Anthropology and The Evolution of Mean Girls

Disclaimer: This post features references to the greatest film of our generation, Mean Girls. If you haven’t seen it what are you doing with your life go watch it right now. If you have, get in loser, we’re going blogging.

The fanciest British journal ever, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, published a special issue this fall on female aggression and its conclusions have been making their way across the web. Some of the scholarship applies science to the “mean girl” phenomenon so of course journalists are all a flutter to see who can cover the findings in the most annoying way possible. Contenders include a LiveScience post titled, “Mean Girls: Women Evolved to be Catty?” and The New York Times coverage.

19TIER_SPAN-articleLargeMost of the coverage focuses on a single study from the special issue, conducted by Tracy Vaillancourt and Aanchal Sharma. To learn more about how women react to “rivals” the researchers placed two undergraduate women in a room together, ostensibly as part of a study on female friendship. Then they sent in another young woman wearing either khakis and a crew-neck shirt (Cady pre-Mean Girlification) or a short skirt, knee-high boots and a low-cut top (regulation hottie).

And of course, the researchers chose this model not because she fits a very particular cultural model of sexual attractiveness but because she “embodied qualities considered attractive from an evolutionary perspective,” meaning a “low waist-to-hip ratio, clear skin, large breasts.” It doesn’t hurt that she’s white, tall, blonde and has perfect teeth. Or maybe caveman were also particular about the hair color and orthodontia of their mates.

As researchers expected, reactions after the young woman left varied depending on the woman’s clothes. The jeans and polo shirt elicited little response. The “sexy” ensemble summoned their mean girl wrath:

They stared at her, looked her up and down, rolled their eyes and sometimes showed outright anger. One asked her in disgust, “What the [expletive] is that?”

…One student suggested that she dressed that way in order to have sex with a professor. Another said that her breasts “were about to pop out.”

To explain this author John Tierney turns to evolutionary forces. On the evolutionary incentives to be indirectly aggressive:

“women were not passive trophies for victorious males. They had their own incentives to compete with one another for more desirable partners and more resources for their children. And now that most people live in monogamous societies, most women face the same odds as men. In fact, they face tougher odds in some places, like the many college campuses with more women than men.”

The piece seems to assume that evolution and primal mating calculi are the driving forces behind the forms female aggression takes, and at whom it is directed. Because science. To which I say, ugh.

Cady: 1 Evolutionary explanations for female aggression: 0

Of course Mean Girls protagonist Cady Heron, being the daughter of anthropologists, understands the role of culture in shaping female aggression. Throughout the film she notes the way things would be handled “in the animal world” but reminds herself, and the audience that “this was girl world.”  When Queen Bee Regina dangles her boyfriend (and Cady’s crush) Aaron in front of Cady to taunt her, Cady fantasizes about violently attacking her rival. But, because “this is girl world” she tells Aaron that his hair does in fact look sexy pushed back and continues to quietly plot (indirectly aggress) her revenge.

While I would be fine basing all of my repudiations of The Grey Lady on the wisdom of Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, we can also turn to alternative coverage of the story. From io9

The problem with talking about humans, of course, is that we are not wild animals. As Stockley and Campbell are careful to point out, humans have been so influenced by culture that it’s very hard to tell if a lack of overt aggression among women is an evolutionary or cultural artifact. Because so many women are culturally trained to tamp down their aggressive urges, it’s impossible to call their behavior “natural.”

…or did they?

For their coverage, The Atlantic spoke with Agustin Fuentes, chair of the dept. of anthropology at Notre Dame, summarized here:

though this and other studies show how important physical appearance is to the way women respond to each other, there’s too much cultural baggage at play to say it all comes from our primate ancestors. The short-skirt-boots combo, for example, is already a “meaning-laden image,”

As Fuentes suggests, how women identify “competition” and thus who they direct aggression towards is fundamentally shaped by culture – cavewomen certainly didn’t wear knee high socks.

Though the researcher’s plant has the exact same “evolutionarily attractive” physical features in either outfit, she only elicits aggression in the short skirt which suggests that it’s not primal mating urges at work (or at least not just those urges). The outfit incites “indirect aggression” because it carries all sorts of cultural meanings, which women have been socialized to recognize and criticize for reasons beyond competition for mates.

The NYT piece also fails to note the similarities between male and female aggression. According to Fuentes girls and boys engage in equal amounts of direct aggression until adolescence, at which point it becomes socially unacceptable for girls to do so. And according to David Buss in the Atlantic, studies have suggested that adult men also engage in indirect aggression, especially once they reach the age at which it becomes socially unacceptable for them to engage in direct aggression.

Buss has found that men “bitch” about their rivals, too—they just tend to insult their lack of money or status, the things women traditionally have valued in mates, rather than their physical appearance.

Overlooking the use of the word “bitch” to describe something you’re trying to argue is gender neutral…it’s notable that men insult rivals for lack of money and status. Of course you could argue that cavewomen wanted mates with lots of buffalo-meat in the bank (I’m pretty sure that’s accurate anthropologically) but it seems absurd to try to explain this without acknowledging the social and economic context – particularly that women in recent history have relied entirely on men for financial support and equally troubling, that men have been judged primarily by their economic and professional accomplishments. It’s just as absurd to try to explain indirect aggression between women without at least considering the cultural context.

I’ll conclude with two quick insights from feminist theory. I don’t think either fully explain and they certainly don’t justify woman on woman hate but they do suggest that there is more to these interactions than biology. First, we might look to Sandra Bartky and Foucault, to understand how these responses are part of the process by which the cultural ideal of femininity is constructed. Insofar as that ideal demands the perfect balance of modesty and sexuality (walking the Madonna/whore line which this woman seemingly does not achieve), these responses serve to “discipline” the woman, encouraging her to fall in line. Second, à la Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs we might  consider that women are viewing the sexy plant not just as an abstract threat to their primal urge to defend mates, but as a physical manifestation of the constant pressure women are under to be thin, blonde, beautiful, and above all sexy. “What the [expletive] was that,” indeed.


Doris Lessing, RIP

Here is my favorite of her short stories (pdf). Here is a 2006 NYRB review. Here is Hitchens’ response after she was given the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here is her Nobel lecture, titled “On not winning the Nobel Prize,” in which she comes across as an optimistic techno-skeptic. Perhaps she would not appreciate this post.

What’s the Neoliberalism Counterfactual?

Since 2008 there’s been a lot of discussion of the status of neoliberalism, one of those amorphous terms that means everything and nothing depending on context but generally is short-hand for “market-oriented reforms”. It is generally agreed that neoliberalism is a predominately Anglo-American philosophy, was exemplified by Reagan and Thatcher before being incorporated by Third Way liberals like Blair and Clinton, and has been forcibly exported around the globe through the use of US-UK financial power and its control of international institutions like the IMF. From there the narrative differs. Neoliberals like to point out that the past 30 years have been the best in human history by probably any reasonable metric: success for neoliberalism! Anti-neoliberals like to remind us that income inequality has gone up in many places, environmental degradation has been a byproduct of capitalist production, and the system has produced numerous crises: neoliberalism is gonna kill us all!

What is discussed much less frequently is what the alternative to neoliberalism was, and is. In fact, the TINA principle has frequently been invoked: There Is No Alternative. Collectivism was tried and found wanting. Keynesian managementalism was tried in Bretton Woods and collapsed. What else is there? We’ve reached the end of history. The liberal market plus democratic welfare state nexus seemed like the only game in town.

As Noah Smith points out in Foreign Affairs, there has always been an alternative: Japan.

Faced with economic stagnation in the late 1970s and early 1980s, most of the world’s rich countries made a fateful choice. They lowered taxes; slashed government regulation in labor, financial, and other markets; opened their economies to global trade and finance; and privatized government functions. …

Buoyed by the last spurt of its postwar catchup growth, Japan managed to sail through the 1980s without having to face hard choices about the structure of its economy. As a result, its labor markets are still tightly regulated, with stringent protections for full-time employees, including strict regulations on firing employees. Its corporate taxes remain high, and many of its domestic markets are still shielded from imports behind a tall thicket of non-tariff trade barriers. Its financial system remains centered on large government-backed banks instead of on capital markets, and hostile takeovers are still prevented by the courts. There are no Gordon Gekkos in Japan.

As Smith recounts that hasn’t worked out all that well either:

Many features of the Japanese economy that are commonly attributed to culture are, in fact, the result of Japan trying to run a modern economy without neoliberal reform: powerful but inefficient corporations, little job mobility, low unemployment, a relatively equal income distribution, and a job market that is heavily rigged against women. Taiwan, which is probably the closest country to Japan in cultural terms, has much higher inequality, greater labor mobility, more gender equality, and a higher per capita GDP than Japan. Taiwan, of course, is a low-tax, low-regulation country that is heavily exposed to trade with China.

Smith goes on to describe the structural reform efforts that are currently underway in Japan, which are broadly neoliberal. The question is: why now? If entrenched interests blocked reforms for the past few decades how are they being overcome?

The first answer is poor performance. Japan’s “Lost Decade” — the amount of time that Japan’s economy has not grown — is about to turn twenty. Of course that simply leads to another question… why, after so long, is the poor economic performance intolerable now. I know little enough about Japanese politics that I am nervous about extending an explanation, but two primary factors stand out to me.

The first is the rise of China. While this has been happening for awhile, it was only recently that China surpassed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy. Japan’s turn to neoliberalism under the leadership of Shinzo Abe contains a sharp nationalist edge. Japan’s contemplation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership signals a desire for closer ties to the U.S. (even if it disadvantages some domestic interest groups). Abe’s push to revise the Japanese constitution in order to build up its military — which has been prohibited since 1945 — is perhaps the biggest signal that Japan is increasingly wary of China.

The second is the subprime crisis. The effects were not as pronounced in Japan as in Europe, but they were still significant. One of the major results was political: the Liberal Democratic Party lost the 2009 election, the first time in Japan’s postwar democratic history that the LDP had been defeated. They regained power in 2012 on a platform of nationalism and significant reform. Those reforms were neoliberal, of course: TINA.

The point of this discussion is not to debate the finer points of Japan’s monetary or regulatory policies, but to ask anti-neoliberals to consider what else should have been done in the early-1980s, or 1990s, or now. Neoliberalism was a response to stagnation in the late-1970s and 1980s. It is a response to stagnation in Japan today. Countries that did not enact neoliberal reforms, or enacted them haltingly, continued to stagnate. Given that, suggestions that our current situation is all the fault of Reagan and Thatcher seems to be overly-simplistic (and are probably simply wrong). Suggestions that we can fix all of our problems through tighter regulation and limitations on trade, immigration, and financial movements appear to be contradicted by Japan’s experience. Structural problems, like rising income inequality, would appear to be the result of structural developments in the world economy rather than idiosyncratic policies.

Race Biology Follow Up: Larry Bartels on Genopolitics

Apparently Larry Bartels and I have mind melded (I think that means I get tenure) because he also posted about genetics yesterday. More specifically, he posted about “genopolitics” which, yes, is a thing.

For those interested, The Scientific American gets into the gritty scientific details in a piece called “Why Genes Don’t Predict Voting Behavior.” 

Back to Bartels, he comes to a conclusion that I think is similar to, if slightly more conservative than my take on the value of certain kinds of genetics. In this case it’s genetic research aimed at predicting political behavior, but I think the argument could apply equally well to my last post about biological race and genetics:

My argument is not that genetic explanations of political attitudes and behavior are infeasible (though they are sure to be extremely difficult to achieve) or illegitimate (though it is easy to imagine them being harnessed to unsavory political ends). It is simply that the real scientific payoff does not look worth the effort.

So for those of you not convinced that race isn’t at least a little genetic, there’s still reason to question the value of (and even oppose) this kind of research. Of course I would add that in the case of biological race and genetics, the acceptance of the assumption underlying the research also does real harm to racial minorities. And, perhaps worst of all, it puts you (at least a little bit) on the side of jerks like Craig Cobb.


*Image credit: Dan Saelinger

Laughing at White Supremacists: Race and Bad Science

A video has been making the rounds in which Craig Cobb, a white supremacist who was leading the charge to create a neo-Nazi enclave in North Dakota undergoes a DNA test for a talk show, only to find out that he is “14% sub-Saharan African.” As of this post it has 120,000 views on youtube and has been featured on  TheGrio, The Daily Mail, The LA Times and The Huffington Post, where it is described as (maybe) “the best thing ever.”

Of course everyone loves the video. It bears a striking resemblance to what is probably Dave Chappelle’s best sketch of all time, about a blind white supremacist named Clayton Bigsby who doesn’t know he’s black. But in this case it’s a real white supremacist, so there’s the added bonus of social justice schadenfreude at watching him get his comeuppance.

As someone who studies health politics I find this video wildly annoying. Why, you ask?

It’s portraying Cobb as a villain for thinking race is biological and then proving him wrong by using science to tell him what his biological race is. It’s essentially accepting his presumptions of race as biology and the possibility of racial purity to prove that he isn’t racially pure. But race isn’t biological. And perpetuating the idea that it is is a bigger problem than a racist nut in North Dakota repeatedly being barred from creating an all-white town.

What is biological race? According to the zoological definition, it exists when you can distinguish a group of organisms based on genetic difference. Humans of what we think of as different “races” do not differ anywhere near enough genetically to be distinguished in this way. And even our socially created definitions of race have differed dramatically across time – so a Craig Cobb of 100 years ago might have been even “more” black, because Southern or Eastern European ancestry might have been included in his tally of supposedly black genes. As recently as 1930, Cobb’s results would have made him 100% “negro” according to the US census’s “one drop rule,” which asserted that anyone with “one drop of Negro blood” was considered black. Does it seem like this is getting silly? That’s because race biology is.

This isn’t just an issue of bad science, biological understandings of race continue to do real harm to racial minorities, particularly in the healthcare system. Take for example, spirometers, which are used to measure lung function. They’re actually calibrated to account for a presumed difference in black and white lung capacities (with black capacity presumed to be 10-15% lower). Some even have a switch for “race” built in. The problem? These assumptions are based on bad race-biology science and they aren’t accurate. As a result, black patients have to be sicker to get the same treatment, not to mention to qualify for worker’s comp or insurance/compensation for their illness.

Assumptions about biological race can also lead to delayed or incorrect diagnoses, as in the case of a young black girl whose cystic fibrosis – a disease predominantly associated with Caucasian patients – went undiagnosed for years until a passing doctor, glancing at only her x-ray, asked her primary physician “who’s the girl with cystic fibrosis?”

Thinking about race in this way also shapes how we understand the causes of disease. With the rise of genetics, biological/genetic race is increasingly studied as a possible cause or risk-factor for disease. This goes on despite the fact that – and here I have to quote someone who understands genetics better than I do – “the environmental conditions that interact with putative polymorphic variations to trigger the onset of disease, not those variations themselves, would likely be the targets of intervention (or the cause of disease per se).”

Not surprisingly, this focus on genetics can obscure the social and environmental causes of many race-based disparities in health. As Dorothy Roberts explains:

“A renewed trust in inherent racial differences provides a convenient but false explanation for persistent inequalities despite the end of de jure discrimination. It is also the perfect complement to social policies that implement the claim that racism has ceased to be the cause of African Americans’ unequal status.” (Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention, 64)

The acceptance of race biology via genetics also means money is spent on finding race-specific genes when it could be more effectively spent treating the condition or addressing known (often social/environmental) causes and risk-factors. Conditions like hypertension and asthma for example, have repeatedly been linked to racial minorities’ greater exposure to stress and pollution. Still, genetics labs are established purely to identify the gene that’s causing high rates of asthma among black and Puerto Rican youth. Peer reviewed studies in medical journals have linked postpartum depression to poverty, lower levels of education, a lack of social support, and stress, all of which are more common among women of color. So of course in 2013 the National Institute of Mental Health funded a million dollar study aiming to identify the “biomarkers” for postpartum depression in African American women.

To wit, race isn’t biological, let’s stop talking/acting/researching/funding as if it is.

For much much more on this, and the source of the spirometer cystic fibrosis example, check out one of my favorite books by one of my favorite scholars: Fatal Invention by Dorothy Roberts

For a shorter read on race Biology, check out this May 2013 article by Merlin Chowkwanyun in The Atlantic

Dainty Mouths & Big Burgers: Liberating Japanese Women

Ochobo level: Achieved

Japanese Burger joint Freshness Burger had a problem. Their largest burger, the “Classic” was a huge hit, but only among men. What was going on? Well the burger is enormous and in order to eat it you have to unhinge your jaw and get a little (a lot) messy. According to the campaign video, this was a deal breaker for Japanese women:

“For Japanese women, having “ochobo,” a small and modest mouth, is regarded as attractive. In public, a large open mouth is regarded as ugly and rude. It is therefore considered good manners to cover the mouth when opening it. This means they are denied the wild pleasure of taking mouth sized bites of this big tasty burger freely in public. Freshness burger decided to challenge this convention.”

How? By introducing the “Liberation Wrapper,” which covers a woman’s face with the image of a smiling closed mouth, allowing her to get down to the business of burger eating without looking unladylike. According to Freshness Burger sales of their Classic Burger have gone up 213% among women since the introduction of the Liberation Wrapper.


To Faithful Warriors Comes Their Rest

My family are evangelical fundamentalist Protestant Reformed Christians. Only two of those descriptors applies to me now (guess which!), but Halloween remains a weird time of year for me. Because of religiously-motivated conscientious objections on my  parents’ part I never had the typical American experience — dress up as something scary — when I was young, and so I never really bothered with the arrested development ritual — dress up as something funny and/or sexy — since I’ve been old. So Oct. 31 is not a big deal for me, except insofar as it inconveniences me, and I’m a bit suspicious of anyone over the age of 20 or so who still geeks out on it.

As far as I can recall, I was only permitted by my parents to trick-or-treat once. I was dressed as the Old Testament David. My neighborhood cohort, ghouls and ghosts and glow-in-the-dark skeletons, were not intimidated by my (fake) slingshot. I did not encounter any Goliaths. As I remember it I ran home in tears before collecting any candy.

My parents eventually realized that This Would Not Do. You don’t take a slingshot to gunfight. But they also could not let me celebrate the Devil’s holiday in style. Solution: a church-sponsored “All Saints’ Day” party, on November 1, wherein all the kids dressed up as Moses or Joshua or something (not too many good dress-up characters from the New Testament), got candy, and everyone had a wholesome time. It was a win-win. The church parties not only had candy but also games. Most of my friends were there, whereas trick-or-treating is pretty anonymous. There wasn’t anything scary, except for the spiritual warfare stuff that I didn’t really understand. Some of the less-observant kids got to celebrate two candy-receiving holidays in a row! And the parents seemed to enjoy themselves.

But! There was a subversive undertone that I did not appreciate as a child, and in fact did not know until just this week. All Saints’ Day was a Papist gyp. It originated in the 7th century, when Boniface IV consecrated the Roman Pantheon to the (alleged) Blessed Virgin and the Christian martyrs. My evangelical fundamentalist Protestant Reformed parents were bribing me with candy to celebrate the usurpation by a heretical egomaniac of a pagan monument! Strange brew.

Later, apparently, Byzantium tried to usurp the previous usurpation. This involved a shift from “all martyrs” to “all saints”. Wikipedia has the simple story. It was only a matter of time before there was slippage from the Orthodox to the Episcopalians, so the Protestant usurpation was not original to my family’s (Presbyterian) church. Around the turn of the 20th century the Anglican bishop William Walshow How wrote the lyric of one of my favorite Christian hymns to commemorate the day, which was shortly later set to a gorgeous martial tune. One of the better of the style, in a very strong field: