Thinking Sociologically about #OscarsSoWhite: Measuring Inequality in Hollywood

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections

1498787_10202083647508448_647008496_oThe 2016 Oscar nominations were just announced.  This is the second year in a row that all 20 acting nominees are white–prompting the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.  Matthew Hughey wrote on this issue last year as well.  The announcement got me thinking about inequality in film.  The nominees are selected by just over 7,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences–so they are elected by a panel of peers.  But members of the AMPAS are not automatically voting members.  You have to apply, and your application has to be sponsored by existing member of the branch of the Academy for which you would like to be considered (here).  So, while the Oscars are awarded by a panel of peers, who make up the list of people who qualify as “peers” in the first place is a political matter.  And just like anywhere else, knowing someone who knows someone likely plays a role in gaining access.

Sociologists who study networks are often interested in how social networks provide access to various things people might want to acquire (wealth, status, access, “success” more generally, etc.).  This is why we have a concept for just how networked you are: “social capital.”  And certainly lots of people are complaining about the fact that Hollywood is an old, white, boy’s club and attempting to change this.  Indeed, Genna Davis founded an institute to study gender in the media.  April Reign (an editor at Broadway Black and NU Tribe Magazine) founded the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite after the all-white slate of nominees were announced last year.  And Maureen Dowd of The New York Times wrote an extensive article last year on the entrenched sexism that keeps women from occupying central roles in Hollywood.  Jessica Piven, one of directors quoted in the article, said:

“I feel that there is something going on underneath all of this which is the idea that women aren’t quite as interesting as men. That men have heroic lives, do heroic things, are these kind of warriors in the world, and that women have a certain set of rooms that they have to operate in.”

This belief system results in a network saturated with men and with precious few opportunities for women–and even fewer for women of color.  And as Effie Brown’s interaction with Matt Damon in “Project Greenlight” brought up, conversations about challenging the lack of diversity in Hollywood (similar to challenging the lack of diversity elsewhere) are often met with the presumption that diversity means compromising on ability, talent and creativity.  Entrenched sexism and inequality is a struggle to challenge in any institution because… well, because it’s entrenched.  So, it’s easy to feel like the most qualified guy who just happens to also be white without fully appreciating the fact that being a white guy might have been a big part of what gave you a foot in the door in the first place.

To think about this empirically, consider the party game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. The idea plays on the theory of “six degrees of separation”—part of a sociological puzzle called the “small world problem” asking just how connected everyone in the world is to everyone else.  The theory suggests that we are no more than six connections away from anyone in the world. In the early 1990s, some students at Albright University came up with the idea for the game: pick any actor and see if you can connect that actor with Kevin Bacon through shared movie appearances with other actors as the connections. Take Angela Bassett for example. Angela Bassett was in Sunshine State (2002) with Charlayne Woodard who was in He Said, She Said (1991) with… Kevin Bacon. So, Angela Bassett has a Bacon number of 2.Screen Shot 2016-01-15 at 4.18.58 PM

Later, a group of computer science students at the University of Virginia produced the network of actors to see how “central” Kevin Bacon actually is using (you can play around with the network on their site, And, as it turns out, Kevin Bacon is a central actor—he’s been in films with over 3,000 other actors and more than 99% of all of the almost 2 million actors listed on can be connected with Kevin Bacon in 5 connections or less. But, he’s not the most central actor. He’s actually the 411th most centrally connected actor (you can see the top 1,000 most “central” actors here). But, Kevin Bacon does share some things in common with the most central actor (Eric Roberts): they’re both white, they’re both men, and they were both born within two years of each other.  Coincidence?

When I encountered the list, I noticed that there weren’t many women. There are only 3 in the top 100 most central actors.  And all three are white.  So, I wrote a script to data mine some basic information on the top 1,000 to see who they are using data from (birth year) as well as (which lists race and gender).*  The list, perhaps unsurprisingly, is dominated by men (81.75%) and by white people (87.8%). Below is the breakdown for proportions of actors among the top 1,000 most central actor by gender and race.IMDB - Gender and RaceIt’s a powerful way of saying that Hollywood continues to be a (white) boy’s club. But they’re also an old white boy’s club as well. I also collected data on birth year. And while the 50’s were the best decade to be born in if you want to be among the 1,000 most “central” actors today, the data for the men skews a bit older.** This lends support to the claim that men do not struggle to find roles as much as women do as they age–which may also support the claim that there are more complex roles available to men (as a group) than women.IMDB Birth Year - MenIMDB Birth Year - WomenThe other things I noticed quickly were that: (1) Hispanic and Asian men among the top 1,000 actors list are extremely likely to be typecast as racial stereotypes, and (2) there are more multiracial women among the top 1,000 actors than either Hispanic or Asian women.

Part of what this tells us is that we like to watch movies about white people and men… white men mostly.  But part of why we like these movies is that these are the movies in which people are investing and that get produced.  As a result of this, there are a critical mass of super-connected white men in Hollywood.  So, it shouldn’t surprise us that white actors dominate the Oscar nominations. They’ve been hoarding social capital in the industry since it began.  #OscarsSoWhite


* To get the data, I wrote a Python script using the Unofficial IMDb API and the’s API. The results were able to read data for gender for all 1,000 people on the list but only gender, birth year, and race for 959 of the 1,000 people in the dataset. The other 41 had incomplete information on both sites. And I didn’t bother to clean the data up any more.

**Part of becoming a more central actor in the network of all actors has to do with having been a part of a mass of filmed projects with a variety of different actors.  The most central actor – Eric Roberts – has worked on projects with more than 8,000 other actors over the course of his career.  And being alive longer (perhaps obviously) helps.  But, it’s not all older actors.  And you don’t have to be living to be on this list.  But, actors born in the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s aren’t as central (as decade-based groups).  So, some of this is also having been in your 20’s, 30’s and 40’s between 1970 and 1990 which was a big period of growth for Hollywood.

What Constitutes a Mass Shooting and Why You Should Care

What Constitutes a Mass Shooting and Why You Should Care

By: Tristan Bridges, Tara Leigh Tober, and Nicole Wheeler

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

How many mass shootings occurred in the United States in 2015? It seems like a relatively simple question; it sounds like just a matter of counting them. Yet, it is challenging to answer for two separate reasons: one is related to how we define mass shootings and the other to reliable sources of data on mass shootings.  And neither of these challenges have easy solutions.

As scholars and teachers, we need to think about the kinds of events we should and should not include when we make claims about mass shootings.  Earlier this year, we posted a gendered analysis of the rise of mass shootings in the U.S. relying the Mass Shootings in America database produced by the Stanford Geospatial Center. That dataset shows an incredible increase in mass shootings in 2015. Through June of 2015, we showed that there were 43 mass shootings in the U.S. The next closest year in terms of number of mass shootings was 2014, which had 16 (see graph below).  That particular dataset relies heavily on mass shootings that achieve a good deal of media attention.  So, it’s possible that the increase is due to an increase in reporting on mass shootings, rather than an increase in the actual number of mass shootings that occurred.  Though, if and which mass shootings are receiving more media attention are certainly valid questions as well.

Mass Shootings (Stanford) 1If you’ve been following the news on mass shootings, you may have noticed that the Washington Post has repeatedly reported that there have been more mass shootings than days in 2015. That claim relies on a different dataset produced by And both the Stanford Geospatial Center dataset and data differ from the report on mass shootings regularly updated by Mother Jones.* For instance, below are the figures from for the years 2013-2015.

Mass Shootings, 2013-2015 ( a detailed day-by-day visualization of the mass shootings collected in the dataset between 2013 and 2015, see below (click each graph to enlarge).

Mass Shootings 2013

Mass Shootings 2014

Mass Shootings 2015


The reason for this discrepancy has to do with definition in addition to data collection.  The dataset produced by the Stanford Geospatial Center is not necessarily exhaustive.  But they also rely on different definitions to decide what qualifies as a “mass shooting” in the first place.

The Stanford Geospatial Center’s Mass Shootings in America database defines mass shootings as shooting incidents that are not identifiably gang- or drug-related with 3 or more shooting victims (not necessarily fatalities) not including the shooter.  The dramatic spike apparent in this dataset in 2015 is likely exaggerated due to online media and increased reporting on mass shootings in recent years. claims to ensure a more exhaustive sample (if over a shorter period of time).  These data include any incidents in which four or more people are shot and/or killed at the same general time and location.  Thus, some data do not include drug and gang related shootings or cases of domestic violence, while others do.  What is important to note is that neither dataset requires that a certain number of people is actually killed.  And this differs in important ways from how the FBI has counted these events.

Neither nor the Stanford Geospatial Center dataset rely on the definition of mass shootings used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Supplementary Homicide Reporting (SHR) program which tracks the number of mass shooting incidents involving at least four fatalities (not including the shooter). The table below indicates how different types of gun-related homicides are labeled by the FBI.

Screen Shot 2015-12-14 at 2.05.18 PMOften, the media report on events that involve a lot of shooting, but fail to qualify as “mass murders” or “spree killings” by the FBI’s definition.  Some scholarship has suggested that we stick with the objective definition supplied by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  And when we do that, whether mass shootings are on the rise or not becomes less easy to say.  Some scholars suggest that they are not on the rise, while others suggest that they are.  And both of these perspectives, in addition to others, influence the media.

One way of looking at this issue is asking, “Who’s right?”  Which of these various ways of measuring mass shootings, in other words, is the most accurate?  This is, we think, the wrong question to be asking.  What is more likely true is that we’ll gather different kinds of information with different definitions – and that is an important realization, and one that ought to be taken more seriously.  For instance, does the racial and ethnic breakdown of shooters look similar or different with different definitions?  No matter which definition you use, men between the ages of 20 and 40 are almost the entire dataset.  We also know less than we should about the profiles of the victims (those injured and killed).  And we know even less about how those profiles might change as we adopt different definitions of the problem we’re measuring.

There is some recognition of this fact as, in 2013, President Obama signed the Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act into law, granting the attorney general authority to study mass killings and attempted mass killings.  The result was the production of an FBI study of “active shooting incidents” between 2000 and 2013 in the U.S.  The study defines active shooting incidents as:

“an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.” Implicit in this definition is that the subject’s criminal actions involve the use of firearms. (here: 5)

The study discovered 160 incidents between 2000 and 2013.  And, unlike mass murders (events shown to be relatively stable over the past 40 years), this study showed active shooter incidents to be on the rise.  This study is important as it helps to illustrate that the ways we have operationalized mass shootings in the past are keeping us from understanding all that we might be able to about them.  The graph below charts the numbers of incidents documented by some of the different datasets used to study mass shootings.

Mass Shootings Comparison

Fox and DeLateur suggested that it is a myth that mass shootings are on the rise using data collected by the FBI Supplementary Homicide Report.  We added a trendline to that particular dataset on the graph to illustrate that even with what is likely the most narrow definition (in terms of deaths), the absolute number of mass shootings appears to be on the rise. We do not include the data here as those rates are so much higher that it renders much of what we can see on this graph invisible.  What is also less known is what kind of overlap there is between these different sources of data.

All of this is to say that when you hear someone say that mass shootings are on the rise, they are probably right.  But just how right they are is a matter of data and definition.  And we need to be more transparent about the limits of both.


*Mother Jones defines mass shootings as single incidents that take place in a public setting focusing on cases in which a lone shooter acted with the apparent goal of committing indiscriminate mass murder and in which at least four people were killed (other than the shooter).  Thus, the Mother Jones dataset does not include gang violence, armed robbery, drug violence or domestic violence cases.  Some have suggested that not all of shootings they include are consistent with their definition (like Columbine or San Bernardino, both of which had more than one shooter).

Pop Music, Rape Culture, and the Sexualization of Blurred Lines

By Tristan Bridges and C.J. Pascoe

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections

Robin-Thicke-Blurred-LinesRobin Thicke’s song, “Blurred Lines,” achieved international recognition in 2013. But the lyrics were also heavily criticized as promoting sexual violence by celebrating “blurred lines” around sexual consent. Indeed, the song and video prompted an online photo essay in which women and men are depicted holding up signs with words they heard from their own rapists—some of which were almost direct quotes from Thicke’s song. The song received a great deal of negative and positive press all at the same time. The media attention seemed to prove the media adage that any coverage is good coverage if Thicke’s continued celebrity is any measure.

It’s not a new argument to suggest that many elements of what feminist scholars refer to as “rape culture” are embedded in seemingly pleasurable elements of pop culture, like songs, movies, television shows etc. And Robin Thicke’s song served as an example to many of how we not only tolerate rape culture—but how we celebrate it and render it “sexy.” Recently, Rebecca Traister discussed just how much rape culture even informs what we think of as “good sex” in her piece “The Game is Rigged: Why Consensual Sex Can Still be Bad.” In it, Traister challenges the notion that all consensual sex is good and shows just how messy the debate about what qualifies as “consensual” really is. In many ways, our national discussion around sexual assault and consent is taking up themes raised by feminists in the 1980s about what actually qualifies as consent in a society in which violence against women is considered sexy.

Compared with “Blurred Lines,” Justin Bieber’s newly released hit single, “What Do You Mean?” has been subject to less critique. The notion that women do not actually know what they want and that they are notoriously bad and communicating their desires (sexual and otherwise) is pervasive. In the song, Bieber asks the woman with whom he’s interacting, “What do you mean? / Ohh ohh ohh/ When you nod your head yes / But you wanna say no / What do you mean?” The lack of clear consent isn’t just present in the song; it is what provides the sexual tension. It’s part of what is intended to make the song “sexy.”

Sexualizing women’s sexual indecision is an important part of the way rape culture works. It is one way that conversations about consent often over-simplify a process that is and should be much more complex. The song itself presents Bieber nagging the woman to whom he’s singing to make a decision about their relationship. But there are many elements suggesting that the decision she’s being asked to make is more immediate as well—not only about the larger relationship, but about a sexual interaction in the near future. Throughout the song, the click of a stopwatch can be heard as a beat against which Bieber presses the woman to make a decision while berating her for the mixed signals she has been sending him.


Image from Bloomingdale’s 2015 holiday catalog.

Bieber is presented as the “good guy” throughout the song by attempting to really decipher what the woman actually means. Indeed, this is another element of rape culture: the way in which we are encouraged to see average, everyday guys as “not-rapists,” because rapists are the bad guys who attack women from bushes (at worst) or simply get them drunk at a party (at best).*  The controversy over the ad in Bloomingdale’s recent 2015 holiday catalog urging readers to “spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking” shows that this kind of rape culture is also casually promoted in popular culture as well.  But, the larger discourse that Bieber’s song plays a role in promoting is the notion that women do not know what they mean or want. Bieber plays the role of someone simultaneously pressuring her for sexual advance (“Said we’re running out of time”), helping her work through her feelings (“What do you mean?”), and demanding results (“Better make up your mind”). And, like the Bloomingdale’s advertisement, this is not sexy.

Indeed, the music video (above) takes this a step further. Bieber is shown at the beginning paying John Leguizamo on a street corner and asking him to make sure “she doesn’t get hurt.” We later find out that John was paid to orchestrate a kidnapping of both Justin and the woman whom he meets in a hotel room. Both are taken by men in masks, driven to a warehouse in the trunk of a car, and tied up. Justin is able to free them, but they are still in a room with their kidnappers. They back up to a door that leads outside the building and see that they are one of the top floors. Justin turns to the woman, holds out his hand and asks, “Do you trust me?” She takes his hand and they both jump out of the building. They jump and fall to the ground, landing on a parachute pillow only to discover that the whole thing was a trick. The kidnapping was actually orchestrated ruse to bring her to a party that they entered by leaping from the building away from the men who’d taken them. The men in masks all reveal themselves to be smiling beneath. She smiles at Justin, recognizing that it was all a trick, grabs his face, kisses him and they dance the night away in the underground club.

Even though the song is about feeling like a woman really can’t make up her mind about Justin, their relationship, and sexual intimacy, the woman in the video is not depicted this way at all. She appears sexually interested in Justin from the moment the two meet in the video and not bothered by his questions and demands at all. Though it is worth mentioning that he is terrorizing her in the name of romance, indeed the terror itself is a sign of how much he loves her—also a part of rape culture. This visual display alongside the lyrics works in ways that obscure the content of the lyrics, content that works against much of what we are shown visually.

justin-bieber-what-do-you-mean-cover-413x413Part of what makes rape culture so insidious is that violence against women is rendered pleasurable and even desirable. Thicke and Bieber’s songs are catchy, fun, and beg to be danced to. The women in Thicke’s video also appear to be having fun strutting around nude while the men sing. The woman in Bieber’s video is being kidnapped and terrified for sport, sure, but it’s because he wants to show his love for her. She’s shown realizing and appreciating this at the conclusion of the video. Rape culture hides the ways that sexual violence is enacted upon women’s bodies every day. It obscures the ways that men work to minimize women’s control over their own bodies. It conceals the ways that sexual violence stems not just from dangerous, deviant others, but the normal everydayness of heterosexual interactions. And all of this works to make sexualized power arrangements more challenging to identify as problematic, which is precisely what makes confronting rape culture so challenging.


*See C.J. Pascoe and Jocelyn Hollander’s forthcoming work in Gender & Society“Good Guys Don’t Rape: Gender, Domination, and Mobilizing Rape”—for more on what this discourse looks like and how it works.

Bro-Porn Revisited: Heterosexualizing Straight White Men’s Anti-homophobia (again)

By: C.J. Pascoe and Tristan Bridges

Originally posted at Girl W/ Pen!

A few months ago Kentucky county clerk Kim Davies made the news because she refused enact the Supreme Court order to marry same sex couples in her county citing religious objections. Davis was jailed for contempt of court, released, and is now back at work, though letting her subordinates marry same sex couples rather than doing so herself. Last week Justice Kennedy suggested, perhaps not directly, that she resign from her job.

But this post isn’t about Kim Davies; it’s about a protest against Kim Davies. Understandably, people, both gay and straight, were upset about her behavior – some protested outside of her office, some confronted her at her desk, some wrote op-eds, some went on talk shows. Others took to YouTube and Instagram as they staged a virtual kiss-in across the United States in a protest called #kissesforkim.

CPT43X8VEAAu8nYThis protest was started by two comedians from the group Comedians in Public – Jericho Davidson and Michael Albanese. These two heavily bearded, and apparently straight, men, in a video launching the #kissesforkim project said, “Dear Kim Davis, we want to let you know that no matter what you do, love will always win.” They instructed viewers to “grab your closest friend, give him a kiss, take a photo or video, and upload it using #KissesForKim, to let Kim know that she cannot win.”

While these instructions are aimed at “gay, bi, trans WHOMEVER!” according the video, the pictures of two presumably straight men kissing were picked up most favorably by the interwebs. for instance, posted the following “#Heterosexual men the whole world over are making out with each other for a good cause. Find out why at #kissesforkim #kimdavis #kissykissy #smoochsmooch #xoxo #gay #straight #samelove.”  Indeed, much was made of the fact that the two men who created the campaign identified as straight. Now it’s not that same sex couples didn’t appear in these photos, it’s that the straight-identified men got the attention. For instance, in this photo the poster points out that he and his partner are not straight.
Kissesforkim1Other posters even thanked straight men for doing this, calling them “great men.”
kissesforkim2We would suggest that the focus on (and discourse surrounding) straight men kissing is instructive. In fact, it reminded us of a previous episode we had written about who were engaging in seemingly same sex activities in a post we called “Bro-Porn.” In that post we addressed the way in which two straight comedians kissed at Chick-fil-A to protest the organization’s homophobic policies and the Warwick men’s rowing team posing nude for a photo shoot. We suggested that perhaps engaging in acts that seemingly contradict normative expectations of masculinity, may in fact bolster it:

This sort of “bro-ing” of anti-homophobia stances does not necessarily have the effect of challenging the naturalness and inevitability of sexual and gender categories. Much like the anti-Chick-fil-A video made by two straight, white men to protest the restaurant’s homophobic policies, Macklemore’s and the Warwick rowing team’s gender and sexual practices and proclamations reinscribe their heterosexuality as so powerful and inevitable that even an anti-homophobia stance can’t call them into question. (here)

In that post, we suggested that performances of protest, in some ways, underscore the same understandings of heterosexual masculinity that make the form of protest noticeable in the first place. They illustrate a form of heteroflexibility that is celebrated as heterosexual and masculine when the right men participate in the right ways. In the end, they’re actually strategically relying on the very discourse they claim to oppose. Something similar is likely going on with the #kissesforkim protest.

How could that be? To begin, it’s important that these forms of protest/allyship involve humor; they’re played for laughs.  And part of the “humor” in these forms of digital activism is that these guys are so straight that no one would ever actually think they are gay.  In doing so, they actually shore up heterosexual privilege–albeit in a new and unorthodox fashion.

9781479825172_FullThe very smart new book Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men by Jane Ward addresses precisely this issue. In studying straight identified men who have sex with one another, Ward shows that sex between straight white men is a lot more common than you might think. In the book, Ward is centrally interested in how it is that sex and sexual acts between straight white men are read as credibly “heterosexual.” Ward uncovers a terrific array of discourses relied upon by straight men that authorize “lapses” in their otherwise heterosexual identities and behavior. She refers to the discourses collectively as “hetero-exceptionalism.” And at the conclusion of the book, Ward makes a really interesting argument about what homonormativity has done for straight white guys who might occasionally engage in sexual behavior with other straight white guys. She writes,

Increasingly central to contemporary discourse about the difference between heteroflexibility and authentic gayness is a romanticized story about queerness as same-sex love, as opposed to “meaningless” same-sex sex. The former is reserved for the real gays, while the latter is available to heteroflexible straights as well. (here: 197)

kissesforkim5This is not to say that the straight white guys participating in #kissesforkim don’t actually want change. We’re not arguing that their “real” motives are sinister and are actually attempts to reclaim the spotlight. We are here interested in how these men’s behavior is understood, what people seem to imagine it “means” and doesn’t mean, and the fact that straight white men’s participation here is so celebrated.  And we are interested in what kinds of cultural transformations provide a framework within which we can make sense of these men’s activism and our collective interest in them.  In this case, homonormativity provides a discourse within which these men’s same-sex behaviors can be read as straight–as “hetero-exceptional.”  #kissesforkim continues a tradition of straight white men receiving an incredible amount of attention for being willing to take a stand against sexual prejudice, even if that “stand” might be little more than a party gag in front of friends.

Masculinity and Mass Shootings in the U.S.

By: Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

Following the recent mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17th, 2015–a racially motivated act of domestic terrorism–President Barack Obama delivered a sobering address to the American people. With a heavy heart, President Obama spoke the day following the attack, stating:

At some point we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing that politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge. (here)

President Obama was primarily referring to gun control in the portion of his speech addressing the cause of attacks like this. Not all mass shootings are racially motivated, and not all qualify as “terrorist” attacks—though Charleston certainly qualifies.  And the mass shooting that occurred a just a month later in Chattanooga, Tennessee by a Kuwati-born American citizen was quickly labeled an act of domestic terrorism. But, President Obama makes an important point here: mass shootings are a distinctly American problem. This type of rampage violence happens more in the United States of America than anywhere else (see here for a thorough analysis of international comparisons). And gun control is a significant part of the problem. But, gun control is only a partial explanation for mass shootings in the United States. Mass shootings are also almost universally committed by men.  So, this is not just an American problem; it’s a problem related to American masculinity and to the ways American men use guns.  But asking whether “guns” or “masculinity” is more of the problem misses the central point that separating the two might not be as simple as it sounds.  And, as Mark Follman, Gavin Aronsen, and Deanna Pan note in the Mother Jones Guide to Mass Shootings in America, the problem is getting worse.

We recently wrote a chapter summarizing the research on masculinity and mass shootings for Mindy Stombler and Amanda Jungels’ forthcoming volume, Focus on Social Problems: A Contemporary Reader (forthcoming, Oxford University Press). And we subsequently learned of a new dataset on mass shootings in the U.S. produced by the Stanford Geospatial Center. Their Mass Shootings in America database defines a “mass shooting” as an incident during which an active shooter shoots three or more people in a single episode. Some databases define mass shootings as involving 4 shootings in a single episode. And part of this reveals that the number is, in some ways, arbitrary. What is significant is that we can definitively say that mass shootings in the U.S. are on the rise, however they are defined. The Mother Jones database has shown that mass shootings have become more frequent over the past three decades.  And, using the Stanford Mass Shootings in America database, we can see this trend here (below) by relying on data that stretches back a bit further.

Mass Shootings FrequencyAdditionally, we know that the number of victims of mass shootings is also at an historic high (below).Victims of Mass ShootingsWe also produced a time-lapse map of mass shootings in the United States illustrating both where and when mass shootings have occurred using the Stanford Geospatial Center’s database to illustrate this trend over time (see below).

Our map charts mass shootings with 3 or more victims over roughly 5 decades, since 1966. The dataset takes us through the Chattanooga, Tennessee shooting, which brought 2015 to 42 mass shootings (as of July).* The dataset is composed of 216 separate incidents only 5 of which were committed by lone woman shooters. Below we produced an interactive map depicting all of the mass shootings in the dataset with brief descriptions of the shootings.

In our chapter in Stombler and Jungels’ forthcoming book, we cull existing research to answer two questions about mass shootings: (1) Why is it men who commit mass shootings? and (2) Why do American men commit mass shootings so much more than men anywhere else?  Based on sociological research, we argue that there are two separate explanations–a social psychological explanation and a cultural explanation (see the book for much more detail on each).

A Social Psychological Explanation–Research shows that when an identity someone cares about is called into question, they are likely to react by over-demonstrating qualities associated with that identity.  As this relates to gender, some sociologists call this “masculinity threat.”  And while mass shootings are not common, research suggests that mass shooters experience masculinity threats from their peers and, sometimes, simply from an inability to live up to societal expectations associated with masculinity (like holding down a steady job, being able to obtain sexual access to women’s bodies, etc.)–some certainly more toxic than others.  The research on this topic is primarily experimental.  Men who are brought into labs and have their masculinity experimentally “threatened” (see here for more details) react in patterned ways: they are more supportive of violence, less likely to identify sexual coercion, more likely to support statements about the inherent superiority of males, and more.  This research provides important evidence of what men perceive as masculine in the first place (resources they rely on in a crisis) and a new kind evidence regarding the relationship of masculinity and violence.  The research does not suggest that men are somehow inherently more violent than women.  Rather, it suggests that men are likely to turn to violence when they perceive themselves to be otherwise unable to stake a claim to a masculine gender identity.

A Cultural Explanation–But certainly boys and men experience all manner of gender identity threat in other societies.  Why are American boys and men more likely to react with such extreme displays?  To answer this question, we need an explanation that articulates the role that American culture plays in influencing boys and young men to turn to this kind of violence at rates higher than anywhere else in the world.  This means we need to turn our attention away from the individual characteristics of the shooters themselves and to more carefully investigate the sociocultural contexts in which violent masculinities are produced and valorized.  Men have historically benefited from a great deal of privilege–white, educated, middle and upper class, able-bodied, heterosexual men in particular.  Social movements of all kinds have slowly chipped away at some of these privileges.  So, while inequality is alive and well, men have also seen a gradual erosion of privileges that flowed more seamlessly to previous generations of men (white, heterosexual, class-privileged men in particular).  Michael Kimmel suggests that these changes have produced a uniquely American gendered sentiment that he calls “aggrieved entitlement.”  Of course, being pissed off about an inability to cash in on privileges previous generations of men received without question doesn’t always lead to mass shootings.  But, from this cultural perspective, mass shootings can be understood as an extremely violent example of a more general issue regarding changes in relations between men and women and historical transformations in gender, race, and class inequality.

Mass shootings are a pressing issue in the United States.  And gun control is an important part of this problem.  But, when we focus only on the guns, we sometimes gloss over an important fact: mass shootings are also enactments of masculinity.  And they will continue to occur when this fact is combined with a sense among some men that male privilege is a birthright–and one that many feel unjustly denied.


*The mass shootings in Charleston, South Carolina in June of 2015 and Chattanooga, Tennessee in July of 2015 were not in the dataset when we received it.  The data ran through May of 2015.  So, we’ve added the Charleston and Chattanooga shootings into the dataset for the graphs and maps on this post.

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?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted at Social (In)Queery

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

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

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

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

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