Punishing the Guilty – For Whose Benefit?

December 31, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” was written and filmed well before Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, Roy Moore, and all the others were in the news.  Yet the film has a remarkably timely incident, and it illustrates how men, even when they are sort of on the right side, the side of the victim, can be disappointingly obtuse. What the men want is retribution. That’s what will make them feel good. But in their focus on punishing the guilty, they ignore what the victim is asking for – understanding and  support

Half-brothers Andy and Matthew and their older sister Jean have come to visit their father in the hospital. As they stand in the parking lot, they see another visitor, Paul, a friend of their father’s. Paul is old and infirm; he has to be carried to the hospital by a burly male nurse. This episode in the movie is called “Jean’s Story.” That story is an incident from her teen years that she now tells to her two brothers for the first time.

She was visiting her parents on Martha’s Vineyard one summer.

JEAN: The next day, Dad played tennis and worked in his studio. I went down to the beach with the kids. I got to swim in the ocean which was really special for me. I loved that. Later, I showered in the outdoor shower with my suit on. And I realized someone was watching me. It was Paul. He smiled at me, almost politely and then he lowered his tight bathing suit, took out his penis and started stroking it.

MATT: Oh God.

DANNY: Paul did?!

JEAN: I watched him until he finished. Then he walked away.

DANNY: Did you tell anyone?

JEAN: I told Dad that night and he asked if Paul had touched me and I said, No. He thought we should probably just leave it then, they were going back to the City soon anyway. But that if Paul did it again, he’d punch him in the nose. The next day when I was leaving, I looked around for Dad to say goodbye, but he was playing tennis. I thought about telling your Mom, Matthew, but I was afraid she’d get angry at me. I remember crying on my way to the ferry.

Jean leaves, and the brothers try to think of what to do. “Do we kick the shit out of him?” Danny suggests, but they realize this might kill the old man, and besides, what if the burly nurse stepped in? So they decide to trash Paul’s car. They are inept at first but soon get the hang of it, kicking the mirrors, twisting off the wipers, smashing the windshield with a rock.

They are exhilirated and quite proud of themselves.

MATT:  That felt great.
DANNY:  I don’t know why we don’t do that more often.

A few minutes later, they excitedly show Jean their handiwork, but her reaction is not what they expected. It’s more like the reaction she would have to a couple of little boys who had done something stupid. “We thought you’d be happy,” says Danny.

The brothers were In fact acting like a couple of little boys, and they did do something stupid. And even though they are grown men, Jean still has to explain it to them.

MATT: He has dementia?

ELIZA [Matt’s 18-year old daughter]: (nods) Yeah.

MATT:  He has dementia.

DANNY: Well, he didn’t have dementia when he molested Jean.

JEAN: He didn’t molest me.

DANNY: (losing steam) But let’s not minimize it, Jean. What he did was shitty and damaging and I don’t know...that same asshole is in there somewhere... Right? Beneath the dementia.

JEAN: I’m glad you guys feel better. Unfortunately I’m still fucked up.

DANNY: Do you want to take a swing?

JEAN: I could smash every car in this parking lot and burn the hospital down and it wouldn’t un-fuck me up.
You guys will never understand what it’s like to be me in this family.

The mens’ aggression – towards Paul and in a later scene towards one another – does something for the men. It brings them closer together. But it does nothing for Jean. And when she tells them so, and they try to think of doing something for their sister, all they can come up with is to offer her a chance to participate in punishing the guilty (or at least his car). They are clueless.

Flashback – Eco v. Macho

December 28, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s not manly being green. That’s the finding of two researchers (Aaron Brough and James Wilkie) writing at Scientific American two days ago (here).

men may shun eco-friendly behavior because of what it conveys about their masculinity. It’s not that men don’t care about the environment. But they also tend to want to feel macho, and they worry that eco-friendly behaviors might brand them as feminine.

The authors ask the practical question, “What can pro-environmental marketers do to buffer against the threat posed to men by the green-feminine stereotype?” They make a general prescription – brand green behavior as manly – but aside from some small suggestions (bold fonts, wild wilderness imagery), no specific examples.

I have news for them. Texas figured it out long ago. I blogged it back in 2009. Here is that post.


September 6, 2009

the brand consultant was consulting with me – i.e., he was picking up the cappuccino tab at Starbucks. He was about to start teaching a course called something like “Communications and Public Affairs,” and not being an academic (though he’s a really good teacher), he wanted some advice on the syllabus.

We finally got around to the idea that Messages about Issues had to be tailored for specific Audiences or Publics, particularly their Interests and Values. (Those capitalized words were possible major headings in the syllabus.)

I immediately thought of the example of Texas and litter. How could you convince Texans to be more respectful of public places and not toss all that crap out onto the roads they drove on? The Ladybird Johnson approach – “Highway Beautification”? Wrong audience. The people who were littering obviously didn’t care about highway beauty.

The guy you were trying to reach was Bubba, the classic red stater – fiercely individualistic, anti-government, macho. Bubba was also a slob, and probably proud of it. You couldn’t appeal to self-interest since it’s in Bubba’s self-interest to chuck his garbage out the window. Even hefty fines (and they are hefty) would work only if you could catch litterers often enough – unlikely on the Texas highways.

The best way in was Values. But how? “Don’t be a Litterbug, Keep Your Community Clean” would be too nice, too feminine or babyish, and, like “Pitch In” too collectivist. Instead, Roy Spence and Tim McClure at the Austin ad agency GSD&M had the Texas DOT go with chauvinism – Texas chauvinism. Spence and McClure were the ones who had distilled the target audience down to the Bubba stereotype, and the idea they played on to reach Bubba was not that littering was ugly or wrong or costly, but that it hurt Texas. And thus in 1985 was born one of the most famous and effective campaigns in the history of advertising.

With its double meaning of “mess,” it captured Bubba’s patriotism and pugnacity. The bumper stickers were soon everywhere. The TV ads featured famous proud Texans. One of the early ones  featured Too-Tall Jones and Randy White, two of the toughest dudes on the Cowboys defense, picking up roadside trash.

Edited ranscript:
JONES: You see the guy who threw this out the window, you tell him I got a message for him.

WHITE: (picks up a beer can): I got a message for him too.

OFF-CAMERA VOICE: What’s that?

WHITE: (Crushes the beer can with one fist). Well, I kinda need to see him to deliver it.

JONES: Don’t mess with Texas.
Litter in Texas has been reduced by 72%, the campaign is still going strong a quarter-century later, and McLure and Spence have a book about it. My source was Made to Stick by the Heath Brothers (no, jazzers, not those Heath brothers), Chip and Dan.

Science v. Community Wishes

December 27, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

The CDC didn’t ban those seven words (fetus, vulnerable, diversity, evidence-based, science-based, entitlement, transgender). It suggested that their writers not use them. This was not a diktat from the White House. It was not blatant censorship. More likely the suggestion came from a CDC career staffer trying to protect the Center from Congress. He or she was saying in effect, “We face cutbacks. If you want Congress to fund a project, don’t put these words in your proposal.”
Here’s the telling sentence from the memo

Instead of “science-based” or -“evidence-based,” the suggested phrase is “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes.”

It could be worse. And it is worse in other regions of the Trump administration. At the EPA and the Department of Energy, the term “climate change” is disappearing (and the administration demanded a list of names of scientists there doing research on this non-existent thing, whatever it’s called.)

But the CDC memo is still pretty bad. Never in the past had it been necessary to caution staffers not to use science-based or evidence-based when writing something Congress members and their staffs might read. That was then. Now, the Republicans are in control, and for them, apparently, politics and ideology trump science and evidence. Do the runoffs from strip mining contaminate the water so that more people become sick and die from cancer and other diseases? Well, not if “the community” wishes it not to be so. (There’s also the question of just who “the community” is.) What about childhood immunization? If you live in an area with lots of anti-vaxxers, the CDC, in making its recommendation, will weigh those community wishes against science and the evidence on rates of autism (vaccination does not increase risk) and measles (non-vaccination increases risk).

The other ominous suggestion in the memo is that research has to be compatible with Republican ideology. If there’s a chance that the results, the evidence, will reveal negative consequences of Republican policies, the study won’t be funded. If you are going to study the effects on vulnerable, diverse populations (e.,g., transgender people or people dependent on entitlement programs), better find another way to describe them.

But Is That True?

December 26, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

A New York Times op-ed this weekend by Margaret Renki (here) reminded me of an assignment I regularly give. Here’s the relevant excerpt from the Times.

Eighty percent of white born-again Christians voting in Alabama backed Roy Moore, and there is no skirting the damage they’ve done to their own moral standing.

The day of the election, the editor in chief of Christianity Today, Mark Galli, identified the biggest loser in Alabama: Christian faith itself. From now on, Mr. Galli wrote, “When it comes to either matters of life and death or personal commitments of the human heart, no one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation.”

Is this true? 

For the assignment, I ask students to convert a claim like this into a testable hypothesis. Students are welcome to find such statements on their own, but to make life easier, I offer several that I have collected over the years.* I may add this one to the folder. The point of the assignment is that evidence, good evidence, is always necessary, but figuring out what that evidence should be is often difficult.

Renki’s statement sounds reasonable. But what if someone disagrees? That’s why we need evidence. What if someone says, “No, the Roy Moore thing didn’t damage anyone’s moral standing except perhaps Roy Moore’s. The credibility of born-again Christians won’t change.”

For the assignment, students have to be very clear about what the variables are, and how to measure them. They have to specify the categories or values for each variable and the information they would use to decide the category or score for each unit. Don’t be be constrained by technical or realistic limits, I tell them.  You have unlimited capacity to get the information you need. You can even have a time machine if you want to get comparative data from the past or future. 

In this case, they can travel forward several years to see what has happened to the moral standing of evangelicals. The trick is to turn “moral standing” into something that can actually be measured. That’s the other point of the assignment: operationalizing a vague concept like “moral standing” is difficult. No matter how you do it, someone will be able to point out the flaws. And they’ll be right. At some point, a researcher just has to say, “Yes, I know it’s not perfect, but it’s the best I could come up with.”

* This is also an exercise in reading. Rarely do op-ed writers make a direct cause-effect statement.  Instead, that idea is often implied, mixed in among statements about what should or should not be done. A student has to be able to extract the hypothesis. Here are some examples of ideas distilled from these articles.
  • NFL officiating is bad because the refs are older and because they do this only as a part-time job. Refs should also have to face the media post-game.
  • Allowing women to serve in combat units in the Army will lead to sexual tension and lower unit cohesion.
  • Replacing tipping with a living wage and European-style service charge will be better for waiters and not reduce the quality of service.
  • Cinderella movies give girls a distorted idea of love and relationships and endangers their emotional health and self-image.
  • Banning on-field use of smokeless tobacco will improve public health because kids imitate their sports heroes.
  • “Bathroom laws” like the one in North Carolina are bad for the mental health of transgender kids.

How Big Is Your Tax Cut? Compared to What?

December 23, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

  1. How much did you pay in federal income tax last year?
  2. What percent of your gross or net income was that?
  3. When you file your taxes in a couple of months, will you compare the figures with those of a year earlier?
My own answer to the first two is “I don’t know.” That’s probably the most accurate answer to #3 as well. 

Americans opposed the recently passed tax bill 46-32%. Most people also think that the tax bill favors the wealthy rather than the middle class. Only self-identified Republicans think otherwise, and even among them, only 60% see the tax as more for the middle class than for the wealthy.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Republican politicians are hoping that these views will change when people see their take-home pay increase. Here’s conservative columnist Bret Stephens writing in today’s New York Times:

In 2018, according to the Tax Policy Center, 91 percent of middle-income filers will get a tax cut, averaging close to $1,100. That’s real money, or at least enough to give Donald Trump and congressional Republicans a good opening for a “we told you so” moment.

In politics, perception and ideology are more important than the facts. But what about personal experience?  How much does it influence perception and ideology?

When Obama reduced taxes, almost nobody noticed the increase in their paycheck. Public perception was equally divided between those who thought taxes and not changed and those who thought taxes had increased.

I get paid every two weeks. That $1100 of “real money” Stephens talks about will work out to about $50 a check. Will I notice? Maybe the first time. I think that’s what happened when Obama’s payroll tax cut went through. When I do my income tax next April, will I say, “Hey, I’m paying $1100 less than last year!”? Not unless I dig out my old returns.

Republican hopes might also run into the problem of “comparison groups” – the others that we compare ourselves against. So far, that’s worked out pretty well for Republicans. Liberals have been in despair puzzling about those White working-class people who oppose Obamacare and other programs they would have benefited from. Why would they reject a healthcare law that picked up a large chunk of their insurance premiums?

Probably because they were comparing themselves with the undeserving poor – the moochers, the folks who are getting Medicaid absolutely free. As Sen. Orrin Hatch put it recently, ““I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves, won’t lift a finger and expect the federal government to do everything.”

But when it comes to tax cuts, those White working-class taxpayers can’t very well compare themselves with the poor, whose tax cuts, if any, are small. Instead, when it comes to paying taxes, working-class people, and middle-class too, are looking not at the poor but at the wealthy. And what they see is people  getting tax cuts that dwarf their own. Perhaps on this one issue, they will share the left-wing focus on the undeserving rich.

In April, the Gallup poll regularly asks people if they see their income taxes as “fair.”  Last year, with no real change in the income tax, the percentage jumped from 50% to 61%.

 If Republican politicians and journalists are right, that number will increase next time around. I’m not so sure.

Women’s Magazines — By the Numbers

December 22, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Women’s magazines love numbers: “328 Fun Hair Ideas,” “25 Best Bags of Spring,” “21 Mind Blowing Sex Moves” – that sort of thing.  They’ve been doing this since long before the Internet age of Buzzfeed and listicles. (I’ve posted about this from time to time, here for example).

I abbreviated that third cover come-on. The full title on the cover, in varying font sizes is: 21 Mind Blowing Sex Moves You’ve Never Tried Before (Introducing the Brazilian “Sweet Treat”). It’s from Cosmopolitan, of course.

(Click on an image for a larger view. But do you really need it?)

Lately Cosmo has gotten more political. At their website yesterday you could find this reaction to the tax bill.

The Cosmo content changes. It’s no longer just hair styles and sex moves. And the photo accompanying the piece is of a smiling Paul Ryan. But in the headlines, they still lead with a number. (Story #3 is “8 Ways Your Relationship Changes After Kids.”)

I guess women just have a natural attraction to math.

“Mindhunter” Needs a Sociology Checker

December 12, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Mindhunter” makes it to Huffington Post’s list of the best shows you can stream in Netflix. I’m not sure what Hufflepuff’s criteria were, but obviously precision in sociological theory was not among them.

The show is set in the 1970s, and the mindhunter-in-chief’s girlfriend, Debbie Mitford, is a sociology grad student at U Va. In Episode 1, she pretty much mangles Durkheim’s ideas about deviance.  (See “Debbie Does Durkheim”) Now in Episode 8, it’s Goffman.

In a scene in her apartment, Holden the mindhunter interrupts her studying – even though she has told him not to – to ask what she’s reading. Without turning from her desk she holds the book over her shoulder to show him. It’s a classic – The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

Props to the props department for finding a copy with its original cover, though to be picky, Debbie probably would have bought it in paperback. After all, judging from the lighting, her budget doesn’t even allow her to use much electricity. Holden asks her to explain Goffman.

So far so good. Goffman argues that we can understand much about human interaction if we see it as drama. The question is why – why do we play these parts and play them in particular ways?

Oy. I dread any forthcoming episode when Debbie takes her qualifying exams. In Goffman’s dramaturgy we are motivated not by altruism or conformism. We are not primarily interested in making others feel good. Instead, we are trying to have others think well of us – or at least to have them form the impression of us that we want them to have. It’s not altruism so much as it is manipulation. It’s not conscious manipulation. It’s just that we just don’t want others to get the wrong impression, which is another way of saying that we do want them to get the right impression. So we put on the costumes and speak the lines that will ensure that others think that we are the person we want them to think we are.

Confidence men and fraudsters provide the clearest example since their performance is deliberate, conscious, and cynical. But even the person who is sincere faces the same task of impression-management.

Let us now turn from the others to the point of view of the individual who presents himself before them. He may wish them to think highly of him, or to think that he thinks highly of them, or to perceive how in fact he feels toward them, or to obtain no clear-cut impression; be may wish to ensure sufficient harmony so that the interaction can be sustained, or to defraud, get rid of, confuse, mislead, antagonize, or insult them. Regardless of the particular objective which the individual has in mind and of his motive for having this objective, it will be in his interests to control the conduct of the others, especially their responsive treatment of him.[emphasis added]

We “control the conduct of others” by playing our part.

This control is achieved largely by influencing the definition of the situation which the others come to formulate, and he can influence this definition by expressing himself in such a way as to give them the kind of impression that will lead them to act voluntarily in accordance with his own plan. Thus, when an individual appears in the presence of others, there will usually be some reason for him to mobilize his activity so that it will convey an impression to others which it is in his interests to convey.[emphasis added]

For the presentation of self to work, it must be congruent with the setting. You’re going to have a hard time getting people to think you’re Willy Loman if the stage you walk onto is the set for “Wicked.” It’s Holden the Mindhunter, with zero sociology courses on his transcript, who is alert to this possibility.

The problem is not that Roger is a psychopath or pervert (though he may be). It’s that he’s giving the performance in the wrong setting.  Giving the wrong performance in the wrong setting leaves people confused. In fact, Goffman said something similar in Asylums, though I'm not really holding my breath waiting for Debbie’s summary.

Joan — An Old Name For a Young Pelvis

November 30, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

What to name a mechanical vagina? It’s not a question most of us have to deal with on a daily basis. Or ever. But then, most of us are not trying to learn how to insert an IUD.

For her Vox podast “The Impact” Sarah Kliff recently visited a Delaware clinic for doctors and nurses who would be mastering the art of LARCs (long-acting reversible contraceptives). Inserting an IUD properly is an acquired skill – even gynecologists may be clumsy at first –  so the learners practice on artificial vaginas.  Ms Kliff, in the spirit of participatory journalism, was taking a stab at it. Here’s a brief excerpt from her attempt.  The “robotic pelvis” she was trying her hand on was named Joan.

LARCs are effective. After Colorado offered them free of charge in 2009, the rate of births and abortions among teens decreased by more than 40%. Among women 20-24, the decrease was 20%. (Source: https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/cdphe/cfpi-report)

The dramatic changes occurred mostly among Colorado’s youth. Very few of them were named Joan. Joan is not the name of a teenage girl. Teenage girls are named Emily, Hannah, Elizabeth, Taylor, Hannah. Among the young named Joan, boys outnumber girls by at least five to one. Joan used to be popular for girls. In the 1930s, it was consistently among the top ten. In her heyday, Joan accounted for 1-2% of all births, more than the most popular girls names today. Take that, Emma.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

That was the. For the past quarter-century, Joan hasn’t been in the top 1,000. The most common age for women named Joan is 78. Joans who might need an IUD or other LARC (green in the graph below) are far outnumbered by the Joans whose childbearing days are behind them. (I drew the fertility line at the generous age of 55.)

So why did the clinic in Delaware name their robotic pelvis Joan rather than Ashley or Madison (both in the top six among today’s 15-year olds)? I have no idea.

Special People

November 28, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

I never thought that Trump’s “Pocohantas” joke was offensive. In fact, the first time I heard it, I thought it was pretty good. It made fun of Elizabeth Warren’s claim to some slim strand of Cherokee lineage.

It’s as though, after one of Trump’s many statements about being highly intelligent (“I’m, like, a really smart person”), Sen. Warren had referred to him as “Einstein.” The slur is not against physicists. It’s against Trump for claiming to be something he is so obviously not.

At the ceremony to honor the Navaho code talkers yesterday, Trump hauled out the Pocohantas dig again though it is long past its use-by date. The truly appalling part was that he used the ceremony as an occasion to make a personal derogatory remark about a political enemy. Is that what the Navahos came for? Appalling, as I say, but not unexpected. And no doubt, Trump supporters will see it as more evidence that Trump is their kind of guy.

The more offensive line from Trump is what followed.

You were here long before any of us were here, although we have a representative in Congress who, they say, was here a long time ago. They call her “Pocahontas.”

But you know what, I like you because you are special. You are special people. You are really incredible people. And from the heart, from the absolute heart, we appreciate what you’ve done, how you’ve done it, the bravery that you displayed, and the love that you have for your country.

Trump is being complimentary. But underlying the praise is the assumption that the Navaho are not like regular Americans. Imagine a politician addressing a gathering of Jewish leaders and saying, “You know, you Jews are special people. You’re incredible people.” My guess is that the Jews being honored might suddenly get kind of interested in their shoelaces.

“Special-needs” kids, “special ed” – we recognize these as euphemisms. But even when “special” is supposed to designate something positive, it still draws the line between “you” and “us.” And it’s “you,” you special people, who are different.

When In Urfa . . . (Culture and Meaning)

November 25, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

A culture is a “meaning system.” A language gives meaning to sounds. A culture gives meaning to actions. What something means is a matter of interpretation. The same sound means different things in diferent languages. Ditto behavior.

When Elif Batuman walked around in Urfa, Turkey without a headscarf, she thought she was expressing her preferences in dress and perhaps her opinion about individualism, feminism, and the Turkish president. (See my post from earlier this week, “How Culture Works.” For Batuman to have worn the scarf would have meant that she was abandoning her ideas. That’s what it would have meant to her. To the people of Urfa, it would have meant only that she was exercising normal politeness.

Batuman herself eventually came to share this view, but only after she had been clued in by someone else – a woman of Turkish origin who was similarly secular, Westernized, and professional. Her mother.

Here is Batuman on “Fresh Air” describing the conversation.

Here’s the transcript.

The thought that I had in Urfa was what am I trying to show by going without a headscarf given that the people who see me without the headscarf have a completely different interpretation? Like, they don't know my ideas. They just know, oh, this is a person who is here and doesn't respect the way that we do things enough to, like, put this thing on her head.

Like it - and then it was funny because actually after I wrote that piece in The New Yorker, my mother read it. And I think of my mother as such a, like, a proud secularist person. And she's a scientist. And her mother studied literature. And I'm just so proud of her and of her mother. And she was like, I can't believe I didn't tell you to just wear a headscarf in Urfa.

And I was like, really? And she was like, of course. It's just - it's a common politeness. It's - they're people from the countryside. When you go there, of course you wear a head[scarf]. It's just a nice thing to do. And for her it was this thing about, like, niceness. And it wasn't this, like, anguished political thing that I'd been making it into

What does wearing a headscarf mean? Does it mean that the woman has abandoned her feminist beliefs, supporting the patriarchy, and endorsing a repressive, dictatorial president? Or does it mean that she’s just being nice?

Jon Hedricks 1921-2017

November 23, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Others before him had done “vocalese” – instrumental jazz solos transcribed, set with lyrics, and sung. The best known was Eddie Jefferson’s “Moody’s Mood for Love” – James Moody’s solo on the Dorothy Fields - Jimmy McHugh song. But these were rare, almost novelty items. Hendricks took it to a new level.  His vocal trio – Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross – recreated entire arrangements with lyrics to the entire recording

Here is Hendricks’s adaptation of Duke Ellington’s  “Cottontail,” the 1940 recording featuring Ben Webster on tenor. The title – I have no idea why Ellington chose it – pretty much forced Hendricks into Beatrix Potter territory. But Hendricks put a hip musician frame to the tale, transforming Peter Rabbit into sort of a druggie.
Way back in my childhood
I heard a story so true
’bout a funny bunny
Stealing some boo from a garden he knew.
“Boo” is 1940s slang for marijuana.
Out in the garden where carrots are dense
I found a hole in the fence.
Every mornin
when things are still,
I crawl through the hole and eat my fill.
The other rabbits say I
m taking dares,
and maybe I
m wrong but who cares?
m a hooked rabbit! Yeah I got a carrot habit.

My favorite part in the Ellington recording is the chorus by the sax section (at 2:04 in the original recording). In the LHR version above, it starts at 1:54, and the voices are in unison rather than the close harmony of the Ellington’s sax section. 

Thirty years later, Hendricks was still on his game, putting lyrics to one of the most famous jazz recordings, “Freddie Freeloader” from Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue.” Writing lyrics to a John Coltrane “sheets of sound” solo is no easy task. Neither is singing it. But Hendricks does it, leaving the easier solos to singers who are technically better – Bobby McFerrin, Al Jarreau, and George Benson. It runs to nine minutes but it’s well worth listening to (here), especially if you’ve heard the original so many times over the years that you know every note

How Culture Works

November 22, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some sociology profs give an assignment that requires students to go out and prank someone. It’s called a “breaching experiment,” but basically, it’s pranking. And as I said in the two previous posts (here and here), despite the reasons professors give for the breaching assignment, it doesn’t really offer a lot of insight into the process of norm breaking and social control.

In the real world, culture and social control are much subtler and more powerful. Look at the experience of journalist Alif Batuman. Her parents are Turkish, but she grew up mostly in the U.S. She goes back to Turkey, and true to her Western ways, she does not wear a head scarf. That’s OK, sort of. Turkey is not Iran. There are no religious police enforcing some law about head scarves. But . . .

Because I spoke Turkish imperfectly, smiled a lot, and often travelled alone, I got a lot of lectures from men, particularly taxi-drivers. Some were secularists; others, those with the most religious paraphernalia in their cars, didn't try to make conversation. That still left many outgoing, casually Muslim drivers who took the time to explain to me how great the head scarf was — how it was “actually a beautiful thing.” For a woman to cover her head, they said, was in fact a feminist gesture, because it made clear she was demanding respect. There weren't the same misunderstandings as with a woman whose head was uncovered.
    I usually didn’t reply. . . But once, when a driver pressed me particularly jovially for an opinion, I said something like “I think all women should be respected. It shouldn’t depend on their hair.”
    The driver replied that I was absolutely right, that of course women should be respected, and that the head scarf was the best way for women to remind men of this necessity for respect. Men, after all, were worse than women: they could sometimes forget themselves, and then unfortunate things could happen, “even”—he said in a hushed voice, adding that he didn’t like to mention such things in front of me—“even rape.”

The driver probably does not see himself as an agent of social control, a head-scarf cop. He’s just offering – along with his view of what the scarf means – a bit of advice. She is breaking a cultural norm, and he is advising her about the ways of the local culture.

Batuman continued to go without the headscarf, mostly because of her feelings about the Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, and his religious anti-feminism. “Patriarchy — I could never forgive Erdoğan for saying those things about women. And, because he said them in the name of Islam, I couldn’t forgive Islam, either.”

Later, Batuman goes to an archeological site in Urfa. Again she encounters those little questions and comments that let her know she is breaking the norms.

I seemed to be the only unaccompanied woman at my hotel. When I told the clerk I was staying for six days, he almost had a heart attack. “Six days?” he repeated. “All by yourself?” . . . All the time I was in Urfa, whenever I saw any member of the hotel staff in the halls or the lobby, I always received the same greeting: “Oh, you’re still here?”

She is a walking insult to the local culture. It’s not a huge insult, but it’s more than a “micro-aggression.” Her intent is not to insult; she just wants to be herself. The local people for their part are tolerant – or at least not repressive. But they are also not helpful, warm, and accommodating to this stranger. (Sort of like Parisians back in the 20th century.) In the gender-segregated restaurant, the waiter watches the TV and seems to ignore her. When she smiles and waves to the women at another table, they do not wave back.

But culture is not just a matter of negative sanctions. A smile too is a form of social control, positive and pleasant. It tells us we’re doing the right thing. And because it is pleasant, it nudges us to want to continue doing right things. 

One day, when I had been visiting Abraham’s cave, I forgot to take the scarf off. Walking back through the park, I almost immediately felt that something was different. I passed two beautiful young women in scarves, walking arm-in-arm and laughing about something. When I looked at them, they looked right back into my face and met my eyes, still smiling, as if we were all in the presence of a great joke. I realized that no young women had met my eyes or smiled at me in Urfa till then. As I walked on, I felt a rising sense of freedom, as if for the first time I could look wherever I wanted and not risk receiving a hostile glance. So I kept the scarf on. And then I went back into the city.

This isn’t a scientific study; I didn’t try it multiple times, or measure anything. All I have is my subjective impression, which is this: walking through the city with a head scarf was a completely different experience. People were so much nicer. Nobody looked away when I approached. I felt less jostled; men seemed to step aside, to give me more room. When I went into a store, a man held the door for me, and I realized that it was the first time anyone had reached a door before me without going in first and letting it shut in my face. Most incredibly, when I got to a bus stop shortly after the bus had pulled away, the departing vehicle stopped in the middle of the street, the door opened, and a man reached out his hand to help me in, calling me “sister.” It felt amazing. To feel so welcomed and accepted and safe, to be able to look into someone’s face and smile, and have the smile returned — it was a wonderful gift.

This is how culture works. And we are all its agents, gently steering people into doing things the right way.

The quoted passages are from Batuman’s article “Cover Story” in The New Yorker, Feb. 8 and 15, 2016.

Once More Unto the Breach

November 19, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

The previous post was about those “breaching” experiments some instructors assign their students. Here’s an example:

For this assignment, you will hypothesize the existence of a rule or expectation . . . and then break it in the presence of at least one naïve subject. You may do your breaching in cooperation with classmates.

Possible topics of the breaching exercise include clothing, grooming, conversational topics/styles, shopping behavior, and romantic behavior. The breaching activity must be something you do not regularly do. Possible naïve subject(s) include parents, siblings, roommates, boy/girlfriend, and strangers.

Describe the reaction of the naïve subject(s) to your breaching exercise and any interaction you had with them.

My point was that they’d chosen the wrong “naïve subject.” Forget about how other people react.  Students would learn a lot more about norms if they thought about their own reactions to themselves as deliberate norm-breakers. Lesson #1 in that post was that the norms are very powerful. When we think about it in the abstract, breaking a norm doesn’t seem like such a big deal. But in the specific situation, it becomes something much larger. But why?

Lesson #2: When we think about breaking a norm, our anticipatory anxiety is highly exaggerated and not rational. When you ask people why they can’t, just can’t, break the norm, they imagine consequences far out of proportion to what might happen. When Stanley Milgram (see the previous post) told his students to go into the NYC subway and ask people for their seats, one student said, “You want to get us killed?”  When I’ve asked students about doing the breaching experiment, they imagine offended strangers raining mayhem upon them. But even as they say it, they know that it’s preposterous. Which leads to . . . 

Lesson #3: We follow the norms not out of some rational cost-benefit calculation. We follow them because we have internalized them. Society is not just “out there”; it’s “in here,” inside us, as well.

Lesson #4: Because reactions are so mild (a puzzled look, a question), with each incident, breaking the norm becomes easier. Norm-breakers therefore can eventually arrive at a rational, cost-benefit perspective. The student whose breaching consisted of offering to pay less than the price of an item might find that in some stores, you can actually bargain down the price. She then decides to try it as a general practice, not just as an assignment for her sociology class.

Lesson #5. Norms are not absolute. No behavior is always and essentially a breach of the norms. Harold Garfinkle, who invented the breaching experiment, found that his students, no matter what the behavior, could come up with some story or invent some context that “normalized it.”

For the breaching exercises, the simplest, all-purpose normalization is “This is an experiment.” As one of my professors once put it: If you go up to someone and say, “Lie down,” they’ll look at you funny and probably demand an explanation, and if they don’t get one, they might refuse. But if you say, “This is an experiment. Lie down,” down they go.            

All this is about social control – how a society gets people to do what they’re supposed to do. Even these mild reactions to norm-breaking are forms of social control. The raised eyebrow, the questioning look, or an actual question (“Why are you wearing that?”) tip the person off that they are breaking a norm. These are sanctions – negative sanctions. If that’s all we say about social control, we’re missing at least half of the story – positive sanctions as a form of social control. These may be even less noticeable than negative sanctions, but they may also be more important, as I try to show in the next post.

Gimme a Breach

November 18, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

For the unit on norms, some sociology teachers have their students do “breaching” experiments – those exercises where you break some norm, observe how people react, and write up your results. (Nowadays, you add a video.) The norms broken vary widely. Stand too close to strangers, face the wrong way in an elevator, wear the wrong clothes (street clothes in the gym). In this one a girl goes up to random boys and kisses them. (So much for her career in the Senate.)

Some are more elaborate.  A guy wears football pads to the super market and does push-ups in the middle of the canned vegetable aisle. A student dresses up in a mascot costume and dances through the quad. Some of these scenarios get into Candid Camera territory, like this girl who, wearing her bathrobe and carrying a basket of laundry, went to the washing machine section in the appliance store.

It’s all good fun, but I’m not a big fan. I don’t ask students to breach. My impression is that the intended lessons are fairly obvious
  • All situations are governed by norms. In any situation you can imagine, there’s a way to do something that breaks a norm.
  • The variety of reactions is narrow and predictable. Some people ignore, some look quizzically, some guess correctly that it’s some kind of stunt, a few ask the norm-breaker what she’s doing.
The trouble with these breaching exercises is that the assignment and camera are pointed at the people who are reacting. If you want more interesting findings, focus instead on the reactions of the person doing the breaching.

Lesson #1: Norms are powerful – a lot more powerful than you think.

Few people realize how hard it is to deliberately break a norm. It’s so hard that some students cheat on the assignment. They turn in a paper describing their breach and the reactions, but it’s fiction; they never really did the experiment. It was lack of lack of time or imagination that prevented them. It was lack of courage.

When Stanley Milgram assigned his seminar to ask strangers on the New York City subway for their seats, he was disappointed at how few students completed the task. Wen they explained how nerve-wracking it was, Milgram decided to show them. He, along with clipboard-bearing student who would do the observing, went down into the subway, and got on the train. And Milgram couldn’t do it. He couldn’t ask a stranger for their seat. The student had to give him a pep talk, boost his courage. Meanwhile, the train had gone several stops. Finally, Milgram picked out the most unthreatening looking person in the subway car and approached. What he felt was akin to panic – the sudden warmth at the neck and head, the sweat, the tightening of the throat. Finally, he mumbled, “ExcusemecanIhaveyourseat?” “What?” said the woman. “Excuse me, but could I have your seat?”

The woman got up. But it’s not her reaction that’s interesting or unexpected; it’s Milgram’s. And those of his students. As one man said later, “I was afraid I was going to throw up.” None of them foresaw how difficult it would be.*

(For more lessons drawn from breaching experiments, see the next post.)

* Milgram, of all people, should have foreseen the power everyday norms. Only a few years earlier, he had shown that people would choose to electrocute a stranger rather than break the norm, tell the man in the lab coat he was wrong, and ruin one trial of the experiment.                                            

Still Funny After All These Years. . . and News Stories?

November 11, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s the celebrities and politicians that we hear about – all these stories of men behaving badly, sometimes very badly. More troubling is that far too many non-celebrities – men without the power of a studio head or highly successful comedian or office holder – do the same things. The very powerful can make or break careers, lives. Director James Toback would tell an aspiring actress who he had more or less forced to undress that he had mob connections and that if she reported the incident, he would have her killed. It sounds like yet another male fantasy, but how could she be sure it wasn’t true?
Victims of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape, as we well know, often don’t report the offense. Surveys provide some alternative data, but those surveys too may be inaccurate. What about less dramatic sexual piggishness? It’s less serious, but probably far more common. Here’s a tweet I saw today (HT: Gwen Sharp).

Asking for retweets can’t even be called methodology. Still, nearly 200,000 in two days is a lot. I was reminded of this Seinfeld episode from 1994 and wondered if, in the current climate, it’s still funny.

I do think it’s still funny. The writer of this episode (“The Stand In”) was Larry David, though Carol Leifer is listed as story consultant. I just wonder whose idea it was. Who would know that this is the sort of thing that can easily happen, and often does happen, on a date?*
* Some incidents of exposure are not sexual; they are purely for the purpose of aggression and intimidation. When Janis Hirsch, a TV comedy writer, was working on Garry Shandling’s show, the other writers, all male, began to exclude her, possibly because her work was better than theirs.

The guys started excluding me from meetings: Oh, we couldnt find you”...at my desk. Then they started excluding me from the table, instead assigning me “the slit scenes” to write. Even though these scenes were the ones that featured the only female cast member, it didnt occur to me exactly what slit they were referring to until one day in the ladies room.

One day, I was sitting in Garrys office across the desk from him. A few of the writers and one of the actors were in the room, too. I felt a tap on my shoulder, I turned, and there was that actors flaccid penis draped on it like a pirates dead parrot. Riotous laughter ensued from all but one of us. [The full story is in The Hollywood Reporter ]

This happened in 1986. The term microaggression had not yet become current. Too bad. She would have had a great comeback line.

Another Round of Cosmopolitans

November 11, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between good journalism and sociology. One obvious difference is in the data. Social science data has to be thorough and sysematic. A journalist can merely talk to a cab driver or report on how a friend reacted to a sandwich menu that offered a “Padrino” or “soppresssata.”

If you’re a journalist, you also don’t have to worry much about antecedents. You can put your ideas on display as something totally new, like fidget spinners. But if you want to pass as a scholar, you have to do your homework.

British journalist David Goodhart in his recent book on populism and politics in the UK has created two types he calls Somewheres and Anywheres to explain what’s happening. David Brooks yesterday borrowed the terms and applied them to US politics.

Somewheres are rooted in their towns and have “ascribed” identities — Virginia farmer, West Virginia coal miner, Pennsylvania steelworker. Anywheres are at home in the global economy. They derive their identity from portable traits, like education or job skills, and are more likely to move to areas of opportunity.

Somewheres value staying put; they feel uncomfortable with many aspects of cultural and economic change, like mass immigration. Anywheres make educational attainment the gold standard of status and are cheerleaders for restless change.

Pardon me, but this sounds awfully similar to a typology offered sixty years ago by sociologist Alvin Gouldner in his Administrative Science Quarterly article. “Cosmopolitans and Locals.” The terms give a fairly good picture of these two types, the one more mobile and oriented towards a profession, the other rooted to a place or a company. Here’s a quick version:

        high on loyalty to the employing organization,
        low on commitment to specialized role skills
        likely to use an inner reference group orientation.

        low on loyalty to the employing organization
        high on commitment to specialized role skills
        likely to use an outer reference group orientation

I haven’t read Goodhart’s book; maybe he does credit Gouldner. In a Financial Times article (here) he describes himself as a “post-liberal,” and perhaps he avoids cosmopolitan because he is familiar with the alt-right and their use of cosmopolitan as a pejorative synonym for Jew. (See my earlier post on this.)

I had the impression that David Brooks took some sociology courses at Chicago, but I guess cosmopolitans and locals never came up.

The Fault in Our Polls

November 8, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

A year ago, the polls predicted that Hillary would win. They were wrong. They also predicted that she would get about 3 percentage points more votes than Trump. They were right.

This year, the polls – nearly all of them – predicted that in gobernatorial election in Virginia, Ralph Northam would beat Ed Gillespie. They were right. They also predicted, on average, that the winning margin would be 3.3%. They were wrong. Northam won by more than 8 points.

RealClearPolitics published this table of poll results. (The last two rows are my own addition, based on stories at The Hill.)Bad calls – mostly results falling outside a poll’s margin of error – are in red.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

In general, the polls
  • called the winner (only three got it wrong)
  • nailed the Gillespie vote
  • underestimated the Northam vote
  • underestimated the winning margin
Some polls came closer than others. Quinnipiac had the margin right but lowballed the percents for both candidates, especially Gillespie. Rasmussen’s usual rightward bias led them to miss what most got right – the winner. Of the major polls, the farthest off was New York Times / Siena, though it showed no liberal bias in its errors. It underestimated the Republican vote by 5 points, the Democratic vote by 10 points.

I have no good explanation for these results. I leave that to people who know something about polling and voting.


November 7, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Addiction is not irrational. It’s just destructive. It has its own logic and reasoning.  For the heroin addict, another shot of smack really will relieve the misery of withdrawal. . . till the next time.

The compulsive gamblers I studied long ago often said that their gambling debts had become so large that the only solution was to gamble even more. Otherwise, relying on their ordinary income, they would never get out of the hole. But then gambling led to more losses and even larger debt, whose solution in turn was still more gambling.

Addiction is trying to solve a problem by doing more of what caused the problem in the first place. It’s basically the NRA/John Lott position on guns. (See the previous post.)

Guns in the Israeli Playbook

November 6, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

After mass shootings that make the national news, The Onion regularly reposts this headline.

As if to prove The Onion right, Fox News came in on cue with an article by John Lott.

Lott, whose research and ethics have come in for much criticism,* actually makes a valid point here. Mental health screening can never find in advance the extremely rare individual who will commit a mass murder.

But Lott avoids discussing the one obvious liberal proposal – ban assault weapons. Devin Kelly used an assault rifle at the Sutherland Springs church, leaving 26 people dead, 20 others wounded. Apparently, just about anyone can buy this kind of deadly weaponry in Texas and in many other states. Yes, it’s possible to kill a couple dozen people with only a handgun (also easily available in Texas and elsewhere) or rifle. But by letting killers buy an assault rifle we make their job so much easier.

Lott also repeats the gunslinger line that the only way to stop mass killings is to have more people carry guns. That “good guy with a gun” was not ignored by the liberal media. NYT, WaPo, NPR, CNN – they all mentioned him and said that it’s possible that his bullets may have hit the mass shooter. They also reported, however, that the good guy with his gun arrived on the scene after the killer had left the church and was heading to his car.

Lott continues:

If the media and politicians want to do something effective, they could take a page out of Israel’s playbook. When there is a surge in terrorist attacks , Israeli police call on permitted civilians to make sure that they have their guns with them at all times.

Lott picked the wrong country to use as an example. Take another look at that phrase “permitted civilians.” If you had an image of Israel as a Middle East Jewish version of Texas, where anyone can walk into Guns Galore and walk out armed to the teeth, think again. It’s hard, really hard, to get a gun permit in Israel.

Only a small group of people are eligible for firearms licenses: certain retired military personnel, police officers or prison guards; residents of frontier towns (in the West Bank and the Golan Heights) or those who often work in such towns; and licensed hunters and animal-control officers. Firearm license applicants must . . . establish a genuine reason for possessing a firearm (such as self-defense, hunting, or sport), and pass a weapons-training course. Around 40% of applications for firearms permits are rejected. [Wikipedia. Emphasis added.]

Less than 3% of the population has that license, which must be renewed every three years. It’s almost impossible to own more than one gun. Guns in the home must be kept unloaded. And civilians are not allowed to buy assault weapons.

The Israeli playbook sounds like a very good idea. If we had taken the whole book, not just a page, a Devin Kelly or Stephen Paddock would probably not have qualified for a gun permit. And if he had been able to get a permit, he would have had only one gun. And many more Americans would still be alive.

* The cat-ate-my-homework dodge when other scholars asked to see his data. The sock puppet he created to lavish praise at Amazon on his book and his teaching. More here. He’s also very litigious, threatening his critics with lawsuits. I think he even threatened me once; no target is too small. He may do so again.

Witches, Bitches, Sluts

October 31, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Speaking of Halloween costumes for women (as I was a few days ago – here), consider this observation and fill in the blanks, all with the same word. Here’s a hint: it has something to do with Halloween costumes for women.

criteria for applying the ___________ label were not widely shared. There appeared to be no group of women consistently identified as ___________ s. . . . . Everyone succeeded at avoiding stable classification. Yet the  stigma still felt very real. Women were convinced that actual ___________ s existed and organized their behaviors to avoid this label.

The word could have been witch, but the setting is not 17th century Salem. It’s a Midwest university dormitory (one known as a “party dorm”) in the early 21st century. The word is slut.

There are a few ways that sluts are like witches. The Halloween connection might be a clue. Halloween is a holiday of release, a time when we can play at roles that are usually forbidden and act out desires that we must usually keep hidden under the cloak of propriety. The usually suppressed themes that the witch and the slut are expressing are things that make men fearful or uncomfortable. The core of the witch is her power, a commodity rarely held by women. It’s the power to do ill – putting curses on people, transforming them into lowly animals – but hey, power is power. What the slut is enacting is undisguised lust. The “nice girl” accommodates men’s demands but makes no demands of her own save those that men feel comfortable with. The woman who openly demands her own sexual fulfillment, may be tempting to men, yet also dangerous.

The passage about sluts is not about men and their reactions to women. It’s about women and their use of the term slut. It’s from the 2014 article “Good Girls” by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton. They and their research team lived in the dorm as ethnographers, listening to the girls. And they often heard the word slut. But that usage was unusual in two ways. First, sluts, like witches, are not real. Instead the term is a Weberian ideal type, used for marking a moral boundary. Second, sluttiness is not primarily about sex – what a girl did in private and who she did it with. Instead, what made for sluttiness was “public gender performance.”

 The categories on either side of that boundary were different depending on class and status of the girls. For working-class girls, sluts were “bitchy” in contrast to “nice” girls like themselves. For the upper-middle class girls, sluts were “trashy” while they themselves were “classy.”

Bitchy/nice, trashy/classy. It’s the latter distinction that is the basis for all those “sexy” (i.e., slutty) Halloween costumes you may see tonight. You won’t see working-class girls taking advantage of this one day to dress up as upper-middle-class bitchy sorority sluts.  But as one of the higher status students told the researchers,

[Halloween is] the night that girls can dress skanky. Me and my friends do it. [And] in the summer, I’m not gonna lie, I wear itty bitty skirts. . . . Then there are the sluts that just dress slutty, and sure they could be actual sluts. I don’t get girls that go to fraternity parties in the dead of winter wearing skirts that you can see their asses in.

The quote illustrates both of Armstrong and Hamilton’s observations: first, that overt sexiness is something that girls must keep in check unless they have some excuse like Halloween; and second, that “actual sluts,” like actual witches, may be something nobody has actually seen.

Debbie Does Durkheim

October 27, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Remember “profiling” in the 1990s – “Silence of the Lambs” (1991) and then the TV series “Profiler” (1996 - 2000). It seemed like half the students in my crim courses were there because they wanted be profilers,* untangling the twisted psyches of serial killers, figuring out where they would strike next, and nabbing them just before they killed again. What a disappointment my course must have been.   

They’re baaack. Not my students. Profilers on TV. The show is “Mindhunter.” It’s on Netflix, it’s set in the late 1970s, and it has some big names attached – David Fincher and Charlize Theron are producers, and Fincher directed some of the episodes. And another big name: Emile Durkheim.

In the first episode, the central character Holden Ford, in a loud and crowded bar (there’s a rock band playing), finds himself standing next to Debbie Mitford, an attractive young woman. They step outside to continue their conversation. That’s when she utters the kind of pick-up line that’s become such a tired cliche these days.

(Click on an image for a larger view)

Debbie is a graduate student in sociology. He’s a hostage negotiator for the FBI, but his boss has just assigned him to the classroom – to teach agents hostage negotiation. He confesses his ignorance about Durkheim, but the flirtation continues.

This struck me as not quite right. Alas, I was not called in as a script doctor on this show. I know something about theories of deviance. On the other hand, I know little about bar conversations. Anyway, once Debbie has lured him this far, she adds, with a twinkle in her eye,

I haven’t seen the rest of the series, but it looks like the Debbie-Holden thing will have a life beyond this one meeting in a bar. The relationship will probably hinge on some underlying and never-resolved sexual tension  – a flat, humorless version of  Cybil Shepard and Bruce Willis in the first seasons of “Moonlighting.” Just a guess.

The sociology lesson ends with this:

And my point is that the ideas she attributes to Durkheim might be ideas you could derive from Durkheim. But they are not what he actually said. The key passage is the one in The Rules of Sociological Method (here), where Durkheim says that even in a society of saints there will be crime. It won’t be the crime of the unsaintly world. But the norms for acceptable behavior will be raised so high, that actions that are unremarkable in our world will be treated as criminal.

Over a half-century later, this passage became the cornerstone of labeling theory – the recognition that deviance is a not a thing but a process. It is the interaction between those who make and enforce the rules or norms and those who break them. But Durkheim himself never used the word labeling, nor did he take the more conflict-based view that criminality is a response to “something wrong” in the society.

Sociological script consultants – never around when you need one.

* My inner dyslexic always wants to read “profilers” as “prolifers” – not exactly the same thing, though perhaps not entirely different. 

HT: Max for alerting me to this scene.

Halloween – When It’s Not About Sexiness

Oct 26, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Halloween’s just a few days away, and I still haven’t come up with a costume. I could do the same thing as the last few years and again opt for Slutty Max Weber. But it’s getting old.

OK, that was a joke. But for women, especially young women, deciding on a costume is no joke. A USA Today article on the topic quotes sociologist Lisa Wade*: “All of our choices are bad.”

The choices are bad because it’s about sex. Or rather, sexiness. As Alia Dastigir, author of the USA Today piece, puts it,“Dress sexy on Halloween and risk being judged or harassed, or forgo the fishnets and risk being ridiculed or ignored.” Note the passive voice. Judged, harassed, ridiculed, or ignored but by who? By men of course.

Because men have the power in these situations (and in most), women orient themselves to men’s ideas, hence the two unsatisfactory alternatives. The hegemony of men’s way of looking at things is especially acute in settings built on the expectation of male-female pairing. That setting, typically, is a party – a Halloween party.  And the expectations or hopes can range from “meeting someone” to all the different levels of  “hooking up”  or even to something like romance.

In places were the underlying idea of Halloween is not about male-female relations, women turn out in a variety of costumes, and the dimension they are judged on – by others and by themselves – is not sexiness. When my son was in college, his group went as Clue. Nobody, even Miss Scarlet, was trying for sexy. (My son, for his part, went to Goodwill and managed to find an actual green suit.)

In the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, participants seem to be striving for not for sexiness but for creativity and humor, often as a group effort.  The Thriller group is a great example, though its numbers make it a bit of an outlier – 200 or so ghouls and zombies with a handful of Michael Jacksons.

The Village Parade is an exception. Many paraders, perhaps most, make their own costumes. In the rest of America, we buy our costumes, and the costume companies cannot very well sell creativity. So most of what they sell for women is sexiness.

* Lisa was the founding editor (along with Gwen Sharp) of Sociological Images, which for a while was by far the most visited sociology blog on the Internet. Maybe it still is.