“This is 40" – Guilty Pleasures

January 14, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

In “This is 40,” the recent Judd Apatow movie, Pete and Debbie (Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann), married with two daughters, run off to a luxury hotel in Laguna for a romantic weekend. Stoned on a marijuana-laced cookie, they have room service bring them, among other things, a tableful of pastries. 

The sight of the couple stuffing their mouths with pastries reminded me of a similar scene from the 1975 French comedy “Cousin Cousine.”  In both films, the overload of desserts is a guilty pleasure, but in the French movie the emphasis is almost entirely on the pleasure, while the American film focuses on the guilt. The French lovers slowly feed each other one dessert after another; the scene is almost erotic. But Pete and Debbie seem like children, giggling and trying to eat as much as they can before they get caught. Both scenes mingle sex and pastry, but in the French movie the common theme is sensuality; “This is 40” plays both for laughs. (See the entire scene here.)

Pete and Debbie have other guilty pleasures that the movie grinds into laughs.  Pete sneaks off to the bathroom when he wants to play games on his iPad.  Debbie sneaks outside for a few desperate puffs of a cigarette.  Pete secretly eats the cupcakes he’s ostensibly throwing into the garbage.  Debbie browbeats and humiliates a thirteen-year-old boy to the point of tears.  All these scenes revolve around the question of guilt – will they get away with it? – rather than pleasure.  Add to that their Protestant Ethic regimes – Pete on his bicycle, Debbie with her demanding trainer – and the soundtrack might as well be a repeated loop of “I can’t get no satisfaction.” 

Married people in American movies and TV rarely have sex.  In the old days, married people were portrayed as asexual beings; they lived in a world swept free of sexual urges. In “This is 40,” sex makes frequent appearances, but something always happens to spoil the pleasure. Kids interrupt, or one of the two adults does something to deflate the other’s mood. The film begins with Pete and Debbie having passionate birthday sex in the shower until Pete reveals that he had taken Viagra for the occasion. Debbie stops and gets out of the shower.

PETE:  What’s the matter?

DEBBIE: You just took a Viagra to have sex with me?

I thought it would make it better. It was better. It takes some of the pressure off.

DEBBIE: Because you can’t get hard without a Viagra? Is it because you don’t think I’m sexy?

PETE: I thought you’d think it was fun for me to supersize it for once.

DEBBIE: That is the worst birthday present you could ever give someone.

There’s much more to be said about “This is 40” and about the popularity of Judd Apatow films – the scarcity of real grown-ups, for example, and the general ambivalence about being a grown-up.  This movie is about becoming forty, but Pete especially seems like an 18-year-old who has awakened to find himself in the body of a forty year old man.  But today’s post is not about aging; it’s about pleasure, and “This is 40" does have one unconflicted pleasure – laughter. The film is a comedy, and as the hotel scene makes clear, Pete and Debbie’s real pleasure is not sex or food or music but laughter. What holds them together is their shared humor, their ability to laugh at themselves.     

Where Are the Sociology Music Videos?

January 8, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

Why should the economists have all the good music videos?

Sociologists do have a sense of humor, don’t they? At least some do.  But it’s the economists who dominate the supply side of social science music videos.  The Keynes-Hayek rap https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0nERTFo-Sk goes back a few years and now has sequels.  And for an academic video, it has impressive production values. 

Eventhe Harvard Econ department went public with their version of  “Call Me Maybe”  (do they really want you to call even if you’re not offering them a consulting job?).  Greg Mankiw looks like he’s never heard the song before (is that even possible?) and is having trouble reading the words off the cue card.  Which is pretty funny if unintentionally so.

The Stand-up Economist has no counterparts from sociology.  I guess we’re taking this one sitting down. 

And now the Akon - Lonely Island  parody (Mankiw has makes a cameo appearance).

(If you are not familiar with the template, it’s here.)

A couple of weeks before Christmas, an economist sent me  this, a seasonally adjusted economic video.  He added, “When I posted it on Facebook, an economics researcher wrote “how can something so clever be so wrong.”

We sociologists may not make videos, but when we’re clever, we also get it right.

Good News, Bad News, Same News

January 5, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

The headlines in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have the same fact – the first Friday jobs report and the unemployment rate.  They both mention “worry.” 

The WSJ headline frames the story as bad news. We should be worried about worry.  The Times is more “don’t worry, be happy.”  The WSJ’s subhead “unemployment rate hits 7.8%” makes it sound as though the rate is going up.  The Times (second graf, not shown here) notes that this rate was “steady.” 

After the headlines and ledes, the two stories are similarly pessimistic. 


January 4, 2013       
Posted by Jay Livingston

What kind of prerequisites do we need for sociology courses? 

I’ve been wondering about that because the administration here has told us to stick prerequisites on all our courses except entry-level courses.  Students who want to take a sociology course numbered in the 400s must have taken a 300-level course – the department gets to specify which courses will serve.  Similarly, 200-level courses must have 100-level prerequisites.

This makes sense for sequential courses.  If you haven’t mastered basic Spanish grammar and vocabulary of Spanish I, you shouldn’t take Spanish II.  In some math and science courses too, students may need specific knowledge from other courses.  But in sociology, we have very few sequential courses.  Even with more technical courses like Statistics and Methods, some departments sequence them with Methods first, other schools put Statistics first. But for topic courses, will students do better in Mass Media (SOCI 407) if they have had Urban (SOCI 311)? 

We have a 200-level course called Sociology of Rich and Poor Nations (SOCI 220).  It fulfills a General Education requirement, and we’ve always let in students regardless of what other courses they have or haven’t taken.  Under the new rules, we’re supposed to add a prerequisite – some 100-level sociology course.

I wondered whether prior sociology courses actually make a difference so I looked at the grades of the 300 or so students who took the course in the eight sections we offered in two semesters last year.  If prerequisites make sense, then students with no prior sociology courses should get lower grades.  Students with more sociology courses should do better – the more prior sociology, higher the grade in 220.  Here are the results.

The groups are all the same except for the two-prior group (there were only 11 of them, so a couple of high scorers could skew the average).  The average grade for the others - no priors, one prior, three or more priors – was the same: B-minus. 

Prior courses or prerequisites are not a good predictor of  performance in the course.  They make no difference. 

What does make a difference?  Being a good student.  Overall GPA was the best predictor of the grade in SOCI 220 (r = .3).  The correlation with prior sociology courses was effectively zero.

This is just one course in one department.  Does anyone have other data on the efficacy of prerequisites?