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 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, 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).

Barrel Chests, Brawn, and Buffoonery: Controlling Images of Masculinity in Pixar Movies

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

I just read and reviewed Shannon Wooden and Ken Gillam’s Pixar’s Boy Stories: Masculinity in a Postmodern Age. And I thought I’d build on some of a piece of their critique of a pattern in the Pixar canon to do with portrayals of masculine embodiment. In Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins coined the term “controlling images” to analyze how cultural stereotypes surrounding specific groups ossify in the form of cultural images and symbols that work to (re)situate those groups within social hierarchies. Controlling images work in ways that produce a “truth” about that group (regardless of its actual veracity). Collins was particularly interested in the controlling images of Black women and argues that those images play a fundamental role in Black women’s continued oppression. While the concept of “controlling images” is largely applied to popular portrayals of disadvantaged groups, in this post, I’m considering how the concept applies to a consideration of the controlling images of a historically privileged group. How do controlling images of dominant groups work in ways that shore up existing relations of power and inequality when we consider portrayals of dominant groups?

Pixar films have been popularly hailed as pushing back against some of the heteronormative gender conformity that is widely understood as characterizing the Disney collection. While a woman didn’t occupy the lead protagonist role until Brave(2012), the girls and women in Pixar movies seem more complex, self-possessed, and even tough.  [Side note: Disney’s Frozen is obviously an important exception among Disney movies. See Afshan Jafar’s nuanced feminist analysis of the film here.]  In fact, Pixar’s movies are often hailed as pushing back against some of the narratological tyranny of some of the key plot and characterological devices that research has shown to characterize the majority of children’s animated movies. But, what can we learn from their depictions of boys and men?

Philip Cohen has posted before on the imagery of gender dimorphism in children’s animated films. Despite some ostensibly (if superficially) feminist features in films like Tangled (2010), Gnomeo and Juliet (2011), and Frozen (2013), Cohen points to the work done by the images of men’s and women’s bodies—paying particular attention to their relative size (see Cohen’s posts here, here, and here). Cohen’s point about exaggerated gendered imagery of bodies might initially strike some as trivial (e.g., “Disney favors compositions in which women’s hands are tiny compared to men’s, especially when they are in romantic relationships” [here]), but it is one small way that relations of power and dominance are symbolically upheld, even in films that might seem to challenge this relationship.  How are masculine bodies depicted in Pixar films? And what kind of work do these depictions do? Is this work at odds with their popular portrayal as feminist (or at least feminist-friendly) films?

Screen shot 2014-09-08 at 9.14.49 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Class Differences in Parenting Style Disappearing?*

By: Tristan Bridges and Tara Tober

–Reposted at Huffington Post

An interest in ensuring communities have access to safe areas for children to play has produced a wild array of solutions. One of the solutions in our community is the development of what urban planners call “pocket parks.” These are small, repurposed lots in communities—torn down and built back up again as playgrounds, picnic areas, and small patches of grass on which children might play and families might congregate. Pocket parks increase property values surrounding them and provide more access to public space to spend leisure time. They have the added bonus of offering some infrastructure that might promote community.

photoWhen we first moved to Brockport, New York, some of the first friends we met were other parents we navigated on pocket park playgrounds near our home. Our children were around the same age as theirs, we were similarly neurotic about what they were up to on the playground, we seemed to have similar feelings about what other parents ought to be doing with their kids. We didn’t discuss this openly. We didn’t have to. All this is to say that when we met other parents at the park and decided to try to befriend some of those we met, we shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that we shared more in common with them than parenting philosophies. We shared similar upbringings, class backgrounds, levels of education. We even had similar kinds of jobs, politics, aspirations, and hobbies.

Annette Lareau’s ethnography of class reproduction—Unequal Childhoods—tells the story of how U.S. parents from different class backgrounds “parent” in different ways. And it’s not the “better” or “worse” story that gets played out in popular culture. All of the parents Lareau studied want to help their kids find happiness and thrive. They just don’t go about fulfilling these goals in exactly the same ways. Middle-class family life had a qualitatively different flavor for working-class and poor family life. Lareau refers to the parenting that middle-class parents in her study practiced as “concerted cultivation.” As the name suggests, Lareau found that middle-class parents were primarily concerned with cultivating their children’s various talents, helping them find and voice their own opinions, reasoning with them, and were consistently preoccupied with their children’s development. These families were constantly on the go; the children were enrolled in a fantastic array of activities and the families were extremely busy.

By contrast, working-class and poor families had incredibly different daily rhythms associated with their families. Lareau refers to the parenting practiced by working-class and poor families as “the accomplishment of natural growth.” It wasn’t that these families did not set boundaries for their children; they cared deeply about their children, set limits on their activities, and more. But, within these limits, Lareau found that working-class and poor parents provided a lot of room for their children to spontaneously grow. They didn’t have the same schedule of organized activities; their kids played outside a lot with other children (often, though not always, outside the watchful gaze of their parents); and the parents were much more likely to use clear directives when communicating with their children than to reason with their kids in the ways Lareau observed middle-class parents doing.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both styles. Concerted cultivation promotes a sense of entitlement that allows middle-class children to learn to navigate institutions seamlessly (as they simply interact with so many from a young age). But they also learn that they can bend the rules in most institutions, make special requests, and more. The accomplishment of natural growth, by contrast, might afford children greater independence and may be more likely to produce authentic friendship and community. In network terms, you might imagine the accomplishment of natural growth as producing small, but incredibly dense networks—the kinds of networks that might help you get a babysitter last minute, let you borrow a car, or watch your children while you shop for groceries. Concerted cultivation, on the other hand, seems more likely to foster more extensive networks, stretching far beyond your neighborhood and the community physically surrounding your home—but, we’d also imagine, given the hectic schedules, these networks are likely to be less dense and ties between friends and families more weak. This might make it harder to find a sitter, but these networks might be ideally situated to help get your child into the college they want and, later on, these networks have been shown to help people find jobs. So, Lareau’s study illustrates one small, but incredibly important way that class reproduction takes place.

But, here’s the rub: we don’t think middle-class families are satisfied yet. The Atlantic recently published a new article on parenting by Hanna Rosin—“Hey! Parents, Leave Those Kids Alone!” Rosin joins a chorus of popular critics, psychologists, and more about the dangers of “over-parenting.” Apparently, parents today are overly worried about their children’s safety, attempting to anticipate and protect children from risks around every imaginable corner. These worries have shifted the landscape of contemporary childhood in a diversity of ways. With Lareau’s study in mind, it’s probably important to say that when Rosin is talking about “parents,” she’s not talking about all parents—just those who practice concerted cultivation.

a636ab336Rosin writes about a playground’ish area in North Wales that is just shy of an acre of land. Referred to as “The Land,” it’s a bit different from what you might be thinking when you hear “playground.” It’s filled with… well, it’s full of junk as far as we can tell. Children are running around, jumping on, throwing, breaking and playing with all manner of dangerous items. The older children at The Yard light fires in tin drums, listen to music with explicit lyrics, and more. The younger children jump on dirty old mattresses, off of piles of wooden pallets and dirty old car tires, and play in the mud. Rosin refers to the area as an “adventure playground.” There’s an elaborate system of supervision such that very few adults are there. In fact, supervisors are trained to attend to children in the area with a sort of “don’t interact unless you absolutely must” rule guiding most of their interactions with children. The adult “playworkers” in The Yard watch the children, but almost never intervene.

The whole idea behind The Yard and adventure playgrounds is that reasonable risks are an important part of childhood development. And, as you might suspect, parents practicing concerted cultivation might have a different assessment of “reasonable” than the creators of The Yard. There’s a litany of pop psychology written to middle-class parents, not-so-subtly asking them to “back off” a bit and highlighting the benefits for children’s development. Dan Kindlon’s Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children in an Indulgent Age is among the most popular. While he’s not using Lareau’s language, Kindlon and others are basically calling middle-class parents to check the “concerted-ness” of their cultivation a bit. But, based on the story, we gathered that this was an area in which middle-class children were playing. It’s not the U.S., but these are kids who are supposed to be over-scheduled, extremely busy, and “over-parented.” And adventure playgrounds exist in the U.S. as well. Here’s one in Berkeley—if you look them up online, you’ll find most are in affluent cities with liberal and educated reputations and populations. But, are these playgrounds part of some larger cultural trend wherein middle- and upper middle-class parents are turning to accomplishment of natural growth-model parenting?

7daf3a65eWe don’t think so. We suspect that what might be going on is better termed “the concerted cultivation of natural growth.” A close inspection of the pictures accompanying Rosin’s article show that the boundaries of The Yard are fences. It’s not just unstructured play these children are engaging in. That’s the sort of activity that Lareau found among working-class and poor children. Rather, we suspect that what’s going on here is something more aptly called “structured unstructured play.” Children are engaging in daring activities—the kinds that might foster independence and a sense of self-sufficiency—but this isn’t exactly the same thing. There are adult workers around who are there to make sure that children’s unstructured play follows an elaborate set of rules for unstructured play designed by a team of experts on the topic.

While Lareau discusses the advantages and disadvantages of the two parenting styles, what we’re calling “the concerted cultivation of natural growth” appears to be a style attempting to mitigate the negative side effects of middle-class parenting. For instance, Lareau found that middle-class kids’ schedules are so packed that spontaneity is less possible for them, the fights Lareau witnessed among middle-class siblings were more severe, and many of the children were more disconnected from the communities in which they lived (unless some of their various activities happened very close to home). But, this transformation (if such a transformation is actually underway) produces an interesting question—one that’s unanswered in the research as far as we know. Are the benefits of the accomplishment of natural growth possible if you attempt to achieve such a parenting style in a concerted way? Our suspicion is that the concerted cultivation of natural growth won’t work in precisely the same way as the accomplishment of natural growth. We’re also not certain just how different these practices are from concerted cultivation more generally.


*This post is not based on research.  It’s just an idea in which we are interested.  And perhaps there’s some research on this issue of which we are unaware.

On “Boxing In”–Pictures, Children, and Identity

HNA7078r1+ToyStories_Jacket_edit1203.inddPhotographer Gabriele Galimberti’s project on children around the world depicted with their most prized possessions was recently published. It’s an adorable set of photos of children with odd collections of items they feel define them. The photos are collected in a volume—Toy Stories: Photos of Children From Around the World and Their Favorite Things.

Initially, I was reminded of JeungMee Yoon’s “The Pink and Blue Project” (here), where she took pictures of girls surrounded by all of the pink things they owned and boys surrounded by their blue clothes, toys, and décor. Some of what struck me was the global uniformity in the objects surrounding children. It’s a powerful statement of globalization to see that children are growing up all around the world with some of the same cultural influences: from characters, to colors, to cars and weapons, and more.

Enea, 3, Boulder, Colorado.But, at a larger level, I think this project reflects one way we like to think about identity: that each of us has one of them and that it is established early on and that it (or elements of “it”) stick, such that we can recognize vestiges of our childhood identities in our adult selves. Indeed, when I’m explaining Freud to students, I often start by summarizing what I take as Freud’s central insight—“Life history matters.” It matters for who we are, who we might become, and more.  But, “life history” is rarely captured in snap-shots.  We think of it this way–but out identities are projects that unfold in time.  Some things make larger marks than others, but identifying exactly what is important and why is often more difficult than we like to think.

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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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A Note on Masculinities in Context—Bodybuilders and the Significance of Setting

In my Sociology of Gender course this week, we discussed what it means to talk about gender as subject to variation and why this matters.  I typically go over four kinds of variation to which gender is subject and talk with students about how this helps us begin to understand what it means to talk about gender as “socially constructed.” If it weren’t, then why or how would it be subject to such wild variation?  Gender varies cross-culturally, it varies throughout history, it varies over the course of an individuals’ life, and it also varies contextually.  This last one often requires a bit of explanation.  And I often use my research with bodybuilders as a way to discuss this issue.

I initially started this blog to think more critically about both how social spaces get gendered and sexualized.  But I have also always been interested in tying performances of gender and sexuality to the specific contexts in which those performances emerge.  In graduate school, I studied a group of bodybuilders for about a year.  little-big-men-bodybuilding-subculture-gender-construction-alan-m-klein-paperback-cover-artMuch of the existing literature at the time framed male bodybuilders as an insecure population—and indeed, this is how they are culturally portrayed as well.  There’s an excellent ethnography by Alan Klein entitled Little Big Men that helps to bolster this claim.  We like to think of bodybuilders as overcompensating for some other weakness.  And consistent with Klein, I found many bodybuilders insecure—but I became much more interested in where they seemed insecure than with the simple fact that they seemed insecure.

I began my study simply observing them in the gym and gradually began gaining enough confidence to approach them to ask for interviews.  The men are extraordinarily large and many of them emit incredible sounds while working out.  dexter+jackson+(7)So, it’s easy to get a bit squeamish.  They’re sweaty, they’re enormous, they’re lifting massive objects, grunting and yelling at each other—it’s pretty intense.  So, asking for an interview might seem like an easy task, but it took me a couple weeks to work up to actually approaching one of them.

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What Can Testicles tell us about Dads?


Cross-posted at Girl W/ Pengwptwittericon2

Screen shot 2013-09-11 at 11.32.26 AMSo… I’m going to go ahead and say that this is the wrong question to be asking. This question proceeds from a belief that testicles CAN tell us something about dads. A new study is making the rounds in the news that addresses the relationship between testicle size and parenting behavior among men (well… 70 men… not randomly sampled…). The paper is entitled “Testicular Volume is Inversely Correlated with Nurturing-Related Brain Activity in Human Fathers” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. I can think of more than a few titles that might have been catchier (and clearly, journalists reporting on the research had a similar idea).

In fairness, I don’t have access to the complete study (though I’ve requested it). But the problem is also in how this study gains attention in the media. It’s a great example of how a correlation combined with cultural stereotypes and assumptions can run wild. When correlations combine with popular stereotypes concerning a particular topic (like, say, the relationship between testosterone and any number of socially undesirable behaviors), questions about the science sometimes get lost because it looks like something was “scientifically proven” that we already wanted to believe anyway.

So, here’s the relationship the researchers found: men with smaller testicles tested more positively for nurturance-related responses in their brains when shown pictures of their children. The study reports that men with smaller testicles had roughly three times the level of brain activity in the area of the brain associated with nurturing. These men (with smaller testicles) were also men with lower levels of testosterone—something that has previously been shown to be associated with nurturing behavior among men.*

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Steampunk–Hybridity and Fantasy

photo 1aI attended my first ever Steampunk festival/carnival/fashion show this past weekend.  I’d never heard of the fashion or the sub-culture before attending.  But, like any good subculture, people get really “into” it.  It’s a great example of the fine line between appropriation and innovation.

photo 3bThe movement comes out of a literary sub-genre of science fiction–future (sometimes post-apocalyptic) societies are imagined in which 19th century industrialized Western fashion is combined with America’s “Wild West” fashion ideals (and just a splash of “punk”) all within a world in which steam power is imagined to either have gained mainstream use, or was the primary technology utilized.  One of the key features of Steampunk is the sort of retro-futuristic technologies and inventions associated with the genre.  Many of the people I saw outfitted themselves with aviator goggles, Victorian fashion, and an odd assortment of historical cultural items from either the U.S. or other European nations.  And they were keen to ask each other about their accessories.  Authenticity–particularly among the more heavily costumed participants–seemed to be prized.

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