Tag Archives: Gender

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Why Lamilly Won’t Last

[This is an invited post by Elizabeth Chin, a professor in the MFA Program at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA.]

Last year, Nickolay Lamm made viral internet splash with his “real Barbie,” a materialization of the iconic doll that used the average measurements of a 19 year old woman rather than the endlessly criticized unrealistic proportions of Mattel’s super-selling doll. Now Lamm is taking that doll, named “Lamilly,” to production. I don’t want to be a hater, but I think Lamilly will tank.

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Unpacking an Erotic Icon: The Sexy Librarian

I recently came across the blog post Naughty Librarians and the Eroticism of Intellect, which purports to explain the enduring appeal of the image of the “sexy librarian” in modern life. Aside from the post’s dismissable evolutionary psychology conclusions, the author raises some interesting points about the ways the image of the librarian in our culture intersects with and embodies certain aspects of modern eroticism, grounding his or her (the author is identified as “J.M. McFee” with no bio) argument in a highly individualized literary psychological approach.

The trope of the sexy librarian as an aspect of the American sexual psyche has interested me for a long time — in fact, it was what triggered my academic interest in sex in American culture and eventually drove me into Women’s Studies. So I was quite interested to see what this J.M. McFee had to say. Unfortunately, in the absence of any sort of historical or cultural context, I found McFee’s musings rather toothless. For example, the contention that “eyeglasses and print media are already sufficiently antiquarian to have become as fetishized as garter belts and riding crops” could be true (though I rather doubt it, since eyeglasses and books are very much part of our daily lives in a way that garter belts absolutely aren’t) but even so, it doesn’t tell us very much about why librarians have become so idealized and not, say, book store clerks, editors, or opticians.

The sexualization of the librarian does not stand alone in our cultural erotics, nor can it be cleanly separated from the whole structure of American (possibly Western) sexuality. While I can’t profess to have the whole story, I hope here to give at least an outline of what the whole story might look like. Continue reading

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Big News!

Three big announcements…

Founded in 2005, Savage Minds is now nine years old. Our current design is a default WordPress template I used when our original (more colorful) theme somehow got corrupted, preventing Google from indexing our site. Then our site went down again about a year ago when our hosting company decided it didn’t want to honor a promise made by a smaller company it had bought-out. This was a terrible crisis for us as we somehow hadn’t backed up the site in years, falsely believing that our host was keeping adequate backups on our behalf. Unsure of what to do next, we threw this temporary site up on WordPress.com, using the same generic template we’d been using before. Now all that is about to change, and a number of other things as well.

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Conference Chic, or, How to Dress Like an Anthropologist

By Carole McGranahan with Kate Fischer, Rachel Fleming, Willi Lempert, and Marnie Thomson

Wondering what to wear to the AAAs? We’ve got you covered. For women: throw a few scarves in your suitcase, a suitable range of black clothes, a kick-ass pair of shoes or boots, and some anthropological “flair,” and you should be good to go. Men need to pack their nice jeans, a good buttoned shirt, and the pièce de résistance: a stylish jacket. Unless you’re an archaeologist. Then all you need are jeans.

Anthropologists around the world are packing for the annual American Anthropological Association meetings (“the AAAs”) being held this year in balmy Chicago from November 20-24. What, you might wonder, are they packing? What look do anthropologists go for at the AAAs where thousands of anthropologists gather each year? We’ve turned to our social media networks to find out, posting this question on Twitter and on multiple Facebook accounts to learn just what fashion choices anthropologists are making this week. Continue reading

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Dove Ideology

The latest Dove advertising campaign, “Real Beauty Sketches,” has already garnered its share of well-deserved criticism: That “Dove is owned by Unilever – the same company that owns Axe, king of misogynistic ads.” That “the real take-away is still that women should care whether a stranger thinks she is beautiful.” That the women in the ads don’t look like the women one sees “on the subway, at highway rest stops, in suburban malls.” That the “main participants” are mostly Caucasian, blonde, thin, and young. Etc.

All that is true. But my interest in the ad is pedagogical. For me it is the perfect illustration of what I call the “bent-stick theory of ideology.”

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What does it mean to be a mother?

Stepping out this morning to return an overdue library book (The Daring Book for Girls, natch) it was cold and windy, winter having arrived in coastal Virginia just last night. As I walked up Main Street to the public library the neighborhood church bells began to chime in memorial to the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre. I counted twenty-six chimes, which is remarkable because twenty-seven people were murdered one week ago today.

Of course the person symbolically omitted from this sonic commemoration is Adam Lanza’s mother, Nancy, who has become persona non grata, not only for having given birth to a mass murderer but for taking him to target practice. For some this seems like an egregious and unforgivable mistake, perhaps more so among people who did not grow up around guns. But as activists rally around the cause of gun control the gender politics of masculinity and parenting are just bellow the surface.

Across the Internet people took to blogs and comment boards to declare Nancy Lanza an unfit mother, to reflect on the difficulties of parenting a child with mental illness, and to criticize others for their opinions and rhetoric. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about what a proper mother is and they are not shy about voicing their opinions about what other people are supposed to be doing to meet those standards of mothering.

In a Washington Post report from Newtown, CT, one local resident was quoted, “I am feeling that there is more anger toward the mother than there is toward the son.”

As a non-mother, I was somewhat surprised by this. Perhaps those of you out there who are mothers are already familiar with the power of this discourse to enforce conformity. Like all members of the order Primates, humans are obsessively interested in the reproductive behavior of others in our communities especially when, where, and how mothering takes place.

In the United States children are supposed to be given priority over anything else in a mother’s life. This attitude colors everything about the current abortion debate, for example, which is really a debate about what it means to be a mother. Mothers are often held to unobtainable Victorian feminine ideals of complete selflessness and unconditional love such that for a woman to pursue her own interests, say, is to open up the worth of her parenting to the judgement of others. Men and fathers are not surveilled in this way.

Tragically Adam Lanza had access to his mother’s guns and she, along with twenty-six others, died from his rampage. It appears she has not survived public judgement on the worth of her parenting either. However, I have yet to see any pundit weigh in on the relative merits or shortcomings of Adam Lanza’s father. Our society is much more interested in monitoring the parenting behavior of females than males.

Violence against women x 2

This probably belongs on Sociological Images, but I am going to post it here anyway.  I just read this brief 2010 article about violence against women in Russia, after reading through this fact sheet from the World Health Organization.  Then when I looked back at the article, I noticed something that seemed off.  Here’s a screenshot, see if you can figure it out:

Women as targets of violence, in more ways than one.  Sometimes it’s more overt, sometimes it’s a hidden under the surface–like this ad that just happened to be posted alongside an article about violence against women.  It’s one of those ads that changes every time you refresh the page.  It’s just kind of one of those quotidian digital moments that can bring various strands or currents of our social world together.  Different forms of violence, different layers, coming together in a supposedly coincidental moment.  But sometimes these kinds of moments tell us a lot about larger issues, problems, and pervasive forms of violence.

Elevator Girls

In an old New York Times essay a journalist commemorated the Japanese elevator girl’s voice as being especially piercing and high pitched. Other Americans have similarly made fun of this feminized service occupation, describing it as a particularly extraneous and vacuous job. Japan’s first elevator girls appeared in 1929, when the newly reopened Ueno branch of Matsuzakaya Department Store promoted novel features such as air conditioning, its own post office, and eight elevators operated by women. Since then elevator girls have been of great cultural interest, appearing in numerous comics, a TV drama series, films, Hello Kitty incarnations, novels and in other media. She was a big hit in this McDonald’s commercial from 2006, in which she munches a burger with one hand while preventing a passenger from boarding by pushing the close button with her other hand. The words “I want to eat now” appear on the screen.

Video link.

[Unfortunately, embedding is disabled for this video, if anyone knows of a different version we can use, please let us know in the comments. -the editors]

I want to take the elevator girl seriously as part of a larger effort to reclaim women’s cultural history. In a forthcoming book chapter I track the history and representation of this feminized occupation, as well as the training and experiences of contemporary elevator girls. For example, the high-pitched voice that so irritates foreigners is intentionally fake. As part of their training elevator girls practice speaking in a crafted vocal performance in order to alert customers that they are not available for chatting up: they are on duty in their professional roles. The pre-determined announcements, delivered in the Tokyo-based “standard” dialect, also allow women from diverse regional and class backgrounds an opportunity to work in elegant surroundings in a desired urban location. The work and the uniform strip elevator girls of individuality, thus allowing the observer to imagine their own fantasies about these women (not surprisingly, elevator girls figure prominently in fantasy media and pornography). But for the elevator girl herself, the vulnerability she might experience working in such a public service job is protected by the uniform and scripted speech.

Human Evolution and Patriarchy

The May 4, 2012, issue of the journal Science includes three briefs from the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, one of which has a few choice words about telomere lengths. In case you hadn’t heard, studying telomere length is all the rage now as it apparently has some correlation to longevity. I don’t know. The whole thing seems fuzzy to me. Remember when neutrinos were going faster than the speed of light? That didn’t last long now did it?

As these creased and dog-eared magazines get passed back and forth at our family dinner table I had my brilliant wife (a real scientist) on hand for questioning.

“So is this telomere stuff for real?” I asked her.

“Mmm-hmm,” she said with a shrug. “It looks that way.” So there you have it, from the seat of authority.

Let’s refer to the Science journalist here:

Telomeres are repetitive sequences of DNA that prevent the ends of chromosomes from unraveling, much like the plastic tops on the ends of shoelaces. As cells divide and replicate, telomeres get shorter and eventually can no longer prevent the fraying of DNA and the decay of aging. Recent studies have found a link between living to 100 and having a hyperactive version of telomerase, an enyzme that keeps telomeres long.

If you’ve got long telomeres on your chromosomes then genetically speaking this is beneficial and improves your chances at living a long life. But what factors determines telomere length?
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Matrilineal Patterns in the Book of Genesis

In honor of Mother’s Day this year I’m sharing notes from a lecture I give in my Introduction to Anthropology course. Kinship, I tell them, is the kernel of the discipline. Families are at the center of our lives, they make us who we are. So its interesting to note that in different cultures people have different ideas about who counts as family, what their roles ought to be within the collective, and what sorts of rights and obligations they ought to have over one another.

We spend some time doing kinship diagrams. I show them my family and lead them through exercises where they chart their own families. Such diagrams are passe I guess, but for me they hold quirky charm not unlike the lost art of diagramming sentences. I can throw them up pretty quickly on a white board and we use them in class to help visualize social relationships.

Students find patrilineal descent, which flows from fathers to offspring, to be somewhat intuitive. After all they behave in a similar way to our tradition of passing down surnames and students can anticipate how patrilineality might coincide with a a socio-economic system that favors powerful fathers and husbands. But matilineal descent which flows from mothers to offspring are strange to them, its illogic manifest most clearly in the responsibilities for discipline granted to resource providers such as uncles and brothers, with weaker bonds ascribed to biological fathers.

Matrilineality seems exotic to students, but in fact some examples of it can easily be found in one of the most ancient charter documents of “Western Civilization.” Bereishit (Genesis), the first book of the Torah (Old Testament).

I don’t know if you’ve ever just sat down and read a whole lot of the Bible. My knowledge of it is fairly limited. I am familiar with Genesis which is distinguished by its engaging mythic narratives that rewards rereading. These incredibly evocative and powerful stories caught the imagination of underground cartoonist R.Crumb and inspired him to complete a fully illustrated Book of Genesis. The Crumb illustrations, thick and fleshy, help out to humanize the characters especially for people who aren’t already familiar with the stories.

Now granted, what I’m about to do is not the usual way one reads Genesis. I’m only doing this in order to make some points about matrilineality, not to claim some sort of religious insight.
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Illustrated Man, #8 – Sita Sings the Blues

The history of womankind is a broken record as the same damn things keeping happening over and over again. At least that seems to be a major theme in Sita Sings the Blues, an incomparably unique animated feature that combines ancient Hindu mythology, a 1920s blues singer, and one artist’s failed marriage to tell the story of a every woman who lets a man walk all over her.

This is a true labor of love, rendered mostly in Adobe Flash, by the artist and cartoonist Nina Paley. Paley has made the complete feature available for free under a Creative Commons license. Now that the music rights have cleared for Annette Hanshaw’s soundtrack the film is also available on DVD and if you like what you see there’s merchandise for sale so appreciative audiences can support the artist.

The story unfolds in multiple layers, each taking place at divergent moments in history and represented with its own animated style. We begin in present-day San Francisco, portrayed here in squigglevision, with the couple, Nina and Dave, in domestic bliss. Dave’s sudden departure for a new job in India foreshadows the impending end of their relationship. Paley juxtaposes this with the epic myth of Sita and Rama, presented as gouache paintings come alive. Interrupting or narrating the story is a third form, a trio of shadow puppets commenting on the myth. These characters exist out of time. Finally the signature sequences are done with computer animation as a cartoonish Rama and Sita act out their story with Sita singing the words of Annete Hanshaw’s blues. Although visually set in the myth the audience is experiencing creative expressions from the early twentieth century America and encouraged to note the similarities between the two.

“I never knew how good it was to be a slave to one who means the world to me,” she sings.

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Any Other Naked Woman

Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s lawyer, Henri Leclerc:

At these parties, people were not necessarily dressed, and I defy you to tell the difference between a naked prostitute and any other naked woman.

Gayle Rubin, in her famous essay “The Traffic in Women”

Marx once asked: “What is a Negro slave? A man of the black race. The one explanation is as good as the other. A Negro is a Negro. He only becomes a slave in certain relations. A cotton spinning jenny is a machine for spinning cotton. It becomes capital only in certain relations. Torn from these relationships it is no more capital than gold in itself is money or sugar is the price of sugar.” One might paraphrase: What is a domesticated woman? A female of the species. The one explanation is as good as the other. A woman is a woman. She only becomes a domestic, a wife, a chattel, a playboy bunny, a prostitute, or a human dictaphone in certain relations.

[h/t to Aaron Bady]

Illustrated Wimmin, #4 – The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For

In this occasional series, Illustrated Man, I will explore the intersection of anthropology and comic books, graphic novels, comic strips, animation, and other manner of popular drawn art.

Alison Bechdel crashed the party on American literature’s main stage with Fun Home (2004) a stunning graphic memoir about coming of age, coming out, and discovering her father’s own closeted gay identity. It received rave reviews and was featured at the top of a number of end of the year best book lists and, with the close of the ’00s, reappeared on some best of the decade lists. And rightfully so, there wasn’t a more monumental nonfiction comic book in a decade that will be remembered for an explosion in top notch comic output. There hasn’t been a more significant comic memoir since Maus (1986).

My own encounter with Fun Home began on the Eastern Band Cherokee reservation as I was conducting the ethnographic field research for my dissertation. I was cast in a theatrical production as a soldier in Andrew Jackson’s army and one of my fellow Indian killers was a bohemian epileptic artist named Pat working his way back to Florida from Knoxville. Like Capote’s villain from In Cold Blood he traversed America’s highways with a library in his trunk: Zizek, Baudrillad, and a borrowed copy of Bechdel’s novel.

After I settled in Newport News I discovered Fun Home in the stacks at my public library and got hooked on Bechdel’s beautiful ink lines, hyper-literary self reflection, and slightly neurotic gallows humor. I was anxious to get my hands on more of her work and I soon learned I had a lot of catching up to do. Before achieving celebrity status Bechdel was already a star in the gay and lesbian community for her biweekly strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, first published in 1983. A nearly 400 page retrospective was released in 2008 as The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For.

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Why Thin Is Still In

Here is a guest blog by Ashley Mears, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University:

Why Thin is Still In

In her new documentary, Picture Me, Columbia University student Sara Ziff chronicles her 4-year rise and exit through the fashion modeling industry, zooming her personal camcorder onto supposedly systemic abuses—sexual, economic, and emotional—suffered by fashion models.  Among the many complaints launched in the film is an aesthetic that prizes uniformly young, white, and extremely thin bodies measuring 34-24-34” (bust-waist-hips) and at least 5’10” in height.  It’s an aesthetic that many of the models themselves have a tough time embodying, pushing some into drastic diets of juice-soaked cotton balls, cocaine use, and bulimia—in my own interviews with models I discovered similar, but not very common, practices of Adderall and laxative abuse.  It’s also an aesthetic that has weathered a tough media storm of criticism, set off in 2005 with the anorexia-related deaths of several Latin American models, and which culminated in the 2006 ban of models in Madrid Fashion Week with excessively low Body Mass Indexes (BMI).  And yet, as a cursory glance at the Spring 2011 catwalks will reveal, thin is still in.  In fact, bodies remain as gaunt, young, and pale as they did five years ago, and it’s entirely likely that in another five years, despite whatever dust Picture Me manages to kick up, models will look more or less the same as they do now. Continue reading

Your own private griot

[Reposted from the SLA Blog.]

In her now classic 1989 paper on language and political economy, Judith Irvine talked about situations where language doesn’t merely index political and economic relations in the way that accent is linked to class in Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” but where speech acts are themselves a form of political and economic economic activity. Her example is that of the Wolof griot “whose traditional profession involves special rhetorical and conversational duties such as persuasive speechmaking on a patron’s behalf, making entertaining conversation, transmitting messagesto the public, and performing the various genres of praise-singing.” She discusses how while not anyone can be a griot — you have to be born into the right caste — it is the “most talented and skillful griots” who “earn high rewards and are sought after by would-be patrons.” Irvine then goes on to discuss not just the verbal skill of the griot, but “cases where a verbal statement is the object of exchange.” It is worth quoting this discussion in full:

Recently there appeared a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine, entitled “Flattery getting someone somewhere” (M. Stevens, 28 July 1986). “You’re looking great, Frank!” says a man in business suit and necktie to another, perhaps older, man with glasses and bow tie. “Thanks, Chuck! Here’s five dollars!” Bow Tie replies, handing over the cash. The joke depends, of course, on the notion that the exchange of compliments for cash should not be done so directly and overtly. We all know that Chuck may indeed flatter Frank with a view to getting a raise, or some other eventual reward; but it is quite improper in American society to recognize the exchange formally, with an immediate payment. A compliment should be acknowledged only with a return compliment, or a minimization, or some other verbal “goods.” If it is to be taken as “sincere,” it is specifically excluded from the realm of material payments.

Some cultural systems do not segregate the economy of compliments from the economy of material transactions and profits, however. It is doubtful, for example, that the cartoon would seem funny to many Senegalese. With a few suitable adjustments for local scene, the transfer it depicts is quite ordinary. There is, in fact, a category of persons-the griots-specializing in flattery of certain kinds, among other verbal arts. The income they gain from these activities is immediate and considerable, often amounting to full-time employment for those whose skills include the fancier genres of eulogy.

I remembered this article because something I read made me wonder about the claim that it is “quite improper in American society to recognize the exchange formally, with an immediate payment.” It was a piece in the Washington Post by sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh entitled “Five myths about prostitution.” The second of these five myths is that “men visit prostitutes for sex.”

Often, they pay them to talk. I’ve been studying high-end sex workers (by which I mean those who earn more than $250 per “session”) in New York, Chicago and Paris for more than a decade, and one of my most startling findings is that many men pay women to not have sex. Well, they pay for sex, but end up chatting or having dinner and never get around to physical contact. Approximately 40 percent of high-end sex worker transactions end up being sex-free. Even at the lower end of the market, about 20 percent of transactions don’t ultimately involve sex.

Figuring out why men pay for sex they don’t have could sustain New York’s therapists for a long time. But the observations of one Big Apple-based sex worker are typical: “Men like it when you listen. . . . I learned this a long time ago. They pay you to listen — and to tell them how great they are.” Indeed, the high-end sex workers I have studied routinely see themselves as acting the part of a counselor or a marriage therapist. They say their job is to feed a man’s need for judgment-free friendship and, at times, to help him repair his broken partnership. Little wonder, then, that so many describe themselves to me as members of the “wellness” industry.

So here we seem to have a situation where Americans do pay to be told how great they are. The difference, of course, is that this activity is illegal, and it is private. While a woman at a Japanese hostess bar may be paid to listen and make complements in a public setting, in the US this activity seems to have been relegated to the private sphere – between the man and his griot.