Mrs. Maisel Gets One Right

December 26, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Since the new season of Mrs. Maisel dropped not long ago, my post from nearly two years ago about its language anachronisms (here) has been getting some action. It’s still the most frequently viewed and commented-on item on this blog, and some of the newer comments made it clear that the anachronisms were still in bloom.

I watched first couple of episodes recently, and sure enough, in Episode 2, “It’s the Sixties, Man!” we got contextualize.

In a blog post (here) about trendy words at the ASA meetings, I  cited contextualize, but that was a report from academia in 2013, not New York family life in the early 1960s.

To the show’s credit, it did have a period-perfect language moment. Joel has been speaking with the older Chinese couple who own the Chinatown space he has rented, planning to turn it into a club. He discovers that the space includes a Chinese gambling parlor. Worried about trouble from the police, he meets with the owners. After some back-and-forth to deal with Joel’s fears, the couple — through their translator,* the young med-student Mei — allude to a murder, significantly raising Joel’s level of anxiety.

After the Chinese couple leave, Joel is discussing the matter with Mei. What about the murder, he asks.

Talk of the “put-on” and “putting you on” came on the scene in the late 1950s, starting among young, hip people like Mei and eventually spreading throughout the society. I thought that its use had declined in the 21st century, but Google nGrams shows that at least until 2000, it was still found in books.

Still, my impression is that we rarely refer to “putting people on” these days. But what has replaced it?

* Another anachronism for anyone still keeping score — a language anachronism of sorts : the owners are speaking Mandarin. In the early 1960s, the language spoken in Chinatown was Cantonese. Immigration from Mandarin-speaking areas of China did not begin until the 1970s at the earliest.

Acting and Reacting as an Agent of Culture — Moi?

December 21, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

A long time ago I heard Margaret Mead speak, and one of the only things I remember her saying was this: “A society has to teach its cultural ideas to its children in terms so clear that even a social scientist can understand them.”

I am, allegedly, a social scientist, but only an encounter with something very unusual can jar me into seeing my own culture. Like most people, I usually take it for granted, like the air we breathe. That was the point of the previous post, where a psychologist was urging dog owners to give their dogs more choice. It took this extending of human culture to canines to remind me of the great emphasis American culture gives to individual independence and choice. All those times that I had heard parents, me included, ask their kids if they wanted Cheerios or Chex, it had never occurred to me that we were drilling a particular American value into the minds of our little tots. I thought we were just being parents.

I had a similar cultural-blindness experience a few years ago. A student born and raised in Turkey came for his obligatory meeting with his advisor — me. He was a grown man in his forties. “What courses I should take?” he asked. I explained about the core requirements and recommended he take the first in the sequence. “And then there are the electives” I said and showed him the list.

“Which courses I should take?

I explained that these were electives. He could take any of the ones we were offering that semester. If you’re interested in family, you could take that course, I said. If you’re interested in religion, we have that elective.

“Yes, but which ones I should take.”

I found it incredibly frustrating. What was so complicated about the concept of electives? It did not occur to me that our differences were cultural. I was so thoroughly an American I that could not imagine anyone rejecting the freedom to make their own choice of courses. Who would not seize that opportunity? Only someone who did not understand.

In retrospect, I now think that he did in fact understand. He just didn’t think it was such a great idea that the choice should be made by him rather than by a professor — department chair no less — who knew much more about the courses and the instructors. Maybe he was right.

There’s something else to be said for his approach. It creates a personal link between the advisor and the student in a way that the independent-choice model conveniently avoids. When he was asking me to choose courses for him, the thought crossed my mind that I could tell him to sign up for some of the low-enrolled courses that were in danger of being cancelled — courses students were avoiding because of the reputation of the course, the instructor, or both. That certainly would have made things easier for me as department chair. But I now felt that I had to look out for his best interests as well. I felt an obligation that was different and perhaps stronger that what I would feel towards other students.

As I say, when all this was happening, I didn’t think about the underlying cultural differences. I just felt uncomfortable. I will leave for another post the time when he presented me with a large assortment of almonds, figs, pistachios, etc., while I tried to explain to him the university rules about gifts.

Raise Your Dog to be an American

December 19, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

My local online webiste WestSideRag today ran an article with the title “Barnard Researcher Has Studied The Minds of Upper West Side Dogs, and They’re Way More Complicated Than You Think.”

I don’t have a dog, but I started reading.* And as I did, I saw that while the article was about dogs, it was more importantly a document about American culture, particularly our values and beliefs about Choice. We value individual choice as inherently good. We also believe that choice is beneficial and that denying people the freedom to choose will in some way harm them. So we insist that people make their own choices.

Recognizing the wonderfulness of choice is not something that comes naturally. You have to be carefully taught. And it’s never too early to start. It’s just that most of the time, we don’t think that we are hammering American cultural ideas into our kids’ psyches. We just think we’re raising them the right way.

In My Freshman Year, an ethnography of an American university, Rebekah Nathan** includes a chapter (“As Others See Us”) about the perceptions of the foreign students. A Korean student tells her:

Everything here is: “What do you want?” “What do you think?” “What do you like?” Even little children have preferences and interests in this country. I hear parents in restaurants. They ask. a three-year-old child, “Do you want French fries or potato chips?” Every little kid in this country can tell you, “I like green beans but not spinach, I like vanilla but not chocolate, and my favorite color is blue.”

If we think it’s good for three-year olds to make their own choices, why not dogs?

All dog owners should allow their dog to make certain choices, according to Horowitz, who strongly believes that giving dogs choices increases their welfare. . . . Owners should “allow the dog to make their own choice as opposed to your definition of the walk.” She recognizes that people want to feel in control, but points out “what we are in control of is to let the dog have a life in which the dog is partly choosing. This is something we want to give to anyone we love.”

WestSideRag has a relatively small readership — we’re not talking — and an article extending our ideas about choice to dogs is extreme. But often the extreme case can call attention to the less extreme versions that are widely taken for granted and unnoticed. In America, even those with a more authoritarian outlook find it hard to refute arguments based on the idea of choice. It’s not just liberals who ask their kids what kind of cereal they want. 

* What originally drew me to the article was the opening paragraph, which contained a pun that I am nearly certain was unintended.

(Click on the box for a larger and clearer version.)

** “Rebekah Nathan” is a nom de plume. The author, Cathy Small, probably wanted to remain anonymous since she was writing about the school where she teaches. The ruse did not work for very long.

“Real” Disney Princesses

December 17, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

What do you if you’re a good feminist parent — you want kids to see genders as similar, not exaggeratedly different — and your daughters keep watching those Disney princess movies?

If you’re Philip Cohen, you start blogging about gender dimorphism to call attention to how unrealistically the Disney characters are drawn. The blogposts have titles like “Disney’s dimorphism, ‘Help! My eyeball is bigger than my wrist!’ edition.” You link to data about the sizes of hands, wrists, necks, etc. among real men and women.*

A post gets picked up at more widely read sites like Slate, and you get comments complaining that  “The less realistic the proportions, the more endearing and charming we find the character. The closer to realistic they are, the creepier/blander they can become.”

Maybe you wonder: What if someone Photoshopped the Disney characters to make them look more like real people? Well, someone has. Jirka Vinse Jonatan Väätäinen, a graphic designer in Finland (not too far from “Frozen” territory) has shrunk those princess eyeballs, enlarged those princess wrists and necks, and posted the results on his Website (here). See if you can tell which is which.

(Click for a larger view.)

*You can find Philip’s dimorphism posts at his Family Inequality blog here.