Did you know that October is National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month? As such, the month of October is full of bullying prevention and awareness events. The National Bullying Prevention Center advertises many of these events and hosts a great deal of information about bullying. But, a major piece of the bullying puzzle is missing, both from their website and much of the national (and international) discourse on bullying. That missing piece is gender.
In a recent Sociology Lens post, my colleague Markus Gerke discussed the so called ‘Boys-Crisis’ in Education, and provides an excellent critique of anti-feminist stances that point to boys apparent underachievement in education. As he argues, these stances so often fail to account for gendered practices that occur in schooling and education, and by utilising feminist education studies and masculinity studies, the differences between boys and girls achievement can be explained much more accurately. Rather than inherent ‘qualities’ existing to either sex, in an essentialist view about what makes ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ the way that they are, certain classroom behaviours are viewed as more acceptable for boys or girls, in line with social and cultural understandings of masculinity and femininity. These expectations can be used to understand a great many behaviours – why girls are more inclined to read or sit quietly, or why boys may resort more easily to playing up in classrooms, all have in them inherent implications about what is gender-appropriate behaviour. In terms of understanding why girls and boys succeed in different areas, we simply have to ask whether the behaviour is ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. Writers such as Bev Skeggs and Mike Savage have written extensively about how these categories also intersect with class: acceptable masculinities and femininities vary drastically according to class and background.
In reading Markus’ article I was struck by the similarities to the subject I intended on discussing in this post – the evidence of gender inequalities at Harvard Business School and how they are being addressed. Harvard Business School were the subject of a front-page article in the New York Times last month, when an article by Jodi Kantor revealed that the school, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world, had restructured their curriculum, assessment criteria and even social rules and regulations in order to attempt to address a gender imbalance and encourage female success. more...
The CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch, Mike Jeffries, is up-front about his marketing and sales strategy: appeal to “cool” and “popular” kids to make the brand distinctive and desirable. While anybody can wear other brands, only those who fit an ideal body type can have the privilege of sporting Abercrombie and Fitch tees and jeans. How does Jeffries achieve this goal? The Abercrombie and Fitch advertisements use models who are “all American” (white and skinny), the stores employ similarly small and fit workers, and the largest size available for women is a size 10. Jeffries does have all of his bases covered: no one will mistake Abercrombie and Fitch as a brand that markets to the masses. more...
In Julia Serano’s (2007) Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, the author writes about transsexuality. In particular, she writes about living as a trans woman in today’s society, the immense challenges faced by those in the trans community, and the inability of femininity to rise above the inferior status placed upon it by masculinity. Beyond explaining transsexuality to the reader and detailing the fallacious stereotypes that are often used against trans people, Serano separates herself from others in the field by carefully and smartly noting how the negative perceptions afforded to trans women illustrate the wide-range of misogynistic and pro-masculine attitudes that are still held in American culture. She explains that the preference for trans men over trans women is but one example of our society’s preference for masculinity over femininity. From her unique perspective, however, Serano sees trans women as being in a distinctively powerful position because of their experiences with living as a male and as a female. Using her life story to vividly elucidate this and other ideas, the author is able to advocate for the strengths of transsexuality. Considering such an argument, I will use this this post to analyze Serano’s book by critically evaluating its strong and weak points. more...
In the two weeks since I wrote about Secret’s “stress sweat” ad campaign, I’ve been thinking a lot about American society’s beauty standards for women. The prevailing model of female beauty (especially for young women, say 16-35 y/o) is best described by a term coined at Duke University: “effortless perfection.” As the Duke researchers explained, their interviewees felt they “had to be not only academically successful, but also successful by all the traditionally female markers — thin, pretty, well-dressed, nice hair, nice nails. And, the real rub is you had to do it with no visible effort” (see the Steering Committee’s report here). Secret reinforces this unrealistic standard through their new line of products. Take, for example, their clinical strength sport stick (which I mentioned briefly in the last post). Thanks to the efforts of feminist activists around the nation, the otherwise all-male realm of sport has opened up, ever so slightly, to women athletes. But this has not altered the heterosexist structures that govern women’s lives. Women are expected to balance it all—work, family, school, love, and now sports—and be at our best, without ever breaking a (literal or figurative) sweat.
The pressure for “effortless perfection” envelops women daily. When it comes to beauty, “effortless perfection” is about looking as lovely as every retouched fashion model, but making it seem as though it comes naturally to you. Like women roll out of bed with “soap opera” curls in their hair, are born with pink blush splotches on their cheeks, and have eyebrows that sculpt themselves. Take this ad for Clairol’s Nice n Easy hair dye. In it, the husband marvels at his wife’s nearly magical ability to maintain her youthful beauty even as life’s ups and downs have left him with grey hair. “I don’t know all her secrets” he tells us, “but I do know that Kate’s more beautiful now than the day I married her.” Kate’s dirty little secret is that she isn’t perfect—that 15 years of marriage, new jobs and homes, and carrying and delivering 2 babies weren’t effortless endeavors for her. And yet she hides her greys to maintain the allure that captivates her husband.
Its directive is simple, but impossible to achieve. “Effortless perfection” is artificiality masquerading as nature. It is the female athlete who glows (not sweats) on the field and the wife whose flaxen hair grows more golden with age. It is, perhaps, best exemplified by the “au natural” makeup trend, easily found in any fashion magazine. Just for fun, I found this guide online. Getting the “natural beauty” look that “guys love” requires 5 multipart steps and more than 10 beauty products/tools: face wash, makeup remover, moisturizer, tinted moisturizer or foundation, concealer, liquid shimmer luminizer (which sounds more like a sci-fi weapon than makeup to me), eyelash curler, mascara, blush, and loose powder. And since all of this is set in a hypercapitalist context, you can’t just buy any old makeup; you’ve got to buy the right stuff or risk exposing the artificiality of one’s perfection—mascara flakes tell the truth about your insufficient lashes and the wrong shade of foundation reveals that your skin is not actually made of porcelain or milk chocolate or caramel.
And this is where things get more complicated. While all women living in our society are subjected to some version of heterosexist beauty standards, only some are able to live up to them. That is, the pressures of “effortless perfection,” problematic though they may be, are themselves a privilege restricted to women of certain class positions. As one reader commented on my Secret post, these products are costly—Secret’s clinical line costs up to 3 times more than a regular stick of deodorant. Natural looking cosmetic products are pricey. Women who are economically disadvantaged cannot afford this beauty ideal and are often stigmatized. Moreover, this ideal is racialized. While product lines are increasingly including more cosmetics for women with darker skin tones, these options are still limited compared to those for lighter skinned women. Additionally, deodorants which claim to be invisible on skin are often only invisible on light skin; when dark skinned women wear it, we see the “effort” in their “perfection.” The ideal of “effortless perfection” emerges from society’s center: white, middle class, heterosexuals. Marginal women are always already excluded, as their bodies have historically been the foil for white, middle class women, the proof of white women’s superiority.
Ultimately, the ideal of “effortless perfection” is bad for all women—it says to us, “As you are, you will never be good enough.” And then it whispers, “But some of you can try.”
This past weekend was a busy one for those of us who travelled to Denver, CO for the annual American Sociological Association meeting. As usual, the conference was replete with interesting and insightful research projects. But this year’s theme, “Real Utopias: Emancipatory Projects, Institutional Designs, Possible Futures,” inspired conversations far more philosophical and theoretical than social scientists might have expected. I had the pleasure of attending one such panel—“A World Beyond Gender,” with Barbara Jane Risman, Judith Lorber, and Michael Kimmel as presider (Jessica Holden Sherwood contributed to the paper but wasn’t in attendance). Beginning from a simple but radical premise—that “only a world beyond gender will be a just world” (p4)—the authors attempted to envision how we might achieve an equal world, where gender no longer structures individual experiences, interactions, or social institutions.
A lofty and laudable goal, and one which even the authors admitted is a long way off. The authors noted a number of trends, however, that seem to indicate that change is possible. Changes in the socialization of girls that promote their athleticism, leadership, participation in science and math are heartening, though they have not been accompanied by similar changes in the socialization of boys; that is, while girls may be encouraged to enter traditionally “masculine” spheres, boys are not taught to value what is typically viewed as “feminine.” Rising challenges to the norm of heterosexual marriage, both from those who choose to remain single rather than enter into unequal relationships and from the LGBT community demanding legal access to the institution of marriage, suggest a dissatisfaction with the current gender regime. The authors also pointed to genderqueer and trans movements, which defy binary conceptions of sex/gender. There is room for change if only we’d seize it.
They even provided some strategies. We must resist pressures to socialize our children into gender and refuse to conform to the roles into which we have been socialized. We must create and enforce gender-neutral institutional policies and place equal value on both economic and care work. We need to stop expecting proper gender performances and encourage – rather than stigmatize – non-normative ways of being. We must reconceive the meaning of motherhood. Easy, right? Not at all, but the most worthwhile endeavors are often the most difficult.
Michael Kimmel’s response to the paper was equally provocative. Drawing on his own participation in the men’s anti-violence movement, he asked if we need to do away with gender entirely. Ideas about gender can be mobilized effectively for social change. One of the best ways he found to get men to take a stand against IPV and sexual violence was to draw on seemingly “masculine” values of honor and valor. The paper authors had suggested that men who don’t participate equally in caregiving ought to be shamed for their moral failure, but Kimmel argued that he has never found men (or people, really) to respond positively to shaming. Instead, perhaps, we should turn to positive, not negative, reinforcement, and mobilize some aspects of gender for good. (I should note that Kimmel was trying to incite debate and clearly shares the authors’ goal of a more just world.)
All of this got me thinking—how do we balance short-term activist strategies with long-term emancipatory projects? If one of our most effective tools for combatting men’s violence against women is to draw men in through appeals to virtuous manhood, is it possible to stop violence and work toward a degendered society? Another example. The current reality is that women still make less money, have fewer educational and occupational resources, and have less mobility than men. But policies that encourage companies to hire women do so on the basis of gender, thus reinforcing, to some extent, our current gender system. So can we raise women’s educational/occupational status and still advance toward our ultimate goal? Can we improve this lifetime without limiting our possible futures?
This summer, I tried something new with my sociology of gender class. Rather than assigning a traditional textbook or a reader, I had the class read a work of fiction based on social science research (along with a few topical nonfiction works). I was nervous to see if my students, who are used to big lecture halls and multiple choice tests, would feel comfortable discussing the novel and would come away from the class with a better understanding of the social scientific themes embedded throughout the text. But my fears quickly went away. In fact, the discussions the work of fiction inspired were some of the best of the semester.
My sociology of gender class read Low Fat Love, a social science fiction novel by Dr. Patricia Leavy. This novel is based on the author’s many years of research about pop culture, women’s identities, self-esteem, and body issues. Leavy introduces the reader to two female protagonists, Prilly and Janice, who work together at a publishing house in New York City. Both Prilly and Janice struggle with their jobs, their relationships, and their senses of self. Prilly is a bright young woman with a promising job. Despite her many accomplishments, Prilly’s self-esteem is easily derailed by (and maybe even at times, dependent on) her relationship with Pete, a guy who actively avoids commitment. Janice also has unfulfilling relationships, particularly with her husband, her son, and her extended family. To compensate, she throws herself completely into her work and even tries to sabotage other women by setting unrealistic expectations for them to achieve. To the outside world, Janice may seem hardworking and driven, but inside, Janice is quite sad and lonely.
Chatroulette has swept the the nation. I say “swept” because, like many things on the Internet, the novelty and hype surrounding chatroulette is proving ephemeral. That’s not to say that chatroulette is going away any time soon. In fact, we should expect Internet culture to continue to produce new opportunities for the random interactions at the heart of the chatroulette experience. Fellow Sociology Lens commentator Nathan Jurgenson not unfairly described chatroulette as a “downright capricious and aleatory experience.”
Perhaps the most contentious and reported aspect of chatroulette is the regular frequency with which one encounters people engaged in sexually explicit activities, particularly men masturbating. Clearly somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Casey Neistat, producer of the video embedded here, divides chatroulette users into three categories: “boys,” “girls,” and “perverts.” While I don’t want to directly criticize this wonderfully made mini-documentary, I think it is good launching point for a discussion about the ways in which the norms and values of Internet culture may be transforming human sexuality. more...
Prostate cancer patient Dana Jennings (who also happens to be a New York Times editor) has us thinking again about just what it means to be a man. Jennings, who was diagnosed earlier this year, is learning about the ironic, gendered side effects associated with his cancer treatment. According to Jennings, one of the drugs prescribed to him, Lupron, is a “testosterone suppressant, designed to starve hormone-dependent cancer cells of the fuel (testosterone) that they crave in order to grow.” Among the more notable side effects are Jennings’ shrinking testicles, hot flashes, and potentially enlarged breasts. The gendered implications of these bodily changes are not lost on Jennings, who notes that “(T)he treatment of the disease strikes at the very heart of our clichéd, John Wayne image of the American male.” To be sure, Jennings’ cancer treatment pushes us to continue our sociological meditations on gender. But we can also view this situation through the lens of the “unintended consequences of modernity.” In other words, Mr. Jennings’ treatment calls to mind the social ironies of rationalized life. A life, for instance, in which science can cure lethal disease, but not before it has undermined much of what we think we know about our own gender identity!
Science, rationality and risk: the case of genetic testing