Barrel Chests, Brawn, and Buffoonery: Controlling Images of Masculinity in Pixar Movies

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

I just read and reviewed Shannon Wooden and Ken Gillam’s Pixar’s Boy Stories: Masculinity in a Postmodern Age. And I thought I’d build on some of a piece of their critique of a pattern in the Pixar canon to do with portrayals of masculine embodiment. In Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins coined the term “controlling images” to analyze how cultural stereotypes surrounding specific groups ossify in the form of cultural images and symbols that work to (re)situate those groups within social hierarchies. Controlling images work in ways that produce a “truth” about that group (regardless of its actual veracity). Collins was particularly interested in the controlling images of Black women and argues that those images play a fundamental role in Black women’s continued oppression. While the concept of “controlling images” is largely applied to popular portrayals of disadvantaged groups, in this post, I’m considering how the concept applies to a consideration of the controlling images of a historically privileged group. How do controlling images of dominant groups work in ways that shore up existing relations of power and inequality when we consider portrayals of dominant groups?

Pixar films have been popularly hailed as pushing back against some of the heteronormative gender conformity that is widely understood as characterizing the Disney collection. While a woman didn’t occupy the lead protagonist role until Brave(2012), the girls and women in Pixar movies seem more complex, self-possessed, and even tough.  [Side note: Disney’s Frozen is obviously an important exception among Disney movies. See Afshan Jafar’s nuanced feminist analysis of the film here.]  In fact, Pixar’s movies are often hailed as pushing back against some of the narratological tyranny of some of the key plot and characterological devices that research has shown to characterize the majority of children’s animated movies. But, what can we learn from their depictions of boys and men?

Philip Cohen has posted before on the imagery of gender dimorphism in children’s animated films. Despite some ostensibly (if superficially) feminist features in films like Tangled (2010), Gnomeo and Juliet (2011), and Frozen (2013), Cohen points to the work done by the images of men’s and women’s bodies—paying particular attention to their relative size (see Cohen’s posts here, here, and here). Cohen’s point about exaggerated gendered imagery of bodies might initially strike some as trivial (e.g., “Disney favors compositions in which women’s hands are tiny compared to men’s, especially when they are in romantic relationships” [here]), but it is one small way that relations of power and dominance are symbolically upheld, even in films that might seem to challenge this relationship.  How are masculine bodies depicted in Pixar films? And what kind of work do these depictions do? Is this work at odds with their popular portrayal as feminist (or at least feminist-friendly) films?

Screen shot 2014-09-08 at 9.14.49 AM

Large, heavily muscled bodies are both relied on and used as comic relief in Pixar’s collection. It’s also true that some of the primary characters are men with traditionally stigmatized embodiments of masculinity: overly thin (Woody in Toy Story, Flic in A Bug’s Life), physically awkward (Linguini in Ratatouille), deformed (Nemo in Finding Nemo), fat (Russell in Up), etc. Yet, these characters often end up accomplishing some mission or saving the day not because of their bodies, but rather, in spite of them. When their bodies are put on display at all, it’s typically as they are held up against a cast of characters whose bodies are presented as more naturally exuding “masculine” qualities we’ve learned to recognize as characteristic of “real” heroes. As Wooden and Gillam write:

Amidst ostensibly ironic inversions of power in the Monsters films and The Incredibles, male bodies are still ranked according to a tragically familiar social paradigm, whereby bigger, stronger, and more athletic men and boys are invariably understood as superior to smaller, more delicate, or intellectual ones. (here: 34)

Wooden and Gillam use Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story as, perhaps, the most glaring example . When we first meet Buzz in the Andy’s room, Buzz does not recognize himself as a toy. He is foolish, laughably arrogant, imprudent, and, quite frankly, a bit reckless. Yet, the audience is supposed to interpret Buzz as the other toys in Andy’s room do—we’re in awe of him. Buzz embodies a recognizable high status masculinity. Sulley in Monsters Inc. occupies a similar body and, like Buzz, he is instantly situated as occupying a recognizably masculine heroic role (a role that is bolstered by the comically embodied Mike Wazowksi, whose body works to shore up Sulley’s masculinity). While Buzz and Sulley—and similarly embodied men in other Pixar movies—are sometimes teased for conforming to some of the “dumb jock” stereotypes that characterize male action heroes of the 1980s, their bodies retain their status and still work as controlling images that reiterate social hierarchies.

In C.J. Pascoe’s research on masculinity in American high schools, she coined the term “jock insurance” to address a very specific phenomenon. Boys occupying high status masculinities were afforded a form of symbolic “insurance” that enabled them to transgress masculinity without affecting their status. In fact, their transgressions often worked in ways that actually shored up their masculinities. This kind of “jock insurance” is relied upon as a patterned narratological device in Pixar movies. Barrel-chested, brawny, male characters are allowed to be buffoons; they’re allowed to participate in potentially feminizing or emasculating behaviors without having those behaviors challenge the masculinities their bodies situate them as occupying or their status (in anything other than a superficial sort of way).  For instance, Sulley, Mr. Incredible, Lightning McQueen, and Buzz Lightyear perform domestic masculinities in ways that don’t actually challenge their symbolic position of dominance. Indeed, the awkwardness with which they participate in these roles implicitly suggests that these men naturally belong elsewhere.

Parr and Boss - IncrediblesIn The Incredibles, Bob Parr’s incredible strength and monstrous body look silly accomplishing domestic tasks or even occupying a traditionally domestic masculinity. His small car helps is body appear laughable in this role as he drives to work. At work, Bob’s desk plays a similar role. His body is depicted as not belonging there—domesticity is symbolically holding him back. This sort of “crisis of masculinity” narrative plays out in the stories of many of these characters. So, when they occupy the role they are initially depicted as denying, the narrative creates a frame for the audience to collectively experience relief as they take on the heroic roles for which their bodies symbolically situate them as more naturally suited. The scene in The Incredibles in which Bob Parr (Mr. Incredible) quits his job by punching his boss (whose physically inferior body is regularly situated alongside Bob’s for comic relief) through a wall is perhaps the most exaggerated example of this. The pleasures these films invite us to share at these moments when gendered hierarchies of embodiment are symbolically put on display play a role in reproducing inequality.

Similar to Nicola Rehling’s analysis of white, heterosexual masculinity in popular movies in Extra-Ordinary Men, portrayals of masculinity in Pixar films work in ways that simultaneously decenter and recenter dominant embodiments of masculinity – and in the process, obscure relations of power and inequality. Screen shot 2014-09-08 at 2.57.52 PMIndeed, side-kicks and villains are most often depicted as occupying masculine bodies less worthy of status. These masculine counter-types (like Randall in Monsters Inc., Sid Phillips in Toy Story, or Buddy Pine/Syndrome in The Incredibles) embody masculinities portrayed as “deserving” the “justice” they are served.

The films in Pixar’s collection show a patterned reliance on controlling images associated with the embodiment of masculinity that shores up the very systems of gender inequality the films are often lauded as challenging. To be clear, I like these films – and clearly, many of them are a significant step in a new direction. Yet, we continue to implicitly exalt controlling images of masculine embodiment that reiterate gender relations between men and exaggerate gender dimorphism between men and women.

Sometimes, when you point out how patterns reproduce inequality, people expect you to provide a solution. But, what would challenging these images actually look like? That is, I think, a more difficult question than it might at first appear. A former Dreamworks animator, Jason Porath, might help us think about this in a new way. Porath’s blog—Rejected Princesses—was recently featured on NPR’s All Things Considered. On the site, Porath plays with “princessizing” unsung heroines unlikely to hit the big screen.  His tagline reads: “Women too awesome, awful, or offbeat for kids’ movies.” tumblr_n7dwg3bfii1ry5q8mo5_1280Yet, even here, Porath relies on recognizable embodiments of “the princess” to depict these women—like his portrayal of Mariya Oktyabrskaya, the first woman tanker to be awarded the “Hero of the Soviet Union” award. Similarly, cartoonist David Trumble produced a series of images that “over-feminize” real-life heroines like Anne Frank, Susan B. Anthony, Marie Curie, Sojourner Truth and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. While both of these projects make powerful statements, we need more cartoon imagery that challenge these gendered embodiments alongside narratives and characters that support this project. What that might actually look like is currently unclear. What is clear, I think, is that we can do better.

How We Ask about Gender and Sexuality Matters More Than You Think

Cross-posted at Social (In)Queery

When nationally representative surveys first started appearing that addressed issues of gender and sexual identities and practices, most people had the same question.  It was some derivation of, “How many gay/lesbian/bisexual/trans*/etc. people are there?”  And, from a sociological perspective, it’s a question often associated with a fundamental misunderstanding of how complicated a question like that actually is.

0226470202In 1994, Edward Laumann, John Gagnon, Robert Michael and Stuart Michaels published an incredible book on one of the first nationally representative surveys of the American population concerning issues of sexuality, sexual behavior, and sexual orientation–The Social Organization of Sexuality.  In their chapter, “Homosexuality,” they begin a brief section of the book on the “dimensions of sexuality” that encompasses some of my favorite findings out of the study.  In it, they write,

To quantify or count something requires unambiguous definition of the phenomenon in question.  And we lack this in speaking of homosexuality.  When people ask how many gays there are, they assume that everyone knows exactly what is meant. (here: 290)

Measuring the size of the LGBT population is difficult for more than a few reasons.  I spend a week on the considerations of measuring sexuality in my Sociology of Sexualities course.  During that week, we deal primarily with discussing the size of the LGBT population in the U.S., how this is measured, and both how and why measurements are likely skewed.  Ritch Savin-Williams has a wonderful short analysis of how challenging it is to estimate the size of the LGB population (here) and Gary Gates’ estimates of the LGBT population are some of the most widely accepted.

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Bacon, Beards, and Beer: Feminist Reflections on Hipster Masculinity

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections

Do you know a hipster when you see one? Have you ever been in the company of a hipster and tried to bring up the subject?

Talking about hipsters in front of hipsters is more taboo than you might think. The term is rarely lobbed in the presence of those who would fit the label. Most often it is used to describe other men in a disparaging way –like calling a guy a “douchebag” or a “fag.” At the same time, hipster has a different ring to it. It is calls the authenticity of one’s masculinity into question.

When I was studying a young, straight, white group of men who frequented the same bar, I regularly encountered the term. I learned quickly that if men found out they’d been “hipster’d” when they weren’t around, they were deeply offended. Part of hipster identity seems to be explicitly about NOT identifying as such. Hipsters have a casual form of detachment about identity and tastes—a gendered nonchalance that I call “practiced indifference.” Continue reading

Summer Break

Hi Everyone,

In an effort to complete a massive amount of work this summer, Inequality by (Interior) Design will be taking a summer vacation.  I may post something if I get the blog urge and can’t stay away.  But, my goal is to begin again in the fall.

If you’re interested in what I’m up to this summer, some of the projects I’m most excited about are listed below.

  • C.J. Pascoe and I are completing an edited volume under contract with Oxford University Press–(Re)Theorizing Masculinities.  We’ve worked incredibly hard on this.  And I’m so excited for it to be published.
  • I’m completing a book proposal for my dissertation research with three separate groups of men: a pro-feminist group, an anti-feminist fathers’ rights group, and a group of male bar regulars. I also have a few articles I’m working on out of this project that I’ll be finishing up this summer.
  • I’m working on an edited volume proposal for a book with C.J. Pascoe on “Hybrid Masculinities.”
  • I’ll be continuing to collect interviews on my “man cave” project.  This project has been so much fun; I can’t wait to begin publishing some of the findings (and, hopefully, the book before too long).
  • I’m part of a team of scholars (headed by Gayle Sulik) who are starting a new Society Pages blog.  And, like Girl W/ Pen, I will have a regular column there as well.

Sorry for the temporary hibernation from this particular corner of the blogosphere.  But, I’ll be collecting ideas all summer to start back up in the fall.  Thanks for all of your support.  Have a great summer!


Are Class Differences in Parenting Style Disappearing?*

By: Tristan Bridges and Tara Tober

–Reposted at Huffington Post

An interest in ensuring communities have access to safe areas for children to play has produced a wild array of solutions. One of the solutions in our community is the development of what urban planners call “pocket parks.” These are small, repurposed lots in communities—torn down and built back up again as playgrounds, picnic areas, and small patches of grass on which children might play and families might congregate. Pocket parks increase property values surrounding them and provide more access to public space to spend leisure time. They have the added bonus of offering some infrastructure that might promote community.

photoWhen we first moved to Brockport, New York, some of the first friends we met were other parents we navigated on pocket park playgrounds near our home. Our children were around the same age as theirs, we were similarly neurotic about what they were up to on the playground, we seemed to have similar feelings about what other parents ought to be doing with their kids. We didn’t discuss this openly. We didn’t have to. All this is to say that when we met other parents at the park and decided to try to befriend some of those we met, we shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that we shared more in common with them than parenting philosophies. We shared similar upbringings, class backgrounds, levels of education. We even had similar kinds of jobs, politics, aspirations, and hobbies.

Annette Lareau’s ethnography of class reproduction—Unequal Childhoods—tells the story of how U.S. parents from different class backgrounds “parent” in different ways. And it’s not the “better” or “worse” story that gets played out in popular culture. All of the parents Lareau studied want to help their kids find happiness and thrive. They just don’t go about fulfilling these goals in exactly the same ways. Middle-class family life had a qualitatively different flavor for working-class and poor family life. Lareau refers to the parenting that middle-class parents in her study practiced as “concerted cultivation.” As the name suggests, Lareau found that middle-class parents were primarily concerned with cultivating their children’s various talents, helping them find and voice their own opinions, reasoning with them, and were consistently preoccupied with their children’s development. These families were constantly on the go; the children were enrolled in a fantastic array of activities and the families were extremely busy.

By contrast, working-class and poor families had incredibly different daily rhythms associated with their families. Lareau refers to the parenting practiced by working-class and poor families as “the accomplishment of natural growth.” It wasn’t that these families did not set boundaries for their children; they cared deeply about their children, set limits on their activities, and more. But, within these limits, Lareau found that working-class and poor parents provided a lot of room for their children to spontaneously grow. They didn’t have the same schedule of organized activities; their kids played outside a lot with other children (often, though not always, outside the watchful gaze of their parents); and the parents were much more likely to use clear directives when communicating with their children than to reason with their kids in the ways Lareau observed middle-class parents doing.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both styles. Concerted cultivation promotes a sense of entitlement that allows middle-class children to learn to navigate institutions seamlessly (as they simply interact with so many from a young age). But they also learn that they can bend the rules in most institutions, make special requests, and more. The accomplishment of natural growth, by contrast, might afford children greater independence and may be more likely to produce authentic friendship and community. In network terms, you might imagine the accomplishment of natural growth as producing small, but incredibly dense networks—the kinds of networks that might help you get a babysitter last minute, let you borrow a car, or watch your children while you shop for groceries. Concerted cultivation, on the other hand, seems more likely to foster more extensive networks, stretching far beyond your neighborhood and the community physically surrounding your home—but, we’d also imagine, given the hectic schedules, these networks are likely to be less dense and ties between friends and families more weak. This might make it harder to find a sitter, but these networks might be ideally situated to help get your child into the college they want and, later on, these networks have been shown to help people find jobs. So, Lareau’s study illustrates one small, but incredibly important way that class reproduction takes place.

But, here’s the rub: we don’t think middle-class families are satisfied yet. The Atlantic recently published a new article on parenting by Hanna Rosin—“Hey! Parents, Leave Those Kids Alone!” Rosin joins a chorus of popular critics, psychologists, and more about the dangers of “over-parenting.” Apparently, parents today are overly worried about their children’s safety, attempting to anticipate and protect children from risks around every imaginable corner. These worries have shifted the landscape of contemporary childhood in a diversity of ways. With Lareau’s study in mind, it’s probably important to say that when Rosin is talking about “parents,” she’s not talking about all parents—just those who practice concerted cultivation.

a636ab336Rosin writes about a playground’ish area in North Wales that is just shy of an acre of land. Referred to as “The Land,” it’s a bit different from what you might be thinking when you hear “playground.” It’s filled with… well, it’s full of junk as far as we can tell. Children are running around, jumping on, throwing, breaking and playing with all manner of dangerous items. The older children at The Yard light fires in tin drums, listen to music with explicit lyrics, and more. The younger children jump on dirty old mattresses, off of piles of wooden pallets and dirty old car tires, and play in the mud. Rosin refers to the area as an “adventure playground.” There’s an elaborate system of supervision such that very few adults are there. In fact, supervisors are trained to attend to children in the area with a sort of “don’t interact unless you absolutely must” rule guiding most of their interactions with children. The adult “playworkers” in The Yard watch the children, but almost never intervene.

The whole idea behind The Yard and adventure playgrounds is that reasonable risks are an important part of childhood development. And, as you might suspect, parents practicing concerted cultivation might have a different assessment of “reasonable” than the creators of The Yard. There’s a litany of pop psychology written to middle-class parents, not-so-subtly asking them to “back off” a bit and highlighting the benefits for children’s development. Dan Kindlon’s Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children in an Indulgent Age is among the most popular. While he’s not using Lareau’s language, Kindlon and others are basically calling middle-class parents to check the “concerted-ness” of their cultivation a bit. But, based on the story, we gathered that this was an area in which middle-class children were playing. It’s not the U.S., but these are kids who are supposed to be over-scheduled, extremely busy, and “over-parented.” And adventure playgrounds exist in the U.S. as well. Here’s one in Berkeley—if you look them up online, you’ll find most are in affluent cities with liberal and educated reputations and populations. But, are these playgrounds part of some larger cultural trend wherein middle- and upper middle-class parents are turning to accomplishment of natural growth-model parenting?

7daf3a65eWe don’t think so. We suspect that what might be going on is better termed “the concerted cultivation of natural growth.” A close inspection of the pictures accompanying Rosin’s article show that the boundaries of The Yard are fences. It’s not just unstructured play these children are engaging in. That’s the sort of activity that Lareau found among working-class and poor children. Rather, we suspect that what’s going on here is something more aptly called “structured unstructured play.” Children are engaging in daring activities—the kinds that might foster independence and a sense of self-sufficiency—but this isn’t exactly the same thing. There are adult workers around who are there to make sure that children’s unstructured play follows an elaborate set of rules for unstructured play designed by a team of experts on the topic.

While Lareau discusses the advantages and disadvantages of the two parenting styles, what we’re calling “the concerted cultivation of natural growth” appears to be a style attempting to mitigate the negative side effects of middle-class parenting. For instance, Lareau found that middle-class kids’ schedules are so packed that spontaneity is less possible for them, the fights Lareau witnessed among middle-class siblings were more severe, and many of the children were more disconnected from the communities in which they lived (unless some of their various activities happened very close to home). But, this transformation (if such a transformation is actually underway) produces an interesting question—one that’s unanswered in the research as far as we know. Are the benefits of the accomplishment of natural growth possible if you attempt to achieve such a parenting style in a concerted way? Our suspicion is that the concerted cultivation of natural growth won’t work in precisely the same way as the accomplishment of natural growth. We’re also not certain just how different these practices are from concerted cultivation more generally.


*This post is not based on research.  It’s just an idea in which we are interested.  And perhaps there’s some research on this issue of which we are unaware.

Violence and Masculinity Threat

By: Tristan Bridges and C.J. Pascoe

gwptwittericon2Originally posted at Girl W/ Pen

Just under two weeks ago, in Milford, Connecticut, Chris Plaskon asked Maren Sanchez to attend prom with him at the end of the year at Jonathan Law High School.  They’d known each other since 6th grade.  Maren said no.  Witnesses told authorities she declined and told Chris she would be attending the dance with her boyfriend (here). Chris knew Maren had a boyfriend and, likely, that she’d be attending with him. After being turned down, Chris threw his hands around Maren’s throat, pushed her down a set of stairs, and cut and stabbed her with a kitchen knife he’d brought to school that day.  It was April 25, 2014.  Maren got to school just a bit after 7:00 that day and before 8:00, she was dead.

This tragic, almost unfathomable violence reminds us of so many stories of adolescent male violence over the past couple decades. Jackson Katz discusses a seeming epidemic of violence among young, white men in his new film, Tough Guise 2.  In analyzing the tragedies of school shootings, Katz tells us that we need to think about these tragedies as contemporary forms of masculinity. When young men have their masculinity sullied, threatened or denied, they respond by reclaiming masculinity through a highly recognizable masculine practice: violence. When events like this happen, it’s easy to paint the young men who perpetuate these crimes as psychologically disturbed, as—importantly—unlike the rest of us.  But, stories like Chris Plaskon follow what has become a predictable pattern.

Sociologists investigating similar phenomena address this as a form of “social identity threat.”  The general idea is that when you threaten someone’s social identity, and they care, they respond by over-demonstrating qualities that illustrate membership in that identity.  Michael Kimmel writes about a classic example:

I have a standing bet with a friend that I can walk onto any playground in America where 6 year-old boys are happily playing and by asking one question, I can provoke a fight.  That question is simple: “Who’s a sissy around here?” (here: 131)

While you might think Kimmel’s offering easy money here, he’s making a larger point.  By asking the question, Kimmel is inviting someone’s masculinity to be threatened and assuming that this will require someone to demonstrate their masculinity in dramatic fashion.  Sociologists have a name for this phenomenon: masculinity threat. New research relying on experimental designs suggests there’s a lot more to these claims than we might have thought.

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Making Sense of Changes in Masculinity*

By: C.J. Pascoe and Tristan Bridges

gwptwittericon2Originally posted at Girl W/ Pen

coverWhat it means to be masculine changes over time and from place to place.  After all, men used to wear dresses and high heels, take intimate pictures with one another and wear pink in childhood.  In our scholarship and blog posts we have been grappling with making sense of some of these more recent changes as we’ve watched (and contributed to) a discussion about what it means to be an ally and changing views on gender and sexual inequality—primarily among men (see here and here).  We recently published an article thinking through changes in contemporary definitions of masculinity allegedly occurring among a specific population of young, white, heterosexual men.

We sought to make sense of some complex issues like the contradiction between what seems like an “epidemic” of homophobic bullying alongside rising levels of support for gay marriage.  Or the seeming contradiction between young white men’s adoration and emulation of hip hop culture side by side with deeply entrenched racism toward African-American men.  Or the way in which contemporary men speak of desiring equal partnerships and marriages, yet women still earn less  in the workplace and do more of the housework and childcare.

In our article, we collect a body of research illustrating that, often, what is going on in contradictions like this, is that systems of power and inequality are symbolically upheld even as their material bases are (partially) challenged (e.g., here). We show how these seemingly disparate issues might be better understood as small pieces of a larger phenomenon—something we refer to as “hybrid masculinity” (drawing on other scholars—see here, here, and here).

Hybrid masculinity refers to the way in which contemporary men draw on “bits and pieces” of feminized or marginalized masculine identities and incorporate them into their own gender identities.  Simply put, men are behaving differently, taking on politics and perspectives that might have been understood as emasculating a generation ago that seem to bolster (some) men’s masculinities today.  Importantly, however, we argue that research shows that this is most often happening in ways that don’t actually fundamentally alter gender and sexual inequality or masculine dominance. In other words, what recognizing hybrid masculinity allows us to do is to think through these changes in masculinity carefully.  While these changes may  appear to challenge gender and sexual inequality, we argue that most research reveals that hybrid masculinities are better understood as obscuring than as challenging inequality.

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