10 posts from August 2008

August 30, 2008

Satiric Thunder: Prejudice and Masculinity

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

Is our culture changing how we define gender? Are our cultural standards about masculine and feminine easing a bit? 

There are many people who feel that gender equality has been achieved and that thus we have no need for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), no need for affirmative action based on gender, and no need to address educational or workplace discrimination. 

Gender – and our gender norms - are embedded in our society in many different ways, and are most visible in the media. Our most popular performers conform to the gender standards of the times. Most actors who get the lead roles and can “open” a movie do have distinct physical features that align with our standards of gender. (See an earlier post of mine for examples.) The popularity of some young male celebrities who are not typically masculine has had some suggesting that our traditional definitions of gender are eroding.

Does the popularity of Johnny Depp and Zac Efron, among others, suggest change in our norms of masculinity? Both of these men can be described not only as imagehandsome but pretty. They both have been ascribed a type of feminine attractiveness as they are perhaps more androgynous than strictly masculine. (Androgynous combines the gender characteristics ascribed to both men – andro – and women – gyn.) 

Speaking of actors, I saw Tropic Thunder, Ben Stiller’s new film the other day. This film does much more than satirize Hollywood. Most of the press on this film  focuses on either the racial issues surrounding Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of “a dude, playing a dude, playing another dude” or on the treatment of people with mental challenges, who are referred to in the movie as “retards”.

My reaction to the film’s presentation of these two issues aligns with my opinion on the entire project. I think it is a brilliant satiric exploration of our society’s inability to really deal with issues of difference. While the focus on race and mental disabilities are obvious – and brilliantly written and acted – the movie also raise issues about masculinity and gender norms.

Take a look at one of the ads featuring Downey. The movie’s premise rests on a film company that is making a war film, so the actors are playing actors who are playing soldiers. War films are bastions of masculinity; in them, competition and power as primary tasks and goals. The fire and expression in this ad directly tropicthunder21633rv2_2 relate to the connection of masculinity with danger, aggressiveness and violence. Each of the actors plays a masculine stereotype and they are all involved in uber-masculine behaviors throughout the film.

I won’t spoil the film (too much anyway) by getting more specific about which scenes actively and directly satirize (and challenge) our culture’s masculine norms; I challenge you to watch the film and look at it with a gendered lens. 

In this film and in general, it is difficult to untangle racial issues from the gender issues since racial issues are easier for our culture to discuss. This doesn’t mean we solve problems with our public discussions, since prejudice has been covert rather than overt as it had been in the past. 

It is easier for many people, especially in sociology classes, to acknowledge how race and ethnicity are part of societal structure and much more difficult to understand gender as a socially constructed category. 

Before we start the celebrations for increasing equality, let’s ponder how people perceive Tropic Thunder. Are people getting that the film is a satire, an exploration and questioning of the complexities of race, ethnicity, and gender? The people complaining about the depiction and treatment of the mentally challenged are apparently not aware of the movie’s subtle (and not so subtle) satiric twist on how people – and Hollywood – treat that subject. 

How we perceive and interpret media depends upon our standpoint, our social position, our experiences, our backgrounds, and our interactions with other people. Would one’s perception of this film differ depending on one’s religious affiliation? Age? Sense of humor? Gender? Race/ethnicity? Social class? Sexual orientation? Drug history or experience? Critical thinking ability? Military connections? Mental capacity or connection to such issues? 

Tropic Thunder is doing very well at the box office, pushing the Dark Knight out of first place. It seems that a satire on race, gender, and many other things is more popular than a superhero film that reflects and reifies our gender norms. Is this good news?

August 29, 2008

Everyday Sociology Talk: Global Inequality and Stuff

Karen Sternheimer and Sally Raskoff discuss where our everyday stuff comes from and what it teaches us about globalization and inequality.

August 27, 2008

Types of Causality, III

author_brad By Bradley Wright

It’s the end of summer, the beaches are hot, friends are home, and you’re using up what little vacation time you have left. What better thing to do than think about causality? I know that I am!

Today I’m writing about two more concepts associated with causality. The overriding point of this series is to help you think through the multi-faceted nature of causality. Everyday we use causal language—this happened because of that—but we’re not always clear in our thinking about what is, and is not, a cause. So, on to more types of causation:

Interaction effects. An interaction effect occurs when the effect of one variable on another varies by levels of a third variable. Let’s say that we’re looking at how levels of variable “A” affects variable “B”, but we find out the effect of “A” varies by how much of “C” we have. If so, that’s an interaction effect.

Interaction effects are perhaps best described by example.

Would drinking a beer or two or three make you feel light-headed? Well, it depends on various factors, including what you’ve eaten. If you have just had a full meal, the food in your stomach slows down the absorption of alcohol which in turn means it has less effect on you. However, if you’re drinking on an empty clip_image002stomach, then the alcohol will have a much greater effect. This is an interaction effect. The effect of alcohol (A) on how you feel (B) depends on what you’ve eaten (C). We could think of other “C” variables as well, variables that alter the effect of alcohol on you. It also varies by your body weight, how much you’re used to drinking, your gender, and your metabolism.

Here’s another example of an interaction effect. I like watching late-night talk shows, and I find the monologues to be really funny. Recently, however, I’ve tried watching them during the day on the shows’ websites, and I didn’t enjoy them at all. The same joke, told late at night, will have me in stitches but in the middle of the day bores me. To really enjoy them I think that I have to be tired and not planning to do anything else. So, the effect of late-night jokes (A) on my laughing (B) varies by the time of day (C).

Causation & correlation. A statistical truism is that correlation does not necessarily imply causation. This reflects the fact that two variables can be spuriously correlated.

Just for laughs and giggles, though, let me point out that the opposite is true as well. Causation does not necessarily imply correlation. That is, some variable “A” can be a cause of “B” without actually being correlated with it. I know what you’re thinking—this must be some kind of sociological magic, but, really, it’s true. Here’s how it works.

The cause, “A”, might increase “B” through some mechanisms, say “C.” It might also decrease these “B” through other mechanisms, say “D”. As such, “A” has a causal impact on “B” even though there is no association between levels of “A” and “B” in a population of people.

Suppose that you ate a dark-chocolate candy bar. One of those 65% cocoa ones—you know what I’m talking about. Now, the other 35% is probably sugar and butter, which have a lot of calories which should increase you’re weight. But, the caffeine in the bar might give you enough energy so that you bounce clip_image002[5]around the house for awhile, thus burning off the calories. As such, eating dark chocolate has a causal linkage to weight gain but is not correlated with gaining weight. 

I actually used this principle in some research I conducted. For some time, criminologists have had theories about why poor people commit more crime. They have more strain put on them, fewer opportunities for conventional work, etc…. However, self-reported studies found little correlation between social class and crime. Why? Turns out that there are mechanisms though which being poor lowers crime rates, or, put more intuitively, being wealthy promotes crime. The wealthy are more likely to think that they can get away with crime, so they are less deterred by possible punishments. They also foster an ethos of risk-taking, which associates with more crime.

So, social class both increases and decreases criminal behavior, and we have causation without correlation. Cool, huh? 

Okay, back to your regular summertime activities.

August 24, 2008

Status and Sociology

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

Sociologists study the role that social status plays in every aspect of social life. We consider how hierarchies impact opportunities and challenges, often looking critically at how people in positions of power use their status to maintain dominance over others.

Here’s one of sociology’s dirty little secrets: the field is filled with sociologists who wrestle each other for status, often uncritically accepting hierarchies and use the privileges they derive from their institutional affiliations and publications.

You would think that sociologists might refrain from establishing a social pecking order and continually enforcing it. But one thing that I have learned about people is that we are all rife with contradictions (a nice word for hypocrisy). 

I typically observe this status game being played out at our discipline’s annual meeting. People wear badges around their necks with their institutional affiliation listed under their names. The first thing a newcomer notes is the eye dart: the glance at the badge to see if the name rings a bell. I confess that I clip_image002[5]often do it too. Sometimes a well-known sociologist walks by, and you have the excitement of knowing that someone whose book you read is before you in the flesh.

Sociology actually has its own celebrities, celebrities who have no cache outside of a room full of sociologists. They can draw a crowd, and typically they are invited to sit on conference panels rather than submit a paper for presentation pending the approval of a session organizer. Others flock to these sessions to curry their favor, feign interest, try and network, or just to feel like they are in the presence of someone important. (Yes, some are also interested in the session itself too).

clip_image002[7]Men are the main holders of celebrity status within sociology, despite the fact that there are slightly more women than men in the discipline now. The majority of sociologists—about eighty percent—are white, as are the “stars” for the most part. But unlike the rest of society, age doesn’t minimize status for those who acquired high standing.

Sociologists don’t tend to be stars to non-sociologists, but successful non-sociologists who come to meetings are treated like celebrities. Authors, filmmakers, and journalists invited to sessions often draw standing-room-only crowds. These intellectual stars are to the NPR crowd what the High School Musical cast is to 'tweens (without the screaming, for the most part).

Sociologists also focus on their institution’s rank relative to others. Every graduate program has a rank, and many people choose a graduate program based on how high the school appears on a list (just like undergraduates often do). But it doesn’t end after grad school. Status conscious professors take jobs as stepping stones to try and climb the sociology status ladder, publish in journals based on their ranking, and for some the whole practice of sociology becomes about their personal success. This makes some journal articles unreadable, since they are only meant to impress other status seekers rather than a larger audience.

On my way to a conference years ago, I was aboard a plane and overheard the conversation of the people seated behind me. From their discussion it became clip_image002[9]clear that they were sociologists who were also headed to the conference. In those days, the preliminary program came in the mail, so I had a copy with me and apparently so did they. They looked up their sessions and noted to each other when they were scheduled to present their papers. Listening in, I looked up those sessions and saw they focused on inequalities of race and ethnicity.

Moments later, a flight attendant passed through the aisle. One of the sociologists called to her, “Excuse me, my coffee has gotten cold!” and demanded that she bring her a fresh cup. As the flight attendant walked away, the sociologist muttered to her colleague that the service was just terrible. When her fresh coffee arrived, she did not respond with gratitude, but with resentment.

I was shocked. First that anyone sitting in coach would have expected that level of attentive service, and second that someone who studies inequality for a living would treat a service worker in that manner. 

Most sociologists that I know aren’t as blind to their status or as demeaning as the lady on the plane was. Most sociologists are not cold-blooded status seekers (especially not the ones who write for this blog). But we seldom take a good look in the mirror to examine how we replicate inequality in both our personal lives and in our profession as well.

August 21, 2008

Phones, Families and Parental Control

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

clip_image003[6]A few weeks ago, I woke up at 4:30 in the morning to find my eighteen-year-old house guest chatting on her cell phone! She was laughing and talking like it was 4:30 in the afternoon. I had to force myself to close my gaping mouth. I’ve had teenagers in my home so I know many like talking on the phone late at night, but this was 4:30! 

Even if you’re young, you probably grew up in a home with one phone line—a landline. Although at home, telephone calls were “public”: Usually the phones were in public areas such as the family room or living room. Anybody was liable to answer incoming telephone calls, so friends might have an encounter with parents calling for their children. Parents could, and some did ask, “Who is calling please?” For many years, few homes had extra extensions and if they did, if a teen was speaking from the privacy of his or her bedroom, there was always the possibility that Mom or Dad might pick up the other extension and hear what she hoped would be a private exchange. 

For privacy, kids hung around the phone to try to keep their parents from answering calls that might land them in trouble, and used the phones when their parents were not at home or were sleeping. When kids monopolized the telephone, in the pre-call waiting days, how much time 'tweens and teens spent on the phone was more than an issue of how they occupied their time; it also impacted parents’ ability to use the telephone.
clip_image006Ah, but technology churns on. During the 1990s many households started installing multiple landlines to have dedicated lines for dial-up internet service, and during that time many kids got their own telephone numbers and phones in their rooms. Kids could talk to whomever, whenever, with much less parental “interference”. 

Today, many homes don’t even have landline phones. Cell phone use has skyrocketed in this century and about half of all children aged 10 to 13, and 83 percent of teenagers in the U.S. have their own. Having cell phones takes the ability to communicate wherever and whenever to new heights. Today’s kids can talk from just about anywhere-- including while driving or sitting in a classroom. Increasingly, kids are using cell phones for text messaging, even more than for voice calls. Armed with the unlimited texting plans that parents have selected (after being shell shocked by exorbitant bills), many teens text into the wee hours of the morning, averaging 50-70 texts per day. Texting allows for even more covert communication than talking on the phone as it can’t be overheard. Researchers found that one quarter of kids in relationships admitted communicating with their partner by voice or text hourly between midnight and 5 a.m. Just as I would have been without my trip to the kitchen that morning, parents are pretty clueless about this all of this; 82% were unaware that their kids were being contacted 30 times an hour by text or email. 

J0283967_2 How do cell phones and the freedoms that come with them affect parents’ ability to supervise their kids? Tipping my hand at my belief that parents should be authoritative—mind you, not authoritarian—shouldn’t parents know who their kids are spending their time with? How do parents do this in the cell phone age? 

Hopefully, the telephone was never the main way that parents met their children’s friends, but it kept them in the loop. “Nicole and Suzy seem pretty close. They talk on the phone most days after school.” Or, “Roger and his girlfriend Marilyn must be having a fight because she hasn’t called in a week.” Sometimes younger siblings gave up the goods with announcements such as, “It’s for Mary! And it’s Derek again!” 

clip_image009The flip-side of all of this is that today, parents can read a transcript of their teenagers’ thoughts! Modern technology permits parents to peer at the backstage lives of their kids in ways that used to be impossible. GPS technology for cell phones allows parents to monitor kids’ every movement. Snooping parents scroll through text messages or purchase software that gives them transcripts of instant messages. At first glance, the cell phone seems to be a tool of independence for kids. They can communicate with anybody just about anytime and parents may be clueless about it. But considering the techno-trail that parents may follow, teenagers are knowable in a way that they never were in the past. How does a parent’s ability to know about these “private” communications affect their relationships with their teenagers? And for those parents who refrain from such spying, does it matter that they may be out of the loop? Does it matter if parents know who their kids are spending time with on the phone?

August 18, 2008

T-Shirts, Symbols and Assumptions

author_sally By Sally Raskoff

While waiting out thunderstorms in an airport recently, I spotted a rather large man wearing a big black t-shirt that stated in large bold pink letters: I  clip_image002[5](heart) Boobs. It certainly got my attention.

clip_image002My first reaction – that I kept to myself – was, “Wow, what chutzpah!” You have probably seen the reclining woman mud flaps on big trucks. This t-shirt elicited the same reaction I have when I see those mud flaps: “What a display of sexist attitudes and without any thought to the consequences of objectifying women as sex objects.”

This t-shirt made me think all the other displays of sexism in bumper stickers and other objects that many people use to broadcast their opinions and (supposed) sense of humor. The bumper stickers, “Get In, Sit Down, Shut Up” and “No Fat Chicks” come to mind as well.

When I see a bumper sticker like this, I wonder what happens when they visit their grandmothers and if their relatives, and whether their elders reacted negatively, positively, or not at all. (Maybe grandma bought it for them!)

I chuckled at this man’s shirt and his ability to walk around the airport broadcasting this message. Then he turned around. On the back of the shirt, it stated “Breast Cancer Awareness”. I realized that my assumptions of his sexism were way off base and changed my reaction immediately to one of empathy and respect. It’s not everyday you see a big macho man wearing a shirt that is to raise awareness of a disease that affects more women than men. My spouse has fought cancer twice, so I felt grateful that his shirt might raise awareness about cancer.

Later, I spotted him again with his family, waiting for their flight. His wife was wearing a kerchief on her head and it was obvious that she had new hair growing in. It was likely that she was fighting breast cancer and the shirt was his way of both supporting her and raising awareness about the disease.

So what does this have to do with sociology? I would like to focus on symbolic gestures and the ways in which we define ourselves to the world.

The symbols we use to define or express ourselves reside not only within such things as bumper stickers but in our clothing choices and many other things. What we wear and how we wear it tells people about us. For example our gender is displayed with our clothing choices as is our social class and culture.

Consider men in skirts. In Scotland and Polynesia seeing men in specific types of hip wrappings is not unusual. I used to teach at a small liberal arts college that designates one day a year for male students to wear skirts. In the U.S., this has not been a typical clothing option for men.

I was in elementary school when the Los Angeles schools allowed girls to wear pants. I remember wondering what the big deal was about controlling the clothing choices and I was quite happy to wear my pants to school, especially on cold days!

Baggy pants and large t-shirts and sweatshirts, especially those emblazoned with logos, broadcast another image that clearly tells people something about the person’s social class or racial/ethnic identity.

clip_image004Tattoos tell people that a person feels strongly enough about something to ink it into their skin. Societal norms about tattoos have changed a great deal recently. Many (mostly younger) people define them as body art and an important part of their personal identity while others (mostly older) people define them as unprofessional, irresponsible, or sacrilegious.

What does the t-shirt I saw in the airport broadcast? If one only sees the front, it clearly states that this man is heterosexual and probably that he objectifies women as he is focusing on one particular body part. However, when one sees the back, one sees the entire context of the shirt’s message and thus it broadcasts that this man has been touched in some way by cancer. It broadcasts that he is thoughtful and caring about his loved ones and brings to mind the people, often families or on teams, who shave their heads to show compassion and solidarity when a family or team member is going through chemotherapy and loses their hair.

Let’s think about some other symbols that people use to identify them as aligned with various causes or issues. For example, many organizations have used the ribbons, ribbon pins, or bracelets/wristbands in various colors as fundraisers and awareness items. Yellow ribbons have long signified supporting soldiers; pink ribbon pins are linked with breast cancer; red with Aids awareness; sky blue with prostate cancer; purple with domestic violence; teal with ovarian cancer.

As for the bracelets, the Lance Armstrong Foundations has linked yellow to cancer awareness; pink signifies breast cancer; blue in the U.K. signifies the “Beat Bullying campaign (in football) while ocean blue is connected with Hurricane Katrina and light blue is for the East Asia Tsunami relief; purple is for cystic fibrosis or domestic violence; teal is ovarian cancer. Some colors are used for multiple issues such as black bracelets that have been used for Amish support, gang prevention, gun control, melanoma, mourning (Virginia Tech), POW/MIA, and sleep disorders.CauseBracelets_SR

The ribbons and bracelets can get confusing not only because different colors can mean different things but many people have no idea what they are in the first place! To use these symbols to raise awareness for specific causes, they need to be identified by more information. Most of them have words on them as well as the color schema although the words don’t often give direct information about the issue.

When we see other people, unconsciously or not we look at them and interpret everything on their body as a clued about their identity. Sometimes, we misinterpret these clues. For example, when walking by the volunteer table at a health center with my daughter and her friend when they were about twelve, a woman gestured to my daughter’s friend to come over and talk. The woman asked her what temple she attended and if she had had her bat-mitzvah yet. This girl was flustered not only because some unknown older adult was talking to her but because she had no idea what the woman was asking and why. The woman explained that she saw the necklace she was wearing, a Jewish star pendant, and assumed she was Jewish, observant, and could bond with her about their common faith. It turns out she wore the necklace because it was pretty, not because she went to temple or had much interest in the religion.

We try to identify people based on what we see, yet these assumptions may not be accurate! When we make assumptions about people based on erroneous assumptions about and partial knowledge of their symbolic gestures, we may miss opportunities to get to really know them.

August 15, 2008

Types of Causality II

author_brad By Bradley Wright

This post continues a several-part series on causality. Now, why would I spend so much time writing about causality? Maybe I have too much time on my hands, or maybe I think that the readers of this blog have too much time? Actually, the issue of causality comes up in a lot of social research. When a study presents some findings about the social world, these findings usually make a whole string of assumptions about causality. As such, to understand fully sociological research, we need to have a working knowledge of the basics of causality—hence my addressing the topic in this series.

In this post I continue a discussion of different types or dimensions of causality.

Let’s consider linear vs. non-linear causality. Sociologists like to be boring when we talk about methods, so we usually end up using letters in our examples rather than real things. For example, we talk about “x” being a cause of “y.” Far be it from me to violate this norm, so I will use letters, but I’ll also try to give examples to make the ideas more clear.

Linear causality happens when every increase in “x” prompts a similar change in “y”, regardless of the value of “x.” Every time you change “x”, you get the same change in “y.” For example, my sons like to take allowance money to the store and buy a bag of candy. The candy is about a dollar, so every dollar they spend (and, thankfully, it’s usually only one or two), they get a bag of candy. If they spend one dollar, they get one bag. If they spend $50, they get fifty bags. This is a linear relationship—no matter what the value of “x”, whether $1 or $50, a one-unit change in “x” produces the same change in “y”—one more dollar equals one more bag.

In contrast, non-linear causality happens when the effect of “x” on “y” varies by levels of “x”. There are countless forms of non-linearity, but commonly maybe “x” brings about some change in “y” at low levels of “x”, but it causes much less change in “y” at high levels of “y”.biking 

Here’s a simple example. I like bicycle riding—and even have one of those fancy recumbent bicycles—but I don’t do much riding during winter because, well, it’s cold and snowy out. So, when I first go out in spring, I average about 12 miles an hour. (The area around here is all hills, so average speeds are lower than if it were a flat part of the country). After a month of riding, however, this increases to 14 miles an hour. So, one month riding = two miles an hour extra. If training and speed were linearly related, every additional month would always produce an extra two-miles-an-hour. Let’s see, after six months of the riding season, I’d be at 26 miles an hour—Tour-De-France speed. If I could ride steadily for another year or two, I could be passing cars on the interstate. Alas, that’s not the way it works, for training is a cause, but a non-linear cause, of riding speed.

Now let’s think about unidirectional vs. reciprocal causation. So far, I’ve discussed one variable as a cause and another as the effect. This is unidirectional causation, that “x” causes “y”, but “y” doesn’t cause “x”. Unidirectional causation is usually what people talk about when they talk about causation. However, there is also reciprocal causation. Here, “x” causes “y”, as in unidirectional causation, but also “y” causes “x” at the same time. They are both causes and both effects—how cool is that!

Stone_wall As I mentioned , New England is all hills. We also have rocks, not just a few—a lot. If you dig a hole to plant some flowers, you probably end up tossing out several rocks. (As an aside, the rocky terrain has shaped New England’s social and economic development in numerous ways, but that’s for another time). What do we do with all these rocks? Well, sometimes we build walls out of them. Pretty much wherever you go around here, you see rock walls. The farmers of previous centuries would drag the rocks out of their fields and put them on the borders of their properties, thus both clearing their fields and marking their territory. Homeowners have kept with that style, and they often put up rock walls as part of the landscaping. For me, building rock walls is a summertime hobby, and I’m on my third one. When I put a rock down as part of a wall, it pretty much stays there and doesn’t do anything back to me. This would be an example unidirectional causation—my efforts change the location of the rock.

But let’s say that I went bad, and instead of building walls, I picked up the rocks and started throwing them at my neighbors. Some of my neighbors are elderly widows, and they don’t put up with any crap (plus I think they have pretty good throwing arms), so they would probably start throwing the rocks back at me. As a result, my throwing would give them bumps on the head, but, in response to me, they would throw the rocks back and give me bumps on the head. This is an example of reciprocal causation—the bumps on their heads are both effects of my throwing and causes of their throwing.

Who would have thought that causation could be so dangerous?

August 12, 2008

Gender, Cats, Kittens, and Cougars

author_karen By Karen Sternheimer

I am a cat person, but I am not a cat. That might seem obvious to you, since to my knowledge cats don’t blog. But some people seem to confuse women with felines. What does this tell us about gender in the twenty-first century? clip_image002

Cats have traditionally been seen as feminine, referred to as “she” even though as mammals there must be male cats too. Perhaps their grace, their demure nature can be seen as a form of a compliment to female humans. But many of the connections are less than flattering.

Arguments, altercations and fights between women have a special term: catfight. This summer Indy Race car driver Danica Patrick was filmed arguing with fellow racer Milka Duno. When I Googled "Danica Patrick" and "catfight" I got clip_image004thousands of hits, including forty hits from mainstream news organizations. 

Technically, the camera caught Patrick and Duno having an argument, not a fight. But days later cameras caught a physical altercation during a WNBA game, giving the sport rare news coverage. Once again media organizations used the “c” word. Fistfights happen regularly in men’s sports and are covered by the news, particularly if they are really violent, but they are just called “fights”. Maybe this is because men fight much more often than women. According to the FBI, in 2006 79 percent of aggravated assaults were committed by men, and they committed 75 percent of other assaults (like fistfights). 

Women who fight challenge assumptions about female passivity, but the “c” word tends to make female fighting more of an amusement than a serious issue. Have you ever seen the “reality” show Bad Girls' Club? I’ve only seen one episode, but it seems like they choose fight-prone women to live in a house together, encourage them to drink and watch the fight that inevitably comes next.

A 2007 reality show, Age of Love, pitted “kittens” (women in their twenties) against “cougars” (women in their forties) to compete for the affection of a man clip_image008in his thirties.  (I’m not sure what happened to women in their thirties, but that’s another issue). At a time when women are increasingly likely to be unmarried, this show hit a particular nerve, framing the older women as conniving, desperate vixens and the younger ones as hot “sex kittens,” perhaps less intelligent or accomplished than the older women, but, well, hot.

I’m not sure where this new term for women who date younger men came from, but it is interesting on many levels. First, men who date younger women are not usually described as predators unless the woman is under eighteen. (They might be called dirty old clip_image010men, but typically that’s only if their advances are unwanted.) Demi Moore marries a man fifteen years her junior, and voila, she is a cougar. George Clooney dates a woman seventeen years younger, and he is just George Clooney. George follows a long line of Hollywood stars that date and/or marry much younger women. Cary Grant, Clooney’s predecessor in many ways, appeared as the male lead opposite Grace Kelley (25 years younger), Audrey Hepburn (25 years younger), and Eva Marie Saint (twenty years younger) to name a few. 

One of my all-time favorite movies, North by Northwest, starred Saint and Grant as romantic leads despite their twenty-year age gap. Jessie Royce Landis played Grant’s mother in the movie—and she was less than eight years older than her movie “son” Grant.

Older men might be called a "sugar daddy", but most of the pejorative terms are reserved for the women they are involved with (gold digger, husband stealer, whore, and so forth). 

The cougar moniker also implies that older women are predatory, stalking their victims before pouncing on them, rendering them helpless. Older men with younger partners are just thought of as lucky or entitled, especially if they have wealth and power. Calling women cougars also implies that at their age they need to pursue men, that they have less value and therefore will not be pursued by men.

Finally, cougars, cats, and kittens are not people. Using these terms dehumanizes women, even if it does so unintentionally. What’s fascinating is that women use these terms as much, if not more than men. As author Leora Tanenbaum recounts in her book Slut! Growing Up Female With a Bad Reputation, women have historically sought to minimize the status of others in order to bolster their own within a narrow framework of female opportunity. She interviewed women of all ages who were labeled “sluts” at some point (although many actually had no sexual experience despite the label), and found that labeling is both the result of gender inequality and a means to reproduce it. Women have traditionally been valued based on their sexual appeal to men, and a multitude of words exist to keep women within these boundaries.

Yes, I know most people don’t mean any harm when they talk of catfights or cougars. But even when used in fun, these terms reaffirm that women’s worth is linked to the men they are with and how well they conform to gendered expectations.

August 09, 2008

An Appreciation of Skill: The Luddites, Industrialization, and Peace

author_sally By Sally Raskoff


A “Luddite” is a pejorative term reserved for describing a person who is afraid of technology or is otherwise avoiding the march of progress. It is also a term that has come to signify someone who is rather dull, stupid, and who cannot consider change. 

Coming across the term a few years ago, I wanted to know more about this odd word. The explanations given revolve around General Ned Ludd who protested the introduction of power looms for weaving fabric. As industrialization put hand-loom weavers out of business, Ludd and those who joined him protested by breaking power looms, setting fire to mills and textile clip_image003factories. Mr. Ludd gained a reputation as someone who tried to stop industrialization, which at the time was wresting craftwork manufacturing from the guilds and increasing factory production of fabric and textiles. Such a feat was, of course, impossible, because factory production vastly improves the rate of manufacturing and increases the profit margin by reducing costs and increasing volume (supply).

clip_image005When you stop a moment and ponder things from the hand-loom weaver’s point of view, it seems more complicated than just trying to stop power looms from taking the work away from hand weavers. Mr. Ludd (if he really existed; there is some doubt) and his colleagues were losing their life’s work – factories were producing less expensive textiles (and other goods) and textile mill factory workers were not as skilled as hand weavers thus they were paid at lower rates. Factory workers did small portions of the overall set of tasks whereas hand weavers did more of the entire process of turning fiber into cloth. 

Mr. Ludd is similar in many ways to the Howard Beale character in the film Network who yelled out, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Both figures stood up to protest apathy and the social trends that were negatively affecting their life and times. They are also not so different from Marx and his attempts to enlighten people about the exploitation of workers in capitalist systems.

clip_image007My fascination with Mr. Ludd took me further into his story. In industrial production, people do tend the large power looms yet their job is to fix breaks in the fiber (thread) or replace the fiber supplies, as they are exhausted. In early industrialization, children did this job, as their hands were small enough to get into the machinery. In many countries, especially those known for woven rugs, children are still the preferred labor force because their fingers can tie very small knots!

Although hand weaving still does exist, in industrialized countries it tends to have the dual status of a craft and as an art. Weavers are organized into guilds although many guilds have the non-profit organizational status of a club. These present-day guilds serve as an educational center for weavers to learn their craft, yet they do not retain the high occupational status that guilds had until the 19th century when industrialization changed everything.

Historically, guilds were the forerunners of unions and professional groups as they were organized groups of people who do the same type of work. They were more than worker groups; they were training centers where new workers apprenticed to the older workers, learning and honing their skills as they continued to work.

For hand weavers such as Ned Ludd to be called technology phobic is a misnomer and thus is not an appropriate use of his name. The Luddites were protesting not technology per se but the loss of their profession, livelihood, and self worth. 

Factory production can devalue worker skills because the work is separated into discrete tasks that a machine or a human acting like a machine performs as on an assembly line. This re-organization of work results in higher production rates (more items are made) and, generally, less pay for who do fewer tasks and more simplistic work than their artisan counterparts did. Since industrialization supports the interests of the ruling class, it should not be a surprise that the Luddites and their issue have come to be seen in a pejorative or negative manner. 

clip_image010In my continuing exploration of Luddites, I took a class in weaving and gained a deep appreciation for the skill it takes to create viable textiles. In the nine years since I took that class, I have continued weaving and joined two guilds. It is clear to me that weavers, both in Ned Ludd’s time and in the present, do not fear technology or technological innovation, they embrace it. 

I’ve just returned from a weeklong conference with weavers that confirmed my belief that technology phobias are not part of that world. Most weavers, myself included, seek or invent technologies that assist us in reaching our goals. We are certainly “gadget” people who love the next new “thing” especially if we can make it ourselves or it replaces some tedious process in which creativity is absent. 

Present day weavers, whether they are weaving fabric on looms or baskets, are keeping alive the skills that Ned Ludd clip_image013treasured. We assume that few people now make their living with hand weaving and while this may be accurate for industrialized countries, this is not the case across the globe. The meaning of weaving to a society may also differ depending on where and when one looks.

At the weaving conference I attended, Willa Shalit gave a lecture on how basket weaving in Rwanda has not only given women economic security but has helped its post-genocide government move the country towards peace. Two Rwandan weavers accompanied Shalit to speak to the issues and answer questions. Janet Nkubana, one of these two weavers, was teaching workshops all week at the conference. 

During the talk, Shalit mentioned that Rwandan President Kagame supports the new (2002) official coat of arms with its “peace basket” in the center, because his mother wove baskets and these woven baskets are key to the country’s economic viability.

In the U.S., there are still some people whose businesses are based on hand weaving. While they are not producing the vast quantities of fabric that a textile mill can, they are producing unique fabrics and hand crafted art that can’t be duplicated in a factory. They are also providing a link back to Ned Ludd that can remind us to question both the consequences of social trends and our use of language, especially when terms are used in a negative manner.

August 06, 2008

Facebook and Social Comparison Theory

author_brad By Bradley Wright

My high-school aged son and his friends use a Facebook application that is both interesting and horrifying. With this application, the user compares him- or herself to all of their Facebook friends. Once you start this application, it shows random pairs of individuals from your Facebook friend list (which, by the way, includes me), and it asks you to judge them on a remarkably wide range of criteria.

For example, it might show pictures of two friends, and then ask who has the best profile picture or smells the nicest or is the coolest or is the best potential parent or is the most fun to go shopping with. Just think-- if you use this program, you might be able to go to school or work the next day uplifted by the knowledge that you smell nicer than any of your Facebook friends. clip_image001

This program horrifies me because I’m aware of how incredibly powerful peer-influence is during adolescence and even young adulthood (read: college students). If all your friends are doing something, then you’ll probably do it too--no matter how silly or thoughtless it is. This is why young people will dress funny, have bizarre hairstyles, and listen to terrible music—but that may have just been me growing up in the 1970s disco-era. Thankfully, the program doesn’t have negative categories, in which you vote for who smells the worst. Still, I shutter to think how much power these explicit peer-comparisons have over young peoples’ understandings and feelings about themselves.

This program is interesting because it is a great example of social comparison theory. This theory, developed by well-known social psychologist Leon Festinger (back in 1954, even before Facebook!), assumes that people understand themselves, in part, by comparing themselves to others. In fact, we make these comparisons constantly and in just about every area of our lives—our abilities, opinions, possessions, relationships. If we walk into a room with other people in it, even if we don’t know them well, we have probably already figured out whether we are taller or shorter, richer or poorer, and younger or older than them.

We’re especially prone to compare ourselves to people we view as similar to us. So I usually compare myself to men about my age, especially those in academia. I’m much less inclined to compare myself to someone considerably different, e.g., one of my first-grade son’s friends. The fact that I can run faster than a seven-year old really doesn’t matter much, but I’m aware of how much I publish or earn compared to my colleagues in sociology.


The fact that we compare ourselves to others is pretty straightforward. Social comparison theory gets really interesting when we consider why we do it. Sometimes we just want to know how we’re doing—to assess ourselves—and in that case we compare ourselves to people who are most similar to us. Say you were a golfer, you might want to get a sense for how well you were doing, so you would compare your golf scores with those of people like you—maybe the friends that you go golfing with. (I actually gave up golfing after a particularly difficult experience getting the ball under the windmill).


Other times, however, we want to improve how we’re doing in a given area. In this situation, we consciously choose someone much better than us to compare ourselves with. The idea is that if they are better, any differences between us and them might signal areas that we could improve on. So, a golfer might compare himself with Tiger Woods, correctly assuming that Tiger has a much better swing and approach to the game than he does.

Sometimes, however, we want to feel better about ourselves, and so we might compare ourselves to people who are doing less well than us in a particular area. So, if a golfer is down in the dumps, maybe watching a beginner play might make her feel better about her own golf skills.

The larger point here is that how we define and understand ourselves is an inherently social process, for it stems in part from who we compare ourselves to. Not only that, but we strategically use these comparisons to alter who we are and how we see ourselves. So, the Facebook social comparison application, like so much else in life, becomes a tool for making sense of who we are in the world.

Still, this is little comfort for me not having been voted the nicest smelling person.

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