I recently came across a short video from the talk show Lopez Tonight featuring Jessica Alba, and in it, George Lopez reveals the results of her ancestry DNA test. According to Lopez and the language used by the testing company, Alba is 87 percent European and 13 percent Native American. But to the astute observer, the show is actually claiming to reveal more than the details of Alba's genetic composition. It is also claiming to reveal information about her "true" race, and therein lies the problem.
As I have noted elsewhere on The Sociological Cinema, racial categories do not consistently correspond to biological observations (see here and here). To put it another way, race is not based on biology; it merely claims to be. This point often confuses people, for they reason that in some sense race must be biological. After all, skin color is largely a genetically determined characteristic, and so the thinking goes, race must be too. But while genetic instructions largely determine the amount of melanin a body produces, it is through socialization that people become predisposed to notice skin color as one of the most salient features a body can have. The thickness of one's eyebrows, the shape of their ears, or the color of their of eyes—these are also genetically determined characteristcs, but people mostly discount these features as the bearers of useful information. To socially construct race, then, is to teach people which physical characteristics are the salient markers of a racial group, and racism becomes possible once people begin assigning meanings to those salient racial markers.
At about the 45-second mark, Lopez explains that the DNA analysis distinguishes between four ancestral groups, and perhaps sensing that it would resonate with his audience, he incorrectly equates each ancestral group with a race. The Europeans, according to Lopez, are white, Sub-Saharan Africans are black, East Asians are Asian, and the Indigenous American group refers to Native Americans. The results confuse Alba, who racially identifies as Latina and knows her last name comes from Spain. But it is instructive to dwell a bit on the basis of her confusion, for it highlights the incompatibility between ancestral DNA and race. In the United States people with Spanish heritage tend to be racially categorized as Hispanic or Latino, which is a category believed to be distinct from white. However, DNA analyses show that the original inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula (i.e. Spain, Portugal, the small UK overseas territory of Gibraltar and the Principality of Andorra) are a part of the same general migratory group of homo sapiens that settled the rest of Europe. As with all racial categories, contemporary distinctions between whites and Hispanics in the United States are socially created and not based on some deeper biological truth.
Back in early Fall of 2009, some fellow graduate students and I decided to build a sociological cinema. The idea came about as a response to our experiences teaching three different sociology classes. We found that when we screened a video clip in class to demonstrate a key concept, class discussion often became livelier, more students participated, and our students seemed better able to draw upon the key concept in their evaluation of subsequent ideas.
"In one sense, then, the impetus for building this site, The Sociological Cinema, stems from our own experiences in the classroom and the recognition that videos are effective tools of instruction."
In one sense, then, the impetus for building what became known as The Sociological Cinema, stemmed from our own experiences in the classroom and the recognition that videos are effective tools of instruction. In fact, a growing body of evidence supports this conclusion and even expands on it. According to sociologist Michael Miller (2009), “their most critical function in terms of cognitive learning appears to lie in their capacity to serve as representational applications for key course ideas” (see also Champoux 1999). For example, an excerpt from a CNN broadcast on the propagation of closed circuit television cameras (CCTVs) is very useful for demonstrating Foucault’s theories of surveillance and discipline. Videos can effectively convey concepts using examples from the feature films of popular culture or the so-called “realism” depicted in news reports and documentaries. They can vividly bring concepts and processes to life by weaving them into an emotionally charged narrative.
Recent scholarship also demonstrates that videos can improve student engagement in class material (Wynn 2009). This fits with our own experiences as sociology instructors. Using open-ended in-class evaluations of videos, we found that students believed videos were important in helping them draw connections to their own life experiences, that they connected class material to “real life” more generally, and that the videos met a need for a surprising number of students who believed themselves to be “visual learners.” Today’s undergraduates, dubbed the “net generation,” have only known life with online videos and other multimedia; they engage this media in their everyday lives and increasingly expect such media to be integrated within their classes (Oblinger and Oblinger 2005).
In addition to illustrating sociological concepts, videos can be used as a means of introducing analyses and commentaries which supplement traditional course content (Austin 2005). Videos can facilitate media literacy, and recent research even suggests that such visual technologies also facilitate civic engagement beyond the classroom (Bennet 2008). More than rousing student engagement and enriching their understanding, videos offer the opportunity to introduce humor and levity into the classroom, which often has the effect of relieving student self-consciousness. Bingham and Hernandez (2009), for instance, find comedy, and comedy clips in particular, to be an effective tool in teaching sociological perspectives. Instructors may, then, seek to integrate clips from the "Colbert Report" or "The Onion," encouraging students to analyze social expectations and why a failure to conform often makes us laugh.
"The internet is an un-zoned metropole with a jumbled circuitry of narrow alleyways, and often the best cinemas are tucked away in strange corners… We built The Sociological Cinema, in part, as a practical means of spending less time finding clips."
While the benefits of bringing video clips into the classroom may be well-documented, instructors still face the task of finding good clips and then figuring out how to use them effectively. But the internet is an un-zoned metropole with a jumbled circuitry of narrow alleyways, and often the best cinemas are tucked away in strange corners. There are sites, such as YouTube, which serve as warehouses for searchable video clips, but such sites hold so much content coming from so many varied sources that instructors are generally unable to efficiently comb it for useful clips. On YouTube, an instructor who wants to find a clip depicting the bear subculture within the LGBTQ community is likely to find wildlife videos, and an instructor looking for clips on sexism will rarely be directed to the sexism found in recent car commercials. The search for such clips can be daunting and discouraging, and herein lies the second impetus for building The Sociological Cinema.
We built The Sociological Cinema, in part, as a practical means of spending less time finding clips. After cataloguing a number of the videos we used, it became apparent that it was possible to break them up into types. While we have taken some of our clips from documentaries and lectures, the majority come from popular culture, including television shows, movies, and video remixes or mashups. In some cases, it is relatively obvious how a particular clip would be helpful in a sociology classroom. For instance, excerpts from Jackson Katz’s documentary, “Tough Guise,” are unmistakably useful in a class on the sociology of gender because the clips explicitly demonstrate how hegemonic masculinity hurts men as well as women. On the other hand, the utility of a good number of other clips is only apparent because of the intellectual content or teaching suggestions we attach to those clips. For instance, The Sociological Cinema links to an eight-minute documentary designed to laud the efforts of fair trade coffee producers, but we have posted this clip and suggested it be used as an effective way to teach students about Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism (here). A third example is a clip from the popular television show The Bachelorette, which features a scene where contestants discuss “Man Code” and the presumed obligations of other men to abide by its rules (here). The teaching suggestion that accompanies this clip recommends using it as a means of spurring discussion on Connell's concept of hegemonic masculinity and Kimmel's concept of masculinity as homophobia.
As we have continued to add content to The Sociological Cinema, we have come to appreciate an additional function of our site. That is, in addition to helping instructors find resources that will provide students with a firm foundation of sociological concepts and theories while also developing their sociological imaginations and critical thinking skills, The Sociological Cinema works as a resource that refuses to consume culture at face value. We are an important voice because we pose important questions to students, such as, “How does this idea of “Man Code” gain momentum, and what are the consequences of it for people?” Our brief analyses of clips, coupled with the teaching suggestions we offer, are challenges to the usual meanings, which already bombard students on a daily basis, both inside and outside the classroom.
Drop by the site for a visit and spread the word. And help us build the cinema by contributing a video of your own.
Lester Andrist, Valerie Chepp, and Paul Dean
For two semesters now, about 60 students have registered for my class on the sociology of gender. They've arrived, some of them with their jitters quite visible and others with what appears to be a cultivated indifference. Hand over hand, my syllabus skates through the rows, and they eagerly thumb through the pages—even the indifferent ones. I imagine many of them are contemplating whether to drop my class and take their chances on the waiting list of another section, so I encourage them to take their time. Perfunctory introductions, then a deep a breath, and at last we launch headlong into the sociological study of gender.
Teaching sociology is akin to playing Morpheus to a group of students who haven't yet seen how deep the rabbit hole goes, and I am convinced that fewer classes are more challenging to teach than gender. I approach the topic most identifiably from a culturalist perspective and draw most notably from material many would identify as falling within the jurisdiction of the sociology of knowledge. Time and again we return to the social and historical processes behind the construction of values, beliefs, and other intellectual structures. How are they built, sustained, recreated, and manipulated? I set as my first task excavating a level of deep culture by asking them to consider how gender is socially constructed.
Students are of course more than capable of parroting such constructivist sentiments as Simone de Beauvoir's remark that “One is not born but rather becomes, a woman.” What is needed to transform students’ thinking is to dislodge their foundational assumptions—the premises upon which they begin to think. It is necessary, then, to begin by cultivating uncertainty, or by forcing them to interrogate and articulate their own common sense understandings of the world.
A recent discussion from the class stands as a good example. In it, students took aim at unequal beauty standards and exaggerated swaggers as the constructed implements of a gender stratified society. Not surprisingly, most students were at ease with rejecting any natural affinity between women and domesticity; however, the timeless truth that homo sapiens are naturally divided into two distinct types—men and women—remained unscathed.
Cultivating uncertainty, I pressed them, "So what do we make of the fact that some societies count three genders?"
"There are always exceptions," came one response.
"By this logic, your schema renders exceptions. Why not modify it?" The student conceded that he believed his model was based on what was most clearly given by biology. Thus at last the premise underlying so much of his certainty was exposed. This student and others couldn’t disagree more with de Beauvoir’s assertion. For them, one is born a man or a woman and does not become one—not really.
Having identified this premise, I marked it on a placard and propped it up on the table at the front of the classroom like a life-sized, pop-out book. Biology—if we're being honest—is not given as a clear binary but exists as a spectrum. Women and men cannot just be identified by disrobing and neither will a snapshot of a person’s chromosomes yield a definitive answer. As Cary Costello asserts in his comments regarding the spectacle surrounding athlete Caster Semenya in 2009, "Dyadic sex is a myth—sex is a spectrum. Hormones, chromosomes, genitals, gonads—they are all arranged in many complex ways, and imposing a binary onto them is arbitrary. It's as arbitrary as saying all fruit is either sweet or sour."
Class discussion desperately moved from the macro to the micro, from the genitals to the genome; each student in turn attempting to retrace what they once believed was an impenetrable basis upon which they invested so much of their thinking. But they were on a threshold, for they were wrestling with something very unsettling: our dyadic gender claims to be based on biological sex, but in fact, dyadic sex is itself a myth. This moment of dislodging a foundational premise is not simply akin to that feeling of disorientation when awakening in an unfamiliar place; rather, it threatens to be more permanent and irresolvable. It is something like being unable to discern whether you were just now a person dreaming you were a fish, or all along a fish dreaming you were a person.
Coaxing students into this uncertainty, this zone of indistinction, is the beginning of the teaching moment. However, collective uncertainty is no place to dwell for an entire semester. If my claim is that they can no longer uncritically draw upon their usual common sense to evaluate the world—if that way of knowing is to be cast in suspicion—then what am I proposing as a replacement? What will they use to evaluate their common sense?
Beginning photographers are often told they must learn again how to “see” light, which is really a process of paying attention to the way light paints their subject matter. Student photographers must all come to terms with the fact that they were never able to truly “see” the objects which populate their world, only the light reflected from those objects. This is more than elaborate explanation because learning to “see” is really learning to see through illusions. It is about (re)learning that sugar, dove soap, and snow are not necessarily white. Where these objects fall on a grey scale is contingent on how much light they are reflecting back in a given composition. To learn to “see,” photography students are shown photographs and they are shown how to reproduce such photographs. This process is not dissimilar to the one sociology students of gender must confront.
Having coaxed students to suspend their common sense and having plunged them into a pit of indistinction, a fleeting moment arrives where they are more open to a critical alternative. It is at this juncture that the pitchman (in my case) must finally demonstrate his product, lest the crowd disperse. Like the photography students who were shown that snow is sometimes black, I must demonstrate by example how gender is socially constructed.
The process of social construction has been theorized in a number of ways, but focusing on the way it happens through media representation and signification works well as a particularly vivid example. To this end, Jean Kilbourne's 1999 documentary, Killing Us Softly, continues to have an impact on students. The film chronicles pervasive representations of men and women in the media. The problem here is that many of my students were ten years old when the movie was made, leading to the oft heard dismissal, “Thank God that doesn’t happen anymore!” There is also the more sophisticated critique that many of the examples deployed are “one-sided,” or that the evidence was hand-picked by Kilbourne to invent a story about objectification. Students presumably dismiss the film's objectification thesis once they have identified that plenty of images exist where women are not objectified.
Thus the problem confronting teachers is that students of sociology need to be shown how gendered messages are continually asserted through popular representation, and this needs to be demonstrated in a way that cannot be easily dismissed as an artifact of a regrettable past or a biased simplification. So there could be no question as to how current the information was, I drew upon an advertisement for the new iPad from Steve Jobs and company. The ad pretends to be a casual chat with four of the creative tech geeks at Apple, who just love what they do and are gushing to talk about this cool thing they invented.
Women are conspicuously missing from this eight-minute clip; yet I would argue that even among women the ad is largely successful for Apple. While questions have surfaced about how truly innovative the iPad is, fewer have questioned the natural affinity depicted in this commercial between male logic and technological innovation. Hearing the epithet "computer geek," we in the U.S. mostly think of men, and that is precisely who we want designing our high tech gadgets because we associate men with logical integrity. Perhaps Apple intuitively understands that if they featured an exuberant woman in the ad, it would suggest that the iPad’s programming is logically flawed.
This analysis baits controversy among my students, and almost immediately hands are raised. A flurry of remarks ensue, each insisting on counterexamples which demonstrate that women are definitely also represented in our society as having technological prowess. Plenty of visual representations suggest that they too belong to the symbolic universe of high technology. “This is true,” I tell them, “but consider the technology women are typically paired with.”
Here I turn to play a second short clip, this time taken from TED Talks, a non-profit which hosts presentations related to ideas of technology, entertainment, and design. Jane Chen, the CEO of a company called Embrace, recently gave a presentation for them which caught my attention. In it, she promotes a life-saving and inexpensive incubation technology for premature infants, which her company invented.
While this spot is about a high technology, it is presented exclusively by a woman, and therefore begs a corrective to my earlier claim that technology is the privileged domain of men. It's not that women have no place in high technology; they clearly do. Rather, this clip demonstrates that we want women involved with technologies related to nurturing and saving the lives of newborns.
The take-away for my students is really twofold and recalls the idea that a lot of popular thinking about gender is informed by a common sense which continually attempts to link gender to biology. This affinity between woman and incubator works because it conforms to the pervasive assumption that nature produces two distinct types of people, and one is naturally more nurturing than the other. We are primed, in a sense, so that certain messages resonate with us, while others seem odd or inappropriate. By that same token, these clips and the institutions that built them are implicated in continuing to replicate distinct pairings of gender and technology. Noteably, commercials which claim to be exclusively about technology, make significant contributions to people's common sense about gender.
I mentioned above that collective uncertainty is no place to dwell and that if teachers ask their students to be suspicious of their common sense, they are obliged to offer their students an alternative. I don't know if an alternative can be cut from whole cloth, but modifications are certainly possible. To this end, I try to conclude my class by encouraging students to discuss the way their assumptions about nature and biology have informed their own thinking. I encourage them to reflect on the way these regimes of representation have invaded their own evaluations of the people in their lives. Ideally, this particular teaching moment concludes with students comprehending the way their common sense is always informed by a larger culture which envelopes them.