What Can Baby Names Tell us about #MeToo?

By: Tristan Bridges and Philip N. Cohen

As the list of “great” men revealed as having committed serial acts of sexual harassment and assault continues to grow, the conversation about the collusion, complicity, and tolerance necessary for each of them to have avoided consequence for so long is important. Many of these men occupied roles as gatekeepers in their various careers—indeed, men are disproportionately in gatekeeping roles. And people in these roles sometimes enjoy power with little oversight. So, institutions are set up in ways that may not feel like they actively promote sexual harassment and assault, but do little to stop it.

Another way of looking at this problem, though, is to consider the role we all play in systems of social inequality that give rise to abuses of power. Like mass shooters and people who commit “stick-ups”, sexual harassers in the workplace are almost all men. But they’re not just any men; these are powerful men, men whose faces we recognize, who we might feel like we “know” because of their popularity, and, importantly, they’re men whose names we all know: Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Bill Clinton, Louis C.K., Matt Lauer, George H.W. Bush, Roy Moore…

One way of thinking about how societies feel on a collective level is to look at aggregate behaviors. How do we act collectively and what can we learn about “us” and our society from collective action? Consider baby names. In sociologist Stanley Lieberson’s book, A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions, and Culture Change, he was interested in the social forces and factors that help certain names become more or less popular.

Consider the name Harvey. Harvey might strike you as a dated name. And it is. Its popularity as a name for boys in the U.S. peaked in the first half of the 20th century. Then the name fell out of favor. A gradual decline in popularity is typical for names. Over the course of about 50 years, the name stopped being popular. Perhaps as those early Harveys started to grow up, the name acquired the cultural patina of the elderly (like Mildred or Herman today) and felt less like a name people ought to give to babies. Harvey ceased to even be among the top 1,000 names selected for baby boys in the U.S. in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But then, from 2011-2016, “Harvey” enjoyed a second surge in popularity. It jumped from the 857th most popular boys’ name to the 412th in just 6 years. As name popularity goes, this is steep rise.Harvey 1.pngMeasured another way, we can look at the number of boys given the name “Harvey” per 1,000 boys born in the U.S., as popular names are a whole lot less popular today than they were a century ago. Still here, however, we see a very recent surge in popularity for Harvey as a name given to boys in the U.S.Harvey2.pngThe play Harvey, about a man who claims to have an invisible friend who is an anthropomorphized version of a rabbit more than 6 feet tall (“Harvey” is the invisible rabbit friend) hit Broadway in 1944, written by Mary Chase. This is a plausible partial explanation for the beginning of the decline in popularity for Harvey. Who wants to name their child after a six-foot-tall invisible rabbit, right? The name may have been “contaminated” as a boy’s name. But the second surge in popularity presents us with a sort of natural experiment about the American public. The name Harvey appears to be on the way to becoming more popular. Will the Harvey’s of 2017 contaminate this name for the American public? Between Harvey Weinstein and Hurricane Harvey, the name’s had an awful year. But will people continue to give the name Harvey to their children? (Too bad, from the point of view of a clean experiment, that the scandal and the hurricane happened in the same year.)

This question got us thinking about what happens to the names of people implicated in or associated with high profile sex scandals or cases of sexual harassment and/or assault. It might be a really small indication of how invested we are, as a society, in not holding men accountable for sexual indiscretions, harassment, and assault. It’s one small way that we are all actually invested (and investing) in some of the very same forms of social inequality that helped give rise to the Harvey Weinsteins of the world in the first place.

Philip posted a few years ago on a collection of names that illustrate contamination. He used Ellen (following DeGeneres’s coming out), Forrest (following the release of Forrest Gump in theatres) and Monica (following the sex scandal involving Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton). The name “Monica” was contaminated after her involvement with the president. She didn’t claim to have been sexually assaulted, but her participation in this high-profile scandal appears to have played a role in contaminating the name—people stopped naming their daughters “Monica” in as great of numbers following the event (see below). Bill Clinton had a more popular name (“William”) among boys than Monica did among girls. But, we wondered, was his name contaminated too? Not many parents name their children “Bill” alone. Since 1994, “Bill” hasn’t been among the top 1,000 names given to boys in the U.S. William, however, has been a top 20 name for over 100 years in the U.S.Bill and Monica1.pngThe popularity of the name “Monica” among girls dropped immediately following the news of the scandal in January of 1998. While only subtly, the name William moved up the rankings of names given to boys. Many president’s first names influence the popularity of a name. In fact, it’s arguably a small measure of what the public thinks of the president. Was he a man worthy of emulating with a name? Bill Clinton appears to have passed the test. So, the sex scandal involving Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton contaminated her name, but not his. This is an important way we (at least collectively) are all implicated here. Below, you can see a more fine-grained way to measure shifts in name popularity. Rather than visualizing names by rank, this measure attaches names to population denominators so that name popularity is expressed in births per thousand boys and girls and scaled such that 100=the scandal year (of comparison). Again, the name “Monica” appears seriously contaminated following the scandal, while William does not.Bill and Monica2.pngConsider another example from a bit earlier—Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings for The Supreme Court. Hill described being consistently subjected to sexual harassment by Thomas in a supervisory role over her at both the Department of Education and the EEOC. Hill testified in 1991. At that time, the baby names “Anita” and “Clarence” were both declining in popularity (so, the names present a different scenario). But right around 1991, Anita started to drop in the rankings faster than Clarence. It appears that having been sexually harassed may have contaminated the name “Anita” among parents, but sexually harassing did not have the same contaminating effect on “Clarence.”Anita and Clarence1.pngOnce again, women’s involvement in a high-profile heterosexual sex scandal may have contaminated her name, but seems to have failed to meaningfully impact his. Yet, when we measure name popularity by births per thousand boys and girls, scaling them to the year Hill testified against Thomas, the allegations don’t appear to have a noticeable impact on either “Anita” (for girls) or “Clarence” (for boys). So this case is not as clear.Anita and Clarence2.pngWhat we can look at is the effect of high-profile sex scandals and cases of sexual harassment and assault to see if they ever affect name popularity for boys’ names. Stanley Lieberson, Susan Dumais, and Shyon Baumann looked at something similar in their article on the “instability of androgynous names.” They were interested in what happens to androgynous names (names given to roughly equal numbers of boys and girls—like Taylor, Jesse, Hayden, Charlie, or Emerson) over time. Androgynous names are, they discovered, unstable. They rarely persist and remain androgynous and they follow a social pattern. Androgynous names that become popular become girl names—we stop giving the names to boys when they become popular. The association with femininity (for boys) is more stigmatizing (or “contaminating” in name lingo) than the association with masculinity (for girls). We’re all implicated in that finding in one way or another.

The two scandals discussed above, though, are distinct in that they have one man and one woman associated with them. So, we can look at how the same event shaped subsequent fashions in baby names for boys and girls in different ways. In both scandals, the effect was the same. But many of the sex scandals in the news today have large collections of women harassed and abused by one man (like Harvey Weinstein). So, for many of these cases, we lack the gendered comparison visible on the previous two figures. What we can look at is the effect of high-profile sex scandals to see if they ever effect name popularity for boys’ names. Clearly, they do sometimes for girls’ names. In this way, what happens to the popularity of the name “Harvey” might tell us something important about us.

 

 

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A Year in Review and Best of 2017 – Inequality by (Interior) Design Edition

Well, Inequality by (Interior) Design turns six this year. Like 2016, I haven’t been as regular of a blogger as I’d like to be. But I was able to write more than 2016. And I’m happy with that. Each year, I like to take stock. Initially, I started taking stock of the blog posts. But a couple years ago, I used it as an opportunity to take stock of research and writing too. The big news is that I’m now at a new institution. I moved to the sociology department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It’s been a big change, but it’s a wonderful and supportive department that specializes in gender and sexualities (among other things).

This has been a bit of a whirlwind of a year. It started with me agreeing to take over as editor of one of my favorite sociology blogs of all time – Sociological Images. The now former editor, Lisa Wade, was touring around the U.S. giving talks on her new book (American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus) and asked if I’d manage the site for a few months. So, I did that January – March 2017. And it was intense. I only had to write one post a week, collect a guest post or cross-post from someone else on the web and share an old post on Fridays. But it was enough of a taste to realize that I am not cut out for that work in the long run and for me to truly appreciate just how amazing of a sociologist, blogger, writer, and person Lisa Wade is. I can’t believe she did that (alongside so much else) for over a decade! Three months, and I was exhausted. But I learned a lot about blogging and trusting myself to come up with ideas.

cover.jpgLike last year, many of the posts I wrote were associated with the introductory textbook in sociology that I was writing with Michael Kimmel and Amy Aronson. And the really big news this year is that that book will be out soon – Sociology NOW, third edition by Michael Kimmel, Amy Aronson, and Tristan Bridges. I’m really so thrilled to have been a part of this project and still sort of can’t believe my name’s on the cover. And I learned more about the field than I ever thought I would (particularly for chapters that were farther outside my areas of expertise). And it was a LOT more work than I could have ever imagined. But it was really rewarding and I was excited to help us highlight the work of the next generation of sociologists in this edition, highlighting loads of cutting edge work by scholars who represent some of the diversity that make up our field. The book comes out digitally and in print – and the digital version is where a lot of the really fun stuff is. We made a host of interactive maps, graphs, and figures throughout the book to give students the ability to play with figures. My hope is that students gain a bit of data and visualization literacy through interacting with the text.

And new to this edition is a new framework for teaching the field that we call “iSoc.” So many textbooks continue to teach sociology with the “3 frames” approach (functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interaction). These theoretical paradigms are important and we still include them in the text. But they don’t organize the field, and I’m not completely sure they ever did. iSoc replaces this narrative about what the field is, what sociologists actually do, and what makes the sociological perspective so unique.

Michael recorded introductory videos for each of the chapters. And Amy and I recorded audio for a series of animation videos in each chapter too. Those were a lot of fun and I’m hoping they’ll be fun for students learning about sociology for the first time. In the Sex and Gender chapter, we produced a short animation about Agnes, a transgender woman who met with the sociologist Harold Garfinkel and helped him change the way we thought about and studied gender. Here’s a screen shot from that video (thanks to Kristen Schilt and Chase Joynt for feedback on the appearance of Agnes and for information about how to represent the recording device Garfinkel used). I recorded this one and I’m so excited for students to hear a message thanking Agnes for how sociologists think about gender.

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Another I really liked was in the research methods chapter. We produced a short animation of Janice McCabe’s research on college student friendship networks in Connecting in College: How Friendship Networks Matter for Academic and Social Success to talk about network analysis as a research method. Amy recorded this animation and it’s a great one (screenshot of McCabe talking with a college student about his friendship network below). It’s a fascinating book if you haven’t read it, and a really wonderful illustration of research of what social networks can tell us that people can’t. That chapter in the textbook has not only summaries of each research method, but short examples of really interesting research like McCabe’s that show students what the methods are capable of doing and discovering!

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The posts I wrote at Sociological Images often drew from materials I’d been putting together for bits of the textbook, like my post on the curious alignment and stall associated with gender gaps across a variety of different measures, my post visualizing new data on shifts in the size and composition of the LGBT population in the U.S., or my post visualizing how racial and educational segregation overlap in the U.S.

The other fun thing that happened while blogging this year is that a few of my posts turned into publications. I was really honored to have the tribute post I wrote with James Messerschmidt about Joan Acker’s work and theory included in a forthcoming symposium on her work and influence in Gender, Work, and Organization (here). James and I also wrote a short post on President Trump fluid performances of masculinity and how they contribute to the kinds of inequalities he has upheld at Democratic Socialists for America (here). And that piece will be a part of the next edition of Michael Kimmel and Michael Messner’s wonderful anthology, Men’s Lives (about to be in its 10th!!!!! edition if you can believe that). C.J. Pascoe and I wrote a short post on Trump and gender inequality in a symposium of sociologists responding to his election in our association newsletter (here). Tara Tober and I were invited to write a short piece at Quartz.com on mass shootings and masculinity. Quartz_shooting (1)And part of that work involved getting to work with their data visualization team a bit to develop a figure. They ended up wanting more bells and whistles than we had in our figure. But I always learn something new when I get to interact with people who think outside of the box when if comes to graphs. And, finally, I’m really excited about a short post I wrote on the racial and gender dynamics associated with shifts in the LGB population once the new 2016 GSS data became available this past year. Mignon Moore and I collaborated on a trends essay that will be coming out in the next issue of Contexts.

I published a few other things you can read about on my website if you’re interested. On to the top posts of 2017. All of the blogs I follow have a post (or collection of posts) at the end of each year celebrating some of their biggest and best posts of the year. And I’ve done it each year. I still write for different sites, but I continue to share all of that work here as a sort of central hub for anyone interested (okay… mostly this is for my parents).  Below are my top five most popular posts of the year along with an assortment of my personal favorites.

Top 5 Most Popular Posts from 2017

  1. Why People Are So Averse to Facts
  2. Possibly the Most Exhaustive Study of “Manspreading” Ever Conducted
  3. Just How Big Was the 2017 Women’s March? (with Tara Leigh Tober)
  4. Shifts in the U.S. LGBT Population
  5. Visualizing Gender Inequality in a Feminist Bookstore

My Personal Favorites from 2017

Some of these posts didn’t generate much interest at all. But they all helped me think through something, prepare for a course, summarize an idea for the textbook, research, or just something I felt compelled or excited to share.

I’ll conclude with the words I wrote last year at this time: Blogging is one way that we can reach audiences not possible with scholarly writing – attempting to have an impact on the forms of inequality we study and to help other people connect with sociological knowledge, research, and theory. Increasing the number of feminist sociological imaginations in the world can only make for a better place. Looking forward to 2018. As always, thanks for reading!

Help UCSB Sociologist Sarah Thébaud

The Thomas fire in California recently burned the home of my colleague, Sarah Thébaud. She evacuated in time and she, her partner, their daughter, and dog are all safe. But they are in need. A friend of theirs established a donation page on YouCaring.

I know this is an unconventional post on Inequality by (Interior) Design. But, if you’re able and interested, a sociologist is in need if you can send help.

Thanks, Tristan

Masculinity & Violence, and the Violence of Masculinity*

By Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober

Mass shootings have become a regular part of our news cycle. Research shows that there are more of them and that they have become more deadly over time. They’re horrifically senseless tragedies, and the aftermath follows what has become a well-worn path. We come together to mourn the loss of life, we collectively grieve for the victims, families, and communities, we get the generic “thoughts and prayers” statement from political leaders, and we all try to make sense of why it happened. We learn a lot about the killers, less about the killed, and the most clicked stories are those that attempt to make an argument about motive.

This month, the most recent mass shooting (as of November 15th, 2017) was committed in Northern California by Kevin Neal. He killed his wife before going on a multi-site shooting spree, killing people seemingly at random. Less than a week prior, Devin Kelley walked into a small Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas wearing black tactical clothing. He had on a ballistic vest, and armed with a semi-automatic assault rifle he opened fire. He killed 26 people, among them an 18-month old child. And he did it with a gun that he’d used as his Facebook profile image. Just one month prior, in October of 2017, Stephen Paddock blew out the window of his high-rise hotel room on the Las Vegas Strip and opened—fire with a collection of similar weapons—on thousands of people attending a music concert, killing 59 people and injuring over 500 others.

In the meantime, we learned of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assaults that span generations of women in Hollywood. We learned about the great lengths he went to keep his victims silent and of the collusion necessary to pull this off. The Weinstein scandal fell on the heels of news of the serial sexual assaults committed by Bill Cosby. And as survivors came forward to tell their stories, other high-power men across all manner of political, economic, and cultural life have been identified as serially and criminally abusive. And all of this is happening in the United States, a society who elected as president a man with a long history of sexual harassment and assault.

All of these events transpired when the full story of Tim Piazza’s death during a fraternity hazing ritual at Penn State in February of 2017 was reported. Footage shows Tim’s desperate battle for life, surrounded by a collection of young men—his new “brothers”—who either ignored or further injured Tim while he was dying. Had they simply taken Tim to a hospital, doctors testified, he very well could have lived. A grand jury report recommended over 1,000 separate criminal charges against the 18 fraternity brothers and the social organization itself.

Monstrous men, it appears, are everywhere.

The sheer number of moral crises that men are producing is tough to keep up with. If you care about these issues, you have to continually shift your focus from sexual assault, to fraternity hazing, to mass shootings, and on and on and on. Lately, it feels as if we have to consider a new moral outrage almost daily. And in the tumult, it can appear as though these crimes are unrelated. But they’re not.

Sociologist Lisa Wade (2016) drew a connection between the high profile sexual assault by Brock Turner and Omar Mateen’s mass shooting at Pulse night club, and she came to a similar conclusion. These are disparate events and we’re not suggesting they are the same crime or have had equivalent impacts or consequences. But sociologists identify patterns; it’s what we do. And the pattern here is the same as Wade suggested last year. The people committing these acts exist across our society, but they share something in common—they’re men heavily invested in a really toxic idea: masculinity. “The problem,” as Wade (2016) put it, “is men’s investment in masculinity itself.”

Masculinity, as it is currently constructed, relies on a sense of superiority and enactments of dominance. Political scientist Cynthia Enloe (2017) argues that men continue to abuse power and people (women in particular) because of what she calls the “sustainability of patriarchy.” And as Tristan and C.J. Pascoe (forthcoming) argue, systems of inequality as durable and adaptive as gender inequality are so pernicious precisely because of this quality—this “sustainability.” Men’s collective investment in masculinity, that is, is a social problem.

Men heavily invested in demonstrating masculinity commit the gross majority of violence across our society and around the world. In Wade’s (2017) more recent essay on masculinity in the era of Donald Trump, she suggests that part of how we ended up with a president wreaking havoc across the globe is that “we have been too delicate in our treatment of dangerous ideas.” “The problem,” Wade argues, “is not toxic masculinity; it’s that masculinity is toxic… It’s simply not compatible with liberty and justice for all.”

Perhaps we gender sociologists should consider being a bit more indelicate. We need to stop trying to redefine what men turn to when they feel the need to “man up.” There’s something deeply male-supremacist about the whole discourse surrounding “real men,” “manning up,” and the like no matter how it’s deployed. There’s a divide among scholars studying masculinity as to whether there are elements worth salvaging or not. How we can help men achieve “healthy masculinities” is the focus of a great deal of social scientific research, social work, and social justice activism. It’s time now to find ways of asking men to “man down.”

Donald Trump, Stephen Paddock, Devin Kelley, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, the fraternity brothers of Tim Piazza, Omar Mateen, Louis C.K., Brock Turner, Mike Oreskes, Dylann Roof, Clarence Thomas, Elliot Rodger, Seung-Hui Cho, Roy Moore… The list goes on and on and on. It’s not that we are failing to identify these men as part the worst humanity has to offer. It’s that we seem to continue to collectively fail to identify them as part of something larger than any of these men individually. Each of these perpetrators is most often framed as a bad individual, rather than identifying them as the worst parts of a toxic system. But masculinity isn’t just a part of this system; it is this system.

Sociologists of gender don’t need reminding that the horrific enactments of violence discussed here are the work of men. Whether masculinity is something we should consider salvageable or bankrupt ought to inform our scholarship and our politics. And on these issues, we’re with Wade. Masculinity is the malignant tissue connecting these seemingly disparate events. It’s time to man down.

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*This essay originally appeared in the ASA Sex and Gender Section (November 2017) newsletter.

Visualizing Gendered Change

In the 1800s, admirable men in the U.S. weren’t referred to as “masculine”; they were called “manly.” And the distinction is more important that you might realize. Words are important. While “manly” and “masculine” are used more or less interchangeably today (with the former perhaps sounding a bit more dated than the latter), the history of each is a powerful story of gendered change. The shift from talking about “manliness” to talking about “masculinity” was no accident. It didn’t happen due to vagaries of fashion–it’s not, for example, similar to the move from “brah” or “bruh” in popular teen masculine vernacular (or “brocabulary”).

At the turn of the 20th century, “manliness” and “masculinity” were used to convey different kinds of information about (and confer different types and levels of status to) different categories of people. And by mid-century, masculinity began to eclipse manliness and we’ve been living with masculinity ever since.

C.J. Pascoe and I wrote a bit about this shift in our introduction to the “Historicizing Masculinities” section of Exploring Masculinities, and our discussion draws heavily from Gail Bederman‘s research of this social shift in Manliness and Civilization: The Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917. We visualized this shift using a chart from Google Books NGrams and it’s a really powerful illustration of a dramatic linguistic shift (see below).

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I reproduced the Google NGram figure C.J. and I use in the text (above) to talk to my class this week about these issues. I think it’s such an interesting illustration of a piece of Bederman’s argument charting uses of “manliness” alongside “masculinity” in English publications over the course of the last two centuries. It shows precisely what Bederman suggested.

Experimenting with NGram figures, I also charted the frequencies of use of each term as relative proportions for lecture. In other words, what proportion of the use of “manliness” and “masculinity” in English publications was associated with “manliness” or “masculinity”? And how has that changed over time? Here, the battle between these two historical ideologies of gender appears even more stark.

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The turn of the 20th century was a time of incredible social transformation in the U.S. Industrialization was in full swing. The urban population was growing at an incredible rate. Technological innovations were changing the very nature of “work” and “home.” And it was one of those historical periods during which men (middle-class men in particular) seem to have become unusually obsessed with something to do with manhood. This is a period historians and social scientists sometimes labeled as undergoing a “crisis of masculinity” (though that concept has been theoretically challenged for some time now). Regardless, something was happening with manhood–something related to men and gender felt like it was on the move and shifts like this provoke a lot of anxiety (especially for members of a socially dominant group).

In the 1800s, “manliness” referred to a subset of qualities and characteristics associated with manhood to which not all men had equal access. Qualities like a strong character, the ability to provide, entrepreneurship and business savvy and acumen, along with other qualities like sexual restraint had worked throughout much of the 1800s to comfortably situate middle and upper-class men as “manly” beyond reproach. They didn’t have to necessarily “do” anything particularly special for this status, but it worked as a social and symbolic mark of distinction between themselves and other men–men of lower classes, non-white men, etc.

By the turn of the 20th century, however, these qualities slowly and structurally became less secure, particularly for middle-class men. Social and economic transformations shifted the ease of access to “manliness” for large swaths of middle-class American men. As a noun, “masculinity” was only starting to be used in the 1890s. At the time, compared to “manliness,” “masculinity” was a concept and identity category more devoid of meaning. It was used to suggest that all men were somehow different from women. We started relying on “masculinity” right as feminist and gender rights activists and advocates started calling these very ideas into question. As Bederman writes:

As the adjective “masculine” because to take on these new sorts of connotations, people began to need a noun to mean “masculine things in the aggregate,” a word they hadn’t needed before “masculine” began to carry such powerful freight. It is probably not coincidental, then, that in the mid-nineteenth century, a new English noun was adopted from the French and very slowly made its way into popular usage–“masculinity.”

By the 1930s, “masculinity” had already started acquiring a different meaning in the U.S.  It started to refer to things like aggressiveness, physical force, appetites for particular kinds (and frequencies) of sexual behavior. And Bederman suggests that over the course of the first half of the 20th century in the U.S., masculinity effectively eclipsed manliness. You can see it on the figure; right around 1940, it shifted. It’s a powerfully simple illustration of how gender relations shift as forms of gender inequality are made public, called into question, or challenged by social structural changes (like economic transitions, dramatic political shifts, or victories on the part of social movements and activists).

Challenging historical ideologies of “manliness” were important. These structural shifts put privilege on stark display, and it’s during moments like those when the character of gender inequality and the behavior of gendered shifts are often most apparent. Within that moment was embedded the potential for more egalitarian understandings of gender and moves toward more equal relations between women and men. But that moment of “gender vertigo” (as Raewyn Connell puts it) failed to achieve the potential embedded in such moments.

It’s why examining history and historical shifts closely matters. As Bederman put it:

“At any time in history, many contradictory ideas about manhood are available to explain what men are, how they ought to behave, and what sorts of powers and authorities they may claim, as men. Part of the way gender functions is to hide these contradictions and to camouflage the fact that gender is dynamic and always changing. Instead, gender is constructed as a fact of nature… To study the history of manhood, I would argue, is to unmask this process and study the historical ways different ideologies about manhood develop, change, are combined, amended, contested–and gain the status of “truth.”

Understanding the historical dynamics at play in gendered change is a worthy project for anyone who cares about gender equality. Pretending that masculinity is anything other than a social construction–a historical, ideological project and process–whose effects most often work in ways that justify inequality and injustice is an old issue. And coming up with simple ways of calling these “truths” into question is an important scholarly and political goal.

Kate Millet and the Politicization of Sex and Gender

I just learned that Kate Millet passed away.  She was an absolutely pivotal voice in gender and feminist theory and politics in the “second wave” in the U.S.  She was educated in the humanities, but her influence has gone on to impact an interdisciplinary collection of fields.  Her most influential book was Sexual Politics, a book considered by some to have been a manifesta associated with the second wave of the Women’s Movement.  I remember reading Sexual Politics for the first time and looking up the author online.  The first image I came across Alice Neel’s portrait of Kate that ended up being used on the cover of TIME Magazine in 1970 for their issues on “The Politics of Sex.” That cover story started:

These are the times that try men’s souls, and they are likely to get much worse before they get better. It was not so long ago that the battle of the sexes was fought in gentle, rolling Thurber country. Now the din is in earnest, echoing from the streets where pickets gather, the bars where women once were barred, and even connubial beds, where ideology can intrude at the unconscious drop of a male chauvinist epithet. This week, marking the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of the 19th Amendment granting women the vote, the diffuse, divided, but grimly determined Women’s Liberation movement plans a nationwide protest day against the second sex’s once and present oppression. (here)

In just three short years, we’ll witness the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. And this quote feels as appropriate today as it must have felt in 1970. And that is sad. Kate Millet played a critical role in politicizing sex and gender. Like many influential feminist women in the 60s and 70s, she was both popularly celebrated and vilified. And she remained a complicated figure in Women’s Liberation. She played a critical role in providing a language for studying the ways that everything surrounding sex and gender was political. Everything. And we’re still relying on it today.

At the beginning of her chapter outlining her theory of sexual politics in Sexual Politics, Millet defined “politics” as “power-structured relationships, arrangements whereby one group of persons is controlled by another” (1969: 23). It’s a simple description. What made her thesis in Sexual Politics so outrageous to so many is that she applied this simple description to gender–to the relationship between women and men. This is what she meant when she said gender is political. She wasn’t trying to create a politics where one didn’t exist; she was shedding light on a world-historical politics, and suggesting we uproot it. These unequal gendered arrangements were tied to the structure of society in a way Millet found intolerable–and it is for these reasons and more that Millet and her work have come to be seen as among the foundations of the second wave of Women’s Liberation. Millet was among those queer voices Friedan labeled “the lavender menace” and part of the collection of queer feminists who reclaimed that label toward different ends.

When I learned Millet had died, I couldn’t help but think of how relevant her work published almost half a century ago is today. We daily rely on Millet’s insights as we discuss the politics of sex and gender today and organize to resist gender inequality in all its various forms. It’s an important piece of our activism and the politics embedded in the ways feminist sociologists of sex and gender study the world around them and, sometimes, endeavor to provide tools for those pushing to change it.

In her postscript in the original edition of Sexual Politics, Millet concluded with a healthy skepticism about what needed to be done to achieve gender justice.  She wrote:

It may be that a second wave of the sexual revolution might at last accomplish its aim of freeing half the race from its immemorial subordination–and in the process bring us all a great deal closer to humanity. It may be that we shall even be able to retire sex from the harsh realities of politics, but not until we have created a world we can bear out of the desert we inhabit.

We’re back in the desert today and there’s much work to be done. I’m starting by rereading Sexual Politics and celebrating a revolutionary who gave everything to a movement for social justice.

Trump and the Politics of Fluid Masculinities

by James W. Messerschmidt and Tristan Bridges
Originally posted at Democratic Socialists of America

In the 1950s, a collection of sociologists and psychologists (which included, among others, Theodor Adorno) wrote The Authoritarian Personality. They were attempting to theorize the type of personality — a particular psychology — that gave rise to fascism in the 1930s. Among other things, they suggested that the “authoritarian personality” was characterized by a normative belief in absolute obedience to their authority in addition to the practical enactment of that belief through direct and indirect marginalization and suppression of “subordinates.” While Adorno and his colleagues did not consider the gender of this personality, today gender scholars recognize authoritarianism as a particular form of masculinity, and current U.S. president Donald Trump might appear to be a prime illustration of a rigid and inflexible “authoritarian personality.”

Yet Trump’s masculinity avoids a direct comparison to this label precisely because of the fluidity he projects. Indeed, the “authoritarian personality” is overly fixed, immutable, and one dimensional as a psychoanalytical personality type. Sociologists understand identities as more flexible than this. Certain practices of Trump exemplify the fluctuations of masculinity that illustrate this distinction, and the transformations in his masculinity are highly contingent upon context. While this is a common political strategy, Trump’s shifts are important as they enable him to construct a “dominating masculinity” that perpetuates diverse forms of social inequality. Dominating masculinities are those that involve commanding and controlling interactions to exercise power and control over people and events.  These masculinities are most problematic when they also are hegemonic and work to legitimize unequal relations between women and men. Here are a few examples:

First, in his speeches and public statements prior to being elected, Trump bullied and subordinated “other” men by referring to them as “weak,” “low energy,” or as “losers,” or implying they are “inept” or a “wimp.” (“Othering” is a social process whereby certain people are viewed and/or treated as somehow fundamentally different and unequal.) For example, during several Republican presidential debates, Trump consistently labeled Marco Rubio as “little Marco,” described Jeb Bush as “low energy Jeb,” implied that John McCain was a “wimp” because he was captured and tortured during the Vietnam War, and suggested that contemporary military veterans battling PTSD are “inept” because they “can’t handle” the “horror” they observed in combat. In contrast, Trump consistently referred to himself as, for example, strong, a fighter, and as the embodiment of success. In each case, Trump ascribes culturally-defined “inferior” subordinate gender qualities to his opponents while imbuing himself with culturally defined “superior” masculine qualities. This pairing signifies an unequal relationship between masculinities—one both dominating and hegemonic (Trump) and one subordinate (the “other” men).

A second example of Trump’s fluid masculinity applies to the way he has depicted himself as the heroic masculine protector of all Americans. This compassion may appear, at first blush, at odds with the hegemonic masculinity just discussed. For example, in his Republican Convention speech Trump argued that he alone can lead the country back to safety by protecting the American people through the deportation of “dangerous” and “illegal” Mexican and Muslim immigrants and by “sealing the border.” In so doing, Trump implied that Americans are unable to defend themselves — a fact he used to justify his need to “join the political arena.” Trump stated: “I will liberate our citizens from crime and terrorism and lawlessness” by “restoring law and order” throughout the country — “I will fight for you, I will win for you.” Here Trump adopts a position as white masculine protector of Americans against men of color, instructing all US citizens to entrust their lives to him; in return, he offers safety. Trump depicts himself as aggressive, invulnerable, and able to protect while all remaining US citizens are depicted as dependent and uniquely vulnerable. Trump situates himself as analogous to the patriarchal masculine protector toward his wife and other members of the patriarchal household. But simultaneously, Trump presents himself as a compassionate, caring, and kind-hearted benevolent protector, and thereby constructs a hybrid hegemonic masculinity consisting of both masculine and feminine qualities.

Third, in the 2005 interaction between Trump and Billy Bush on the now infamous Access Hollywood tour bus, Trump presumes he is entitled to the bodies of women and (not surprisingly) admits committing sexual assault against women because, according to him, he has the right. He depicts women as collections of body parts and disregards their desires, needs, expressed preferences, and their consent. After the video was aired more women have come forward and accused Trump of sexual harassment and assault. Missed in discussions of this interaction is how that dialogue actually contradicts, and thus reveals, the myth of Trump’s protector hegemonic masculinity. The interaction on the bus demonstrates that Trump is not a “protector” at all; he is a “predator.”

Trump’s many masculinities represent a collection of contradictions. Trump’s heroic protector hegemonic masculinity should have been effectively unmasked, revealing a toxic predatory heteromasculinity. Discussions of this controversy, however, failed to articulate any sign of injury to his campaign because Trump was able to connect with a dominant discourse of masculinity often relied upon to explain all manner of men’s (mis)behavior — it was “locker room talk,” we were told. And the sad fact is, the news cycle moved on.

We argue that Trump has managed such contradictions by mobilizing, in certain contexts, what has elsewhere (and above) been identified as a “dominating masculinity(see here, here and here) — involving commanding and controlling specific interactions and exercising power and control over people and events. This dominating masculinity has thus far centered on six critical features:

  1. Trump operates in ways that cultivate domination over others he works with, in particular rewarding people based on their loyalty to him.
  2. Trump’s dominating masculinity serves the interests of corporations by cutting regulations, lowering corporate taxes, increasing military spending, and engaging in other neoliberal practices, such as attempting to strip away healthcare from 24 million people, defunding public schools, and making massive cuts to social programs that serve poor and working-class people, people of color, and the elderly.
  3. Trump has relied on his dominating masculinity to serve his particular needs as president, such as refusing to release his tax returns and ruling through a functioning kleptocracy (using the office to serve his family’s economic interests).
  4. This masculinity is exemplified through the formulation of a dominating militaristic foreign policy (for example, U.S. airstrikes of civilians in Yemen, Iraq and Syria have increased dramatically under Trump; the MOAB bombing of Afghanistan; threats to North Korea) rather than engaging in serious forms of diplomacy. Trump has formed a global ultraconservative “axis of evil”— whose defining characteristics are kleptocracy and dominating masculinity — with the likes of Putin (Russia), el-Sisi (Egypt), Erdogan (Turkey), Salman (Saudi Arabia), Duterte (Philippines) among others.
  5. So too has this dominating masculinity had additional effects “at home” as Trump prioritizes domestically the repressive arm of the state through white supremacist policies such as rounding-up and deporting immigrants and refugees as well as his anti-Muslim rhetoric and attempted Muslim ban.
  6. Trump’s dominating masculinity attempts to control public discourse through his constant tweets that are aimed at discrediting and subordinating those who disagree with his policies.

Trump’s masculinity is fluid, contradictory, situational, and it demonstrates the diverse and crisscrossing pillars of support that uphold inequalities worldwide. From different types of hegemonic masculinities, to a toxic predatory heteromasculinity, to his dominating masculinity, Trump’s chameleonic display is part of the contemporary landscape of gender, class, race, age and sexuality relations and inequalities. Trump does not construct a consistent form of masculinity. Rather, he oscillates — at least from the evidence we have available to us. And in each case, his oscillations attempt to overcome the specter of femininity — the fear of being the unmasculine man — through the construction of particularized masculinities.

It is through these varying practices that Trump’s masculinity is effective in bolstering specific forms and systems of inequality that have been targeted and publicly challenged in recent history. Durable forms of social inequality achieve resilience by becoming flexible. By virtue of their fluidity of expression and structure, they work to establish new pillars of ideological support, upholding social inequalities as “others” are challenged. As C. J. Pascoe has argued, a dominating masculinity is not unique to Trump or only his supporters; Trump’s opponents rely on it as well (see also sociologist Kristen Barber’s analysis of anti-Trump masculinity tactics).  And it is for these reasons that recognizing Trump’s fluidity of masculinity is more than mere academic observation; it is among the chief mechanisms through which contemporary forms of inequality — from the local to the global — are justified and persist today.