Studying Race and Gender in Comic Books with Color Codes

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

Lots of time and care consideration goes into the production of new superheroes and the revision of time-honored heroes. Subtle features of outfits aren’t changed by accident and don’t go unnoticed. Skin color also merits careful consideration to ensure that the racial depiction of characters is consistent with their back stories alongside other considerations. A colleague of mine recently shared an interesting analysis of racial depictions by a comic artist, Ronald Wimberly—“Lighten Up.”*  “Lighten Up” is a cartoon essay that addresses some of the issues Wimberly struggled with in drawing for a major comic book publisher. NPR ran a story on the essay as well. In short, Wimberly was asked by his editor to “lighten” a characters’ skin tone—a character who is supposed to have a Mexican father and an African American mother.  The essay is about Wimberly’s struggle with the request and his attempt to make sense of how the potentially innocuous-seeming request might be connected with racial inequality. Skin ToneIn the panel of the cartoon reproduced here, you can see Wimberly’s original color swatch for the character alongside the swatch he was instructed to use for the character.

Digitally, colors are handled by what computer programmers refer to as hexadecimal IDs. Every color has a hexademical “color code.” It’s an alphanumeric string of 6 letters and/or numbers preceded by the pound symbol (#).  For example, computers are able to understand the color white with the color code #FFFFFF and the color black with #000000. Hexadecimal IDs are based on binary digits—they’re basically a way of turning colors into code so that computers can understand them. Artists might tell you that there are an infinite number of possibilities for different colors. But on a computer, color combinations are not infinite: there are exactly 16,777,216 possible color combinations. Hexadecimal IDs are an interesting bit of data and I’m not familiar with many social scientists making use of them.**

There’s probably more than one way of using color codes as data. But one thought I had was that they could be an interesting way of identifying racialized depictions of comic book characters in a reproducible manner—borrowing from Wimberly’s idea in “Lighten Up.” Some questions might be: Are white characters depicted with the same hexadecimal variation as non-white characters? Or, are women depicted with more or less hexadecimal variation than men? Perhaps white characters are more likely to be depicted in more dramatic and dynamic lighting, causing their skin to be depicted with more variation than non-white characters. If that’s true, it might also make an interesting data-based argument to suggest that white characters are featured in more dynamic ways in comic books than are non-white characters. The same could be true of men compared with women.

Just to give this a try, I downloaded a free eye-dropper plug-in that identifies hexadecimal IDs. I used the top 16 images in a Google Image search for Batman (white man), Amazing-man (black man), and Wonder Woman (white woman). Because many images alter skin tone with shadows and light, I tried to use the eye-dropper to select the pixel that appeared most representative of the skin tone of the face of each character depicted.

Here are the images for Batman with a clean swatch of the hexadecimal IDs for the skin tone associated with each image below:

Batman

Batman Hex Codes

Below are the images for Amazing-man with swatches of the skin tone color codes beneath:Amazing-Man

Amazing-Man Hex Codes

Finally, here are the images for Wonder Woman with pure samples of the color codes associated with her skin tone for each image below:

Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman Hex CodesNow, perhaps it was unfair to use Batman as a comparison as his character is more often depicted at night than is Wonder Woman—a fact which might mean he is more often depicted in dynamic lighting than she is. But it’s an interesting thought experiment.  Based on this sample, two things that seem immediately apparent. Amazing-man is depicted much darker when his character is drawn angry. And Wonder Woman exhibits the least color variation of the three.  Whether this is representative is beyond the scope of the post.  But, it’s an interesting question.  While we know that there are dramatically fewer women in comic books than men, inequality is not only a matter of numbers.  Portrayal matters a great deal as well, and color codes might be one way of considering getting at this issue in a new and systematic way.

While the hexadecimal ID of an individual pixel of an image is an objective measure of color, it’s also true that color is in the eye of the beholder and we perceive colors differently when they are situated alongside different colors. So, obviously, color alone tells us little about individual perception, and even less about the social and cultural meaning systems tied to different hexadecimal hues. Yet, as Wimberly writes, “In art, this is very important. Art is where associations are made. Art is where we form the narratives of our identity.”  Beyond this, art is a powerful cultural arena in which we form narratives about the identities of others.

At any rate, it’s an interesting idea. And I hope someone smarter than me does something with it (or tells me that it’s already been done and I simply wasn’t aware).

____________________________

*Thanks to Andrea Herrera for posting Ronald Wimberly’s cartoon essay, “Lighten Up.”

**In writing this post, I was reminded that Philip Cohen wrote a short post suggesting that we might do more research on gender and color by using color codes to analyze children’s clothing. The post is here if you’re interested. After re-reading his post, I used the same site to collect pure samples of each hex code and I copied his display of the swatches.  Thanks Philip!

Comic Books, Superhero Movies, and Gender Inequality

Originally posted at Girl W/ Pen!

The new Avengers movie just came out. I haven’t seen it yet. But like others, I’m a fan of superhero movies. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of as a feminist. But I’ve been reading comic books since I was a kid and seeing some of those characters on the big screen brings back lots of memories and childhood fantasies about superpowers. The interwebs have been alight with discussions about women superhero characters in this movie and whether those of us who care about gender equality ought to be happy about them or not. Some have argued that Black Widow and the Scarlet Witch are feminist heroes we ought to celebrate. Others have been more critical. Regardless of which side you fall on, it’s hard to deny that the cast of superhero men standing alongside Scarlett Johansson (who plays Black Widow) casts her as a bit of a Smurfette.

The_Avengers_Cast_2010_Comic-Con_cropped-1024x518Over at FiveThirtyEight.com, Walt Hickey has written a series of posts of gender representation in comic books (here) and comic book movie portrayals of (see here and here). In his initial post, Hickey collected data from DC and Marvel Wikia databases to get a sense of all of the characters each comic book publisher had produced.* More characters have been produced than you might imagine. DC has created just shy of 7,000 characters.  The Marvel database includes more than 16,000.  Using this data, Hickey made some basic claims about the entire comic book universes each publisher has produced. One fact we learned from this is that the ratio of women characters to men has been slowly improving. For instance, in 2013, the Marvel universe was about 23.3% women, while the DC universe was approximately 28.5% women. But, the graphs show that the ratios appear to be leveling out shy of 30%. Men are more likely to be deceased than women. Women characters in both universes are most likely “good” (as opposed to “neutral” or “bad”) characters, while there are more “bad” men than “good” ones in both comic book universes. While there are some signs of change in this data, it doesn’t come close to achieving gender parity.

Using Hickey’s data, I’ve graphed the proportions of women in each comic book universe along with the proportion of women in Congress over the same period of time (below).  One fact immediately apparent is that superhero women seem to be faring a bit better than women in U.S. politics.  In fact, the proportions of women in many of the “heroic” professions in the U.S. fall well below Marvel and DC’s universes. Women in the U.S. comprise less than 25% of federal law enforcement, less than 15% of local police and sheriff’s officers, and less than 10% of state police and highway patrol (here). Women comprise less than 4% of career firefighters in the U.S. (here). Similarly, women are less than 20% of the U.S. military as well (here). Virtually all of the jobs in the licit economy that involve higher than average work-related death rates are—perhaps unsurprisingly—dominated by men (here). Certainly, which occupations are deemed “heroic” in the first place is also important to consider. Indeed, the idea of a “hero” seems already gendered.

Comic Book DataSuperheroes are important for lots of reasons. The stories we celebrate tell us important information about the societies in which we live. The characters we celebrate and those we oppose provide us with information about what we value. As Arthur Berger writes, “There is a fairly close relationship, generally, between a society and its heroes” (here), to which Jon Hogan adds: “The superhero comic book is part of popular culture because it can help us better understand what traits we value and why we value them” (here). Berger and Hogan seem to be asking us to consider what comic books are doing, rather than what they should be doing.

I used to assign a short reading by Ursula K. Le Guin to students at the conclusion of a gender studies course I taught. Le Guin is a science fiction writer (a genre dominated by men). She’s perhaps best known for The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)—a story about an alien society without gender. The alien race in the story shares the biological and emotional characteristics of both sexes, only adopting sexed characteristics (both embodied and emotional) once a month. After writing the novel, Le Guin was often asked whether she believed we were headed for a post-gender society. She responded in the Introduction to subsequent editions:

Yes, the people in it are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I’m merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are. I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing. I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist’s way, which is by inventing elaborate circumstantial lies.

Comic Book Kevin Bolk - Sexist AvengersPerhaps when we celebrate comic book universes, we are not imagining future societies and futuristic possibilities. Perhaps they are best thought of as stories about who we are today and what our society actually looks like.  Le Guin argues that science fiction is better understood as descriptive than predictive.  Perhaps, in other words, comic books are “elaborate circumstantial lies” about who we actually are.

Beyond the numbers, however, there are also other features of gender that are difficult to ignore. Men and women superheroes are also depicted in patterned ways that reinforce problematic assumptions about gender. Artist Kevin Bolk re-imagined the poster for the original Avengers movie depicting Black Widow in a “masculine” pose and Hawkeye, Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and Hulk in stereotypical “feminine” poses. The image attests to the fact that the number of women is really only the tip of the iceberg when in comes to addressing gender inequality in comic books.

Comic book universes (particularly those that have become famous outside comic cons and fan circles) exaggerate and celebrate gender differences.  There are writers and artists who push back against this tendency in the industry.  And important strides have been made.  Women writers and artists are receiving more recognition and support.  Both DC and Marvel have introduced gender and sexual minority characters.  But, which of these characters will achieve fame and fortune is more of a question.  I don’t know of existing data on the comic book characters about which movies have been made, but my hunch is that that sample would include a higher proportion of men and fewer non-white characters than each universe boasts.

________________________

*The data are publicly available at Github if you’re interested in playing around with it. The data are only collected through 2013 and only for a single continuity for each publisher – Earth-616 (Marvel) and New Earth (DC).

#Occupotty and the Gender Politics of Bathrooms

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

The floor plan of the White House recently made headlines because of a subtle change that’s caused a bit of a stir: it now features a gender-neutral restroom. Just one. But one was enough to make headlines. Many people don’t think twice about which restroom to use in public. Some people’s choice, however, is more of a dilemma than you might assume. Many transgender individuals struggle with the restroom issue in public settings. And this is an issue that forces cis-gender folks to confront deeply held beliefs about a gender-segregated setting—beliefs some may not fully realize they hold and many may be ill-equipped to discuss.

Making use of a public restroom is not often understood as a political act. Yet, a group of transgender folks in the U.S. and Canada are participating in a bit of digital activism by doing just that. It’s a quiet social movement, but it’s already gained some media attention. Pictures posted alongside the hashtags #Occupotty, #WeJustNeedToPee, and less often #LetMyPeoplePee on all manner of social media are starting a much-needed conversation about gender in and around public restrooms.

Brae Carnes

Brae Carnes, a transwoman in Victoria, depicted here using a men’s public restroom to raise awareness about what discriminatory legislation associated with “bathroom bills” would actually look like in practice.

Brae Carnes is a transgender woman living in Victoria, Canada whose photo-activism went viral when she posted an image of herself applying lipstick in a public restroom with a line of urinals against the wall behind her (see left). Brae told reporters at the Times Colonist, “I’m giving them what they want… I’m actively showing them what it would look like if that became law and how completely ridiculous it is” (here). And Brae is not alone. Michael Hughes, a transgender man living in Minnesota, also caused some digital waves when he posted a series of pictures of himself in women’s restrooms with captions like: “Do I look like I belong in women’s facilities?” (see below). Brae and Michael are part of a vocal group of trans* rights activists opposing legislation that would force transgender people to use the public restroom facilities associated with their birth gender (the sex they were assigned at birth). So-called “bathroom bills” are being introduced in the U.S. and abroad, and #Occupotty is an important challenge to the proposed legislation.

B_6vNpGUQAAm_bgThose introducing bathroom bills most often justify them as being about “protection,” “public safety,” and as attempts to reduce violence and assault. The bills rely on the transphobic myth that transgender individuals are sexually perverse and that they are likely to be sexual predators.  Thus, defenders of these bills often claim that they are about protecting cis-gender people. This avoids the troubling truth that transgender individuals are far more likely to have violence committed against them than they are to commit this kind of violence against others. Indeed, Media Matters found no evidence to substantiate the claim that restroom sexual assaults were higher in trans-inclusive jurisdictions.  One survey of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals in Washington D.C. found that 70% of respondents reported having been either harassed in, assaulted in, or denied access to public restrooms (see here).   It’s an important issue and Brae Carnes and Michael Hughes are helping to draw more attention to the lives that hang in the balance.

Bathroom bills portray trans* persons as sneaky and deviant and as attempting to trick the rest of us into using a restroom with them. But, as Mic.com reported, there have been zero reported attacks on cis-gender people by transgender people in public bathrooms. All of the documented attacks victimized trans* persons. So, why is the conversation about transgender people committing violence rather than about protecting transgender folks from cis-gender violence?

This is an instance of what Laurel Westbrook and Kristen Schilt call a “gender panic”—situations in which people collectively react to challenges to biology-based ideologies about what gender is and where it comes from by attempting to reassert those ideologies. Bathroom bills produce just this type of ideological collision where biology-based ideologies and identity-based ideologies are pitted against each other in public discourse. Inside this ideological discord, we gain new information about the gender binary, gender inequality, and how our beliefs about gender difference take a lot more work to uphold than we may assume.

Bathrooms are intensely gendered spaces. The belief that men and women, boys and girls, ought to relieve themselves in separate rooms is a powerful illustration of our collective investment in gender differences. But, sex-segregated bathrooms are a matter of social preference and organization rather than being recommended by our biology. And when we attempt to resolve this gender panic by resorting to biology (such as introducing legislation mandating the criteria of “birth gender” for public restroom use), we continue an awful tradition of putting transgender people at risk of violence under the guise of protecting “us” from “them.”  But, social scientific research shows that we are in far greater need of policies that protect “them” from “us.”

Bathroom segregation is a political issue and one that deserves academic and public feminist support. The proposed legislation relies on myths associated with cis-gender and transgender people alike. Whether motivated by hate or misunderstanding, these laws fail to acknowledge well-documented facts about violence against transgender people, and in doing so, play a role in perpetuating continued violence and discrimination against transgender people. #Occupotty is a political statement and a request for recognition and rights. But these brave digital activists are doing more than that, too. They are exposing a set of myths that also work to justify gender and sexual inequality. Whether openly acknowledged or not, it is for this reason that #Occupotty meets resistance and it is for this reason that it deserves more support.

#TransLivesMatter

Bronies, Anti-Rape Chants, and Gendered Change

Originally posted at Girl W/ Pen!

By: C.J. Pascoe and Tristan Bridges

rainbow_glasses_by_j_brony-d4cw4aoUpon first glance, men who identify as “bronies” (a subculture of men who like My Little Pony) seem to illustrate a fundamental transformation in masculinity. These men appear to be less stigmatized by association with something “feminine” or “feminizing” (like children’s toys initially marketed to young girls). New research by graduate students John Bailey and Brenna Harvey, however, found that even in a subculture formed around a seemingly emasculating hobby, participants still lob gendered and sexualized insults and epithets at one another. In his write-up on the research in The Guardian, Adam Gabbatt explained some of Bailey and Harvey’s findings in this way:

Bailey and Harvey found that even men who fancy My Little Pony cartoon characters are likely to scrap with each other using similar terms and putdowns to “normal” men, even to the point of using the same terminology, such as “faggot,” to police their environment.

One particular incident was a putdown from one member to another in an online brony forum that read: “Go be normal somewhere else, faggot.” While we might expect “fag” to be lobbed at members of the group by outsiders, it might seem odd that (at least some) bronies use the term as well.

AP_OREGON2_150102_DG_16x9_992Contemporary Western masculinity is in many ways characterized by these seeming contradictions. Consider what happened when the University of Oregon defeated Florida State University at the Rose Bowl earlier this year (to which CJ would like to add: “Yeah we did! GO DUCKS!”). In the post-game revelry, some of the Oregon players began to chant “No means no!” to the tune of the (racist) “War Chant” regularly sung by FSU fans. As ThinkProgress reported,

The chant was almost certainly intended to target [Jameis] Winston [Florida State’s quarterback], who has been embroiled in a sexual assault scandal since 2012, when a female student accused him of raping her. He has not been officially charged or sanctioned for the incident, and won the Heisman Trophy amid the ongoing controversy.

Commentaries on this incident widely lauded it as a moment in which young men were collectively, publicly, shaming another man accused of sexual violence with a long time feminist slogan.

While on the surface these two events are incredibly different, elements connect the two. Among the bronies, a man chastised another as a “fag” in part to defend his own gender transgressive interest and identity and the community in which he participates. Among the Oregon Ducks, a group of men appear to be embracing the feminist principle that Sarah Silverman recently tweeted so eloquently (to the anger of at least a few men), “Don’t rape.” These examples involve men telling other men, “You are not masculine, and here is why… Oh, and I am (just in case that wasn’t clear).” The content of what makes someone masculine doesn’t actually matter nearly as much as the ability to deny that powerful social identity to others.

Now, don’t get us wrong; we are thrilled to see high profile athletes embracing the notion of consent and refuting sexual violence. Men publicly condemning sexual violence are important and can be extremely powerful. But, behind these statements is a protectionist ideology that involves men claiming to symbolically protect women from other “bad” and (importantly) “less” masculine men. The White House-sponsored “1 is 2 Many” public service announcement combats sexual violence using a similar tactic. 1is2ManyPSA60Second-YouTube7-tile_zps0c2a2e3fIn the PSA, a group of professional actors, along with Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama, call for an end to sexual violence and assault. Many say things like actor Daniel Craig, who says, “If I saw it happening, I’d never blame her. I’d help her.” Craig is probably most identifiable as having recently portrayed James Bond—a character who, among other things, is best known for having his way with any woman he chooses. But positioning sexual assault as something that other, bad, less masculine men do (like those, say, who lose football games) allows some men to say, “Real men don’t rape. And WE are real men.” But the “real men” discourse may be problematic in and of itself. (See the “My Strength is Not for Hurting” campaign for another example of this tactic).

What all of these instances illustrate and what draws us to them is that they seem to illustrate (positive) changes in contemporary masculinity—young men engaging in activities stigmatized as feminine, athletes shaming one of their own for sexual assault, male politicians and actors publicly espousing an end to sexual violence. If, as activists have argued, a problematic aspect of masculinity is the fact that it entails putting others down, distance from femininity, and sexually dominating women, then we should be unequivocally celebrating these changes.

However, as we have written about before, gendered change is complicated. These changes illustrate that masculinities are flexible—sometimes incredibly so. Masculinities can be prodded and reworked in ways that incorporate practices and symbols not historically associated with masculinity at all. But, in reworking them, masculinity reveals that depriving others of this powerful social identity is often the key ingredient of the social identity. These transformations hold incredible potential. But, whether that potential is realized is an entirely different question. And that, it seems, is the next project: realizing potential for gendered change that does not revolve around repudiating less socially desirable gendered identities or rely on the methods of dominance involved in sustaining some forms of social inequality in the first place.

What Research About Transgender People Can Teach Us About Gender and Inequality

Originally posted at Huff Post Women

Most people think of gender as some kind of inalienable property of individuals — as something we either are or have. Decades of scholarship on gender have uncovered a perspective at odds with the conventional wisdom. The thing about conventional wisdom, though, is that it’s difficult to challenge even when we can prove it wrong. It’s much more accurate to talk about gender as something we “do” than as something we simply “are” or “have.” While this might initially seem like splitting hairs, people’s lives, legislation, and more hang in the balance. Sociologists Laurel Westbrook and Kristen Schilt just published a new study on how the media manage moments of conflict over who “counts” as a woman or a man, and they’ve uncovered new reasons why we ought to care more about this distinction than you might have thought. Their study of how media navigate transgender individuals tells us more than why transgender people challenge conventional wisdom on gender. They continue a tradition in the sociology of gender of relying of the experiences of transgender people to provide new insights into what gender is and how taken for granted gender inequality has become.

Transgender individuals have long been of interest to sociologists of sex and gender. Transgender people are a powerful illustration of some of the cracks in the ways we think about gender and gender difference, and they often have the most to tell us about what gender is and how it gets produced. But, before I explain why Westbrook and Schilt’s new research is so important, I want to provide a short history of why the experiences of transgender people are so important. Perhaps the most famous transgender woman to be studied is a woman who scholars refer to as “Agnes” to protect her anonymity. Agnes is an American woman who, in the 1960s, was in her late teens when she heard about study at UCLA concerned with “disorders of gender identity” on the radio. The research team was interested in coming up with a set of medical guidelines for determining who ought to be allowed to undergo what were then called sex reassignment surgeries (now more accurately and respectfully referred to as gender confirmation surgeries).

Agnes first came in to meet with the research team because she was had a dilemma she couldn’t solve on her own and she was hopeful they could help. Agnes had all of the bodily signs of femininity you might expect with one small exception. She had a small waist, slender fingers and wrists, long hair, feminine breasts, and more. Beyond this, Agnes had the gamut of feminine intangibles. She was soft-spoken, moved slowly, sat with her legs together, crossed at the ankle. She waited to have doors opened for her, rarely interrupted. She was, in other words, a paragon of femininity. And, despite coming in to talk with a group of researchers concerned with disorders of gender identity, there really wasn’t anything “disordered” about Agnes’ gender at all. She was completely comfortable with and confident in her gender. Her real problem was that she had a penis and was interested in receiving a surgery that would better help her body confirm her gender more completely.

Agnes was studied by surgeons, endocrinologists, psychologists, all matter of medical professionals, and — as fate would have it — a sociologist named Harold Garfinkel. Garfinkel wasn’t a sociologist of gender; indeed, the sociology of gender didn’t even really exist at that point. And it may very well be Agnes that we should thank for its production. While the medical professionals meeting with Agnes (among others) were all concerned with helping her, they were also all casually in agreement that it was Agnes who was the one with the problem. Garfinkel’s great insight was to recognize that while her desire for surgery may be statistically rare, there was nothing at all “problematic” about her gender. In fact, Garfinkel found that Agnes knew quite a bit more about her gender than most. Rather than teaching Agnes how to better “fit in” or “pass” as a woman, Garfinkel became increasingly interested in what he could learn from Agnes about gender.

Having been raised as a boy in her youth, much of what Agnes understood about femininity was learned a bit more deliberately on her part and practiced more intentionally than it is for many young women. She was able to talk about the subtleties of gender in ways that are invisible to many people. Transgender communities and medical professionals still use the term “passing” to assess how well transgender people are able to “pass” as the gender with which they identify. Indeed, having successfully passed as a woman or man for a defined period of time is often considered part of the criteria for receiving a diagnosis that enables transgender people to undergo gender confirmation surgeries (if they so desire). But it was Agnes’ intricate insights into her daily performances of gender that allowed Garfinkel to realize that gender is a performance for everyone. It wasn’t just Agnes who was passing; we’re all passing as men and women. Agnes was just better able to talk about it than most. It becomes so much a part of who we think we are that most of us don’t even recognize the daily work we do to pass as men and women (shaving, make-up, clothes, hair cuts, styles of walking, talking, sitting, how to interact conversationally, carrying wallets or a purse, and more). It’s exhausting once you list it all out, and we’re constantly at work.

Passing is important to many transgender people on different levels: from issue of violence personal safety to the psychological pleasures associated with being publicly recognized with who we understand ourselves to be. Yet, transgender people struggle with more than simply being publicly recognized. They also struggle with recognition from a variety of institutions, and it’s here that Westbrook and Schilt break new ground in research and theory on gender and inequality. Transgender men and women struggle having government documents altered to reflect their identities. But, access to legibly and legally gendered identities also comes with access to institutions, like workplaces, housing, competitive sports, and all variety of public accommodations (like, restrooms for instance). We don’t often think about this, but like Agnes, transgender people often make gender more visible — they lay bare gender arrangements in our society, like our fierce allegiance to the idea that bathroom and sports teams (among other things) ought to be gender segregated.

Deciding that a transwoman “counts” as a woman is done on multiple levels. It’s done in our interactions when we publicly recognize her identity. But it’s also done institutionally, if we consider whether or not she ought to be allowed to change her driver’s license to represent her gender or whether we ought to let her compete against other women in competitive sports. A great deal of anxiety is often provoked around these issues — what Westbrook and Schilt refer to as “gender panics” — and Westbrook and Schilt use the media as a litmus test of that collective angst. Surveying newspaper articles surrounding gender panics to do with three separate issues (transgender rights legislation, a 2006 policy proposal in New York to remove genital surgery as a requirement to change sex markers on birth certificates, and controversies over transgender athletes), Westbrook and Schilt provide a new way of thinking about and measuring gender inequality.

It turns out that the criteria for determining a person’s gender vary — they’re not the same everywhere. As Westbrook and Schilt argue, while most people “keep the same classification in all spaces, transgender people may be given different gender classifications… depending on the type of interaction occurring in the space.” So, for instance, while we might collectively acknowledge transgender women as women in their daily lives, we are often less willing (or have a different set of criteria) to acknowledge them as women in restrooms or on sports fields. For example, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) — the body that, among other things, makes decisions about the gender categories in which transgender and intersex athletes can compete — has an elaborate set of criteria for considering whether or not transgender athletes can compete as the gender with which they identify. But we don’t rely on these same criteria in most social interactions. Gender-segregated settings are much more heavily policed and women’s spaces are more heavily policed than men’s. Gender-integrated settings — like workplaces — involve fewer gender panics. It’s those spaces we think men and women ought to be separate that provoke the most powerful reactions.

Westbrook and Schilt also found that the criteria for being considered a man are much less demanding than the criteria to be considered a woman. The real anxiety appears around people who have penises who enter women’s-only spaces. Not everyone with a penis identifies or is identified as a man, nor do all those without penises identify as women. But, the penis is a powerful cultural proxy. Thus, in Katie Couric’s recent interview with Laverne Cox (a transgender woman and actress), it’s not surprising that Cox was asked about the status of her genitals. Cox deftly dealt with the question by refocusing the conversation on transgender people’s lives rather than their genitals. Westbrook and Schilt found that a great deal less anxiety appears around transgender people — even in gender-integrated settings — when the transgender person is penis-free (regardless of whether the person in question identifies as a woman or man). This interesting insight enables Westbrook and Schilt to say something really powerful about gender inequality and our collective investment in its existence.

Public reactions to and acceptance of transgender people function as a sort of gender inequality Rorschach test. This cultural anxiety provoked by penises in “women’s” spaces belies a larger investment in a twin set of cultural ideals: the belief that all people with penises are uniquely capable of violence and the belief that those without penises are uniquely vulnerable. While this anxiety might be easily upset by recognizing that transgender women are most often the targets — not the perpetrators — of violence, Westbrook and Schilt’s research shows that this fact is less publicly recognized than it should be. Indeed, Schilt and Westbrook address violence against transgender women in their previous research as did Cox in her interview with Couric. And our collective failure to recognize violence against transgender women is a testament to the power of conventional wisdom about gender. While transgender people have a unique capacity to help us understand gender as more flexible than we often imagine, Westbrook and Schilt’s research illustrates the ways that the challenges brought about by transgender individuals are often dealt with in ways that have the effect of shoring up our faith in gender as innate and gender inequality is inevitable. This research helps us learn more about some of the most deeply held beliefs in our culture about gender. Their findings show that, despite the many gains toward greater gender equality, we still fervently hold onto a set of beliefs that speak to the endurance of inequality and just how difficult it will be to overcome.

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.