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.

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).

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

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

Originally posted at Girl W/ Pen!

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

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

Physical Appearance

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

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

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

Level of (Dis)Organization

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

Emotional Labor

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

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

Where Have All the “Marriageable” Men Gone?

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

By: Tristan Bridges and Melody L. Boyd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections.

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

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

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

Screen shot 2014-09-08 at 9.14.49 AM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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