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

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections

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

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

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

Colorism, Gender, and School Suspension

By Tristan Bridges and C.J. Pascoe

gwptwittericon2Originally posted at Girl W/ Pen

Alice Walker, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Color Purple, coined the “colorism” term to define: “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on the color of their skin” (here: 290). Colorism occurs when groups of people are discriminated against in systematic ways on the basis of skin color alone.  The differential treatment results not simply from being recognized as belonging to a specific racial category, but from the values associated with the actual color of someone’s skin.  And it is one way that social scientists have looked at inequalities within as well as between racial groups.

Some of the social scientific findings that provoked more research on colorism uncovered skin color-based disparities within the criminal justice system. Research has shown, for example, that skin color affects the length of time people are sentenced to serve in prison, the proportion of their sentences that they do serve, and the likelihood of receiving the death penalty.  This research has less often focused explicitly on intersections with gender inequality.

A recent article in Race and Social Problems by Lance Hannon, Robert DeFina, and Sarah Bruch—“The Relationship Between Skin Tone and School Suspension for African Americans”—addresses these intersections centrally. They analyze the relationship between race, skin color, gender, and the school suspension.  Similar to what research on criminal sentencing has shown, Hannon, DeFina, and Bruch found that darker skin tone was significantly related to the likelihood of being suspended in school.  African American students with darker skin had a higher probability of being suspended than those with lighter skin.  But, upon closer investigation, they discovered that that finding was primarily driven by the fact that skin tone has a much larger impact on African American girls than on African American boys.

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James Messerschmidt and “Masculine Resources”

Since I was first interested in masculinity, I’ve been interested in the situatedness of it.  The thing about masculinity is, it’s a moving target.  What “counts” as masculine is not something we can measure in any straightforward way.  Masculinity’s flexible, it’s adaptable.  When we say that people “have” it—that is, when we say that people are masculine—this is really best qualified by a follow-up question: Where?  Where are they masculine?  Gender is contextually contingent; it’s fluid.  What “counts” as masculine shifts—sometimes subtly, sometimes substantially—from culture to culture, generation to generation, as we age, and from context to context.  Studying the “saying and doing” of gender (as Martin puts it) sometimes disguises the fact that we often say and do gender a bit differently around different groups, in different settings, and depending on what kinds of cultural tools are around on which we can rely.

Mens-Locker-Room-Graphic-Sign-SE-2970The example I most often discuss in classes is men’s locker rooms.  We often think of the locker as a space in which men perform masculinity a bit differently than they do outside of this space.  It’s often presented as a cultural “safe space” for men—a space in which they can talk and act however they want without fear of reprisal.  And though I’ve never formally studied men’s locker room experiences, I’d imagine that it’s experienced as a safe space for some boys and young men more than others.  Men’s locker rooms are also often cast as hallowed spaces—what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room.  What’s interesting about the “locker room phenomenon” to me is not only what goes on in there (though that’s interesting too), but that masculinity is understood to change shape behind those doors.

There are really two key questions when considering this issue: (1) What’s salient?—What kinds of performances, objects, knowledge, etc. “count” when considering masculinity?; and (2) Where?—Where do all of these different components of gender count?  Sometimes we construct contexts within which the masculinities we might fancy ourselves as “having” will be highly valued (like club houses, man caves, bachelor pads, and more).  But, possibly more often, we seek out social contexts within which our “gender capital” is afforded cultural status and esteem.

How people make decisions about how to “do” masculinity is best understood in context.  We do masculinities a bit differently depending on where we are, who and what is around, and possibly just as important, who and what is not around.

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Masculinity, Gender (Non)Conformity, and Queer Visibility

by Tristan Bridges and CJ Pascoe

gwptwittericon2Originally posted at Girl W/ Pen

WarpaintCoco Layne got a haircut.  She shaved both sides of her head, but left the top at a length that falls roughly to the bottom of her face.  As a feminist fashion, art, and lifestyle blogger, she was quick to recognize the ways that she could subtly re-style her hair and dramatically alter her presentation of gender (here).   So, in classic feminist art blogger style, she produced an art project depicting her experience.  Coco’s project—“Warpaint”—comes on the heels of several other photographic projects dealing critically with gender: JJ Levine’s series of photographs—“Alone Time”—depicting one person posing as both a man and a woman in a single photograph (digitally altered to include both images); the media frenzy over Casey Legler, a woman who garnered attention, recognition and contracts modeling as a man; the Japanese lingerie company that recently went viral by using a man’s body to sell a push-up bra, just to name a few.

Along with these other photographic projects on gender, Warpaint is critical commentary on what gender is, where it comes from, how flexible it is, what this flexibility means, and what gender (non)conformity has to do with sexuality.  Coco’s work provides important lessons about how gender is produced just below the radar of most people most of the time.  These projects all point out the extensive work that goes into doing gender in a way that is recognizable by others. Indeed, recognition by others is key to doing gender “correctly.” It is what scholar Judith Butler calls performativity or the way in which people are compelled to engage in an identifiably gendered performance. When people fail to do this, Butler argues that they are abject, not culturally decipherable and thus subject to all sorts of social sanctions. Butler points out that the performance of gender itself produces a belief that something, someone, or some authentic, inalienable gendered self lies behind the performance.  These photographic projects lay bear the fiction that there is this sort of inevitably gendered self behind the performance of gender.  This is precisely why these projects produce such discussion and, for some, discomfort.  It makes (some of) us uncomfortable by challenging our investments in and folk theories surrounding certain ways of thinking about gender and sexuality.

Much of the commentary the Warpaint project focused on Coco’s ability to get a retail job when she displayed her body in ways depicted on the bottom row.  Indeed her experience reflects research indicates that different workplaces reward particular gender appearances and practices. Kristen Schilt’s research on transmen at work, for instance, highlights the way that performances of masculinity get translated into workplace acceptance for these men. Yet doing gender in a way that calls into question its naturalness can put people (including those who do not identify as gender queer or tans) at risk. In Jespersen v Harrah, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that female employees can be required to wear makeup as a condition of employment (in a workplace where men are not required to wear it).  While recent decisions have been more favorable to trans identified employees, most states do not have employment law or school policies protecting gender non-conforming individuals.  Simply put, most states do not have laws addressing —to use Coco’s language—gender expression.

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On the Significance of Digitally Documenting Zoo Visits

I posted a while ago about our last trip to a zoo (The Denver Zoo, actually—during our trip out for last year’s ASA conference).  Today, we visited the Buffalo Zoo, which is actually one of the oldest zoos in the country.  Zoos are fascinating places.  They still have the stink of empire and colonization to me.  But, I’ve been sociologically interested in zoos ever since seeing Marjorie DeVault present on some of her research concerning zoo visits and family life.  Zoos are an extraordinary example of how families learn to look at the world in similar ways.  Parents teach children how to position themselves to look at something, to be mindful of others (or not), what to look at, what is “important” (animals) and what should be ignored (fences, cages, and plant life), etc.  It is through small practices like this that intimate groups (like families) collectively reaffirm themselves.

Ciaran and PapaFor instance, most visitors passed right by a rhinoceros lying down in a pool to cool off.  The rhino was mostly concealed beneath the water.  But, rhinos are my son’s favorite animal of late.  So, while a half-hidden rhino doing nothing but shaking her ears is something many people chose to walk by, our family stopped because it’s significant to Ciaran.  And in stopping, we collaborated in producing a small family ritual—one of those insignificant moments that is part of what makes us “Us.”

A great deal about zoos has changed since I was young.  I remember being able to ride elephants and camels.  I remember exhibits constructed in such a way that animals could not hide from view.  Not today.  Habitats today are more expansive, often permitting animals the ability to put themselves “on display” or out of sight.  Perhaps our understandings of the psychological consequences of captivity on (some) animals have changed.  Or perhaps our collective beliefs about animals themselves have changed.  Either way, exhibits are dramatically different than I remember as a child.

CiaranBeyond the spaces themselves, technology has dramatically altered the ways in which people interact with the exhibits.  Witnessing the exhibit often felt secondary to digitally documenting the visit.  So, unable to turn off my inner sociologist, I started documenting the documenters.  I watched a family of four come up to a habitat, each with digital cameras of their own.  They all took pictures, glancing briefly at the pictures each person took, took a few more, and moved on to the next exhibit.  Sometimes, someone took pictures of the signs, too.  Perhaps this was to remember a few facts about the animals they were so busy photographing.  Capturing the animal in an interesting pose (like this shot of my son looking at the otters) was prized.  But, getting the shot was a must.  Groups often didn’t move on until everyone with a camera got a satisfactory shot.

So what?

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