Posts Tagged “zietgeist”

07w50:6 A culture saturated in sexism

by timothy. 0 Comments

A culture saturated in sexism | Johanna Schneller
Link (The Globe & Mail)
“Women’s bodies have always been fodder for jokes, but the envelope keeps getting pushed,” said Jessica Valenti, whose book Full Frontal Feminism came out in March. Young moviegoers expect more and more outrageous humour, so the movies get more risqué. Offscreen, recent tabloids, TV shows and Internet sites raked Tyra Banks and Britney Spears over the coals for gaining weight. Endless unflattering photos of their non-washboard midriffs were displayed and discussed. The fact that Banks was at most a size 12, and that Spears has had two children, didn’t matter: These women didn’t maintain their veneer of perfection. They had failed. A few weeks ago, the nitpickers hit a new low: They targeted Jennifer Love Hewitt, zeroing in on bumps on her bikini-clad bottom and blaring, ‘We know what you ate last summer.’ Now, I try to have a sense of humour about this stuff. But Jennifer Love Hewitt is a freaking Polly Pocket, and obviously fit. Seeing her scorned – for I don’t even know what, having hips? – I can’t help but feel that the volume and ubiquity of this kind of criticism is tipping from humour into something uglier.”

// Comment: In building her argument, Schneller writes “In Knocked Up, which came out in June, hero Ben (Seth Rogen — [is] chubby, which I point out because it’s not an issue for the men)”. Being chubby may not be an issue for men, but I’d feel remiss if I didn’t point out the sexism men are subjected to in the media. Either McDreamy handsome or ‘chubby’, they are often depicted as morons who love tools, cars, and meat. I discussed this once with a self-indentifying feminist and she argued that these stereotypes embodied the ‘Everyman’ as if this justified it – an extremely weak argument (imagine it being made for depictions of women in the kitchen, or toward some oppressed minority. Stereotypes never represent the ‘every-stereotype’).

This was somewhat addressed in Goodreads 05w24:2, and especially in this article from, Beauty and the Beast arguing:

In addition to their girth, a signal characteristic of these men is immaturity. Most of them are unable to master the simplest daily tasks. A recent episode of Grounded for Life was propelled by Sean’s inability to take a phone message while a typical King of Queens knee-slapper was fueled by Doug’s inability to keep his hands off a co-worker’s Koosh ball, which he, of course, loses. And virtually every episode of According to Jim is sparked by Jim’s selfishness and impulsiveness—he fights with Santa and the next-door neighbor; he pouts about having to give up his vices so Cheryl can get pregnant.

Indeed, the promixity of these men to their childhood selves is often directly invoked. In a recent episode of King of Queens, for example, Doug’s dad visits for a model train convention, which dredges up bitter memories about how as a child, Doug was not allowed—I am not making this up—to play with his dad’s train. When Dad is called away from the convention and Doug offers to fill in for him, Dad is still reluctant to let his dumb-ass son work the controls. (And when he does, Doug promptly destroys the train set, along with its fake mountain landscape setting. See what happens when you play with Daddy’s train?) Perhaps, then, actors like Mark Addy and Kevin James are best suited for these roles not only because they portray a fantasy life for couch potato male viewers—for a half-hour a week, you can be 300 pounds and still imagine yourself married to Jamie Gertz!—but also because their proportions, with their ample torsos and short and apparently useless limbs, approximate those of babies. [emp mine]

It’s not that there aren’t handsome or sexually desirable men on sitcoms, but these men are typically marked as terminal bachelors, like Ted Danson on Cheers. To the extent they have anything to do with family life, they tend to skulk around its outer margins like coyotes. On Two and Half Men (CBS, Mondays, 9:30 p.m. ET), Charlie (Charlie Sheen) is handsome, successful, and wedded to promiscuous bachelorhood, but he gets to enjoy some nourishing familial scraps since his loser brother (Jon Cryer) and scampy nephew moved themselves into his pad. (In keeping with the Maxim ethos of these shows, the brother was abandoned by a woman who thinks she might be a lesbian. It would be emasculating for male viewers to see a man dumped for being completely undesirable, and, besides, lesbians are so hot.) Likewise, on Grounded for Life the schlumpy husband has a smoother bachelor brother, Eddie (Kevin Corrigan), who lurks around the house and functions as a Casanova alter ego. This really works in Grounded for Life, thanks to the slithery Corrigan, who is probably the best thing about any of these shows. (On According to Jim and Still Standing, the single sibling is an attractive but romantically hopeless sister of the wife. That’s the choice: fat guy vs. spinsterhood.)

Here perhaps, a reminder of where the word ‘stereotype’ comes from. Steven Pinker, in The Blank Slate (2002; p. 201) writes:

The word stereotype originally referred to a kind of printing plate. Its current sense as a pejorative and inaccurate image standing for a category of people was introduced in 1922 by the journalist Walter Lippmann. Lippmann was an important public intellectual who, amoung other things, helped to found The New Republic, influenced Woodrow Wilson’s policies at the end of World War I, and wrote some of the first attacks against IQ testing. In his book Public Opinion, [1922], Lippmann fretted about the difficulty of achieving true democracy in an age in which ordinary people could no longer judge public issues rationally because they got their information in what we today call sound bites. As part of this argument, Lippmann proposed that ordinary people’s concepts of social groups were stereotypes:mental pictures that are incomplete, biased, insensitive to variation, and resistant to disconfirming information.

Lippmann had an immediate influence on social science (though the subtleties and qualifications of his original argument were forgotten). Psychologists gave people lists of ethnic groups and lists of traits and asked them to pair them up.

(Pinker references two books in a footnote: Roger Brown’s Social Psychology, (1985) & the paper Stereotype accuracy: Toward appreciating group differences edited YT Lee, LJ Jussum, and CR McCauley, 1995)

The results proved either Lippmann’s thesis, or just highlighted traditional bigotry. It’s hard to say which, now that we live in a media soup – didn’t some people have ideas about spics and wops in the 19th Century, when those insults were common?

Walter Lippmann, btw, is the coiner of the term ‘manufacture of consent‘ which now days is associated with Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s critique of mass media. Pinker’s mention that Lippmann ‘influenced Woodrow Wilson’ sounds great out of context, but within the context reported by Chomsky, his influence was in the way he helped inspire American propaganda. Chomsky, wrote:

The first modern government propaganda operation [was] under the Woodrow Wilson Administration. Woodrow Wilson was elected President in 1916 on the platform “Peace Without Victory.” That was right in the middle of the First World War. The population was extremely pacifistic and saw no reason to become involved in a European war. The Wilson Administration was actually committed to war and had to do something about it. They established a government propaganda commission, called the Creel Commission, which succeeded, within six months, in turning a pacifist population into a hysterical, war-mongering population which wanted to destroy everything German, tear the Germans limb from limb, go to war and save the world. […]

Among those who participated actively and enthusiastically were the progressive intellectuals, people of the John Dewey circle, who took great pride, as you can see from their own writings at the time, in having shown that what they called the “more intelligent members of the community” –namely themselves– were able to drive a reluctant population into a war by terrifying them and eliciting jingoist fanaticism. […]

Another group that was impressed by these successes were liberal Democratic theorists and leading media figures, like, for example, Walter Lippmann, who was the dean of American journalists, a major foreign and domestic policy critic and also a major theorist of liberal democracy. If you take a look at his collected essays, you’ll see that they’re subtitled something like “A Progressive Theory of Liberal Democratic Thought.” Lippmann was involved in these propaganda commissions and recognized their achievements. He argued that what he called a “revolution in the art of democracy,” could be used to manufacture consent, that is, to bring about agreement on the part of the public for things that they didn’t want by the new techniques of propaganda. He also thought that this was a good idea, in fact necessary. It was necessary because, as he put it, “the common interests elude public opinion entirely” and can only be understood and managed by a specialized class of responsible men who are smart enough to figure things out.

This theory asserts that only a small elite, the intellectual community that the Deweyites were talking about, can understand the common interests, what all of us care about, and that these things “elude the general public.” This is a view that goes back hundreds of years. It’s also a typical Leninist view. In fact, it has very close resemblance to the Leninist conception that a vanguard of revolutionary intellectuals take state power, using popular revolutions as the force that brings them to state power, and then drive the stupid masses towards a future that they’re too dumb and incompetent to envision themselves.


Lippmann backed this up by a pretty elaborated theory of progressive democracy. He argued that in a properly-functioning democracy there are classes of citizens. There is first of all the class of citizens who have to take some active role in running general affairs. That’s the specialized class. They are the people who analyze, execute, make decisions, and run things in the political, economic, and ideological systems. That’s a small percentage of the population. Naturally, anyone who puts these ideas forth is always part of that small group, and they’re talking about what to do about those others.

Those others, who are out of the small group, the big majority of the population, they are what Lippmann called “the bewildered herd.” We have to protect ourselves from the trampling and rage of the bewildered herd. Now there are two functions in a democracy: The specialized class, the responsible men, carry out the executive function, which means they do the thinking and planning and understand the common interests. Then, there is the bewildered herd, and they have a function in democracy too. Their function in a democracy, he said, is to be spectators, not participants in action. But they have more of a function than that, because it’s a democracy. Occasionally they are allowed to lend their weight to one or another member of the specialized class. In other words, they’re allowed to say, “We want you to be our leader” or “We want you to be our leader.” That’s because it’s a democracy and not a totalitarian state. That’s called an election.

(source; not properly attributed; excerpts of the above found here and here, and sourced to the 2002 book, Media Control, and from the Alternative Press Review, Fall 1993).

Not having read Lippmann’s 1922 book, it seems then that his argument would run something like this: the ‘bewildered herd’ is subject to the distortions of the media, forming stereotypes on the basis of sound-bites, and hence a self-selecting group of elites have the right to shape public opinion through the active manipulation of those stereotypes. Even better, the self-selecting group of intelligentsia should actively seek to distract ‘the bewildered herd’ so that they are out of the way of the decision making process.

Which gets back to Johanna Schneller’s piece: the fucking tabloids and the like pissing us off by unfairly insulting celebrity women while the Earth burns and our governments are doing fuck all about it.