When Google engineer James Damore wrote his now-infamous memo about how woman are naturally unsuited to work at Google, anthropologists everywhere groaned inwardly. Our discipline’s lot in life is tragic. After about a century of research, we have a pretty good understanding of how human beings work. And yet, our findings run counter to what the average American’s ideas about how society and culture function. As a result, we face the unenviable task of having to constantly explain, over and over again, generation in and generation out, our truths to a skeptical public. It sucks. It’s tempting to throw up your hands and walk away from discussion. But we have no choice: Our integrity as scholars and scientists demands that we wade in to every public debate about race, gender, and human nature in order to explain — once again — how people actually work.
I see shows like Star Trek as emblematic of a transitional period in American masculinity — at least on TV. The 50’s would have been pure Kirk, with a woman on every planet and an ability to knock out foes with a one-two punch. After the 70’s we got numerous examples of Spock, with his faith in science and confusion around emotions (not to mention women). There is a direct line from Spock to Seinfeld, and it goes through Revenge of the Nerds, Weird Science, and Huey Lewis And The News. The overwhelming message of my childhood was that it was “hip to be square.”
There is something to be said for this change. The confusion over emotions and social norms allowed men to be emotional and sensitive. Alien women may have objectified, but race (supposedly) no longer mattered. But the figure of the clueless scientist who just doesn’t understand women is not harmless. An obvious example is someone like nerd-hero Richard Feynman who was confused as to why women wouldn’t trade sex for sandwiches. The sexist culture that seems to exist within companies like Uber and Google makes it difficult for women in those industries, and arguably affects the kind of products and services offered by tech companies. Twitter’s foot dragging on the issue of online harassment is a good example of this.
There is a debate within linguistic anthropology which helps explain just what is wrong with our society’s continued celebration of the clueless naiveté of nerd culture. Continue reading
In my field site of Bangalore, south India, I found support among young female professionals for feel-good feminism—that is, messages of female empowerment in pop culture that do not seek to shift the status quo much. This kind of feminism is often used by advertisers to appeal to female customers, as in this much-talked-about detergent ad in which a father belatedly realizes the bad example he set for his daughter by not helping with housework, or this recent Nike ad featuring female athleticism in India, where few women participate in sports. The idea here seems to be that a general female empowerment can allow (middle and upper-class) women to push the boundaries of gender norms ever so slightly.
But how much deviance from gender norms is really possible? Deviance is a word not used in contemporary anthropology very much anymore. It suggests a rigid norm that can be identified and described with a certainty few anthropologists would agree with now. It is also a term loaded with stigma. Who are the deviants? Continue reading
A week before historic elections which swept Taiwan’s ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) out of power, KMT candidate Lin Yu-fang (林郁方) asked voters not vote for Freddy Lim (林昶佐, pictured above), asserting that he has “hair that is longer than a woman’s and is mentally abnormal.”1
Pierre Bourdieu, in his famous critique of structuralism from Outline of a Theory of Practice, says:
only a virtuoso with a perfect command of his “art of living” can play on all the resources inherent in the ambiguities and uncertainties of behavior and situation in order to produce the actions appropriate to each case, to do that of which people will say “There was nothing else to be done”, and do it the right way.
Two recent headline-grabbing stories, Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover and Rachel Dolezal getting outed by her parents as “white,” have served to highlight the limits to virtuoso performance: the boundaries our society places over the individual’s ability to perform gender and ethnicity. Continue reading
If you’ve been living under a rock for the past week you might not have noticed that the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is underway. My own fandom encompasses many different kinds of sports each for different reasons, but far and away the men’s tournament is the most entertaining televised event of the year. We’ll just have to set aside the irony of recognizing the problematic nature of elite-level college sports while enjoying it as faculty. Sorry! That’s a whole other post. Here I want to bring up a semiotic curiosity and get your feedback.
Non-sports fans, let me set the stage.
Over the course of the basketball season the teams play each other and develop reputations for their skill (or lack thereof), and the culmination of the season is a tournament in which only select teams are invited to play. There’s a lot of drama leading up to the tournament as a convoluted selection process decides which teams will play and in what order they will meet. As the anticipation builds and the media hype machine goes into overdrive we often hear the basketball tournament marketed as “the Dance” or “the Big Dance.” In this narrative the selection process is likened to a courtship ritual, with the teams as available women each of whom wants to make herself appear as desirable as possible in order to draw the most attention from suitors.
The selection process results in a numerical ranking for each team that represents their quality. The contest begins by pitting the weakest against the strongest. In theory this should give the strongest teams the best chance for advancing, but every year their are surprising upsets in which the underdog beats a heavily favored team.
If an underdog wins twice in row it is said to be a “Cinderella.” In this well known folktale, Cinderella, a girl in a structurally disadvantaged position in her family, undergoes a transformation in which she is revealed to be more beautiful and powerful than her mother (and sisters) who had previously tormented her. In the Disney version of this tale, the version most popular among young people in America, Cinderella goes to a dance with her identity masked and while she’s there she is courted by a Prince as her sisters and mother look on powerless to stop her.
I think there are two very different ways of talking about race and racism which frequently get conflated, and I think this confusion is responsible for a lot of wasted energy in various online debates. The same goes for discussions about gender and sexism. On the one hand we have a moralistic view of racism/sexism. This view seems more likely to be held by people who are decrying accusations of racism/sexism than by those who try to call attention to them, but not exclusively. Those who call out racism/sexism, on the other hand, are more likely to be talking about race/gender as technologies of power which work to systematically marginalize certain voices (and certain lives) than they are to be accusing anyone in particular of being immoral.
[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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
[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.