The problem with presidential elections is that they stop us from seeing what’s really going on in our culture. Obsessed with the latest wins and losses, the latest political punditry, we stop keeping our eye on the ball and get distracted by the spectacle of corporate-funded rituals of “democracy.” So while most of us were glued to the Iowa caucuses, real change was happening in the world.
Yes, I mean the new Barbies. Not Barbie singular, but Barbies as in different shapes and sizes and skin hues and hair textures. If you haven’t seen Mattel’s Fashionistas line, check it out here. Of course the real revolution is both racial (e.g. Black Barbie used to have white hair), but also bodily. In addition to impossibly thin and busty regular Barbie, there are now curvy, petite and tall Barbies.
Dove's "Real Beauty" has another stunning commercial. In this one, "Real Beauty Sketches," a forensic artist sits with his back turned as a woman describes how she sees herself. He draws her image. Then another woman, an acquaintance, is brought in to describe how she sees the first woman. He draws that image. In the denouement, the woman is forced to look at the portrait he made from her own description and compare it to the far more attractive and realistic one described by her acquaintance. In other words, it is a beautiful illustration of something we already know: women have a warped sense of how they look.
But women's hatred of the way they look didn't just appear out of thin air. It was implanted in us in a variety of ways, but primarily through advertising that uses "idealized" images of beauty and asks us to compare ourselves to them.
After all, women and girls didn't think a whole lot about how they looked before capitalism. Historians such as Joan Brumberg have shown that adolescent girls prior to advertising tended to think about their inner make-up-- were they kind and good and devout. But with advertising early on telling women to buy creams, "slim" down, put on a bra and generally engage in what Brumberg calls the "body project," young girls started to worry far more about cellulite on their thighs than goodness in their hearts. Some social psychology studies indicate that even women with high levels of self-esteem will feel worse about themselves after looking at these idealized images found in advertising.
So capitalism created the problem of women being ugly and also created the solution: beauty products. It is an ingenious business plan. Add to this beauty business certain technologies, such as cosmetic surgery and Photoshop, and you have the completely unreal moment in which we now reside where women spend inordinate amounts of money attempting to make themselves look like images of women who don't actually exist. We are caught trying to be a copy of a copy without an original.
This beauty matrix is surely gendered (and raced and classed). Most studies show that women in conditions of hypercapitalism do in fact feel far worse about themselves than men. That's why parodies of the Dove "Real Sketches" have already popped up, with men describing themselves as far more beautiful than others see them. It's funny because it's true. Men aren't as important to the $160 Billion per yearbeauty product industry and continue to make up only about 5% of cosmetic surgery patients.
So women- caught in a web of being sold ugliness and the promise of beauty- can be startled, even moved to tears, watching Dove's "Real Sketches," whereas for many men the body project seems laughable.
But is the solution really loving the way we look? With the aid of products that help us look more "natural" such as those sold by Dove? Or is the solution actually outside the values of the market? "Erotic capital" has always been traded among humans, but the sort of erotic capital that is now demanded from the standards set by advertising is unattainable. Even if we starve ourselves, remain young forever, and get a lot of expensive cosmetic surgery to "perfect" our features, we still exist in a world where blemishes are not touched up, eyes not made brighter, and teeth whiter whenever we look at ourselves. Unless we can figure out a way to Photoshop our real bodies rather than images of them, we are stuck with imperfection.
Rather than telling women that they are in fact beautiful, it might be far more revolutionary to say beauty, real or otherwise, just isn't as valuable as other forms of capital, like educational capital or the sort of "goodness" that was valued by girls before the age of advertising.
As a sociologist who writes at Psychology Today, I must admit that there is some very bad sociology out there. And like bad psychology, bad sociology can be incredibly harmful to individuals and our culture at large. Such is the case with the obviously flawed study produced by sociologist Mark Regnerus last year that was supposedly a measure of the children of gay parents. Of course, it really measured no such thing, but it claimed to.
The study was a case of comparing apples and oranges and insisting you’ve measured bananas. Because Regnerus could not find a large enough sample of adult children of gay and lesbian parents, he decided to ask adult children of divorced parents whether or not their parents had ever had a same sex relationship. This is a problem. The relationship could have been one time or thirty years. The relationship could have resulted in a gay or lesbian identity or not. We don’t know because Regnerus decided that apples were a close enough measure of bananas. To make matters worse he compared those apples to oranges: he compared the outcomes of adult children of divorced parents to adult children of still married parents and found, not surprisingly, that these adult children were more likely to be depressed, unemployed and alcoholic than those whose parents were still together. I say not surprisingly because even a bad sociologist knows that marriage is highly correlated with socio-economic status. It would make sense that children who grow up in less wealthy and less educated households are more likely to be less wealthy, less educated, more unemployed, and yes, even depressed and alcoholic. Poverty creates all sorts of stress in a person’s life that wealth and well-being do not. That is just sociology of the obvious.
Normally no one would care that there is some bad sociology out there (and believe me there is), but this work is being used in a variety of court cases that will decide the fate of gay marriage, gay adoption laws and in many other ways the legal future of gay families. And here's the really scary thing: the study was funded by the ultra-conservative Witherspoon Institute to the tune of $700,000 specifically to influence the Supreme Court of the United States decisions. That's right: the conservative funders of the study and the conservative sociologist who conducted it were assuming that the results would show gay families are worse than straight families and recent emails between them retrieved through Freedom of Information Act requests prove it. An article published in the American Independent and the HuffingtonPost reveals that:
The documents, recently obtained through public-records requests by The American Independent and published in collaboration with The Huffington Post, show that the Witherspoon Institute recruited a professor from a major university to carry out a study that was designed to manipulate public policy. In communicating with donors about the research project, Witherspoon’s president clearly expected results unfavorable to the gay-marriage movement.
To make matters worse, the peer-review process of this article that was published in Social Science Research seems to have been both highly compromised and highly rushed. Despite an internal audit by Social Science Research, the editors have been unable to explain why the article was submitted before data was fully collected, why reviewers were rushed to approve or disapprove its publication in such a short time frame, why two of the three reviewers were connected to Regnerus, and why they have not yet retracted the study.
This strange marriage of the anti-gay agenda of the Witherspoon Institute, which is connected through one of its founders to the National Organization for Marriage, a conservative researcher in Regnerus who has publicly staked his claim for heterosexual marriage as the best option for all of us, and some seriously flawed statistics will now be influencing court decisions and gay families for decades to come.
Despite an amicus brief filed by the American Sociological Association stating that Regenerus' study
provides no support for the conclusions that same-sex parents are inferior parents or that the children of same-sex parents experience worse outcomes"
it will still be considered in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Supreme Court case to decide the constitutionality of California's Prop 8.
Which is just what the Witherspoon Institute wanted. And Regnerus too. But anyone who cares about families, all families, not to mention the integrity of social science, should refuse an invitation to the wedding of bad sociology, anti-family values and just plain mean-spiritedness that this study represents.
Yesterday people started sending me emails about how Andrew (Anders) Breivik, the Oslo mass murderer, had specifically targeted left-wing journalists and professors as well as feminists in his 1,000 page manifesto, 2083, A European Declaration of Independence.
Let me be clear. The real motivation behind Breivik’s attack was racism and xenophobia, pure and simple. But he saw the problem as not the Other coming to Europe, but Europeans letting the Other in. In particular, Breivik blamed “cultural marxism” and “feminism” for diminishing the ability of Europeans to create strong nationalist movements and strong men that would keep the Other out of Europe in the first place.
Galleycat ran a piece about how Breivik singled out left-wing cultural elites. As Breivik wrote
The thing is that many of our political and cultural elites, including politicians, NGO leaders, university professors/lecturers, writers, journalists and editors – the individuals making up the majority of the so called category A and B traitors, knows exactly what they are doing. They know that they are contributing to a process of indirect cultural and demographical genocide and they need to be held accountable for their actions.
And as Mona Willis Aronowitz, the daughter of feminist Ellen Willis (and Marxian scholar Stanley Aronowitz) was shocked to find out, Breivik targeted her mother by name. Willis Aronowitz wrote over at Good that Breivik was motivated by a real misogyny that played out as anti-feminism.
Breivik mentions (my mother) in the same breath as Simone de Beauvoir (go Mama!) and blames them for the “skyrocketing divorce rates” and “plummeting birth rates” that created a “cultural and demographic vacuum” in the West. According to Breivik, this vacuum led directly to the Islamic takeover he cited as justification for Friday’s bombing and shooting spree.
After reading more about Breivik’s thinking, it started to sound depressingly familiar and so I started to read the damn thing. Yes, you can read it online. And there is much to find disturbing. First and foremost, Breivik is clearly not alone. In fact, he mentions distributing the manifesto to his 7,000 Facebook friends and their friends. Second, Breivik is not stupid. The manifesto is logical (to the point of psychosis), practical, offers all sorts of useful advice on how to carry out the revolution throughout Europe, and extremely well-written despite English being Breivik’s second language. And third, as I suspected, there is absolutely nothing unusual about Breivik’s thinking because it is exactly like the far-right thinking in this country.
The thinking goes like this: they are at war because their white and male privilege are being dismantled by a host of demons from Marxists and socialists to feminists and queers. They must join together with other white men and make war—literally, with lots of weapons—against these groups or see their world destroyed.
It is the exact same thinking that links the “Mexican threat” to the “socialist government of Obama” to the “Muslim threat” to “castrating feminist bitches” to the “Ivory Tower” to “left-wing journalists.”
In fact, what I read of the Manifesto sounds a lot like the far-right hate mail and, at times, death threats that arrive in my inbox on a regular basis. How often have I received notice that “after the revolution you will be shot first” because I am a “traitor”? Enough times that I mostly ignore these threats. In other words, Breivik’s philosophy is a lot like what many (white and male) people seem to be thinking here.
The only real questions that remain are:
Why do these men have such easy access to weapons?
Will our national security forces, so obsessed with looking for terrorism from without, begin to realize that some of the red-blooded American (or Norwegian) men who love God, country, and tradition so much that they are willing to threaten to kill all who disagree are in fact armed and dangerous?
Have you seen the movie “The Departed”? Jack Nicholson played a character based on James “Whitey” Bulger, a Boston mobster and FBI informant who disappeared, seemingly into thin air way back in 1995. The now 81-year-old Whitey, who has been connected to 19 murders, had a $2 Million dollar reward on his head and managed to escape capture, despite sightings in London and around California. But it was his longtime companion, Catherine Greig, and her commitment to the beauty project that led to FBI to finally track him down yesterday.
The arrest came after the F.B.I., stymied in its efforts to find Mr. Bulger, had doubled the reward for information leading to the arrest of Ms. Greig, to $100,000, and began broadcasting public service television advertisements on shows geared to women viewers, such as Dr. Oz, as part of an effort to find Mr. Bulger through Ms. Greig.
Ms. Greig liked to have a nip here and a tuck there (as well as lots of cosmetic dental procedures). Which is why the FBI targeted women’s shows as well as cosmetic surgery publications in their latest campaign to find Whitey.
In fairness to Ms. Greig, they were living in Santa Monica and letting herself go would have probably attracted more attention than her strict cosmetic maintainence did. But one does wonder what sort of love held these two together that they remained a couple despite the obvious fact that it made them easier to track down?
Perhaps they were concerned about the increased stigma attached to divorce? According to recent article, divorce is now less and less common among the upper middle classes (and with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in their apartment, these two certainly were of a certain set). Not only is divorce less common, but there’s an increasing amount of shame attached to it, especially when there are children involved. And although Whitey and Ms. Greig did not have children, they did have a dog. Perhaps they thought it would be too traumatic for their canine companion if they did not stay together through thick and thin?
Whatever the reasons, it was beauty that brought down the beast. And although many in Boston may be mourning the end to a legend, a man of the people who escaped the law, we ought to be mourning how beauty and love are a trap for all of us, even a cunning criminal like Whitey.
Like many people walking around Wall Street this weekend, I received a pamphlet telling me that Jesus is coming to wrap up this project known as the children of God. According the the pamphlet, on May 21st, 2011 there will be a deadly earthquake. There will be dead bodies in October of this year. The saved will rise up with Christ. The rest of us will suffer damnation here on earth. The people who gave me this pamphlet are part of Project Caravan, whose slogan is:
“Have you heard the awesome news? The end of the world is almost here!”
It’s awesome because it’s the Rapture, when the Righteous rise up to Heaven but everyone else is left to live out the End Days.
If you didn’t receive a pamphlet, perhaps you saw the subway or bus shelter placards warning of the End Days? These were bought with the retirment savings of Robert Fitzpatrick, a retired MTA employee and a Staten Island resident who is so convinced of the timing of the Apocalypse that he saw no need to save for his dotage. He is not alone.
The knowledge that May 21st will mark the beginning of the end was provided to us by Harold Camping, 89, who is president of the Christian Family Radio Network. Technically, Camping said that was the day there’s be a huge earthquake and Christ would come back down to earth, but the actual end wouldn’t happen till October. There are now thousands of believers roaming the earth to warn us even though technically Camping did predict the end of the world in 1994 and he seems to have been wrong about that (unless the world did end and the actual torment is having to watch US politics devolve to the point where the Donald was actually a viable presidential candidate for more than two seconds?).
I just searched “help me be part of the Rapture” and didn’t find much useful advice. It seems I’m supposed to accept Jesus Christ as my personal savior and follow certain Evangelical Christian beliefs- like I’m morally superior to the rest of you sinners AND I get to control what you do with your bodies in the name of God- but the specifics of it are kinda unclear. If I truly believe that the End Days are here, can I spend all my savings on massages, really good champagne, and quit work? Is that going to hurt my chances of rising up and leaving you behind? Can I rack up credit card debt even though technically I won’t be able to pay it back- – or is that theft and is theft a big enough sin to actually keep me here in eternal torment AND having to pay back huge credit card balances? More importantly, can I do whatever I want until Thursday and then repent, accept Jesus Christ, live a homo and abortion free life for say 24 hours and then rise up?
As important as these questions are it is also worth asking what the possible lesson of the movement for End Days is about? The Evangelical Christians most likely to spread the word about the Rapture are probably also those who have been hurt hardest by the current economic collapse– people without high levels of education who work in industries that have mostly been outsourced elsewhere. They are also, like the rest of us, probably struggling to understand how the stock market can be “robust” and the Wall St. execs getting record bonuses even as unemployment, homelessness, and chronic hunger continue to rise.
In this sense, the appearance of Rapture-ites on Wall St. makes total sense since the workings of global capital are a great and unknowable mystery. Like all divinity stories, there is this sacred land, Wall Street, where magical and yet incomprehensible rituals and words fly about, like leverage and trading derivatives, all of which is then symbolized by numbers and signs.
And so the numbers of a thriving Dow intermingle with the equally inscrutable terms in Numerology to form a coherent set of meanings about “unrest in the Middle East,” “Osama’s death,” and, of course, the weather. Although I doubt Camping is any more accurate than the Mayans (who predict 2012 will be the end), I do think this sort of terror and desire to be set free from suffering without reason and seeing without comprehending is a universal human desire to escape. Not unlike my champagne and massage plan. Because if the world is ending this Friday, I want to make sure I have as good a chance at coming out ahead as anyone.
The average federal tax rebate this year is around $3000. By now we all understand that there is no point investing that money in the national casino known as Wall Street. You could be fiscally responsible adults and take that money to pay off some debt, but that would counter the brilliant economic recovery policy first coined by George Dubbya after the 9/11 attacks: go shopping.
But shopping for what? How about taking the $3000 to spruce up the kitchen or go on a nice vacation? Not a bad idea. But perhaps an even better one is to invest in the most important thing of all: a new, more perfect you. In other words, maybe you should spend that tax rebate on some cosmetic surgery or at least some Botox?
As Joan Kron, a senior editor at Allure magazine told me when I was researching my book, American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards and Our Quest for Perfection
No one says you shouldn’t go to college because you don’t want to improve your intelligence. What’s the difference between a facelift and college? People know they’ll keep their jobs if they make themselves look better.
Now you could do what many Americans already do and use that tax rebate to travel somewhere cheaper, warmer, and more willing to give you some lipo for a few thousand bucks. I’ve interviewed cosmetic surgeons from the Dominican Republic and Mexico who say their cosmetic surgery tourism business is busiest right after tax rebates arrive in the U.S. But there are obvious dangers to traveling outside the country for major surgery, like having complications later on that no US surgeon is willing to treat for fear of liability. Also, in terms of the Dubbyean economic policy of saving the US economy through consumption, it only works if we consume within our borders.
Probably the best answer is to do what nearly 85% of cosmetic surgery patients do: put your plastic surgery on plastic money. That’s right. Charge it. With $3000 down, you probably qualify through one of the medical credit loan sharks, uh, I mean companies, for the “low” rate of about 14%. Of course if you don’t want to put that $3000 down, expect to pay about 30% interest. Plus any fees and fines if you miss a payment.
In other words, cosmetic surgery is the subprime mortgage industry of the body. Banks, having learned long ago that the best way to make money is by charging high interest rates and fees (a process known by as “financialization”) figured out that they could lend Americans money for a more perfect body, charge them an arm and a leg, and make some serious profit. Care Credit, a division of General Electric, is the largest medical credit company. According to Barron’s, GE’s health care division has the opportunity for double-digit earnings growth.
Care Credit is happy to lend money for cosmetic surgery, not to the rich and famous, but to average Americans. That’s why over 70% of those getting cosmetic surgery earn less than $60,000 a year. It’s also why Care Credit is under investigation in the state of New York for “predatory lending practices.”
Of course if there’s one thing we now understand, it is that debt will make us poorer even as the corporations that lend us money much wealthier. And although we would all look more “perfect” with those new boobs, we won’t be able to do anything but work to try to keep up with the interest payments. So perhaps the real answer of what to do with our tax rebates is to invest in the seemingly recession-proof industry of plastic beauty and the American search for bodily perfection. After all, if we can’t look perfect, we can at least exploit the desire to do so for our own gain. And in this way make the roulette wheel that is Big Finance and Big Beauty go round.
When I was in grad school, in my first incarnation as a Russian Studies type, I made money all summer by working as a tour guide and interpreter. Not a bad gig. Sometimes I could make $5,000 for a few weeks and spend the rest of the summer on research. One summer I was asked to lead a group of nuclear scientists from Chernobyl and Three Mile Island around the TMI plant for a trans-national exchange about the two worst nuclear disasters in history. The money was good, the timing was right, and off to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania I went.
Needless to say, no amount of money could have made that experience worth it. The nuclear scientists from both sides of the Cold War were an unruly lot. They drank themselves sick every night and tried to push themselves into my hotel room or just stood outside calling my name, demanding that I let them in. During the day they were worse. They forced me to translate more misogynist and homophobic jokes in those few weeks than I had heard in my entire life previously. They mocked my ridiculous “nuclear phobia” as irrational and uninformed. This got much worse after a TMI exec handed me a pretty orange jumpsuit and told me to put it on since they were going into the contaminated area and needed me to translate. He was so shocked when I refused (seriously, radiation exposure was not in my contract) that he insisted I translate to everyone why I wouldn’t do it and then listen to their “rational” explanations as to why I was being “hysterical” and an “idiotic girl.”
I bring up this time of interpreting nuclear disaster because like everyone else I am glued to my screen, watching the disaster take place in Japan and wishing there were something, anything, I could do. This sense of being utterly useless is made more poignant by the fact that I am an academic, a status synonomous with superflous, isolated, and in no way, shape, or form relevant.
As I feel the weight of the Japanese disaster and my isolation in the Ivory Tower this week, I am simultaneously spending an inordinate time at work—my useless, unimportant, irrelevant work—helping to run a conference on feminism. Ah the irony. At the moment of feeling most academic, I am engaged in the seemingly most academic of projects: epistemology and knowledge production through feminist theory.
And yet, I am struck by how feminist theory might have changed both TMI and Chernobyl and how it might still save the United States from a similar nuclear disaster. In both America and in Japan, there has been a willingness to ignore the many groups warning of nuclear catastrophe. For instance, in both countries states and industry have decided to leave spent fuel rods near the reactors and this turns out to be creating a much larger disaster in Japan than had to happen. It might, in the future, happen here. In both the U.S. and Japan, a certain sort of voice was heard saying “don’t worry,” “stop being hysterical,” and “nuclear power is rational.” For instance, over at Slate, William Saletan calls us “nuclear overreactors” and says that fear of nuclear power is not based in fact, but feeling. According to Saletan, the rational thing to do is study what went wrong and fix it since
If Japan, the United States, or Europe retreats from nuclear power in the face of the current panic, the most likely alternative energy source is fossil fuel. And by any measure, fossil fuel is more dangerous. The sole fatal nuclear power accident of the last 40 years, Chernobyl, directly killed 31 people. By comparison, Switzerland’s Paul Scherrer Institute calculates that from 1969 to 2000, more than 20,000 people died in severe accidents in the oil supply chain. More than 15,000 people died in severe accidents in the coal supply chain—11,000 in China alone. The rate of direct fatalities per unit of energy production is 18 times worse for oil than it is for nuclear power.
As rational as that seems and as much as we’d all like to have the voice of authority explain to us how to interpret the nuclear disaster happening in Japan, I think feminism might have more important answers to give us.
First and foremost, feminism is a situated knowledge. By that I mean that feminism doesn’t pretend to have a view from above, looking down at the world imagining that some sort of scientific method removes it from power. Indeed, power is everywhere—what we write, how we write it, what we claim to know, and what we claim not to know. What would have happened differently at TMI, at Chernobyl, and in Japan if scientists understood that their knowledge was not perfectly objective, but perfectly human? What would happen if feminist nuclear scientists had insisted that their particular form of knowledge also stopped them from considering nuclear power from other forms of expertise and therefore limited how they imagined everything from how the plants were built to whether building them was a good idea in the first place.
The hubris that is “rational science” is built on those forms of knowledge that claim to be outside the bodies producing that knowledge. This hubris is rooted in gendered (and raced and classed) power. They are “objective” and the rest of us are “biased.” If only nuclear physicists were required—as any feminist theorist is—to consider the limits of knowledge, the very human messiness of its production, and the deadly consequences of dismissing your critics as hysterical.
“Since Dustin Hoffman heard that memorable ‘just one word,’ plastic has re-made American society. In a stroke of brilliance, Laurie Essig brings together plastic credit cards, bodies, and gender identities by telling the story of how economic insecurity has intersected with the celebrity culture and the neo-liberal ideology of choice. Essig's well-researched and original analysis deserves our serious attention.” —Juliet Schor, author of Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth
As the new year begins, many people's thoughts turn to "improving" their bodies, and, in our age of quick solutions, plastic surgery often is looked at as a shortcut to perfection. Over the last decade there has been a 465 percent increase in cosmetic work, and we now spend over $12 billion annually on procedures like liposuction, face-lifts, tummy tucks, and boob jobs. In American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Quest for Perfection, sociologist Laurie Essig argues that this transformation is the result of massive shifts in both our culture and our economy—a perfect storm of greed, desire, and technology.
Plastic is crucial to who we are as Americans, Essig observes. We not only pioneered plastic money but lead the world in our willingness to use it. It's estimated that 30 percent of plastic surgery patients earn less than $30,000 a year; another 41 percent earn less than $60,000. And since the average cost of cosmetic work is $8,000, a staggering 85 percent of patients assume debt to get work done. Using plastic surgery as a lens on better understanding our society, Essig shows how access to credit, medical advances, and the pressures from an image- and youth-obsessed culture have led to an unprecedented desire to "fix" ourselves.