The Common Frustration of Finding Clothes that Fit – and Why it Matters

By Katelynn Bishop and Kjerstin Gruys

Feminist scholars have long been critical of how the fashion industry harms women’s body image through media images of ultra-thin models.

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A clothes rack containing women’s shirts or dresses in bright colors and bold patterns*

However, catwalks and advertisements are not the only way the fashion industry influences women’s body perceptions. Clothing size standards are a means through which fashion retailers label and categorize women’s bodies.

These unstable and shifting standards have received little sustained scholarly attention, despite their omnipresence in women’s everyday lives.

In our Gender & Society article, co-authored with Maddie Evans, we delve into women’s everyday experiences with clothing size(s). We examine how retail spaces organize women’s access to clothing in particular sizes, how diverse women navigate these categories, and how these experiences reinforce or challenge inequalities.

Methods

Our article combines three qualitative studies, which we conducted individually before meeting at a conference.

Katelynn Bishop interviewed five owners of specialty bra boutiques, conducted participant observation at one of these stores, “Intimate Fit,” and interviewed 65 women about their bra shopping experiences. Kjerstin Gruys performed participant observation at a plus-size clothing store, “Real Style,” where she was an employee. Maddie Evans conducted an ethnography at a high-end bridal boutique, “Elegant Bride,” and also interviewed brides and shop employees.

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Elegant Bride. Photo by Maddie Evans. Photo depicts a bridal shop with dark brown walls and racks of white wedding dresses. An elaborate chandelier hangs overhead. In the foreground is a seating area with a couch, cushioned chairs and coffee table.  

Integrating data from three studies was uncharted—and fruitful—methodological territory for us. Bringing together our separate studies allowed us to examine the clothing shopping experiences of women with a range of body types, and women’s experiences shopping for both day-to-day clothing and clothing for special occasions.

What We Found

We found that women performed what sociologists call “identity work” and “body work” in relation to size categories. They did “identity work” by using these categories to make claims about themselves. For instance, women disputed employees’ assessments of their size when these assessments were unexpected or undesirable, insisting upon their “true” size. Such disputes were common in the bridal shop (where sizes ran smaller than most everyday brands) and the specialty bra shops (where employees used “alternative” sizing practices). Women on the edge of Real Style’s size range sometimes chose to shop elsewhere in order to avoid being categorized as plus-size. The inconsistency of size categories made such identity work possible. That is, because size 14, for instance, has no absolute meaning, women (particularly those near the plus-size/standard-size boundary) could use size categories to define themselves in desired ways.

In other cases, women altered their bodies to fit into particular size categories. Several brides lost weight to avoid wearing “plus-size” dresses; no longer needing to shop at Real Style was often interpreted as a positive outcome of dieting; and wearing larger bra sizes contributed to women’s decisions to pursue breast reduction.

Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump - Arrivals
Popular comedian, Amy Schumer, who jokes about Hollywood’s narrow standards, sparked public debate when she objected to her own inclusion in  Glamour magazine’s plus-size edition. Photo depicts Amy Schumer, a white-appearing woman with long, wavy blonde hair. She is pictured from the waist up, wearing a shiny black dress, and poses in profile-view with a slight, toothless smile. Photo by Mario Santor.

We grappled with the counterintuitive fact that women cared deeply about clothing size categories, even when they knew these categories were inconsistent. Because women’s worth is conflated with their body size and shape, we theorize that women desire external markers that their bodies conform to cultural norms, however tenuous these markers.

The organization of retail spaces is one everyday means through which women are confronted with the hierarchical divisions between body sizes and shapes. For instance, plus-size stores are labeled as such, implying that other, unlabeled stores carry more “normal” sizes—even though most American women wear plus sizes. Conventional bra retailers, as opposed to specialty shops, offer limited size ranges, implying that sizes beyond these ranges are “abnormal.” The bridal shop penalized larger brides through charging a fee for plus-size gowns, and stocking sample sizes only in smaller sizes.

What We Would Like to Change

As body-positive feminist scholars, we seek not only to understand women’s experiences with clothing size, but to foster body positivity. We believe that clothing retailers could help to mitigate some of the inequalities reproduced through clothing size categories by heeding activists’ calls to eliminate labels such as “plus-size,” and by making clothing of varied styles available in a wider range of sizes, and readily accessible, economically and otherwise. We acknowledge, however, that consumer-oriented solutions present limitations, and we support broader efforts to create a culture that values bodies of all sizes and shapes, and in which women’s worth is not reduced to their bodies.

*Captions are intended to provide access for the visually impaired.

Katelynn Bishop recently earned a PhD in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research interests include gender, embodiment, and consumerism. Her dissertation and current book project, Imperfect Fit: Bras, Embodied Difference, and the Limits of Consumerism, focuses in part on the social constraints generated by expanded consumer choice. She has been published in Body & Society.

Kjerstin Gruys is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her research focuses on how intersections of gender, race, class, and embodiment affect social inequality. She is writing a book tentatively titled True to Size?: A Social History of Women’s Clothing Size Standards in the U.S. Ready-to-Wear Fashion Industry.

Maddie Evans holds an MA in sociology from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and is currently pursuing a career in medicine.

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Activism against Sexual Violence is Central to a New Women’s Movement: Resistance to Trump, Campus Sexual Assault, and #metoo

By Nancy Whittier

Cross-posted with permission from Mobilizing Ideas

Sexual violence and harassment have been central issues in almost every era of women’s organizing and they are central to a contemporary women’s movement that both builds on and differs from earlier activism. Since 2010, a new generation of activists has targeted sexual violence in new ways. Slutwalks, a theatrical form of protest against the idea that women provoke rape by their dress, brought a new spin to long-standing “Take Back the Night” marches against violence against women. The wave of activism grew as college students began speaking out about assault on campus and gained a broad platform through social media. Students protested institutional failures to follow procedures for addressing sexual assault and used symbolic tactics to highlight the issue. For example, in 2014/15, Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz carried her dorm room mattress everywhere as a protest against Columbia’s inaction after she reported sexual assault. “Carry That Weight,” her project title, became the name for an emerging activist group. Another, “No Red Tape,” led to a cross-campus day of action in which activists attached pieces of red tape to clothes or campus statues.

Activism against sexual assault on campus found an opportunity for influence in stepped-up enforcement of Title IX (the federal law barring sex discrimination in educational institutions) under the Obama administration). The federal Department of Education under Obama interpreted Title IX as requiring colleges to adjudicate complaints of sexual assault promptly and effectively and address the risk of sexual assault as a violation of women’s right to educational access. Students used this opportunity to pressure institutions, organizing across campuses to teach each other how to file Title IX complaints through organizations like “Know your IX.”

This percolating movement was significant, but limited mainly to college campuses. It took the election of Trump to connect the campus sexual assault campaign to a broader movement. Trump’s attitudes toward women were well known before the campaign but his recorded comments about kissing and grabbing women nevertheless were shocking. When numerous women alleged that Trump had grabbed, fondled, and forcibly kissed them, his opponents framed him as an unrepentant sexual assaulter. The gender politics were enhanced by the fact that Trump’s opponent in the election was a woman.

All this set the stage for activists to frame mass protests against Trump as a women’s march. Despite the name, the marches included people of all genders and a focus on every possible issue within a progressive coalition, including sexism, racism, immigration, homophobia, reproductive rights, sexual assault, environmental protection and climate change, labor, democracy, and more. Dana Fisher has shown the prevalence of intersectional frames at the march, connecting across issues and emphasizing how race, class, and gender work together to shape experiences and needs. Sexual assault was a key issue for protesters and sparked the iconic “pussy hats” and slogans like “pussy grabs back.”

The mass mobilization of the women’s marches, Trump’s sexism, and pre-existing organizing against sexual violence together fueled the #metoo movement. In the wake of Trump’s pre-election comments, women around the country reportedly began speaking with their family and friends about their own experiences of sexual assault. #Metoo as an organizing phrase, coined in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke, grew exponentially in 2017. The cultural visibility of sexual assault and harassment that began after Trump’s recorded comments combined with the viral hashtag to produce something unprecedented.

From a social movement theory perspective, #metoo is both a frame and a tactic. As a frame, it suggests the widespread nature of sexual assault and frames all forms of sexual harassment and violence as part of a similar phenomenon of gendered power. As a tactic, it encourages solidarity and visibility as women and people of other genders “come out” about their experience. And, of course, the many men in government and entertainment who have lost their positions suggests a concrete, but individual, outcome. Because sexual harassment and assault are already illegal, activists’ goals center on cultural change, including enforcement of existing law and – equally important – changes in norms of interaction, views of gender, and practices of sexual consent.

In the 1970s, when feminists first focused on sexual violence, they framed it as “violence against women.” Over time, activists began to address violence against men, transgender and gender non-confirming people, and children.Activists grappled with the impact of race and class, both in terms of the greater vulnerability of women of color and low-income women to sexual assault and in terms of the elevation of a raced and classed ideal of sexual purity, and like most movements, they grappled with race and class dynamics within the movement itself. Debates are percolating between younger and older activists, between activists steeped in anti-racist and intersectional organizing and those taking a single-issue approach, and between those who support “pussy hats” as a way of asserting self-determination and those who see them as advancing a biological essentialism that marginalizes transgender women and women of color.

The Women’s Marches were broadly coalitional even as they sparked debate over their gender and racial dynamics. Similarly, the nascent #metoo movement is beginning to form such coalitions and to address sexual violence through an intersectional lens. For example, prominent actresses brought activists from groups like the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance to the Golden Globe awards to bring attention to sexual harassment in less-visible, less-powerful industries. It is too soon to know, however, whether the women’s marches and anti-violence movement will become truly intersectional in their frame, diverse in composition, and coalitional.

At the same time, women of color and queer people have been leading some of the most vibrant protests of the past few years, such as Black Lives Matter, the Standing Rock Pipeline protests, and the Dreamers movement. In these movements, gender and sexuality are framed as integral to the issues of racism, immigration, and environmental protection. These movements are an integral part of a “new women’s movement,” and they point out the importance of defining that movement broadly.

Will these various strands gel into a durable and powerful coalition? What will the place of activism against sexual violence be in such a coalition? Paths into the future are not determined, but the decisions that activists make now will progressively constrain them. As scholars, we know that shared enemies can foster coalitions, but that cross-cutting inequalities and difference of collective identity can foreclose them. Sexual violence has been an enduring issue in organizing by women across race and class. As this new movement unfolds, its dynamics of coalition and conflict will shape the degree to which it is a “women’s movement,” narrowly defined, or a broader movement that centers class, race, and a range of genders.

Nancy Whittier is Professor of Sociology at Smith College. She is the author of The Politics of Child Sexual Abuse (Oxford, 2009), Feminist Generations (Temple, 1995), numerous articles and chapters on gender and social movements, and a forthcoming book on how feminists and conservatives influence policy on sexual violence. Her article can be found in the February 2016 30 (1) issue of Gender & Society.

Is the Women’s Movement New Again?

By Jo Reger

*Cross-posted with permission from  Mobilizing Ideas.

The Women’s Marches of 2017 and the anniversary marches of 2018 once again bring us to the question: Is the U.S. women’s movement new again, having gone through a decline, death and finally rebirth? Does this new mobilization mean the movement is new? This is not a new question. Throughout the history of the movement, pundits have continually recast feminism as “new,” as in another wave of activism (this time maybe the fourth or fifth wave but who is counting?) or as a movement born fresh and new, independent of its former self.  Media observer Jennifer Pozner coined the term “False Feminist Death Syndrome,” in response to the constant reports of feminism’s death. In the same vein, feminist scholar Mary Hawkesworth noted feminism’s reoccurring obituary, observing it was meant to annihilate feminism’s challenge to the status quo. Hawkesworth and Pozner encourage us to question the question – in other words, under what circumstances is a long-lived movement seen as new?

Part of this question emerges from the view of feminism as coming in “waves,” that peak and decline. As I have argued, “waves” are problematic. Instead I offer the metaphor of “the family.” Families are made up of generations of relations, when older generations die out, newer generations are still there. Family names and histories continue despite in-fighting, controversies, backlash and disinheritance. People split off and come back together. Hard times bring support and prompt dissension. Families grow and shape the communities around them. But through it all, most families remain, in some sense, a unit with a traceable history. Turning to contemporary feminism, I argue that what we are seeing today is just that — the mobilization of multiple generations of feminists and activists inspired and shaped by a history of identities, issues and goals. With their adoption of a range of issues, (some with) pussy hats and signs declaring “My feminism is intersectional,” the 2017 Women’s Marches were anything but new and instead drew upon a history of a long-lived, multi-generational and complicated feminist movement.

One way to track this family history is through the issues brought to the march. Sparked by the presidency of Donald Trump, the range of issues in evidence at the marches were not something new. U.S. feminism has been multi-issue since the 1868 Seneca Falls  convention where anti-slavery activists advocated for a women’s right to own property, a change in divorce laws and equality in education and employment with the most controversial being suffrage. While, at times, the movement and organizations have split over issues, they have also brought together a range of activists to focus on a specific issue such as the push for suffrage in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the 1980s work for the Equal Rights Amendment. In addition, some of the most pertinent issues in this moment of #MeToo have long been core issues. Sexual harassment, assault, and rape have been long addressed, in particular with exceptional work in the 1970s by radical feminists.

In addition to issues, when you don’t know the history of a movement, dissension between activists also looks new (or like the end of a movement). Take for instance the website for Forward Action Michigan (FAM). As the anniversary of the January 21, 2017 Women’s Marches drew near, local activists engaged in a very heated discussion about wearing pussy hats (knitted in pink with pussycat-like ears) to the anniversary rallies and marches. Popular as a symbol repudiating the denigrating term of “pussy,” the pussy hat was everywhere at the Women’s March in 2017.  The FAM moderators shut down the thread after more than 250 comments, concluding that wearing the hats is disrespectful to transgender women and women of color. This level of discord is nothing new. Feminists have disagreed on goals, tactics, strategies and symbols since the inception of the movement.

Another “not new” issue is the struggle for feminist organizations to acknowledge white women’s privilege and to build truly inclusive organizations. Historically, women of color, poor women, lesbians and trans women have all been drummed out of, or left out of feminist organizing. In addition, simplified histories of the movement often miss the ways in which multiple groups of women, including women of color did organize. One result was the articulation by Black feminists of the concept of intersectionality. Arguing that no one social category, such as the “universal woman,” is always central to how we fare in the world, Black feminists instead proposed that all of our social identities interact in relation to others, forming a complex matrix of privilege and oppression. This concept has been reshaping feminism for the last three decades. The 2017 Women’s Marches were peppered with signs reading “I am an Intersectional Feminist” or “It’s Not Feminism If It’s Not Intersectional.” While intersectionality is not new to feminism, the articulation of an intersectional identity is still being worked out. At the 2017 Women’s Convention in Detroit, multiple speakers claimed an intersectional feminism, often defining it differently.

While there is much that is not new about U.S. feminism, two feminist scholars offer insights on the current direction of feminism. Alison Crossley, author of Finding Feminism: Millennial Activists and the Unfinished Gender Revolutioncoins the term “Facebook Feminism” to illustrate how women’s movement activism has moved online. Heather Hurwitz, currently working her book, Women Occupy: Gender Conflict and Feminism in the Occupy Wall Street Movement, illustrates how feminism has moved into other movements, shaping identities, issues, goals and tactics.  Even these current directions have old roots, from the mimeographed newsletter to website, from the spillover of feminism into the 1980s peace movement.

U.S. feminism, at its core, is essentially the same multi-issue, diverse and complex movement that continues to struggle with direction and inclusion but remains relevant in a world such as we have today.

Jo Reger is professor of sociology and director of the Women and Gender Studies Program at Oakland University. Professor Reger is the current editor of Gender & Society and is a contributing editor of the Oxford Handbook of U.S. Women’s Social Movement Activism (2017), edited by Holly J. McCammon, Verta Taylor, Jo Reger, and Rachel L. Einwohner.

 

Gender & Society in The Classroom’s Guide for Syllabi on Intersectionality

Intersectional feminist scholarship moves beyond issues solely focusing on gender and sexuality in order to address the complex realities that we embody and experience. Race, ethnicity, class, nationality, age, ability, and other dimensions of difference or social locators do not exist apart from gender and sexuality. Instead, these aspects of individual identity, interpersonal relationships, social institutions, policies, politics, and cultures intersect to form myriad experiences and power arrangements. In pursuit of greater understanding of multiple perspectives and increased social equality, we must examine the most salient social locations in a given case or study.  

Powell, Amber Joy, Heather R. Hlavka and Sameena Mulla. 2017. Intersectionality and Credibility in Child Sexual Assault Trials. Gender & Society 31 (4): 457-480. 

Children remain largely absent from sociolegal scholarship on sexual violence. Taking an intersectional approach to the analysis of attorneys’ strategies during child sexual assault trials, this article argues that legal narratives draw on existing gender, racial, and age stereotypes to present legally compelling evidence of credibility. This work builds on Crenshaw’s focus on women of color, emphasizing the role of structures of power and inequality in constituting the conditions of children’s experiences of adjudication. Using ethnographic observations of courtroom jury trials, transcripts, and court records, three narrative themes of child credibility emerged: invisible wounds, rebellious adolescents, and dysfunctional families. Findings show how attorneys use these themes to emphasize the child’s unmarked body, imperceptible emotional responses, rebellious character, and harmful familial environments. The current study fills a gap in sexual assault research by moving beyond trial outcomes to address cultural narratives within the court that are inextricably embedded in intersectional dimensions of power and the reproduction of social status.

Lépinard, Éléonore. 2014. Doing intersectionality: repertoires of feminist practices in France and Canada. Gender & Society 28 (6): 877-903.

Lépinard applies the intersectionality framework to women’s rights organizations, looking to see if and how this concept has been adopted by various women’s rights organizations.  Doing qualitative and quantitative data analysis, the author draws from interview data with activists working in various women’s rights organizations in France and Canada. The author demonstrates how intersectionality is used and understood by these organizations (how they fail and succeed with the intersectional challenges), which she calls repertoires, as a way to understand the social experience and the political interests of women in various intersectional positionalities. There are also national differences across France and Canada that bring in notions of citizenship and immigration. This is a great piece for addressing issues in social movements and academic versus activist understandings of concepts relevant to both groups.

Flippen, Chenoa A. 2013. Intersectionality at work: Determinants of labor supply among immigrant Latinas. Gender & Society 28 (3): 404-434.

This interesting piece by Flippen uses the intersectionality framework to examine how legal status, labor market position and family shape the labor supply of Latinas in Durham, North Carolina, which is a new immigrant destination. The author uses data from a local, representative survey of Latino immigrants and interviews in Durham/Chapel Hill metro area. The initial survey, conducted between 2001 and 2002, included 209 women between the ages of 18 and 49. In 2006 and 2007, an additional 910 were interviewed, for a total sample size of 1,119 women. The author shows, for instance, that Latina women’s position in the economy constrains their labor supply. For example, human capital (e.g., education) does not translate into significant gains in labor market participation. English language skills and time work better at shaping whether women work and work full-time. However, legal status and family status are disadvantage for immigrant Latina’s labor market experiences. This is a good article to introduce to students because legal status and national origin seem to be an important piece in the intersections framework, and this study also cuts across other important arenas – family and work, and transnationalism.

Bose, Christine E. 2012. Intersectionality and global gender inequality. Gender & Society 26 (1): 67-72.

In a symposium on the work of Patricia Hill Collins, Bose describes global approaches to intersectional scholarship. Intersectional research plays an important role in social policy worldwide, particularly useful because this lens does not pit oppressions against one another. Scholars may choose from a variety of interpretations of what intersectionality is and how to employ it methodologically. Bose discusses group-centered, process-centered, and system-centered practices of intersectionality. She argues that researchers can amend a system-centered approach to study salient intersecting inequalities within and across nations.

Harvey Wingfield, Adia. 2009. Racializing the glass escalator: Reconsidering men’s experiences with women’s work. Gender & Society 23 (1): 5-26.

Building on the “glass escalator” concept of how men tokens enjoy advantages in women-dominated occupations, Harvey Wingfield argues that black men do not enjoy the same ride as their white counterparts. The author examines racialized aspects of the gendered mechanisms that move white men upward in traditionally female occupations that mitigate these effects for black men. These “glass barriers” include racist stereotypes about black men, acts of blatant discrimination, and white supremacist perceptions of occupation suitability. Another glass barrier involves black men as unwilling to dissociate from feminized aspects of their occupation, which points to a caring self that men of color adapt as a tactic to combat racial inequality and reject white hegemonic masculinity. These findings suggest efforts to promote equality in the workplace should combine undoing gender by blurring the boundaries between femininity and masculinity with upsetting systems of racial inequality that marginalize men of color.

Andersen, Margaret. 2005. Thinking about women: A quarter century’s view. Gender & Society 19 (4): 437-55.

Andersen provides a thorough overview of feminist sociology, advocating for an incorporation of power, historical, and structural analyses in studies of gender and sexuality. Gender and sexuality, however, cannot and should not be extracted from the web of social locations (or flavors or whatever metaphor you prefer) in which they exist. This intersectional view understands gender as a piece of larger puzzles of social realities including race, class, sexuality, and nationality. This theoretical perspective allows us to conceptualize how gender (and other locators) shape symbols, interactions, structures, and other social phenomena. This article analyzes central debates in feminist sociology, giving helpful background information alongside detailed critiques. These key focuses of feminist scholarship include structure and agency, power, sexuality, intersectionality, and inequality. Everyday realities, privileges, hardships as well as diverse experiences and practices form a social world chock full of complexities for us to examine.

Gender & Society in the Classroom is curated by scholars in the field and is a listing of articles that would be relevant in certain classrooms. These lists are not exhaustive but contain a small section of important articles that can begin to start classroom discussion on a variety of topics.

Organized by Kyla Walters, University of Massachusetts Amherst. Updated by Linda Gjokaj, Oakland University. Comments and suggestions contact gendsoc@oakland.edu.

Gender & Society in The Classroom’s Guide for Syllabi on Bodies and Embodiment

 

These articles are offered as resources for courses that address gender, the body and embodiment. They approach the topic from a variety of perspectives and identity and are useful in disrupting assumptions about sex, gender and the body.

Mora, Richard. 2012. “Do it for your pubic hairs!”: Latino boys, masculinity and puberty. Gender & Society 26 (3): 433-460.

This article highlights the embodied experiences of Puerto Rican and Dominican adolescences. Through ethnographic research, the body becomes the central way boys in puberty understand their masculinity and social world. The author examines how the boys construct masculinity through social practices and interactions that directly reference their changing bodies. Due to the research subjects’ positionality as second generation immigrants, they construct a masculinity that emphasizes toughness and physical strength.

Hammer, Gili. 2012. Blind women’s appearance management: Negotiating normalcy between discipline and pleasure. Gender & Society 26 (3): 406-432.

This article discusses how blind women use appearance management and use their body as a tool to disrupt or reject stigmatizing beliefs about themselves made by society. The author confronts how most literature about women’s appearance focuses on visual interactions where women “see and are seen” with them taking an active role in using sight with these interactions, which ultimately leaves out how disabled blind women negotiate these interactions. What she found were women taking on a visibility politic that challenged normative beliefs about how blind women perform or embody femininity to actively challenge how others view them.

Schrock, Douglas, Lori Reid, and Emily M. Boyd. 2005. Transsexuals’ embodiment of womanhood. Gender & Society 19 (3): 317-355.

This article draws on in-depth interviews with nine white, middle-class, male-to-female transsexuals to examine how they produce and experience bodily transformation. Interviewees’ bodywork entailed retraining, redecorating, and reshaping the physical body, which shaped their feelings, role taking, and self-monitoring. These analyses make three contributions: They offer support for a perspective that embodies gender, further transsexual scholarship, and contribute to feminist debate over the sex/gender distinction. The authors conclude by exploring how viewing gender as embodied could influence medical discourse on transsexualism and have personal and political consequences for transsexuals.

Hennen, Peter. 2005. Bear bodies, bear masculinity: Recuperation, resistance, or retreat? Gender & Society 19 (1): 25-41.

Looking into the subculture of Bear communities, this article takes a look at how gay men embody Bear culture through resistance against stereotypical association of homosexuality with effeminacy by embracing larger, fleshy hairy bodies. This article also discusses how Bears look, act and perform masculinity within the subculture. By looking at how Bear embodiment is performed, Hennen shows that while Bears can be subversive in challenging normative forms of masculinity they still repurpose it as an attempt to form normalization.

Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Tamara. 2003. Strong and large black women?: Exploring relationships between deviant womanhood and weight. Gender & Society 17 (1): 111-121.

This article questions the societal and cultural image of Black women as strong and suggests that this seemingly affirming portrayal is derived from a discourse of enslaved women’s deviance. In highlighting connections between perceived strength and physical size among Black women, the analysis extends current feminist theory by considering the ways in which the weight many strong African American women carry is reflective of the deviant and devalued womanhood that they are expected to embody both within and outside their culture. This article also provides a stark contrast to the many of the themes found within literature about the body, eating disorders and body image that focuses on white women by taking into account the how the intersections of race and gender impact how black women’s bodies are framed in society.

Williams, Susan. 2002. Trying on gender, gender regimes, and the process of becoming a woman. Gender & Society 16 (1): 29-52.

In this article it discusses how adolescent girls “try on” or experiment with gender as a means to fully create sense of womanhood. Based on a 4 year study of 26 adolescent girls this article is a good reference to understanding how femininity or sense of gender is created not only through experimentation but also how communities have differing forms of femininity due to class, due to class, race and gender differences.

Gender & Society in the Classroom is curated by scholars in the field and is a listing of articles that would be relevant in certain classrooms. These lists are not exhaustive but contain a small section of important articles that can begin to start classroom discussion on a variety of topics.

Organized by: Amanda Levitt, Wayne State University.  Comments or suggestions please e-mail gendsoc@oaklnad.edu.

Gender & Society in The Classroom’s Guide for Syllabi on Women, Activism and Social Movements

Women have been important advocates for social justice; however, much of the research on social movements focuses on male experiences or does not use a gendered approach in its analysis. The experiences of women activists, their motivations, and reasons for becoming involved in political action often differ from men and these differences are important to understand for future movement building. This collection of articles discusses women activists and women’s social movements from around the world. Together, they illustrate the wide variety of injustices women are working to rectify as well as the challenges and successes. Many of these research articles discuss the importance of understanding the role played by individual and collective identity in motivating political action. This is particularly vital when an individual holds multiple minority statuses (e.g. the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexuality). Students will be inspired not only by the contributions of women to social change, but to also explore how their own social identity shapes their involvement in social justice work.

Coe, Anna-Britt. 2015. I am not just a feminist eight hours a day”: Youth gender justice activism in Ecuador and Peru. Gender & Society 29 (6): 888-913.

This article focuses on youth feminist political action in Ecuador and Peru and its relationship to contemporary gender hierarchies. I examine how and why youth gender justice activists understand their political action differently from the professionalized adult feminists who mobilize them. Grounded theory was used to collect and analyze interviews with 21 young women and men activists on gender justice. Youth activists seek cultural changes using social advocacy to target the family, household, and intimate partnerships, what I describe as politicizing the sociocultural. They develop new ways of perceiving political action in response to challenges produced by emergent gender hierarchies, which they understand as blurred gender inequalities or processes that simultaneously enable and constrain gender equality.

Bell, Shannon Elizabeth and Yvonne Braun. 2010. Coal, identity, and the gendering of environmental justice activism in Central Appalachia. Gender & Society 24 (6): 794-813.

Environmental justice movements differ from environment activism in that the focus is on justice for the people who live, work and play near polluted or toxic areas.  Women are typically at the forefront of environmental justice movements, often spurred by their identities as mothers. Bell and Braun explore this trend by analyzing how women and men’s identities shape environmental justice activism in Central Appalachia coalfields. They conducted 20 interviews with men and women involved in environmental justice movements. They found that in Central Appalachia, masculinity is closely linked with employment in coal mining as well as a “code of silence” that prevents many men from speaking out about injustices. However, some men in the study feel that these issues can be overcome. Other findings support the literature that suggests that it is women’s identities as mothers which prompts their environmental justice activism.

Gordon, Hava Rachel. 2008. Gendered paths to teenage political participation: Parental power, civic mobility, and youth activism. Gender & Society 22 (1): 31-55.

This article proposes that gender shapes “the development, involvement, and visibility” of teenagers as activists. The focus is on understanding the forces that contribute to a teenage girl’s involvement in activism and social movement. A key factor in a youth’s likelihood of engaging in political activity is the role of the parent. While a parent’s ideologies can motivate a young person to become involved in activism, parental concern for the safety of their child may present a barrier.  Findings suggest that girls are more likely than boys to exhibit a disconnect between their political consciousness and degree of action due to parental power. This can have ramifications for future political participation.

Culley, Marci R., and Holly L. Angelique. 2003. Women’s gendered experiences as long-term Three Mile Island activists. Gender & Society 17 (3): 445-461.

This article examines women who have been antinuclear activists at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant for two decades. Qualitative interviews focus on their perceived transformations over time that are based on gender and everyday experiences. They perceive gender as both a barrier and a facilitator to activism, even after 20 years. Women describe their technological education as one strategy to overcome the barrier of gender. On the other hand, they consider the gendered role of motherhood as a primary catalyst for action. In addition, they discuss individual everyday experiences focused on the health concerns for family members that influenced their political activity. Over time, women linked personal transformations with increased political understanding and involvement.

Einwohner, Rachel L., Jocelyn A. Hollander, Toska Olson. 2000. Engendering social movements: Cultural images and movement dynamics. Gender & Society 14 (5): 679-699.

This article discusses the role of gender in social movements. First, the authors create a typology of the ways in which social movements are gendered – gendered composition, gendered goals, gendered tactics, gendered identities, and gendered attributions. Second, they explore the processes by which movements are or become gendered. Finally, the implications for social movement outcomes are discussed with a focus on the “double bind” faced by movements attached to femininity. The authors write that gender in a social movement may be beneficial or detrimental to its goals and legitimacy. Social movements from the United States, Europe and Latin America are used for illustration. They conclude by calling for more gendered analyses of social movements.

Also see: Verta Taylor and Nancy Whittier edited two special issues on Gender and Social Movements. Part 1: Vol. 12, No. 6 (Dec., 1998), pp. 622-625. Part 2: Vol. 13, No. 1 (February 1999).

Gender & Society in the Classroom is curated by scholars in the field and is a listing of articles that would be relevant in certain classrooms. These lists are not exhaustive but contain a small section of important articles that can begin to start classroom discussion on a variety of topics.

Organized by Jennifer L. Bronson, Howard University, Department of Sociology. Updated by Jenny Lendrum, Wayne State University. Comments and suggestions contact gendsoc@oakland.edu.

The Beauty and Strength of Wonder Woman

By Francesca Tripodi

I recently took in a poignant guest lecture on hook-up culture by Lisa Wade. During the talk, Wade detailed the link between rape culture and hook-up culture. While hooking up encourages women to behave “like men,” it simultaneously creates an environment that rejects feminine traits (kindness, care, empathy). Since then I’ve continuously noticed how we celebrate women who display traditionally masculine characteristics (be aggressive! lean in!). But, we often do so in ways that devalue feminine attributes. It is with this framework in mind that I went to see Wonder Woman.

Donning my “feminist mama” sweatshirt, I expected to be underwhelmed given the mediocre reviews describing the film as just another boilerplate superhero movie. With my critical 3D glasses on, I understood why many were frustrated. Steven Trevor always has a protecting arm over Diana, even after she demonstrates that she’s indestructible. The persistence of the male gaze was also disappointing. I recognize the need to reflect Marston’s 1940’s creation, but expecting Diana to run through forests, scale mountains, and beat down villains in a sensible wedge was as laughable as Steven Trevor’s ridiculous assurance to the audience that his genitalia was “above average.” It is no coincidence that Wonder Woman’s strong but “sexy” image was the one chosen by Douglas to represent her concept of enlightened sexism nearly a decade ago.

At the same time, I think it is important to recognize the film’s strengths. The women cast as Amazonians are athletes in real life with muscular bodies that challenge anglocentric beauty ideals. Diana is a unique combination of sex appeal, acumen, and wit. She is fierce but nurturing, emboldened to take down Ares but driven by her desire to protect children. Her outfit choices are elegant but practical and she even managed to stash a sword in her stolen evening gown. Diana asserted confidence and ability while her male sidekicks over-promised and under-delivered. In short, Wonder Woman seems to encapsulate the kind of feminism Wade described as lost: embracing aggression and kindness, strength and beauty.

Given Diana’s character complexity, I find language lauding the film for its ability to break the curse of Catwoman” particularly offensive. Perhaps if Hollywood had chosen to produce Joss Whedon’s version of Wonder Woman, where Diana’s uses a “sexy dance” to thwart the villain, it might warrant a film comparison. After all, the Catwoman “plot” was a lurid focus on Halle Berry in a tight-fitting costume, a hypersexualized (de)evolution of a female protagonist. It tanked in the box office because, like most female characters in superhero films, Patience Phillips was a two-dimensional stereotype of femininity – meek, fickle, a tease. She had to “overcome” her feminine traits to succeed and used sex appeal as a weapon. Comparing the films conflates the presence of a female lead with the notion that both films were made for women. It’s like those who questioned if Clinton supporters might vote for McCain in 2008 because he put Palin on the ticket. Having a woman lead doesn’t mean women’s interests are being considered.

Despite these attempts at male wish fulfillment, Wonder Woman’s success was not due to men aged 15-25. Unlike other superhero flicks, Wonder Woman’s audience was roughly 52 percent women, and women and older audience viewers continue to build its momentum. When the Alamo Drafthouse risked litigation to host an all-female screening it sold out so quickly it added more women-only events to respond to the demand. Nevertheless, the comparison to Catwoman persists as does the dominant narrative that films outside of the Captain America framework are a “gamble.”  Ignoring the success of films like Wonder Woman (Arrival or Get Out or Moonlight) allows executives to deflect the fact that most “flops” were made with an exclusively white, heterosexual, male audience in mind (I’m looking at you Cowboys & Aliens).  Yet celebrating Wonder Woman as a “triumph,” allows us to pretend that similar female protagonists dominate the screen instead of calling more attention to the fact that women still only accounted for 32 percent of all speaking roles in 2015 or that non-white actors are continuously overlooked at the Oscars.

wonder-woman

Diana showcases a physical resilience seldom credited to women – let’s celebrate that. She encapsulates a kind of feminism that Wade rightfully notes is nearly nonexistent. Diana is a warrior who is agentic, driven, nurturing, protective, and merciful. She exhibits masculine strength without having to cast aside her feminine traits.  She voices concern for those who cannot protect themselves but she is a trained killer. By labeling Wonder Woman not feminist enough we overlook the crux of the problem: Wonder Woman’s empowerment narrative was likely tempered because Hollywood doesn’t really care about appealing to women. Highlighting the importance of Diana’s feminist dichotomy challenges Hollywood to build on that momentum and make a sequel without pandering to young, heterosexual, male audiences. In doing so, my hope is that in the future we have so many superheroes like Diana (strong because of their femininity, not strong despite it) that critics will have ample—and equivalent—characters for comparison.

Francesca Tripodi is a sociologist who studies how participatory media perpetuates systems of inequality. This year she is researching how partisan groups interact with media and the role community plays in legitimating what constitutes news and information as a postdoctoral scholar at Data & Society. Francesca would like to thank Caroline Jack and Tristan Bridges for their helpful feedback on this piece.