You may have heard that Megan Smith former Vice President of GoogleX is now the Chief Technology Officer for The White House. Smith has both a Bachelor and a Masters degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT, she serves on the MIT Board, and she is also a successful entrepreneur. She has an outstanding commitment to gender diversity and she is one of the few big-name leaders in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) who is visible in her work with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) communities. Smith was formerly the CEO of PlanetOut, an online LGBT organisation. Let’s take a look at Smith’s amazing credentials and her work on women in STEM and LGBTQ advocacy.
While people rush to defend Taylor Swift’s racist appropriation of Black female bodies in her latest video, Shake it Off, because it’s presented as “fun,” it’s worth remembering that “satire” is no excuse for whitewashing of racism. First, satire requires cultural context to be clever; it matters who is delivering the joke to whom, when, and for what purpose. Second, racism is not simply about interpersonal insults. Racism describes a system of domination where White people benefit directly and indirectly from the status quo.
Taylor Swift has positioned herself publicly as a feminist, though her enactment of these ideals was already not without problems. This video shows she has little understanding of the history of feminism and the cultural struggles faced by women of colour. Not coincidentally, White feminism is still largely resistant to racial issues. As sociologist Jessie Daniels notes, it matters that White women are at the centre of both pop culture and the feminist movement:
White feminism, without attention to racial justice, makes an easy partnership with White supremacy.
From Miley Cyrus to Iggy Azalea who profit from brandishing certain aspects of Black culture, to Lily Allen who similarly used Black women in a video to critique White women pop stars, Swift has added her name to an ever-growing list of rich White women in pop music who use the exploitation of women of colour to make “feminist” statements. This stands in contrast, but along a similar continuum, of White pop stars such as Gwen Stefani, Katy Perry, Avril Lavigne who commodify the culture and sexuality of “Asian” women. Asian femininity is sexy in a “cute,” clean and submissive way; while Black and Brown women’s sexuality is dangerous, dirty and untamed. Either way, White women’s cultural appropriation of minority cultures conforms to familiar tropes where White champions dominate the uncivilised Other.
The fact that White celebrities do not set out to be “intentionally racist” is beside the point. Racism does not require your intent, as racial bias often goes unexamined. In fact, the way Whiteness works is to place White people at the centre of culture so that they are protected from the everyday consequences of race relations. (And no, there is no such thing as reverse racism.) Not recognising how racism works, such as failing to understand how and why cultural appropriation and stereotypes are damaging, is an outcome of White privilege.
Many people understand that celebrities are not health experts, yet the media persist on giving them a public forum to share their health and lifestyle advice. Journalists insist on printing celebrity musings without critical insight. This is dangerous. We see this in the anti-vaccine movement, but it’s pervasive in other ways. Over the next couple of days I’ll present a couple of case studies focusing on why it’s especially damaging to present celebrity ideas about women’s health without consideration to the social impact.
First up, I show the problems of presenting scientifically invalid ideas about vaginal health. A popular young American actress, Shailene Woodley, has reportedly suggested that genital yeast infection and other genital conditions can be cured by exposing vaginas to sunlight. She says she read this advice in an article by “an herbalist.” The media has repeated this advice and even recommended it with relish.
Young women who have limited access to sexual health education and who may not understand their bodies do not need to be exposed to pseudoscience. The individual musings of celebrities can be ignored at the individual level. At the social level, however, the media have cultural authority and a responsibility to inform readers about health issues. This is done by drawing on expert advice, not egging on damaging celebrity endorsements.
By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD
Sociology and anthropology have long used the experiences of “third sex” cultures, such as the Native American Two Spirit people, to teach students about the social construction of sex and gender. In many cultures around the world, people are allowed to live their lives beyond conventional binaries; they need not adhere to the biological sex they were born into. These people are usually revered and there are special circumstances where individuals are allowed to shift their gender position. These groups, including the Two Spirit people, are used as examples in the sociology of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersexual (LGBTQI) issues. Recent scholarship, however, has questioned this practice, demonstrating that social scientists are applying Western concepts to misappropriate the Two Spirit phenomena.
My post gives a broad overview of the social science concepts of gender and sexuality. I then discuss the spirituality, gender and sexuality of Two Spirit people as well as the history and culture that informs their social position. Let me put my analysis in context: I am not Native American nor am I a transgender person. I identify as a non-white, cis-woman (that is, my biological and gender identity align). As a sociologist who has researched, published on and taught gender and sexuality courses, I seek to explore how Western social scientists, queer theorists and other social activists have misappropriated the Two Spirit experience to highlight social causes.
I propose that social science needs to move forward from our dominant understandings of the Two Spirit experience. My aim is to start a conversation about how we might expand sociological understandings of gender and sexuality using this case study. How do we best communicate the social construction of gender and sexuality to students and to the public? I argue academics and activists need to be mindful that, even with the best of intentions, misappropriation of cultural traditions of minority groups is dangerous. This perpetuates historical practices that have silenced Indigenous experiences. There are better ways to appreciate and form solidarity with Other cultures. This begins by listening to the way minorities speak about their own experiences, rather than projecting our seemingly-progressive perspective onto Others.
I begin by giving a background on what inspired this post as an example of public sociology. Public sociology describes how we produce sociology for mass audiences outside academia. My focus here is on how we use sociology in the classroom and in social media. It is vital to the longevity of our discipline that sociologists explain our key concepts to general audiences. At the same time, I see it important that we publicly own up to, and invite a public discussion about, the changing dynamics of power which influence social theories. We also need to take responsibility for the way we teach and publicly discuss social science ideas. This means being more critical about the ways in which social science ideas are produced and disseminated, especially via social media. Continue reading
By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD.
Trigger Warning: Rape.
A couple of weeks a go, a new, so-called “anti-rape” underwear device got quite a bit of international attention. It was invented by a team of Indian students, including two women. The device was designed to give rapists an electric shock. It is also reportedly equipped with a GPS tracking device to alert the women’s parents and police that she is being assaulted. The underlying attitudes that led these engineers to make this device are representative of the problem of rape not just in India, but in other parts of the world. Rape and harassment are not seen as public issues that require social intervention, but rather these are perceived as personal problems that individual women must navigate and manage in their day-today lives. In Australia, women’s public safety is also positioned as a personal issue. Both the Jill Meagher case and the public sexual harassment of Prime Minister Julia Guillard exemplify that women are ultimately forced to fend for themselves, while society does little to acknowledge rape culture as a societal responsibility. Continue reading
By Zuleyka Zevallos
High heel shoes were once a status symbol for powerful men, from horse riding soldiers in 16th Century Persia, to European aristocrats in the 17th Century. Since the Enlightenment period, heels became associated with “irrational” fashion and pornography, and so “impractical” shoes became a symbol of femininity. What changed? Today’s post examines how history and fashion trends related to high heels help us to see how gender is a performance that entrenches inequality. Continue reading
By Zuleyka Zevallos
The 11th of October 2012 was the inaugural Day of the Girl. This year, the focus was on the eradication of child marriage. Around the world, 70 million girls were married before they reached the age of 18. My post today explores how the interrelated issues of gender, education and child marriage might be addressed by sociology. My focus is primarily on girl brides. While young boys are also married, the research I review shows that the adverse effects of child marriage have chronic health and socio-economic impact on young girls. The “value” attached to child brides refers to the cultural and economic issues underlying child marriage. Young girls are married off according to dominant beliefs about preserving women’s “honour” (that is, ensuring virginity before marriage), as well as the costs of raising girls. Child marriage has been linked to people trafficking in extreme situations. In most other cases it maintains the status quo in poor or underdeveloped areas, where economic deprivation is used to justify men’s dominance over young women’s reproductive and life choices. In order to eliminate child marriage, communities need to be shown practical demonstrations that delaying marriage increases everyone’s welfare. Continue reading