Sexualized Advertising…of Kids’ Products?

Somewhat of a departure from the topics we’ve been discussing of late, but interesting: A Knox College study of young girls brings to light factors of self-sexualization:

Media consumption alone didn’t influence girls to prefer the sexy doll. But girls who watched a lot of TV and movies and who had mothers who reported self-objectifying tendencies, such as worrying about their clothes and appearance many times a day, in the study were more likely to say the sexy doll was popular.

The authors suggest that the media or moms who sexualize women may predispose girls toward objectifying themselves; then, the other factor (mom or media) reinforces the messages, amplifying the effect. On the other hand, mothers who reported often using TV and movies as teaching moments about bad behaviors and unrealistic scenarios were much less likely to have daughters who said they looked like the sexy doll. The power of maternal instruction during media viewing may explain why every additional hour of TV- or movie-watching actually decreased the odds by 7 percent that a girl would choose the sexy doll as popular, Starr said. “As maternal TV instruction served as a protective factor for sexualization, it’s possible that higher media usage simply allowed for more instruction.”

Mothers’ religious beliefs also emerged as an important factor in how girls see themselves. Girls who consumed a lot of media but who had religious mothers were protected against self-sexualizing, perhaps because these moms “may be more likely to model higher body-esteem and communicate values such as modesty,” the authors wrote, which could mitigate the images portrayed on TV or in the movies.

However, girls who didn’t consume a lot of media but who had religious mothers were much more likely to say they wanted to look like the sexy doll. “This pattern of results may reflect a case of ‘forbidden fruit’ or reactance, whereby young girls who are overprotected from the perceived ills of media by highly religious parents … begin to idealize the forbidden due to their underexposure,” the authors wrote.

The authors [of the 2007 APA study] cited examples like “advertisements (e.g. the Sketchers naughty and nice ad that featured Christina Aguilera dressed as a schoolgirl in pigtails, with her shirt unbuttoned, licking a lollipop), dolls (e.g. Bratz dolls dressed in sexualized clothing such as miniskirts, fishnet stockings and feather boas), clothing (e.g. thong underwear sized for 7- to 10-year-olds, some printed with slogans such as ‘wink wink’), and television programs (e.g. a televised fashion show in which adult models in lingerie were presented as young girls).”

I will say that I think adults dressing as children is probably less of an influence on girls’ self-sexualization than the plethora of kid-size adult clothing styles. Years ago, I saw girls at the pool dressed in halter-top swimsuits…with nothing to halter! I see girls in miniskirts, mini cowboy boots, spaghetti-strap tops, mini-heels, the works.

Related: the evolution of girls’ Halloween costumes

Bookblog: Teenage Mystique + Entitlement = ??

I’d propose the answer is bullying, although the equation is of course not that simple. My private research has suffered a little recently as I’ve been preoccupied with rehearsals for “Hamlet” at the ART and with the neverending funding search for my upcoming study at UF. However, I’ve been able to keep up with a sprawling, if a little dry, overview of the cultural construction of the adolescent, The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, by Thomas Hine.

With a core thesis that teenagers are not an inherent division of the human life cycle (not that there are any), Hine, primarily a historian and greatly influenced by Erik Erikson, takes us on a journey through America from the Puritans to the Millenials, tracing the development and alteration of the teenage persona in accordance with the sociocultural, psychosocial, and political factors of the times. As discussed by Jean Twenge, the children of the baby boomers were taught an attitude of entitlement. But boomers themselves never would have imparted that ethos were they not themselves the product of a blossoming teenage “character” seeded by the post-Industrial Revolution and spurred by 1920s pop culture. Moreover, this new age group had little to do with the creation of the high school, although that institution became not only the venue but the instrument of the eventually exclusive youth culture.

I do not have time at the moment to discuss Hine’s illuminating stories and incisive historical analysis, but even before my thoughts have finished coalescing, it seems apparent that the necessary separation of a heterogeneous high school from working society, combined with entitlement, has not only enabled the spoiling of Americans who are excluded from the labor force, but the cementing of a youth culture that is so long divided from the real world that it never truly leaves the real world.

Wow, lotta long sentences tonight. I guess I’m in a flow mood.

This bookblog to be continued. Then I begin reading the work of foremost bullying expert Barbara Coloroso.

Memetics, Schematics, and Cultural Genetics

Recently I came across a reference to memetics, which I had heard of and frankly dismissed as a conflation of the biological and cultural, similar to UG, in a way that ignores the cognitive processes of culture. Now, though, I’m thinking that as so many things go by different names across the disciplines, that a “meme,” even in a sense as its alternate meaning of “Internet fad,” is not too different from a schema, nor too different from a tradition. One is a symbol, or a symbolic action, one is a neural network, and one is a repeated action. I’m sure there are other concepts that describe a similar phenomenon of human nature, but for the sake of having the time-honored triad I’d like to view these three ideas as a Holy Trinity of culturemaking.

As compiled here:

Biological Definition (from Dawkins): A meme is the basic unit of cultural transmission, or imitation.

Psychological Definition (from Henry Plotkin): A meme is the unit of cultural heredity analogous to the gene. It’s the internal representation of knowledge.

Cognitive Definition (from Daniel Dennet): A meme is an idea, the kind of complex idea that forms itself into a distinct, memorable unit. It is spread by vehicles that are physical manifestations of the meme.

“A meme is a unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that more copies of itself get created in other minds. [snip] It’s one way of looking at things. It’s looking at ideas – memes – as distinct entities in competition for a share of your mind and a share of everyone else’s. When those ideas are harmful… understanding this model can show you how to combat the infection.” (quoted from Richard Brodie’s Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme)

What is a schema, then? A schema, as I learned it, is a set of neural connections that are triggered by physical, social, and internal stimuli and not only inform behavior and perception, but are shaped by internalized ideals and expectations experienced in a sociocultural context. Schema theory is thematically related to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and is also called cultural modelling theory to the cultural, especially interactionist, anthropologists.

And what is a tradition? A tradition is more than something people do multiple times. It goes beyond rituals and events, too, and encompasses a society’s basic ontology and epistemology, sociopsychological benchmarks, and patterns of movement. A tradition is a repeated social action or event within a specific cultural context that reflects the society’s psychological, economic, and political needs.

All together, a meme, Internet or otherwise, is a cultural product that evokes a schema, and may become or provide context for a tradition.

Bookblog: Self-justification, the engine of bullying

In my previous bookblog, I discussed the rise of cultural narcissism, particularly among adolescents, and its social and psychological implications. My working hypothesis:

In the United States of America, bullying and workplace harassment are linked phenomena encouraged by an ethos that emphasizes supremacy, competitiveness, and replaceability, and reflective of hierarchical social institutions as well as economic and cultural markets that are oversaturated with choices. The ideals of individuality, self-reliance, and dominance embraced by Generation Me, combined with tremendous socioeconomic pressures to resolve the practical discrepancies between ideals and ability, lead to bullying among adolescents, and those same ideals combined with the tensions of the sociopsychological history of their elders, lead to harassment among adults.

In a recent post I offered a hypothetical example of a bullied teenager whose diagnosis of “mental disorder” absolves his tormentors of responsibility, and even bolsters their behavior. Labeling theory holds that the word in question itself is culturally salient, and it is so in part because of both parties’ ability to rewrite experiences in their heads. Self-justification is a mental process discussed in the dissonance theory of psychology, which holds that humans will say or do contradictory, unsavory, or dishonest things in order to reduce cognitive dissonance, the perceived disconnect, and the discomfort resulting from that, between an expectation and an experience.

In Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson compile hundreds of sociological studies, politician snafus, cultural documents, and pop culture dramas demonstrating the reign of self-justification in all aspects of human existence:

Dissonance reduction operates like a thermostat, keeping our self-esteem bubbling on high. … [W]e are constantly interpreting the things that happen to us through the filter of those core beliefs [about ourselves]. When they are violated, even by a good experience, it causes us discomfort. (pp. 30-31)

Discomfort that is easily resolved by little lies or excuses to ourselves, that happen so frequently we don’t even process them. I could not even guess when the last time I did this was. I can say that within the past week I have likely pretended a text was lost to cover for not responding to it immediately, swiped a pen because mine kept getting stolen, and cut someone off on the road because they tailed me for a long time before getting ahead of me. These aren’t great moral missteps, but in a situation with patterned stimuli, e.g. an office where the same boss makes ridiculous demands of you or a school where you pass the same awkward-looking kid at his locker every day, it’s not difficult to (a) project insecurities and stress onto others and (b) justify further bad behavior, to the point where you must justify that pen swipe or locker shove by convincing yourself of your rightness so well, you eventually have no problem with stealing money from the company or beating the kid with a baseball bat behind the school.

Indeed, both the (in)famous Milgram experiment and a similar experiment by Ellen Berscheid, the perpetrators in the artificial social situation belittled their victims and in post-study interviews explained that the victims “deserved” the shocks. In the Berscheid experiment, half the perpetrators were told that they would later be the recipient of shocks, and as dissonance theory would predict, “when victims are armed and able to strike back, perpetrators [would] feel less need to reduce dissonance by belittling them . . . . [T[he only participants who denigrated their victims were those who believed the victims were helpless” (200).

Interestingly, the authors don’t address the realms of customer service or office workplaces, or the experience of bullying, but it isn’t difficult to apply their observations. In a store, for example, a customer feels dissonance when they expect one price and get another and decides to belittle the employee to resolve it. Dissonance theory explains why otherwise rational people deal with such confusion in this way, rather than politely asking the staff to check or change to price. Furthermore, they feel able to insult the employee because the rules of customer service dictate that employees are not allowed to retaliate. (This doesn’t seem to be true in other countries.)

Needless to say, it’s much more serious when dissonance reduction of this type occurs among adolescents and leads to bullying, which has a much greater capacity to be fatal or at least permanently psychologically damaging. Self-justification seems to be a natural process empowered by the human brain’s complexity and plasticity, and has many positive effects, including transmitting culture, allowing forgiveness, and bolstering imagination, but we must understand that of all the factors of bullying and harassment, this is likely the only one that’s unchangeable.

Linkblog: Can we stop diagnosing and start solving?

As anyone slightly familiar with psychiatry knows, psychiatrists reference a text called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders both when diagnosing the source of their patients’  troubles and when determining how to treat them. Among the DSM’s many criticisms is that it enforces cultural stereotypes and its use is subject to the observer’s biases. In addition, the particular sets of symptoms have undergone alteration over the years (the next edition, DSM-5, is to be released next year), and even the names of disorders are cleaned up or rearranged, such that someone diagnosed with multiple personality disorder years ago would be described as having a “dissociative identity” now, and someone termed schizophrenic before may be bipolar, manic depressive, dissociative, or chronically depressed now.

The problems with defining mental problems have been dramatized endlessly in films, plays, and TV shows, and one in particular is the most compelling reason to change or eliminate the method. In anthropology, “labeling” is more than an action; it’s a set of symbolic actions, words, and sociopsychological connotations, in which labeling both produces the label and the associated activity that confirms the label. In adolescents this can both reinforce stereotypes about adolescents, contribute to “typical” adolescent behavior, and, for bullying victims, in particular, be potentially damaging.

Interestingly, the DSM is under attack:

Many [clinicians] will participate in “Boycott Normal,” a demonstration planned for May 5, when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) meets in Philadelphia and is likely to vote to go forward and publish the DSM-5.


Foremost among these advocates is feminist psychologist Paula J. Caplan, a fellow in the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and the Joan-of-Arc of the new PLAN T Alliance (Psychiatric Labeling Action Network for Truth). The alliance is a coalition of individuals and organizations formed because of frustration with the unscientific nature of the DSM, the harm done to many people who receive arbitrary diagnostic labels, and the unwillingness of the APA to undertake serious reform.

Imagine being a troubled teenager, bullied, ostracised, and confused, and going to a counselor who recommends a psychiatrist who tells the student that they are A, so take B, and behave like C to “get better.” It frees the tormentors from responsibility because the victim was “just that way to begin with,” frees school counselors and administrators from responsibility to provide a safe, judgment-free school, and it slaps the “crazy” label on a vulnerable person in an overstimulating environment.

Am pressed for time so will continue this topic on my next bookblog, which is on the topic of adolescent culture.

Bookblog: The Cultural Roots of Bullying

Thanks to Dr. Jean Twenge, one of my key questions, i.e. key aspects of my core hypothesis*, is a step closer to being answered, by accounting the self-esteem movement as a primary psychological factor among people under 30. This also means that my project will have to take generational differences into account, particularly when analyzing workplace harassment (BWAISH).

Twenge’s 2007 book, Generation ME (the “ME” is short for Millennial Edition but reflects the selfish attitudes of the folks in question) makes one argument and makes it well: that the children of Baby Boomers and their children were raised to believe they were special, and this has massive implications for all of American society, particularly in schools and workplaces, by causing a sense of entitlement and an abandonment of responsibility. Twenge writes in a snarky, lighthearted style even when doing a big sell, which is good because most of her data is statistical and based upon personality questionnaires and survey data going back decades, which is a fantastically scientific approach but hard to digest without a little humor. Twenge impressively crunches this data, comparing results across economic and political factors to demonstrate large shifts in basic American personality over the past 40 years. She also demonstrates that the changes are still occurring (boosted, perhaps, by technology, a factor Twenge will hopefully address in her next book). Twenge’s age (she’s just past 30 as of publication) is occasionally a distraction more than an asset (she references “Avenue Q” a few too many times), and her cynicism threatens what would therefore be inappropriate ageism. Twenge is attempting to apologize for her generation, but doesn’t address the same behaviors and tendencies as conducted by older generations (and trust me, from working in retail, I can say with certainty that 80-year-olds can be just as bratty and snooty as 20-year-olds).

So, the self-esteem movement has produced feelings of entitlement in people under 40, particularly the tweens, teens, and twentysomethings. This leads to bullying, harassing, and violent behavior when those feelings are challenged or otherwise need to be reinforced. This isn’t the only factor, of course, but I strongly believe that any narcissistic tendencies mixed with a capitalistic one-upmanship worldview means not only acceptance of psychological cruelty, but acceptance of, and furthermore excuse-making for it. (This is an excellent source on this topic.)

* Roughly: that bullying and workplace harassment are linked phenomena encouraged by an ethos that emphasizes supremacy, competitiveness, and replaceability, and reflective of hierarchical social institutions as well as economic and cultural markets that are oversaturated with choices. See also here.

Bookblog: Back to the Fandom Study

Sadly, my investigation into the bullying phenomenon is going to have to wait for a professional or academic backer. In the interest of not making this project too difficult for myself, I am considering other options to build a support network before beginning the interviews, rather than networking through the project.

However, a recent read I picked up at the library, The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories, has renewed my interest in my folklore studies project on the consutrction of narrative using social and cultural ideas. The book is a nerd’s read for sure, referencing multiple video games, science fiction and fantasy films, and comic books. But as Rose notes, these particular genres are ripe for fandom, which is the psychocultural phenomenon that most piques my interest and the best demonstration of how contemporary humans relate and create according to their stories.

My interest in the passion for story-sharing and making characteristic of geek culture began, of course, with my very nerdy friends in college who had an almost obsessive worship of all things “Star Wars” and James Bond. Though familiar with and fond of the franchises, I hadn’t realized the anthropological potential of this kind of fandom…nor the similarities between Bond and “Star Wars'” resident anti-hero, Han Solo, that empower such fandom.  Inspired, I wrote a literary analysis paper exploring the sociocultural construct of the “folk hero” as expressed in two distinct genres, and analyzed why these figures were of such importance to Americans, especially young male Americans. The possibilities of this research go far beyond the reach of a standard term paper, but I am still interested in expanding the project.

However, I would rather focus on the construction of narrative, which in a nutshell is what Rose does in The Art of Immersion.  Rose focuses on how stories are constructed socially, in particular with the benefits of modern technology. I, however, would focus on how stories are constructed using our common cultural experience and then distributed, reconstructed, and deconstructed through culturally prescribed means of storytelling. In other words, archetypes, myths, and sociophilosophical “truths.” Like Rose, I can think of no better way to explore this than the fantasy and sci-fi genres. And I suppose any genre would do, but I’d rather analyze the questions of gender and sexual power in “Buffy” than in “Jersey Shore,” thank you very much.