 Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Ranking Map

By Rachael Liberman

In an effort to combine press freedom and human rights, President Obama signed new legislation, titled the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act, which would require, according to The New York Times: “ … the State Department to expand its scrutiny of news media restrictions and intimidation as part of its annual review of human rights in each country. Among other considerations, the department will be required to determine whether foreign governments participate in or condone violations of press freedom.” The Wall Street Journal quoted President Obama as stating (during the signing ceremony): “Oftentimes without this kind of attention, countries and governments feel that they can operate against the press with impunity. And we want to send a message that they can’t.” Further, UPI quoted Obama with the following: “All around the world there are enormously courageous journalists and bloggers who, at great risk to themselves, are trying to shine a light on the critical issues that the people of their country face; who are the front lines against tyranny and oppression.”

While this new legislation, named after a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who was killed by Pakistani terrorists in 2002, does successfully call attention to the human rights element within journalism, the “report” that the State Department would “begin” detailing is actually already in effect. Among many organizations that track press freedom around the world, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters without Borders are two that already rank countries according to press freedom and human rights violations. In fact, according to their website, CPJ “is a an independent, nonprofit organization founded in 1981. We promote press freedom worldwide by defending the rights of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal.” It would appear that this new legislation would then include an alliance between the State Department and these successful organizations. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be the case: The Wall Street Journal reports that although there was a provision in the Act to give grants to independent media (which may have included these nonprofit organizations), it was removed in the Senate. In the end, while this new legislation does bring national attention to the risks that journalists take while covering stories in conflict zones (or non-conflict zones), many questions are left: How will this “list” from the State Department force other countries to change? How will this information depart from the facts we already receive from CPJ and Reporters without Borders? What about the fact that most of these journalists are independent bloggers who are risking their lives due to organizational/structural/financial issues within the industry?

Studying the Sociology of Journalists: The Journalistic Field and the News World

Press Freedom Index 2009 from Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters without Borders)

By Rachael Liberman

In a recent article from The New York Times, titled “Church Counsels Women Addicted to Pornography,” writer John Leland reveals predicable information regarding the Church’s response to overt female sexual behavior. While the fact that the Church is openly acknowledging this as a “problem” is newsworthy, it is the reaction and subsequent treatment that seems obvious and problematic. Leland writes, “The programs at Ms. Renaud’s group and XXX Church diverge from secular sexual theory by treating masturbation and arousal as sins rather than elements of healthy sexuality. Emphasis is on recovering ‘sexual purity’, in which thoughts of sex outside marriage are illicit.” Similar to the Church’s response to male pornography addiction, this article highlights an approach that blatantly ignores the drive or interest in pornography and focuses therapy on restoring the notion that “sexual purity” is the corrective path. Pornography, within this reasoning, has distorted the Church’s normative message regarding “sex” and “sexuality.” Crystal Renaud, a group leader for a Victory Over Porn Addiction group and founder of Dirty Girl Ministries, was quoted as saying: “It’s an injustice that the church is not more open about physical sexuality. God created sex. But the enemy has twisted it.” So what did we learn from this article? Certainly the fact that women are interested in the pornographic version of sexuality is nothing new – even if they do attend Church and practice organized religion. On the other hand, the fact that female Church leaders are trying to organize recovery groups brings attention to the “severity” (or profit possibility) of this issue within this community. In the end, this article does support the pervasive nature of pornography – and that it can no longer be categorized as attracting a seedy, unethical, secular, male-only viewership.

Dirty Girl Ministries: Helping Women Overcome Pornography Addiction

By Rachael Liberman

In a recent New York Times Magazine article, titled “The Fat Trap,” Contributing Writer Peggy Orenstein problematizes the role that parenting has on daughters, eating habits and body image. She writes, “Parents, then, are left in quandary, worrying about both the perils of obesity and those of anorexia. How can you simultaneously encourage your daughter to watch her size and accept her body?” Orenstein then admits that when she knew she was having a daughter, she suggested that her husband take control of the feeding regiment. She confesses, “It’s not that I’m extreme; it’s just that like most – heck all – of the women I know, my relationship to food, to my weight, to my body is … complicated. I did not want to pass that pathology on to my daughter.” After citing statistics on the increasing condition of child obesity (Centers for Disease Control) as well as the presence of girls and disordered behavior while trying to lose weight (The Journal of Adolescent Health), Orenstein stresses that, “At best, weight is a delicate territory between mothers and their girls.”

In the end, Orenstein tells readers that she decided to actively “model” healthy eating habits and exercise instead of police her daughter’s behavior. However, the article ends with an abrupt reminder that parenting is not the only source of knowledge production regarding eating and body image. She writes, “Still, my daughter lives in the world. She watches Disney movies. She plays with Barbies. So although I was saddened, I was hardly surprised one day when, at six years old, she looked at me, frowned and said, ‘Mama, don’t get f-a-t, O.K.? At least, I thought, she didn’t hear it from me.” Where are we to go from here? Is Orenstein content with body image messages as long as she isn’t the culprit? Is the troubled, fear-based relationship between mothers and daughters the real story here? How do gender politics factor into this discussion? Interestingly, Orenstein opens up an encouraging discussion on eating, body image and the relationship between mothers and daughters only to ultimately surrender to commercial pop culture (including television, advertising, etc.) as a force that will undoubtedly undo her modeling technique.

While there is overwhelming evidence from the Media Studies discipline that media create harmful myths about body image (however, causation is not a feature of this research), there are ways to integrate parenting in order to assuage effects (such as loss of self-esteem). For example, when Orenstein’s daughter tells her not to get “fat,” she could have asked her daughter what “fat” is, what it looks like, and why she doesn’t want “Mama” to look like that. In other words, Orenstein’s ending suggests that “the real world” is too powerful for her to compete against, illustrating a dated “magic bullet” reaction to mediated messages. In the end, Orenstein’s article successfully prompts an interest in contemporary body image (in the age of farmer’s markets and advertising directed at children) and the mother/daughter relationship as complicated and warranting further investigation. Unfortunately, her concluding observation falls into an overused simplistic trap: blame Barbie (among other mediated messages and cultural artifacts).

Media, Body Image, and Eating Disorders from The Handbook of Children, Media and Development

By Rachael Liberman

If the normalizing laws against gay marriage weren’t enough of a reminder that heterosexuality is being “threatened” in the United States, the case of Constance McMillen and her “prom saga” appears to discredit any naive notion that homosexuality is widely accepted. McMillen, a lesbian-identified teenager living in Mississippi, was initially denied admittance to her high school prom due to her otherwise “abnormal” sexual orientation. After taking the matter to a federal court (along with the ACLU), she was allowed access and attended what she thought was the reinstated “official” high school prom, and only later discovered that she had been sent to a prom simulation (seven students attended, including two with mental disabilities), while the rest of her colleagues were enjoying a covert, parent-sponsored private prom in a lesbian-free zone. She told The Advocate: “They had two proms and I was only invited to one of them. The one that I went to had seven people there, and everyone went to the other one I wasn’t invited to.” Aside from the details of this elaborate plan and how it was carried out, this situation highlights the disturbing lengths that schools, parents, and students will go to preserve both heterosexuality and the ritual of the high school prom, or, heterosexual courtship and performance.

This “prom saga” illustrates a point that Judith Butler famously makes in her foundational essay, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”: the notion that heterosexuality is perpetually “at risk” and that work needs to be done in order to normalize compulsory heterosexuality and situate other sexualities on the margins. She writes, “That heterosexuality is always in the act of elaborating itself is evidence that it is perpetually at risk, that is, that it ‘knows’ its own possibility of becoming undone: hence, its compulsion to repeat which is at once a foreclosure of that which threatens its coherence.” In this case, McMillen’s lesbian identification was a “threat” to the normalized heterosexuality of her high school, and drastic measures (elaborate “fake prom” ruse) had to be enacted in order to situate (stabilize) heterosexuality as “acceptable” and neutralize the threat of homosexuality. Interestingly, while legislature is typically on the disciplinary, to use a Foucauldian term, side of policing homosexuality, this time the judge ruled in favor of an individual that was facing discrimination. What is disturbing, however (among other issues), is that so many individuals – parents, teenagers, etc. – orchestrated this diversionary scheme and have the Facebook pictures to prove it.

Building Boxes and Policing Boundaries: De(Constructing) Intersexuality, Transgender and Bisexuality

Judith Butler from The Blackwell Companion to Major Contemporary Social Theorists

By Rachael Liberman

In what appears to be a inauthentic contrast to its current menu of celebrity reality programming, VH1 has begun airing a program titled Jessica Simpson’s The Price of Beauty, which is summarized by Simpson in the following statement from the beginning sequence of the program: “I’m going to travel the world and see what makes a woman from different cultures feel beautiful.” Simpson, the singer-turned-reality show star who has been recently ostracized by media outlets for relationship drama and weight gain, is joined by two “friends” that assist her in an exploratory exercise that takes her to such places as Thailand, New Zealand and France. Some phrases that she offers in the opening of the program include: ““I wanted to sit with people and listen to what their definition of beauty is,” and, “I want to see the lengths that women go through to make them feel beautiful in their environment.” While the title of the show, The Price of Beauty, seems to embody a critical stance similar to a Media Education Foundation-style assault on harmful beauty practices, the message of the program seems to be less direct and more mixed, with apolitical, and ahistorical tendencies. In a particularly revealing cultural moment, Simpson remarks: “I thought Thai massages came with happy endings, I was just wondering where mine was.”

Rather than critique the embarrassing behavior of Simpson and her companions (laughing during Buddhist meditation, wearing extremely high heels while attempting to critique beauty practices, etc.), there are two other issues that I would like to point out. First, rather than include a critique of US beauty practices – the beauty practices that have caused Simpson to feel so much “pressure” to feel beautiful – this program focuses on other, or Other, cultures. Second, while this show does include some harmful effects of beauty myths (light skin is more beautiful, a thinner physique is more beautiful), it focuses most of its content on the ways that women make themselves beautiful through massages, fashion, etc. In other words, larger “why” questions remain unresolved. Why have these beauty rituals developed? Why have such-and-such adornments or attitudes been deemed “beautiful?” While The Price of Beauty cast travels and attempts to experience different “cultures,” they refrain from questioning structural influence. While the various constraints of the televisual medium do pose an obvious hindrance to a deeper analysis on a network such as VH1, the fact remains that this program does not offer a critical analysis of “the price of beauty.” Rather, it is an exploration of the ways that women make themselves beautiful (the cast engages in spa treatments, cuisine exploration, etc.) peppered with interviews (one per show) with women who have suffered in order to embody the cultural myths of “beauty.” In the end, while The Price of Beauty has its flaws, it still offers a dialogue that has been absent in mainstream US pop culture. But how effective is this constrained, watered-down dialogue? I think I’m going to stick with Naomi Wolf (among others) and refer to popular culture for examples of harmful beauty practices, not critiques of it.

Beauty Work: Individual and Institutional Rewards, The Reproduction of Gender, and Questions of Agency

By Rachael Liberman

Although “sexting” is certainly not an isolated phenomenon, a recent case at Chenery Middle School in Belmont, Massachusetts deserves cultural consideration. According to reports, a nude photo of an underage student was circulated between seventh and eighth graders – approximately 40 to 50 according to Bill Grubbs, the school’s assistant headmaster. Further details provide that each of those students paid $5 for access to the “sext,” which was sent by the underage student’s “boyfriend.” This situation is currently under investigation: cell phones have been seized, students have been interviewed, and the phrase “child pornography” has been circulating in media reports.

However, while this case is yet another example of “sexting,” interviews with parents, via a report on WCVB-TV 5, reveal an interesting denial of current cultural and sexual trends, i.e., the pervasiveness of the profitable pornography industry through accessible electronic media (Internet). One parent states that, “The fact that another child thought it was okay to pay for that takes it to a whole other level.” Another parent responded to reporters with the following: “The idea of charging, that’s the cherry on the cake, or the icing on the cake. I can’t believe that at this age it crosses their mind to do this.” Both parents question the notion that individuals would pay for nudity. Do they truly believe that the success of the pornography industry would not penetrate the minds of puberty-stricken eighth graders? Interestingly, this case at Chenery Middle School appears to embody behaviors learned from the normalizing pornography industry, most notably, exploitation and profit. Where else would eighth graders learn that selling nude photography can generate capital?

Article: Police investigating alleged sexting incident at Chenery Middle School (including WCVB-TV 5 report)

By Rachael Liberman

According to an article in Italian news agency ANSA, the Italian government sent a bill to Parliament on Monday that would ban cosmetic breast surgery for women under eighteen. Currently, those under eighteen need parental consent for breast augmentation, but under the proposed bill, procedures will be strictly prohibited unless the patient can offer a medical rationale. The article cites an informative study by Italian research agency SWG (the English version of this news article offers only acronyms) that offers various resulting percentages (methods not included): 39% of women say that an “abundant chest enhances self-esteem,” 36% of Italian girls under 18 are unhappy with the way they look, with 17% of girls concerned about their breasts. Further, the article states, “Health Undersecretary Francesca Martini, who drafted the bill, said that demand for such operations was increasing among girls bombarded by images in the media that made them feel inadequate.”

Due to language inadequacies, I am not able to analyze the SWG report or the bill that the Italian government sent. Additionally, I am approaching this from the social location of an “American,” so I may be missing some historical and cultural considerations of the Italian experience. However, this bill on cosmetic breast surgery raises some concerns about the politics of the body that  are not necessarily location-specific. First of all, who defines the “medical basis?” The caveat that a rationale needs to be provided indicates examination and judgment, both of which are subjective. Secondly, what about those women who want breast augmentation in order to feel more feminine? Now, it could be argued that femininity is oppressive or a social construction, but nonetheless, there are women (including those under eighteen) that want to “feel more like a woman.” Does mental health count? Lastly, isn’t prevention the best medicine? In other words, why not develop media education courses that teach young girls about body image? How does lawfully engaging with breast augmentation surgery curtail the larger issue: women’s discomfort with their bodies as a result of various normalizing practices (not limited to just media).

What is interesting is that this acknowledgment of women and body issues and this resulting bill in Italy (the first of its kind in Europe) should be a positive moment. After all, the Italian government is attempting to drive cosmetic surgeries down so that young girls cannot include it in their imagination of embodying media-generated (normalized) aesthetics. However, this bill, based on the information contained in the ASNA article, is actually giving power to medicine and the government regarding what people can and cannot do with their bodies. Additionally, it is further suggesting that the desire to have large breasts is a result of “the media” (the article does not offer any additional sources of influences) and that individuals cannot possibly want to alter their bodies for any other reason. By limiting breast augmentation to “medical reasons,” individuals are forced to experience disciplinary power, or bio-power, masked as pro-social regulation.

Beauty Work: Individual and Institutional Rewards, the Reproduction of Gender, and Questions of Agency

Body Politics from The Blackwell Companion to Political Sociology

By Rachael Liberman

Although the organization started in 1997, a recent BBC News article and Radio 4 interview have drawn attention to the highly controversial Project Prevention, a US-based non-profit that offers sterilization to drug addicts. In exchange for $300, “clients,” as the organization calls them, “consent” to  “long term contraception” or “long term sterilization” in order to prevent them from having children that they are “unable to care for.” According to the “Objective” page of Project Prevention’s website: “The main objective of Project Prevention is to reduce the number of substance exposed births to zero. In doing so, Project Prevention seeks to reduce the burden of this social problem on taxpayers, trim down social worker caseloads, and alleviate from our clients the burden of having children that will potentially be taken away.” Critics, including National Advocates for Pregnant Women, assert that using sterilization as a tool is similar to social engineering due to its privileging of certain populations for child rearing. Other critics feel that drug treatment is more effective. When interviewed by BBC News, Barbara Harris, the founder of the organization, stated, “So people tell me that I should be focusing on drug treatment not birth control but drug treatment is such a gamble, you know? Women go in there, they get off drugs, they go back on drugs but that doesn’t keep them from getting pregnant.” According to the BBC News article, Project Prevention has paid money out to 3,242 “clients,” 1,226 of which were permanently sterilized.

But is drug treatment really more of a “gamble,” as Harris suggests? If the underlying issue is that female drug addicts are reproducing at uncontrollable rates and are unable to take care of their children, wouldn’t drug treatment be more of a stable reaction than sterilization? The ability to reproduce is attached the psyche of a woman (exploitation of that condition is another story), and it would then follow that taking that ability away has distinct consequences. Are these “clients” prepared with information and consent forms? As drug addicts, do they know exactly what they’re signing up for? This question is listed on Project Prevention’s website and they answer in the following way: “If you can not trust someone with their reproductive choices, how can you trust them with a child?” While this statement appears a bit unsympathetic, Barbara Harris’ genuine concern for this troubled population is anything but unsympathetic. During her interview with BBC News, she consistently makes the case for sterilization/long-term contraception as a solution for low-income women – of all races – to exit the cycle of accidental reproduction. However, the question must be asked: Didn’t the US doctors who sterilized black, Hispanic and Native American women think that they were making a positive social contribution? To date, there has been no independent verification of Project Prevention’s statistics or figures on their “clients” and procedures.

Drug Addition from The Dictionary of Family Therapy

Eugenics from The Blackwell Dictionary of Modern Social Thought