Track and Field with Judith Butler

Earlier this month Dutee Chand, a sprinter from India, was barred from international competition following an evaluation of her testosterone levels.  Chand has a condition called hyperandrogenism, which is characterized by excessive levels of testosterone. The condition puts Chand’s (naturally occurring) testosterone levels in the male range according to the standards of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), the governing body of track and field. Both the IAAF and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) currently use testosterone levels to determine whether female athletes can compete as females. Though they have moved away from the language of “sex determination” testing, and now suggest that their efforts are designed to ensure fairness because (though this is highly contested) having testosterone levels in the typical male range give some women an “unfair” advantage.

Dutee Chand
Dutee Chand via the New York Times

It’s unclear what prompted the request that Chand be tested, which was reportedly made by someone at the Asian Junior Athletics Championships in June. In a prominent past case, South African runner Caster Semenya was required to undergo sex-verification testing after she somewhat suddenly improved her times and began winning races. Though Chand has exhibited no such sudden changes, she acknowledges that she has a masculine build, which might have motivated someone to request that she be tested.

This might seem odd (and sexist, and draconian) but it’s actually a return to normal for international athletics. Sex-determination testing used to be required for female olympians, a result of regular allegations that men were posing as female athletes. Testing was, thankfully, phased out in 1999 but in the past several years has come back to international track and field with a bang. (more…)

8 Hours in a Struggling School

Disclaimer: While I have an interest in education policy I am by no means an expert. My experience in this school probably won’t be shocking to anyone working in public education or studying education policy, and probably shouldn’t have come as as much of a shock to me as it did. I’ve read about failing schools, I’ve heard war stories from friends who teach in underfunded schools, but experiencing it firsthand was another matter entirely.

In search of a way to earn a bit of extra money while finishing my dissertation (without suffering the soul-crushing world of retail) I decided to try substitute teaching. In Michigan, the majority of K-12 institutions have outsourced their substitute hiring to staffing companies, so I signed on with one of the two in the area.

In order to substitute teach I had to send in official copies of my transcript, authorize a background check, go to the police department to have my fingerprints done (who knew they charged for that?), fill out a mountain of forms, go through several hours of online tutorials followed by quizzes that weren’t scored, and attend a torturously long in-person meeting. We spent approximately half of the meeting filling out forms together and another half hour being warned not to touch the children or use school computers.  The one interesting thing I learned in the meeting was that by the time students graduate, they have spent an entire year with a substitute teacher.

Classroom_desks_chairs_and_chalkboardI took this to heart, and was ready to lay down some serious knowledge at my first substitute teaching gig, filling in for a high school english teacher. It was the Friday of the first week of school. As recommended, I prepared a backup lesson plan, forced myself into dress pants for the first time since my last academic conference, and arrived at the school a full hour early to make sure I had time to find my classroom and prepare for the students’ arrival. It was still dark when I got to the school. The secretary at the front desk looked at me curiously then laughed when I told her I was a sub. She said I wouldn’t be able to get into my room for another 30 minutes at least.

When the secretary eventually handed me my assignment and asked me to sign in I noticed that I had been assigned to substitute for a Spanish class. I don’t speak a word of Spanish. I told the secretary as much, but she waved me off and picked up a walkie talkie, requesting a security guard to unlock my room for me. We had been warned at the sub meeting that we might be asked to fill in for another position occasionally, and that the staffing company recommended that in these cases we just “pitch in” and help out (and implicitly that we do so regardless of whether we’re equipped to teach in the subject area).

Following the directions of the secretary I made my way through the building, past the cafeteria and several banks of lockers. I paused at a bulletin board listing colleges students might want to apply to. Several were historically black colleges, the rest I had never heard of. Few if any had average ACT scores above 20. None of the major public universities in Michigan were listed. (more…)

What last meals can teach us about the death penalty

After reading hundreds of articles about the trials, appeals and executions of criminals for my research assistantship I’ve become depressingly familiar with the tradition of reporting on an individual’s last meal. In the US, most states offer individuals on death row the opportunity to choose their last meal. The details of these requests appear in almost every article covering an execution, sometimes incorporated into the article, and surprisingly often as an afterthought, “He was pronounced dead at 12:17 am, following 15 years of appeals and an unwavering assertion of his innocence. In his final words he expressed his love and gratitude to his family. Oh, and his last meal was pecan pie.” I knew this practice existed, I’ve seen it in news coverage before, but reading mentions of last meals back to back to back was different. It made me realize just how weird, and contradictory and depressing the practice is.

Photo from photo essay by Celia Shapiro
Photo from photo essay of prisoner’s last meals by Celia Shapiro

Brent Cunningham has a great essay on last meals in which (among many other things) he traces the tradition back to ancient Greece and Rome, specifically to Roman gladiators who were fed lavish meals before their day in the Coliseum. The public obsession with last meals is much more recent, and probably stems from the shift away from public executions in the US – which has left the public with less opportunity to view executions but no less interest in them. And the media are well aware of this interest. CBS News coverage of last meals describes them pretty accurately as “an enduring, if morbid, source of fascination.” The Huffington Post, covering a website dedicated to last meals, describes them as “fascinating yet creepy.”

Blogs and crime tv website coverage of last meals trends towards morbid curiosity and frivolity. TruTv’s slideshow features mugshots and below, urges viewers to “also check out: hot celebs pretending to eat.” Headline News’ gallery is titled “Gatorade to Lobsters: Serial Killer’s Last Meals” and more disturbingly, features a smug Nancy Grace staring out from the page banner.

James Reynolds for Amnesty International. Text: “This was Ruben Cantu’s last meal. Executed in 1993. Proved Innocent in 2010.”

There is also work on last meals that is reverent and striking, including Celia A. Shapiro and Mat Collishaw‘s photo essays featured in MotherJones and Time respectively. Recognizing the power of the idea (and images) of the last meal, Amnesty International recently commissioned artist James Reynolds to recreate the last meals of men who were later proven innocent. The meals featured in an anti-death penalty campaign alongside the dates individuals were executed and presumed or proven innocent.

The Last Last Meal

In 2011, Texas, the state with by far the highest number of executions, ended this tradition following the execution of a man who did not eat any of the enormous meal he had requested (it included over ten items, one of which was a pound of bbq). Notably, the inmate in question was Lawrence Brewer, a white supremacist sentenced to death for the gruesome, racially motivated murder of James Byrd Jr. – a murder which motivated the passage of a Texas hate crime law and the Federal Hate Crimes Prevention Act.  Not surprisingly, Brewers final act outraged many, including State Senator John Whitmire, who called on the executive director of the Texas prison agency to end the practice of last meals. Within hours, the prison agency’s executive director had terminated the policy, effective immediately. The New York Times spoke to Whitmire about his opposition, which he said had little to do with cost and state budgets:

“He never gave his victim an opportunity for a last meal…Why in the world are you going to treat him like a celebrity two hours before you execute him? It’s wrong to treat a vicious murderer in this fashion. Let him eat the same meal on the chow line as the others.”

Whitmire was right not to worry about cost, since last meals are rarely as extravagant as they seem. In fact, the last meals published are generally what is requested, not what prisoners actually get. In most states there are limitations on what can be provided. In Florida, last meals can cost no more than $40 and all ingredients must be local. California provides last meals costing up to $50 and Oklahoma (the state with the third most executions) budgets just $15 for last meal provisions. Following the change in Texas policy, Timothy Williams of the Times interviewed a Brian D. Price, a former Texas death row chef who description of his efforts to fulfill last meal wishes is worth quoting in full:

“The Texas Department of Corrections has a policy that no matter what the request, it has to be prepared from items that’s in the prison kitchen commissary. And, like if they requested lobster, they’d get a piece of frozen pollock. Just like they would normally get on a Friday, but what I’d do is wash the breading off, cut it diagonally and dip it in a batter so that it looked something like at Long John Silver’s — something from the free world, something they thought they were getting, but it wasn’t. They quit serving steaks in 1994, so whenever anyone would request a steak, I would do a hamburger steak with brown gravy and grilled onions, you know, stuff like that. The press would get it as they requested it, but I would get their handwritten last meal request about three days ahead of time and I’d take it to my captain and say, “Well, what do you want me to do?” And she’d lay it out for me. I tried to do the best I could with what I had. Amazingly, we did pretty well with what we did have. They are served two hours before they are executed and it is no longer a burger and fries or a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich or whatever they requested. All it is, two hours later, is stomach content on an autopsy report.”

As Price’s experience suggests, the tradition of the last meal is often misrepresented and is inherently counter intuitive. The “choice” of steak or lobster in reality amounts to a choice of reimagined prison staples. And two hours later the privilege of a personalized and (we imagine) comforting last meal is “stomach content on an autopsy report.” (more…)

Consider the Extra

250px-Although_Of_CourseIn 2011 Michigan began offering tax incentives for movies filming in the state. Not long afterwards, The Five Year Engagement was filmed in Ann Arbor. I was living in Ann Arbor at the time and the town was abuzz with Jason Segel and John Krasinski sightings. They were rumored to have gone to a karaoke night and killed it. They filmed winter scenes in June and covered the main street with fake drifts of snow. I watched the movie when it came out on Netflix and was disappointed to find that the entire point of being in Ann Arbor was to shit on it and and joke about how miserable a place it is (a ruiner/extender of engagements). Still it was fun to see a bit of filmmaking magic. A few years later I’m living in Grand Rapids, Michigan is still throwing tax breaks at filmmakers, and now Grand Rapids is abuzz with news of a movie filming here, which happens to be a David Foster Wallace biopic featuring Jason Segel. And that’s how I became an extra.

The film, End of Tour, is based on a book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace by David Lipsky. The book is a rough transcript of essentially every one of Lipsky and Wallace’s conversations during the last days of DFW’s book tour for Infinite Jest. Lipsky was a Rolling Stone reporter at the time and was interviewing Wallace for a piece in the magazine. The conversations are particularly interesting because they cover the period in which David Foster Wallace was realizing that Infinite Jest would make/was in the process of making him famous.  Rolling Stone never ran the interview, but Lipsky published the full conversations as a book a couple of years after DFW’s death. It became a New York Times best seller and NPR’s 2010 book of the year.

I arrive just before the 6pm call time,  behind three very young looking girls (who I later learned were 15). We walk past several Ryder trucks before reaching the entrance to the building, where I sign a release form behind the girls who when questioned confirmed that yes, they are 18. The call for extras referred to the 6pm extras as “dancers” and said to dress like you’re at a party in the 90s, and that everyone should be over 35. It said to focus on classic items/shapes with muted colors and no labels. Mentioned turtlenecks. So I’m wearing a camel turtleneck, short black wool skirt and tights. I ask if it’s okay to be under 35  and someone official says yes. I have no idea how these girls got in. They’re also dressed like they’re going as the 90s for Halloween/just raided Urban Outfitters’ exaggerated 90s throwback collection.

The two women behind me are in their early 20s. They’re super tan with perfectly straight hair and also dressed like they’re straight out of an Urban Outfitters catalogue. One calls a friend on the phone and whispers “Jackie and I had margaritas before we came.” The friend doesn’t hear. She repeats it again, and California-girl drawls out a joke about being a star before hanging up.

Funnily enough, the wardrobe area is in the bottom of a two story building, and the other half of the first floor is a classic Michigan blue collar bar occupied by regular patrons who are looking at everyone oddly.

image (3)
A view from the wardrobe area into the functioning bar. Note the glamorous “set” sign

After signing the waiver, I get in line for wardrobe. I brought a lot of my own things (as directed by the email) and the wardrobe people move the extras who brought their own clothes to the front of the line. I’m always pleased when reading and following directions are still rewarded in adult life, which is probably one of my more annoying traits. The charming red headed costume woman lights up when she sees me and says I know exactly what I’m going to put you in. She says please tell me you’re a size 7.5, I am! We’re both thrilled at this news. She rifles through a box of boots, labeling one pair creepy before settling on a pair that are “creepier.” She hands me the chunky black booties, a black dress and a long jacket and directs me to a changing….V? It’s two pieces of fabric stapled to wood in the shape of a V, with the open part of the V facing a wall. The dress is short, slightly flared with tee shirt sleeves and a crew neck and of course it’s ribbed. There’s a cream sleeveless turtleneck to go under it, also ribbed, and an amazing full length velvet jacket with several large embroidered flowers. I’m channeling dark Willow. The wardrobe woman really wants the jacket to be in the film, and she grabs my hand and leads me to the head wardrobe person for final approval. She lifts my hand a bit to note that she’s holding it and says sorry, I do this, I’m a mom. I love her. Next she’s telling me to smile and sell it. I smile though I’m pretty sure my character wouldn’t, but the British wardrobe woman doesn’t like the jacket. She thinks it will be too warm. She’s not a fan of the turtleneck either so I take that off and someone hands me a purple vest with mandarin clasps that looks like something out of Portlandia’s feminist bookstore. That’s roughly what the British woman says when she sees it. I end up wearing just the dress, with my own dark tights and the chunky boots. I’m kind of loving the 90s.

While I’m changing a slightly awkward looking guy (18 maybe?) walks up to wardrobe with an entire suitcase full of extra clothes. “This is the last time you’ll see me, I promise.” A wardrobe person I can’t see cheerfully responds, “I hope so.” I’m beginning to realize that some people are not doing this on a whim.

A blurry view of the very sexy wardrobe area
A blurry view of the waiting area, wardrobe is at the back of the room

Then there’s more waiting, while other people make their way through wardrobe. A giant light shines through the window and everyone tries to avoid making eye contact with it. Finally someone important looking comes down and shushes us. He’s the assistant director and he’s going to take everyone who’s gone through wardrobe to the set. We’re told to turn our phones off and leave our things downstairs but a couple of women, including me, take their purses with them. He guides us through the bar – more looks from patrons – to the set upstairs.  It’s a large rectangular open space with a checkered dance floor in the middle and a bar along one of the shorter walls. More waiting, more shushing and we’re admonished that the actors and crew are working, and so are we – though of course no one is getting paid – and the 15 year olds are already giddy at the mere prospect of a Segel sighting. We’re told to have a character, not to think of ourselves as extras but to imagine that we’re real people here for a real reason. But they don’t tell us anything about the film or the scene. So you know, just imagine some reason for your character to be dancing in a bar with the weirdest collection of people ever and David Foster Wallace.

We wait while the crew sets things up, no sign of Jason Segel or Jesse Eisenberg yet. A woman next to me wearing what we both agree is an unfortunately frumpy floral romper says that she’s been to some of the other days of filming. She was in a scene they filmed at the local airport (based on skimming the book I assume it doubled for O’Hare) and tells me that her “character” was going to Minneapolis for a job interview. She tells me about some of the other scenes she was in, one of which went on for 20 hours straight. She says that they only had donut holes and bags of chips until the very end when they got sandwiches. The call for extras said that there would be lots of food. I’m beginning to realize that that was probably a lie. And that everyone else here might be a little insane.

Several crewmembers put plastic over the windows while others do light meter readings on a giant wearing sweatpants who can only be Jason Segel’s stand in. I make conversation with the people around me and overhear the three 15 year olds discussing their desire to “grab Jason’s butt.” A trio of Tina Belchers.

A fan photo of filming at the Mall of America

Later I meet two women who have been to almost every filming and act like old pros. One is young, early 20s and pretty. She’s wearing a dress that reads Blossom or Phoebe. The other older woman, is a mom (she announces that she’s wearing her son’s flannel shirt) with bright highlights, a serious tan and glittered eyeshadow. Their bragging is thinly veiled, they talk about how they met doing a scene where one of them looked at condoms and another ate ho hos, then high-five. They call Jason Segel “Jason” and talk about fleeting interactions with him in a way that I can only describe as really forcedly casual. The older woman says that she thinks their first scene will be in the bloopers. I’m wavering between being annoyed and sad.

Finally we dance a bit, sans Segel, to Build Me Up Buttercup, Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough and Celebration. I’m dancing with the two extra veterans who don’t look at me at all and do a lot of over the top joke dancing with each other. After a couple of songs they tell us to pair up and another veteran extra, a guy with a simple sweater on and close cut hair swoops in to dance with the older veteran. The younger woman and I are going to dance together until two men our age ask if we want to pair up. We say fine, I make small talk with the guy who just graduated from Michigan State and is applying to med school. I tell him about my new dog because I’m that person now. He and his friend are just here “as a bucket list thing” which I can appreciate. Though after I tell him that I moved here with my boyfriend he immediately asks me if I think he’s going to propose soon. Ah, West Michigan. I downplay it more than I normally would because I’m annoyed by the question. “I don’t really care, we’ll just talk about it when we want to get married.” Take that, patriarchy. The assistant director pushes the 15 year olds to the back telling them they’re too young, they’re ruining the scene (in a joking, charming way, I can see why he’s in charge of wrangling us).

Segel as Wallace filming in Grand Rapids

Jason finally arrives to a flurry of points and whispers and we’re filmed dancing around him. After one take we’re told not to duck when the camera approaches, and to move out of the way when we see four men barreling towards us. Oddly, the camera man is guided around by a man with his hands on his waist, followed by the director and assistant director. The cameraman wears a green patch over his non lens eye so his spooning partner guides him around the floor while the assistant director motions to Jason by enthusiastically crossing his arms to pat his shoulders a la Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own.

After another couple of songs (keep in mind that by songs I mean those same three songs played over and over) the Assistant Director goes through the crowd, picking out everyone under 35ish and directing us to the bar at the side of the room (out of the shot). They pass around water bottles and position the extras who are still in the scene. I climb onto the bar and sit with the 15 year olds. At this point I find out that they’re 15 and that they’re here “for Jason” who is “amazing, right?”

Jason Segal comes off as charming and funny even though he’s just dancing around. At one point he dances towards the bar area a bit, making eye contact with the 15 year old girls and I and smiles raising his eyebrows as he shimmies. They swoon and stifle squeals. His dancing is pretty great, silly without being over the top, though I have no idea if it’s true to character. Did David Foster Wallace shimmy and grin goofily? Who’s to say.

Jesse Eisenberg walks in and sits down in a corner and the kid with the suitcase from before sidles over to him to make small talk.

This photo of Jason Segel at a local Krispy Kreme went viral after appearing on reddit.
This photo of Jason Segel at a local Krispy Kreme went viral after appearing on reddit.

There’s more dancing with some feature extras that I won’t discuss for fear of spoilers/lawsuits and then we’re moved to the other side of the room, still out of the shot. At this point I’m sort of over being an extra, it’s clear that the under 35s won’t play much of a role in the filming. The two veterans are talking again, about how they were supposed to get sweatshirts for the end of filming but didn’t, so the older woman stole Steve’s. Sorry, Steve. Also she got yelled at the other day, but she’s not venting about it so much as she is patently bragging about the fact that she’s “in” enough to get yelled at. Then she lists her set nicknames.  I make my way over to some seats along the wall and surreptitiously start texting my significant other, “I’m beginning to second guess this decision.”

Jason Segel is still hamming it up dancing with the middle-aged party goers and between takes the makeup people spritz the extras with sunscreen or something to make them shiny. At one point they take off Jason Segal’s blue headband and try a cream one. They go back to the blue.

More dancing, more secret texting, a couple of snapped photos that capture more of my purse than they do of the set. Finally we’re called back for a take in which everyone dances. I don’t have a partner this time so my character is dancing on her own and at this point she is relieved to have an excuse not to make eye contact with these people. We’re spread out so that we take up the entire space. During the first take the older veteran woman and man dance across the middle of the space (halfway between Jason Segel and the wall) making a push back motion and urging everyone to move backwards. I was watching the assistant director and director before the scene and they didn’t say anything to these extras. I guess they’ve taken it upon themselves to do some staging. They do this for the next scene even though gesturing wildly and mouthing MOVE BACK as they rapidly sidestep across the floor has got to be more distracting than people not being perfectly spaced out.  And of course they manage to stop wherever the camera is. Aside from that I don’t mind dancing by myself in a room full of strangers. The two girls in front of me now look 16, one looks like she’s wearing her street clothes (skinny jeans and a modern looking sweater) and her iphone is visibly hanging out of her back pocket. Earlier another extra warned her not to get caught taking pictures. I’m sure veteran extra Nurse Ratchet would have a field day with her. She takes pictures while everyone dances.

The music cuts out and someone yells that’s a wrap. Everyone claps, Jason Segel disappears like a giant messy batman and they announce one final dance with the crew. I grab my purse and head for the stairs, hoping to beat the rush at wardrobe. Jesse Eisenberg is walking up the small stairway as I walk down, wearing a very Jesse Eisenbergy black jacket (which later sleuthing reveals is wardrobe for the film) and talking into his cellphone. We smile like you smile at people you make eye contact with on the street, though I assume he thinks I’m excited to see him and that irritates me. I’m clearly really really over being an extra by this point. I walk through the bar and head for wardrobe. I’m the only one who left the crew dance early so the wardrobe people are befuddled that I’m returning my things, until someone confirms that the scene upstairs has wrapped. I change back into my clothes and turn in the dress and shoes at a folding table. Waiting for my ride, I spot a lonely variety box of chips in the corner. I treat myself to my first Dorito in seemingly forever and watch wardrobe prepare for the “flood” of extras returning clothing. The veteran extras line up to take a group photo, I grab a second bag of chips.

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.


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