May 01, 2008

Bartenders and Oprah

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Recently, I traveled to the Southwest for a conference. This was a mid-size city, not an urban megalopolis or a small town. I was taking a break from the meeting, eating lunch, and sitting in a restaurant, adjacent to the bar area. The bar was busy; there was football on the television and lots of people moving in and out. 

clip_image003I was admiring the characteristics of the crowd, noticing the biker t-shirts, the trucker hats, the business suits, and the great variety of people gathered in one space. The bar was set below the area where I was seated, so I had a wide view of the entire room. 

The bartenders were a congenial bunch, talking loudly to people who were regulars, to people who were from out of town, and to people who showed up to watch the game.

One bartender in particular, Phil, had a loud and distinctive voice, a very healthy sense of humor, and an interest in people. The bartenders were all men with jeans and black shirts while the servers were both men and women. 

It seemed like any gathering spot across the country with middle and working class patrons. The ambiance was informal and orderly. Men were the dominant participants in the room; as they reacted to the football game the women either flirted with men at the bar or quietly ate at their tables.

clip_image006As my food arrived, I settled in and focused on my lunch and plans for the afternoon. The sound of the bar faded into the background.

All of a sudden, I was surprised to hear Phil the bartender yell out in his distinctive voice, “Hey, Bob! Did you see that Oprah? That one with the twins?”

The sounds in the bar seemed to pause for a moment (to let Bob answer?) but then picked up and continued as usual. Bob did answer, by yelling back, “No! I don’t watch that show. … But I like you anyway.” Everyone in the area laughed and continued talking. 

What got my attention? Phil’s comment was contrary to typical gender norms. 

When norms are breached, typically there are reactions, people look, people say something, sometimes people get up and do something to reestablish the norms and restore order. 

In this situation, Bob did make a comment that underscored the norm breach of the Phil’s query. By adding, “I like you anyway,” he acknowledged that Phil’s question was atypical for a man, especially for a man in a bar. 

In some situations, more people might have teased Phil. In other situations, some people might have harassed Phil. In yet other situations, some people might have physically confronted or assaulted Phil. 

Is Oprah known as a show for everyone or for specific types of people in our society? It is known as a women’s show. If you watch it, the majority of the studio audience is typically women unless the show's theme is specifically for men. 

Phil’s very public question to Bob made it clear that he watches Oprah. Bob’s comment, delivered in a comical way, served to acknowledge that Phil’s television preferences were not shared. In some settings, this simple question would have made Phil a target for homophobia. 

Homophobia, or the irrational fear of homosexuality or homosexual people, reinforces the gender power structure in our society. Men belong to the dominant group and sanctions are typically heavy if they violate the norms of masculinity. These norms include being aggressive, powerful, assertive, unemotional. The norm also assumes heterosexuality.

clip_image009If a member of the dominant group doesn’t follow the norms of the time, society reinforces the norms by punishing the norm breaker. Thus, homophobia helps to force men to act masculine or, as punishment, be considered part of the non-dominant group (women). This explains why parents and families worry about boys who seem “feminine” and why boys and men are called “pussy”, “fag” or “gay” when they do not act “like men” or otherwise express non-masculine traits (e.g., emotion, nurturing, support).

You might be wondering why Phil asked Bob if he had seen the Oprah show on twins. Eventually I noticed the two waitresses who had just started their shift. They and the other waitresses were wearing their prescribed uniform of skirts and blue shirts but these two had something in common. They both had bleached blonde permed hair (with dark roots) held in a ponytail. They looked like twins.

Do you think that the crowd didn’t tease or harass Phil because (a) they knew him, (b) they saw that he was teasing the women who looked like twins rather than really asking Bob if he watched the Oprah show on twins, (c) they were mostly from out of town and thus didn’t want to intrude upon the local norms, (d) no one there was homophobic, or (e) it was a gay bar (thus Phil’s comment wasn’t anything out of the norm for that locale)?

I think it was mixed between a, b, & c; those three reasons were all salient in some way while (d) isn’t really possible in such a diverse setting and (e) was not a factor in this particular example.

Have you ever had your attention called to someone’s atypical comment or behavior? What might have been “behind the scenes” that you didn’t notice at the time: gender norms, homophobia, or other dynamics that can be discovered with your sociological imagination?


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Thank you for an interesting post! Your article made me think about what certain characteristics of a group could be, whether it's a shared hobby or a shared appearance. I found it very interesting that Phil, the bartender, would make a comment that goes against gender norms so openly to a group that seems so masculine. I believe that it was a, b, and c as well. In my opinion, the main reason that nobody got upset at Phil and he wasn't teased (much) over his comment is because he knew everyone at the bar.

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