Archive for the ‘Popular Press’ Category

A long time ago in the Milky Way galaxy, Star Wars came out and prominently featured one woman with a lot of lines and… basically no other notable women. In December, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens came out and prominently featured another woman with a lot of lines and… a few other women. There was a crucial difference between the prominent women in each of these movies, though. While Leia in Star Wars was undoubtedly a main character, the movie was centered on her brother, Luke, to the extent that at one point Leia is rescued by men like another princess would be (repeatedly) starting a few years later. The Force Awakens, however, undoubtedly centers on Rey.

That Rey was a major (if not the major) character was not surprising to anybody who followed the early rumors about the movie, but it might have been surprising to anybody who purchased some of the toys that came out before the movie was released. In response to her absence from a Star Wars Monopoly game, Hasbro claimed that it was intended to “avoid spoilers.” Even J. J. Abrams, the movie’s director, called her absence “preposterous,” noting sarcastically that “It doesn’t quite make sense why she wouldn’t be there. She’s somewhat important in the story.” An updated version of the game will feature Rey, but the situation also prompted some to wonder what toys for other movies would look like with their starring women removed. (Saturday Night Live‘s recent sketch about whites receiving awards in movies about blacks is also reminiscent of this.)

Why is this important? Many have praised Rey for being a feminist hero but not a “female hero,” meaning that she gets to do the same things that a male hero would do. (Not surprisingly, there have also been some complaints.) Rey is obviously important to young girls but I also like Mike Adamick’s argument that Rey is the hero that young boys need. As Adamick states, “She’s a role model for the boys in front of me — and the millions like them — who continue to grow up under a steady drip drip drip of societal sexism that says even fictionalized female heroes are unbelievable, let alone that our real life heroes shouldn’t be paid as much as their male counterparts or be in control of their own bodies.” Rey contradicts these ideas and we need more characters like her.

I should note that although Hasbro doesn’t seem to get this, at least the creators of a few commercials for Disney (the company that now owns the Star Wars franchise) and Toys ‘R Us do:


I guess that companies hear us most loudly when we speak up for women’s representation with our wallets.

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There are some jobs that are typically recognized as difficult. Most people, for example, probably don’t think that they could walk into an operating room and be a successful surgeon. Others, however, are often assumed to be easy. Teaching, for example, is something that many people assume they could be successful at. I’ve also seen musicians criticize those who make electronic music because they are “just pushing buttons.” As with teachers and electronic music artists, assuming that somebody has an easy job devalues the work that they do.  Once in a while, though, people have the opportunity to try something that others make look easy, discovering that it is, in fact, rather difficult.

Enter Super Mario Maker.

Super Mario Maker is a videogame for Nintendo’s Wii U game console. In the game, players are able to create their own Super Mario Bros. levels, share those levels, and play levels created by others. In reviewing the game, Sean Buckley of Engadget summed up his experience nicely, stating:

It didn’t make any sense. I’d dreamed about making Nintendo games since I was 6 years old, but when the company gave me the chance to prove a game design genius lived under my skin, I flopped. It was then that a shocking and heartbreaking realization washed over me: I hate making video games.

My ego didn’t take this realization well. As both a hobbyist gamer and a journalist that covers games, I’ve always humored the little voice in the back of my head that said, “I could do this if I wanted. I could make games.” No, Super Mario Maker has shown me, I can’t — not really. Yes, technically I can construct a stage from set pieces I’ve seen in other Mario games, but I’m not really creating anything. My by-the-numbers Mario levels (a few power-ups to start, some pipes to leap over, maybe a Hammer brother or two and a flagpole at the end) feel more like light plagiarism than original content. Why do I suck at this so much?

Michael Thomsen at the Washington Post focused on how bad others are at creating Super Mario levels, arguing:

“Super Mario Maker” is a bad comedy. Released in coordination with the 30-year anniversary of “Super Mario Bros.,” it indulges players in the fantasy that they’d be good at making video game levels. This sort of self-deception has become common in the age of digital consumption, and while there’s something utopian in “Super Mario Maker’s” appeals to community participation and sharing, the game quickly collapses into a scratch sheet of horrible ideas and levels you’ll regret having played. It’s a tool for the mass production of cultural refuse, single-use distractions that fail to replicate the spirit of the original.

So it turns out that the people who have been making the Super Mario Bros. games all these years actually had talents and skills that most of us don’t have. I think this is great! I wish that we could have other opportunities to try what people do in a simplified manner. Imagine Super Teacher Maker where surgeons are given seven hours in a room with 25 eight year olds and asked to teach them math, or Super EDM Maker where a guitar player (or, better yet, a singer!) is given a computer and asked to create music. Maybe then we would start to recognize that everybody has hard jobs, even if our jobs are hard in different ways.

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In sociological social psychology, role theory examines the effects of the various social roles that individuals take on. A recent article by Jacob Weisberg at Slate (excerpted from his recent biography) examines how Ronald Reagan transitioned from being a “liberal anticommunist” (and sociology major!) to the man who would become a conservative icon during his time working for General Electric from the mid-1950s until 1962. Reagan’s tasks for General Electric included hosting a weekly show called “General Electric Theater” and traveling the company’s plants as a “goodwill ambassador,” which included giving speeches to employees.

As Weisberg states,

For Reagan, it was a dry run for politics. He learned how to interact with a live audience, and not just perform for the camera and microphone. He learned how to test which jokes went over and refine the way he told them. He learned how to preserve his voice and manage his energy during weeks of uninterrupted travel. He learned how to come across not as a distant matinee idol, but as a man of the people.

His interactions with company officials, though, may have had an even bigger impact. He traveled from plant to plant with a GE public relations officer named Earl Dunckel, a strong conservative who challenged Reagan’s liberal views. Weisberg also reports that he was influenced by GE’s chief labor negotiator, Lemuel Boulware, through his interactions with countless midlevel executives and plant managers. He states,

Over time, Reagan’s speeches came to match the message from headquarters about the inefficient, irrational, and meddlesome federal government. After a couple of years, Reagan was professing concern about the “business climate,” a term Boulware coined, and recounting tales of “government interference and snafus.” Now that he could no longer shelter his income through the “temporary corporation” loophole, high marginal tax rates were a constant preoccupation of his.

Thus, as his roles changed, so did his attitudes, and he became the man that conservatives revere today. It is interesting that changes as a result of our roles often seem “natural” in hindsight. Reagan probably looked back on his younger self as foolish and inexperienced, ignoring the fact that different roles would have led to different attitudes.

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A recent Rolling Stone article by Alex Morris focuses on Marlon James, who recently received the Man Booker Prize for his book A Brief History of Seven Killings. So far, so good. The third sentence of the article states that James came to the U.S. “with $200 in cash and the promise of a one-year teaching position,” which didn’t prompt much of a reaction until I read the following five paragraphs later:

By the time he began writing his second novel, The Book of Night Women, about a slave revolt on an 18th-century Jamaican sugar plantation, James was “full set that I was going to write my way out of Jamaica. My ambitions when I moved to the States were pretty simple: I just wanted to not kill myself.” When he was offered a teaching position at Macalester, a small liberal-arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota, he immediately accepted.

Okay, so the teaching position was at a highly-ranked liberal arts college and not a high school like the phrase “teaching position” might imply. Teaching is, after all, a big part of the job at liberal arts colleges (even the highly-ranked ones) and there are certainly one-year positions that would involve nothing but teaching. Wait, though, why is James still in Minnesota (Morris makes several references to this fact) if this was a one-year position? Does he still work at Macalester or is he a full-time writer now? Morris doesn’t say, though there is a party with “Macalester faculty and friends.”

And what about his educaton? I know that famous authors sometimes teach at liberal arts colleges (David Foster Wallace taught at Pomona, after all), but Morris doesn’t give the impression that James was a big writing star when he got the position. Wouldn’t he need at least a master’s degree (even David Foster Wallace had an M.F.A.)? Let’s see what Morris says about this: “College at the University of the West Indies, where he studied literature and politics and fell in with creative types, was a reprieve, but after he graduated and got a job in advertising, the old insecurities returned.” Hmm.

Curious about this, I decided to check out James’s Macalester bioSurprise! James isn’t just a “teacher,” he is an Associate Professor of English. His bio also states that he “graduated from the University of the West Indies in 1991 with a degree in Language And Literature, and from Wilkes University in 2006 with a Masters in creative writing.” So it appears that James didn’t so much “write his way out of Jamaica” as “got an advanced degree and a corresponding job,” though I’m sure that the publication of his second book in 2009 helped with the transition to a tenure-track position.

So, to recap, James earned a Master’s degree and got a one-year position at a highly-ranked liberal arts college and then, at some point, not only transitioned to a tenure-track position but received tenure. Readers of Morris’s article, however, could easily presume that James earned a bachelor’s degree and became a “teacher” at a liberal arts college, since anybody can teach at liberal arts colleges and there is nothing else that professors do (if he even is one!). When an entire article can be written about a tenured college professor without even mentioning that he is anything other than a “teacher” it is no wonder that Americans have a poor understanding of what professors do!

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Sociologists recognize that many things are social constructions. This means that things like gender norms are not based on actual biological differences but on accepted social beliefs – there is no biological reason, for example, that men cannot wear makeup and skirts and women must shave their legs. As is the case with gender norms, social constructions can allow arbitrary ideas to be seen as “normal” representations of the “truth.” This can be harmful, whether by limiting individual expression and opportunity in the case of gender roles or by actually increasing health risks in the case of those who will not vaccinate their children because of now-debunked research. Thanks to the amplifying power of the internet, social construction even affects the way that corporations produce and market our food.

According to a recent article in The Atlantic, Diet Pepsi will no longer contain aspartame not because of scientific research, but because of customer perceptions that it is linked to harmful health outcomes. Similar concerns have been related to the rise of low-carb foods in recent years and, more recently, gluten-free foods. Next up might be protein. I recently saw a commercial extolling the virtues of the protein in yogurt, and the aforementioned Atlantic article states that Coke is introducing a new milk with 50% more protein than regular milk.

With information more easily accessible than ever, it is important to spend a few seconds seeking out the research the posts we see online. Otherwise, we might find ourselves skipping cancer screenings because we eat bananas.

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I recently came across a copy of Durkheim’s Suicide at a used book sale and decided to buy it since it was 80 cents and I didn’t already have a copy. The version I got was published by the Free Press. The front cover looks like this:

Suicide Front CoverThe front cover, though, is not the reason for this post. It was the back cover that was particularly interesting. Here it is:

Suicide Back CoverDespite the fact that the book’s subtitle is “A Study in Sociology” and several of the descriptions identify Durkheim as a sociologist, the upper left corner clearly classifies the book as “Psychology.” Similarly, the quotes describing the book’s importance are from Psychoanalytic Quarterly and American Journal of Psychiatry.

It would have been interesting to hear the discussion that led to such a critical work of sociology being labeled this way, but I assume that the decision came down to marketing. A lot of small bookstores might not have sociology sections, but they probably do have psychology sections, so maybe the Free Press thought that labeling it this way would allow it to appear in more stores. To the slight credit of the Free Press, the newer cover of Suicide appears to be labeled as “Social Science” but the quotes remain the same.

I guess that this isn’t quite as bad as labeling Bill O’Reilly as “Social Science” or Glenn Beck as “Non-Fiction,” but it does indicate that sociology’s quest for legitimacy continues…

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Last year I posted two takes on a “real” Barbie, one of which was a doll that featured realistic proportions. After a successful crowdfunding campaign, the second of those takes is now available for purchase in the form of Lammily. Despite (or maybe in addition to) her horrible name, Lammily has the sorts of problems that real girls face, like cellulite and acne, though clear skin is just the removal of a sticker away. She also has a bunch of trendy clothes and kids like her!

While Lammily is busy serving as a positive (or at least less negative) role model for young kids, Barbie has been busy (in the words of Pamela Ribon) fucking things up again. In this case, a book featuring Barbie’s efforts to become a computer scientist shows her needing help from boys, destroying Skipper’s computer with a virus, having the boys fix Skipper’s computer, and earning Skipper’s thanks for doing so all in the span of 24 hours. If you haven’t yet read Ribon’s post breaking down how terrible this book is, be sure to do so.

Luckily for Barbie, Casey Fiesler is also willing to help and has replaced the text in Barbie’s book to make it infinitely better. For example, in the original book Skipper hits Barbie with a pillow after Barbie destroys all of her files, while in the “remixed” version, this situation has been improved, as you can see below:

Barbie and SkipperGood question, Skipper. Maybe you should start hanging out with Lammily. I hear she’s cool.

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