Drawing Race and Class Boundaries with Sexual Discourses

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

“The fag” and “the slut” are both symbols of contemporary gender relations. Stories about each provide social mechanisms for bonding, betraying, and belonging. Research suggests that “fag” and “slut” are among the more ubiquitous insults traded among young people. Each is simultaneously all about sexuality and has absolutely nothing to do with sexuality. For instance, most of CJ Pascoe’s research participants in her study of the use of “fag” among boys at River High said that they would never aim the insult at someone who is “actually gay.” Pascoe suggests that this indicates a need for a more nuanced way of understanding sexuality—not as some thing inhering in specific bodies or identities, but as something capable of operating to discursively construct social boundaries in social life as well. “Slut” is used in similar ways—as a mechanism of gender policing. Most of the research focusing on either is primarily about gender policing and gender and sexual inequality. But, research shows that sexual discourses play a key role in racial and class inequality as well.

51TJlLPKAJL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Pascoe discovered that “homophobia” didn’t fully explain exactly what she observed at River High. It was a gendered and racialized form of homophobia that Pascoe refers to as “fag discourse.” Fag discourse is all about drawing boundaries around acceptable masculinity. Boys hurled the insult at each other in jest, sometimes at random, and as a part of a social game—one in which they were incredibly invested. But it was a “game” primarily played among white boys at River High. There’s a whole section of her book dedicated to “Racializing the Fag” that explores the intricacies of this interesting nuance associated with fag discourse. At River High, Black boys and white boys rely on distinct symbolic resources when “doing gender.” For instance, paying “excessive” attention to one’s clothing or identifying with an ability to dance well put white boys at risk of being labeled a “fag,” but worked to enhance Black boys’ masculine status. Pascoe also discovered that Black boys were unable to rely on fag discourse in quite the same way that white boys did. Indeed, though they were much less likely to use the term, Black boys at River High were much more likely to be punished by school authorities when they did. Black boys were also the only students reported to school authorities for saying “fag” by their peers. White boys, in other words, relied on racial hierarchies to control the meaning of the discourse such that saying “fag” was interpreted as “playful” and “meaningless” when they used the term and “dangerous” and “harassing” when Black boys did.

armstrong book cover, paying for the partyIn a separate study of sexuality in college life, Elizabeth A. Armstrong, Laura T. Hamilton, Elizabeth M. Armstrong, and J. Lotus Seely investigated the meaning of the term “slut” among college women. This paper is a part of Armstrong and Hamilton’s larger research project and book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. Armstrong et al. discovered that “slut” had a fluid meaning for college women. Not all of them understood the same sorts of behavior as putting someone at risk of receiving the insult. At the institution at which the study was conducted, they found that social status among women fell largely along class lines. “High-status” women were almost entirely upper and upper-middle class. This was at least partially due to the fact that performing the femininity necessary for classification required class resources (joining a sorority, having the “right” kind of body, hair, clothes, etc.).

Armstrong, et al. found that high-status women used “slut” to refer to a specific configuration of femininity, one they defined as “trashy.” While high-status women rarely actually deployed classist language, their comments relied on understandings of performance of gender stereotypically associated with less-affluent women—what Mimi Schippers would refer to as “pariah femininities”—and allowed them to situate their own sexual behavior and identities as beyond reproach. Similar to Julie Bettie’s study of white and Mexican-American girls, Armstrong et al. found that performing “classy” or “preppy” femininity (a performance that is simultaneously gendered, raced, sexualized, and classed) worked to shield high-status women from “slut” stigma.  The low-status women in Armstrong et al.’s study understood “slut discourse” to be more about sexuality than gender. Situating themselves as outside of the alleged “hookup culture,” low-status women used “slut” to stigmatize the sexual behavior of high-status women (sex outside of relationships). In an analogous way to Pascoe’s findings regarding race and fag discourse, these classed differences involving women drawing moral boundaries around femininity were enforced unevenly. While both groups reconstituted “slut” to work to their advantage, casual sexual activity posed little reputational risk for high-status women, so long as they continued to perform a “classy” configuration of femininity in the process.  Similar to Pascoe’s research, high-status women here relied on symbolic class boundaries to control the meaning of the discourse such that participation in casual sexual interactions took on a different meaning when coupled with “classy” performances of gender.   Here, class worked to insulate high-status women just as race worked to insulate white boys in Pascoe’s research.

Both studies illustrate important intersections between sexuality, race and class. Sexual discourses are invoked in a variety of ways throughout social life. They play an integral role in policing gender boundaries. But it is also important to continue to consider the role that sexual discourses play in bolstering boundaries around race and class.

Beyond “Bossy” or “Brilliant”?: Gender Bias in Student Evaluations

By: Tristan Bridges, Kjerstin Gruys, Christin Munsch and C.J. Pascoe

Originally posted at Girl W/ Pen!

Not surprisingly, the new interactive chart Gendered Language in Teacher Reviews, drawn from RateMyProfessor.com (produced by Ben Schmidt—a history professor at Northeastern), has been the subject of a lot of conversation among sociologists, especially those of us who study gender. For example, it reminded C.J. of an ongoing conversation she and a former Colorado College colleague repeatedly had about teaching evaluations. Comparing his evaluations to C.J.’s, he noted that students would criticize C.J. for the same teaching practices and behaviors that seemed to earn him praise: being tough, while caring about learning.

Ratemyprofessor "genius"We’ve long known that student evaluations of teaching are biased. A recent experiment made headlines when Adam Driscoll and Andrea Hunt found that professors teaching online received dramatically different evaluation scores depending upon whether students thought the professor was a man or a woman; students rated male-identified instructors significantly higher than female identified instructors, regardless of the instructor’s actual gender. Schmidt’s interactive chart provides a bit more information about exactly what students are saying when evaluating their professors in gendered ways. Thus far, most commentaries have focused on the fact that men are more likely to be seen as “geniuses,” “brilliant,” and “funny,” while women, as C.J. discovered, are more likely to be seen as “bossy,” “mean,” “pushy.” These discrepancies are important, but in this post, we’ve used the tool to shed light on some forms of gendered workplace inequality that have received less attention: (1) comments concerning physical appearance, (2) comments related to messiness and organization, and (3) comments related to emotional (as opposed to intellectual) work performed by professors.

Physical Appearance

The results from Schmidt’s chart are not universally “bad” or “worse” for women. For instance, the results for students referring to professors as “hot” and “attractive” are actually mixed. Further, in some fields of study, women are more likely to receive “positive” appearance-based evaluations while, in other fields, men are more likely to receive these evaluations. A closer examination, however, reveals an interesting pattern. Here is a list of the fields in which women are more likely to be referred to as “hot” or “attractive”: Criminal Justice, Engineering, Political Science, Business, Computer Science, Physics, Economics, and Accounting. And here is a list of fields in which men are more likely to receive these evaluations: Philosophy, English, Anthropology, Fine Arts, Languages, and Sociology.

Ratemyprofessor "hot"Notice anything suspicious? Men are sexualized when they teach in fields culturally associated with “femininity” and women are sexualized when they teach in fields culturally associated with “masculinity.” Part of this is certainly due to gender segregation in fields of study. There are simply more men in engineering and physics courses. Assuming most students are heterosexual, women teaching in these fields might be more likely to be objectified. Similarly, men teaching in female-dominated fields have a higher likelihood of being evaluated as “hot” because there are more women there to evaluate them. (For more on this, see Philip Cohen’s breakdown of gender segregation in college majors.)

Nonetheless, it is important to note that sexual objectification works differently when it’s aimed at men versus women. Women, but not men, are systematically sexualized in ways that work to symbolically undermine their authority. (This is why “mothers,” “mature,” “boss,” and “teacher” are among men’s top category searches on many online pornography sites.) And, women are more harshly criticized for failing to meet normative appearance expectations. Schmidt’s chart lends support to this interpretation as women professors are also almost universally more likely to be referred to as “ugly,” “hideous,” and “nasty.”

Level of (Dis)Organization

Christin and Kjerstin are beginning a new research project designed to evaluate whether students assess disorganized or “absent-minded” professors (e.g., messy offices, chalk on their clothing, disheveled appearances) differently depending on gender. Schmidt’s interactive chart foreshadows what they might find. Consider the following: women are more likely to be described as “unprepared,” “late,” and “scattered.” These are characteristics we teach little girls to avoid, while urging them to be prepared, organized, and neat. (Case in point: Karin Martin’s research on gender and bodies in preschool shows that boys’ bodies are less disciplined than girls’.) In short, we hold men and women to different organizational and self-presentation standards. Consequently, women, but not men, are held accountable when they are perceived to be unprepared or messy. Emphasizing this greater scrutiny of women’s organization and professionalism is the finding that women are more likely than men to be described as eitherprofessionalorunprofessional,” and eitherorganizedordisorganized.”

Emotional Labor

Finally, emotional (rather than intellectual) terms are used more often in women’s evaluations than men’s. Whether mean, kind, caring or rude, students are more likely to comment on these qualities when women are the ones doing the teaching. When women professors receive praise for being “caring,” “compassionate,” “nice,” and “understanding,” this is also a not-so-subtle way of telling them that they should exhibit these qualities. Thus, men may receive fewer comments related to this type of emotion work because students do not expect them to be doing it in the first place. But this emotional work isn’t just “more” work, it’s impossible work because of the competence/likeability tradeoff women face.

There are all sorts of things that are left out of this quick and dirty analysis (race, class, course topic, type of institution, etc.), but it does suggest we begin to question the ways teaching evaluations may systematically advantage some over others. Moreover, if certain groups—for instance, women and scholars of color (and female scholars of color)—are more likely to be in jobs at which teaching evaluations matter more for tenure and promotion, then unfair and biased evaluations may exacerbate inequality within the academy.

Cosmopolitan Masculinities and Gender Omnivorousness: Transformations in Gender and Inequality*

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

Lands' End Blues

Image credit: Lands’ End’s Winter 2015 Men’s clothing catalog.

The advertisement depicted here comes out of a Lands’ End catalog I received in the mail last week. The text reads: “New blue collar shirts white collar guys will love.” It’s a subtle message and surely, some will think I am making too much of it. But, it is one small piece of a larger cultural process taking place–in this case, how class inequality gets commodified and sold back to young, straight, white men as evidence of their masculine credibility and cosmopolitan taste in gender performance and display. This is one configuration of hybrid masculinity in practice. It allows for a form of what I call “practiced indifference” whereby young, straight, white men are able to appear relaxed, content, and at ease with an increasingly varied range of gender performances.

What we think of as “masculine” is something that shifts over time and from place to place. Historical and cross-cultural research shows that just about anything you might think of as essentially “masculine” has been—at one time or another, in one place or another—thought of as anything but. This is part of what makes studying masculinity so exciting to me: it’s an unstable object of inquiry and there are lots of moving parts. Michael Kimmel sums up a really important finding from his historical research on masculinity with a simple statement: “[D]efinitions of masculinity are historically reactive to changing definitions of femininity” (here: 123). We don’t often think of those in power as capable of being “pushed around.” But the historical relationship between masculinity and femininity suggests precisely this pattern.

My own research suggests that one way gender inequality is perpetuated is by being flexible, capable of adapting to new circumstances, challenges, and contingencies. And one of the ways masculinities exhibit these qualities is through practices of appropriation—what C.J. Pascoe and I refer to as “strategic borrowing” in our theorization of hybrid masculinities. At historical moments when gender inequality is publicly challenged and threatened, configurations of masculinity shift—and they do so in pattered directions. When gender inequality is publicly threatened, a range of strategies emerge.  We may collectively exalt configurations of masculinity that exaggerate gender difference and implicitly promote the continued necessity of gender segregation.  But the discourse of what Michael Messner referred to as the “new man” can emerge as well, involving the “softening” of some features of masculinity.  And one way this happens is through a process by which (some) men strategically borrow configurations of gendered practice and presentation from various groups of Others.  This whole process has the effect of obscuring relations of power and inequality between men and women and among men as well.

As I argued earlier in my post on hipster masculinity and my post with D’Lane Compton on the rise of the “lumbersexual,” men who occupy positions of incredible privilege (young, middle- and upper-class, able-bodied, heterosexual) are increasingly borrowing elements of masculinities that do not “belong” to them. Cultural aesthetics associated with marginalized and subordinated groups (though often this relies on stereotypes and, occasionally, myths) are commodified, consumed, and work to situate certain privileged groups as more cosmopolitan as a result. These processes sometimes appear to situate young, straight, white guys as increasingly interested in equality and as more “multicultural” than Other men (who get cast as the “real problem” in this discourse). A consequence of this process is that it works to obscure some men’s positions within contemporary relations of power and inequality.

Inequalities are much easier to accept when we believe them to be just. This cosmopolitan taste in gender increasingly displayed by groups of young, straight, white men makes it appear that masculinities are opening up, becoming less dictatorial, and more democratic. Yet, the new forms that this omnivorousness in gender performance and politics is taking also works to reproduce privilege in historically novel ways. While young, straight, white men may not be the only ones flirting with these new styles of gender performance and display, they may be receiving a qualitatively different set of benefits from their engagement.

Indeed, research suggests that while it might look different today, this is a historical process. Young, middle and upper class, straight, white men became interested in exercise and building muscles around the time that this muscle was no longer necessary to earn a living (for these men). The Boy Scouts of America emerged at the turn of the century to ensure boys learned survival skills no longer required for the lives these boys would lead or the work they would eventually pursue. Young groups got interested in Black musicians and jazz at a point in our history when privilege started to feel “dull” when compared with the seemingly more “authentic” identities of Others—identities formed, in part, by the very same systems of inequality that these practices of appropriation protect. Matthew Hughey has addressed similar practices of racialized appropriation by whites and Shamus Khan finds a parallel mode of classed and racialized cultural appropriation among elites. But, it’s not just classed and racialized. Hybrid masculinities demonstrate that this is a gendered and sexualized practice as well.

Through “strategically borrowing” elements from marginalized and subordinated groups, hybrid masculinities “discursively distance” the men who mobilize these configurations of gender from masculinities that have been successfully challenged by feminist activism and reform. Yet, this discursive distance is more symbolic than “real” in the sense that it does not actually challenge the systems of power and inequality that are largely still in place—rather, it obscures them, fortifying the same inequalities in new ways.

_______________________

*This is a small piece of the argument I’m pursuing in a book prospectus and manuscript I’m currently working on that traces transformations in gender politics and performances among three separate groups of men.  I didn’t use any of my data here as I’m saving that for the book.  But I’m loving the finding some of my ideas apparent in advertisements too.

Power, Pomp, and Plaid: Lumbersexuals and White, Heteromasculine Pageantry*

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections

By: D’Lane Compton and Tristan Bridges

“Lumbersexual” recently entered our cultural lexicon. What it means exactly is still being negotiated. At a basic level, it’s an identity category that relies on a set of stereotypes about regionally specific and classed masculinities. Lumbersexuals are probably best recognized by a set of hirsute bodies and grooming habits. Their attire, bodies, and comportment are presumed to cite stereotypes of lumberjacks in the cultural imaginary. However, combined with the overall cultural portrayal of the lumbersexual, this stereotype set fundamentally creates an aesthetic with a particular subset of men that idealizes a cold weather, rugged, large, hard-bodied, bewhiskered configuration of masculinity.

Similar to hipster masculinity, “lumbersexual” is a classification largely reserved for young, straight, white, and arguably class-privileged men. While some position lumbersexuals as the antithesis of the metrosexual, others understand lumbersexuals as within a spectrum of identity options made available by metrosexuality. Urbandicionary.com defines the lumbersexual as “a sexy man who dresses in denim, leather, and flannel, and has a ruggedly sensual beard.”

One of the key signifiers of the “lumbersexual,” however, is that he is not, in fact, a lumberjack. Like the hipster, the lumbersexual is less of an identity men claim and more of one used to describe them (perhaps, against their wishes). It’s used to mock young, straight, white men for participating in a kind of identity work. Gearjunkie.com describes the identity this way:

Whether the roots of the lumbersexual are a cultural shift toward environmentalism, rebellion against the grind of 9-5 office jobs, or simply recognition that outdoor gear is just more comfortable, functional and durable, the lumbersexual is on the rise (here).

Many aspects of masculinity are “comfortable.” And, men don’t need outdoor gear and lumberjack attire to be comfortable. Lumbersexual has less to do with comfort and more to do with masculinity. It is a practice of masculinization. It’s part of a collection of practices associated with “hybrid masculinities”—categories and identity work practices made available to young, white, heterosexual men that allow them to collect masculine status they might otherwise see themselves (or be seen by others) as lacking. Hybridization offers young, straight, class-privileged white men an avenue to negotiate, compensate, and attempt to control meanings attached to their identities as men. Hybrid configurations of masculinity, like the lumbersexual, accomplish two things at once. They enable young, straight, class-privileged, white men to discursively distance themselves from what they might perceive as something akin to the stigma of privilege. They simultaneously offer a way out of the “emptiness” a great deal of scholarship has discussed as associated with racially, sexually, class-privileged identities (see here, here, and here).

The lumbersexual highlights a series of rival binaries associated with masculinities: rural vs. urban, rugged vs. refined, tidy vs. unkempt. But the lumbersexual is so compelling precisely because, rather than “choosing sides,” this identity attempts to delicately walk the line between these binaries. It’s “delicate” precisely because this is a heteromasculine configuration—falling too far toward one side or the other could call him into question. But, a lumbersexual isn’t a lumberjack just like a metrosexual isn’t gay. Their identity work attempts to establish a connection with identities to which they have no authentic claim by flirting with stereotypes surrounding sets of interests and aesthetics associated with various marginalized and subordinated groups of men. Yet, these collections are largely mythologies. The bristly woodsmen they are ostensibly parroting were, in fact, created for precisely this purpose. As Willa Brown writes,

The archetypal lumberjack—the Paul Bunyanesque hipster naturalist—was an invention of urban journalists and advertisers. He was created not as a portrait of real working-class life, but as a model for middle-class urban men to aspire to, a cure for chronic neurasthenics. He came to life not in the forests of Minnesota, but in the pages of magazines (here).

Perhaps less obviously, however, the lumbersexual is also coopting elements of sexual minority subcultures. If we look through queer lenses we might suggest that lumbersexuals are more similar to metrosexuals than they may acknowledge as many elements of “lumberjack” identities are already connected with configurations of lesbian and gay identities. For instance, lumbersexuals share a lot of common ground with “bear masculinity” (a subculture of gay men defined by larger bodies with lots of hair) and some rural configurations of lesbian identity. Arguably, whether someone is a “bear” or a “lumbersexual” may solely be a question of sexual identity. After all, bear culture emerged to celebrate a queer masculinity, creating symbolic distance from stereotypes of gay masculinities as feminine or effeminate. Lumbersexuals could be read as a similar move in response to metrosexuality.

Lumbersexual masculinity is certainly an illustration that certain groups of young, straight, class-privileged, white men are playing with gender. In the process, however, systems of power and inequality are probably better understood as obscured than challenged. Like the phrase “no homo,” hybrid configurations of masculinity afford young straight men new kinds of flexibility in identities and practice, but don’t challenge relations of power and inequality in any meaningful way.

_____________________________

*We would like to thank the Orange Couch of NOLA, Urban Outfitters, the rural (&) queer community, and Andrea Herrera for suggesting we tackle this piece. Additional thanks to C.J. Pascoe and Lisa Wade for advanced reading and comments.

Where Have All the “Marriageable” Men Gone?

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

By: Tristan Bridges and Melody L. Boyd

Both Apple and Facebook recently announced that they will cover egg freezing for their employees. The policies at both companies provoked a series of smart analyses of why they are simultaneously something to celebrate and challenge. For instance, Joya Misra writes, “In an environment in which many women face motherhood and pregnancy discrimination, policies that encourage women to freeze their eggs supposedly to delay parenthood, may actually discourage women from becoming mothers altogether. Access to paid leave and high quality, subsidized childcare would better support women’s decisions about having children” (here). Dr. Misra and others are absolutely correct that egg-freezing policies fail to do anything about the family-friendliness of workplaces and organizations.1 The existing data on people who take advantage of the specific technology Apple and Facebook are offering to cover for female employees, however, suggests that the lack of family-friendly policies is only one issue worth considering here. Among these issues are: cost of infertility treatment, same-sex families, and explorations of the other reasons reproductively healthy heterosexual women might pursue these options.

There are four obvious groups of women who might pursue this technology. The first are queer or lesbian women (see here, here, and here). The second are women with known or anticipated fertility issues (such as cancer treatment). The third group (and those who have received most media attention surrounding this issue) are professional heterosexual women who may be in a relationship, but don’t want to have children until they’ve reached a place in their career where they feel it will be least professionally damaging. The fourth group are single heterosexual women who might pursue freezing their eggs in the hopes of eventually meeting someone. The data suggest that the majority of heterosexual women pursuing this technology are single. As one maternal fetal medicine specialist and Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology—Dr. Chavi Eve Karkowsky—writes,

“[I]f these women were partnered, but still wanted to delay child-bearing, they would probably pursue IVF with their eggs and their partner’s sperm, and freeze the resulting embryos. IVF and embryo cryopreservation is an older, more refined, and arguably more successful technology… What they want is a baby, yes, but with a willing partner for child rearing and a present father for their child” (here).

What Dr. Karkowsky suggests is that women’s decisions to freeze their eggs might have more to do with not feeling like they’ve found a “Mr. Right” (if they’re even looking for Mr.’s in the first place) than with a desire to focus on their careers. In one study of the reasons women pursue egg freezing as an option, women were asked to select any and all reasons to account for why they had not pursued childbearing earlier in their lives. Graph of Why Women Pursue CryopreservationWhile they were allowed to select all of the possible reasons that might apply, only about a quarter of the sample cited “professional reasons” for not having children earlier. The overwhelming majority of women (88%) claimed that “lack of partner” was the primary reason (see our adapted graph).2

This is related to an issue sociologists refer to as the “marriageability” of men. In the context of rising joblessness in low-income urban communities, William Julius Wilson suggested one consequence of shifts in our economy was that poor, non-white, urban men were disproportionately affected by the shift to a service economy. They’re not out of work because they don’t want jobs; Wilson found that they are out of work because the jobs simply don’t exist. And this has reverberations throughout their communities. One consequence was shrinking “pools of marriageable men” for poor black women (here). “Marriageability” has, thus far, largely been discussed as an issue of economic stability (having a job). And, as Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas more recently documented in Promises I Can Keep, poor women remain hesitant to bet their futures on men on whom they may not be able to count to provide economically for their families over the long haul.

More recently, Philip Cohen updated the outcome, considering the ratios of employed, unmarried men per unmarried women for black and white women. Cohen’s analysis suggests that poor women still have smaller pools of “marriageable” men, but also that black women face greater shortages of “marriageable” men than white women in most major metropolitan areas. Here too, Cohen relies on Wilson’s formula for marriageability: “marriageable” = employed.

Yet, when middle and upper-class women (the groups most likely to pursue cryopreservation fertility options) are asked why they are pursuing egg freezing, “lack of partner” is highest on the list. But many of these women must live in “partner rich” areas with favorable “pools of marriageable men” as traditionally defined. Surely some of this is the result of women finding men who might qualify as “marriageable” by Wilson’s standard, unmarriageable by their own.  As Stephanie Coontz has shown, women and men are asking a lot more out of their marriages today than their parents and grandparents might have.  Pew Graph - EducationAs such, it might not be all that surprising that a more diverse group are delaying and forgoing marriage.  Indeed, as a recent Pew Report investigating the rise in unmarried Americans attests, the population of young adults who have not entered marriage is both growing and changing. For instance, the education gap between never married men and women has widened (see graph). Never married women and men are more educated today than previous generations. More than 53% of never married men today have more than a high school education; 25% have at least a bachelor’s degree. And while it’s a tough economy, Cohen’s analysis suggests that many of these men are finding jobs (often in larger numbers than women in many cities).

We suggest that middle- and upper-class women are delaying and foregoing marriage for many reasons, among them that the employed men they encounter are “unmarriageable” for other reasons.

We are currently working on an article collecting research across the class divide dealing with the “marriageability of men” hypothesis.  Research shows that the “lack of marriageable men” trend is best analyzed as twin trends occurring among different groups for different reasons. For instance, Wilson suggested that “marriageability” primarily had to do with obtaining a job—a task more difficult from some groups of men than others. But, middle- and upper-class women, by this standard, should be marrying in droves—employed men are not always the issue. Men who might be capable of financially providing are not necessarily all women want out of a relationship today.

For instance, in The Unfinished Revolution, Kathleen Gerson found that men and women across a range of class backgrounds said that they desired gender egalitarian relationships. Men were just as likely as women to say that having a partner able to find personally fulfilling work and to co-provide financially was an important part of what they hoped to achieve in current and future relationships.   Things get more complicated, however, when women and men are asked about their backup plans. What happens when those plans for dual-earning, emotionally fulfilling, egalitarian partnerships don’t work out? Women state that they are willing to confront a range of options in terms of fulfilling their family and career goals. Men, on the other hand, are most likely to say that their fallback option does not include the possibility of staying home themselves. Rather, men’s “plan B” appears to put women right back at “plan A” 50 years ago (see Lisa Wade’s analysis here). Indeed, in her interviews with women about their heterosexual experiences in Hard to Get, Leslie Bell finds profound dissatisfaction among 20-something women with their romantic and sexual relationships with men.

While only a small number of women currently choose to pursue oocyte cryopreservation, this issue represents a larger concern with which many women are dealing more generally. Freezing their eggs is one of many strategies heterosexual women might pursue as men are navigating new meanings of what it means to qualify as “marriageable” today.

________________________________

Thanks to D’Lane Compton and C.J. Pascoe for advanced reading and comments on this post.

1 Whether or not assisted reproductive technologies (ART) are covered by insurance also varies by state in the U.S.  Some states mandate IVF coverage, for instance, while other states do not. In states that do not mandate coverage, it is a more expensive for employers to include coverage in their employee health benefits packages. So, this is not only an issue of “good” and “bad” companies, but one of state legislation that influences organizational policies as well. See here for state-specific policies.

2 It’s important to note that some social desirability bias is likely to rear its head here. For instance, some respondents may have felt that claiming “professional reasons” for not pursuing childbearing earlier may be perceived unfavorably by others.

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.

Continue reading