When I hear the words “social justice”, I used to think of protestors, PETA, or people who stand on the medians in streets with signs that say, “honk to impeach Obama!”. However, after taking a class on social stratification at my old college, as well as learning about classical sociological theory, I feel like I have a better grasp on social justice as well as sociology. Sociology’s intention is to show patterns in societies both past and present. It seeks to note and observe all trends, both good (social media) and bad (social media). Social justice, on the other hand, uses sociology to seek out the bad and work to correct it; a utilitarian cause for the greater good. By looking at multiple sociological theorists, I can gain a better perspective on how to hone my point of view on which of society’s “ills” should be fixed. As a young woman, I am struck by the amount of inequality in the Western world; while things have progressed, many things have stayed the same. With the feminist paradigm, I will examine inequalities, social pressure, and the role of the media on women today.
The first thinker that I’d like to touch on is my favorite, and one of the most empathetic theorists to the feminist cause: George Herbert Mead. One of the only Americans we looked at in class, his optimism and faith in humans inspired me. One of his most famous concepts is very applicable to the feminist paradigm: mind, self, and society. This theory explains that society cannot technically interact with your mind, just the human who is in front of you (Arcaro notes 9/26/2013). According to Ashley and Orenstein, “Humans are not passive responders to society but beings who choose and reevaluate their own lines of action in the context of social situations…As actions and situations change, the knowledge of how one has acted and how others have responded…expand[s] one’s self knowledge and one’s knowledge of others and society” (405). To help demonstrate that, here is a song by Lily Allen, called Hard Out Here. It addresses twenty-first century sexism with a catchy tune:
Here, Lily comments on the dichotomy of her roles: mother and pop star. “How does someone let themselves go like this? Must be a lack of self-control”, says one of the surgeons; Lily replies, “but I had two kids!”. This not only deals with Mead’s discussion of self and how we can only see the physical proof of one’s mind and self, but another of Mead’s ideas that is intertwined with sexism: role theory. As mentioned previously, we each have different roles that we are required to play, and no one has more conflicting roles than women. You can only be one role at a time: except your gender (Arcaro notes 9/26/2013). In this sense, society is incapable of seeing who you, as an individual, are: they can just see the physicality and the behaviors that the physicality demonstrates. In addition, there are multiple versions of the self that can be presented to different people. According to Ashley and Orenstein, “We appear one way to someone we know at work and another way to someone with whom we play baseball” (405). But if you’re a woman, how does that change with different selves? Sure, you can be a student in one setting and a friend in another, but the one thing that will not change is your gender (unless you identify differently or undergo surgery). Inherently, being a woman will go with each of your “roles” in society, and always has. Going back to Lily Allen, I feel she is commenting on what she has observed, and what most females in show business (and other businesses) have learned: sex sells, and by showing your sexual role, you will succeed more than by showing society your intellectual self.
Looking at social issues through a feminist paradigm will ultimately lead to prostitution, the world’s oldest occupation and one primarily dominated by females.
Mead has an opinion on social justice regarding prostitutes, and in turn, women. As Mead wrote, “We can look forward to the time when investigation may enable us to approach understanding the prostitute and her trade and change the social conditions which made her possible instead of scourging an abstract sin” (Ashley and Orenstein 416). Mead wanted society to move on from stigmas to help the greater good and see what the issue is that is creating the stigmatized results. It is much more important to know and understand why someone’s child is selling themselves to survive, not the fact that they are prostitutes. According to Heather E. Keith, “In dealing with issues such as prostitution, family, and the social self as a foundation of an ethics based on nurturing others in their particularity and funding a community which encourages such behavior….Mead offers a view of human potential which seems to rise above the philosophies traditionally related only to the experience of men” (pg. 337). George Herbert Mead wanted the world to see beyond the roles and someone’s gender: he wanted society to function equally so that everyone could explore their full potentials.
The next theorist I would like to tie in to sexism and social justice is Erich Fromm. His book, The Sane Society, addressed a multitude of issues, from education to family life, centered on mental health. The basic premise of Fromm’s book is that we as humans are not civilized, yet we are not insane; but if we analyze what our human needs are and work towards a world that fulfills those needs we can then be civilized (Arcaro Notes 11/7/2013). While it was written in 1955 and may have some dated concepts, many are still applicable today, including his criticism of Sigmund Freud and his take on women. Fromm harshly criticized Freud’s discussion of women and female love in a child’s life, and believed it to have contributed to sexism today (although even when the book was written, things were much worse then than they are now). Fromm wrote, “Mother is food; she is love; she is warmth; she is earth. To be loved by her means to be alive, to be rooted, to be at home” (39). If women are such a vital part of existence to all humanity, why would Freud, as well as many others in society, insist on giving them less play and more pressures? Fromm continues: “But while Freud saw the tremendous importance of the fixation to the mother, he emasculated his discovery by the peculiar interpretation he gave to it…Freud himself distorted his great discovery may have been due to an unsolved problem in the relationship to his own mother (pgs. 41-43). This means, in short, that a large chunk of mental health care and analysis for both men and women was rooted in a man with bizarre familial problems; women had to pay the price because of Freud’s own mental issues. Fromm summarizes his findings on Freud’s view, and in a few ways, how society views women: “Thus Freud gives the father the place which in reality is that of the mother, and degrades the mother into the object of sexual lust” (44). While there is a lot more to Freud than just his view of sexual desire towards the parents, Fromm’s dissection has an undercurrent of truth. Women are constantly the object of sexual desire, from the workplace and sexual harassment, to a woman breastfeeding in public being “disgraceful”; it is only when a woman’s body and its parts are being used for sexual play or objectification that it is okay to display them.
A more avant-garde thinker we looked at in class was Lady Gaga. Although it was a class presentation, it struck me that, after doing a lot of research on my own, that sociologists eat Lady Gaga up. While most focus on her fame, her sexuality and critique of how she presents herself is very key in understanding modern femininity and the dichotomy women face growing up today. Any music video (or song) of Lady Gaga’s will show you that she is unashamed of discussing sex, or showing her body. Is it trying to sell herself (like artistic prostitution) to make record sales, or is she actually a free woman who does not care about societal pressures? Lady Gaga herself has said, “Every artist plays on sex. It’s just the context…I’m a free woman, so I play on sex freely” (qtd. in The Performance Identities of Lady Gaga pg. 22). Even in her song, “Do What U Want”, she discusses how women can maintain their intellectual integrity while giving into what society, and men, expect of them: “You can’t have my heart and/you won’t use my mind but/do what you want/what you want with my body” (Lady Gaga, ARTPOP). I know many of my friends and I have discussed this song and have determined that the way in which we identify with this song is disturbing. Trying to create distance between your mind and your body is a sad part of reality and the multiple roles society wants women to play. We are bombarded with images of celebrities and women who just had babies racing each other to get a pre-baby body back. Trying to make sense of this, along with the academic and familial pressures women are under is astounding.
One way I have tried to understand this is by using Max Weber’s Iron Cage of Rationality. The basic premise of the Iron Cage of Rationality is that we tend to take what is measurable as real, not what is real as measurable (Arcaro notes 09/19/2013). Something that is supposedly not measurable is beauty, as there is a common phrase that goes “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. But try telling that to Victoria’s Secret ‘Sexy Awards’, Esquire Magazine’s ‘Hottest Women of the Year’ list, and People Magazine’s ‘Most Beautiful People’ list. Somehow, the press, journalists, and these magazines readers have come up with a way to measure beauty in standard units to make official lists of sex appeal. But this very premise is conflicting: how is beauty and physicality, which varies from person to person-to-person, real and measurable? Is it a societal conception to have something to compare ourselves to? To have an unattainable, unrealistic physical goal for our mates and ourselves? For me, this connects to another concept of Weber’s: the ideal type. According to Ashley and Orenstein, “An ideal type is not a simple description of reality: it is a description that highlights whatever it is about cultural objects that interests an investigator…ideal types are indispensible…for it is the ideal typification that makes social reality tractable” (240). Perhaps the ideal type is not just for imagining the ideal sort of society. Maybe each of us creates an ideal type of person; maybe the media and Photoshop shape it. In the Western world, a woman should be slender yet shapely, tall but not too tall, large breasts and buttocks but not fat, not pale, and most likely blonde. That is physically, but is the ideal type of women in society unreachable? Like discussed with Lady Gaga, perhaps there is too much for women to live up to: if Barbie is the ideal type, no woman with breath in her body and blood in her veins could ever achieve what this made up goal could. According to the feminist sociologist R. A. Sydie, “Weber himself indicated that when the empirical historical reality diverged too greatly from the ideal type, then the type should be abandoned” (pg. 55). This would indicate that the ideal type of woman, created by fashion designers, directors, movies, and musicians, should likely be left in the dust; at the same time, if we did not have the ideal type of super-woman, we would be left at home with the children and no options to go out, get educated, and be able to be the breadwinner. It is unfair that women have to have this pressure to be physically pleasing, earning money and being independent, as well as still expected to look after the children; it harms self-esteem and creates more unhappiness than opportunity for young girls.
Georg Simmel is one of my other favorite theorists that we learned about this year. While he is underappreciated by most, I found his research and discussions to be the most pertinent to my interests; he is also relatable to the discussion of the treatment of women regarding fashion. According to Simmel, we create through aesthetics (Arcaro notes 10/8/2013). Art and fashion are forms of aesthetic, but as previously discussed, they show the most prominently on women. For the past one hundred years, skirts have gotten shorter and shorter, pants became acceptable, and a girl wearing a skirt down to her ankles is now considered ‘frumpy’. How did the fashion change from so conservative to a provocative show on the streets? Ashley and Orenstein explore the topic: “Simmel suggests that we wear bodily adornments to please ourselves…clothing and jewelry, for instance, give us the opportunity to tell others something about ourselves” (271). In this sense, Miley Cyrus wearing a nude colored leotard in front of the world showed her sexuality and, in turn, caused a stir; it is sad to think that she received more attention for what she wore than for her singing and talents. Society and the media gave her attention for not holding to the feminine standards of being demure and shy, and punished her for being the ideal type (going back to Weber). In this case, she was too sexual, although in other cases of celebrity, they have not been sexy enough. Take singer Adele, for example. Immensely talented as both a singer and songwriter, she has taken the world by storm. Except for one problem that she poses, fighting the ideal type as well as an interesting take on role theory: she’s fat. Her being fat causes some sort of conflict in the minds of the public. In the days of radio, it did not matter what a band or singer looked like, as you couldn’t see them and it was all about their sound. With the introduction of MTV, video quite literally killed the radio star. You are expected to be thin, beautiful, and talented. Adele challenges this aesthetic by being large and, on top of that, not showing off her figure. Here is an interview of Adele addressing nearly everything I mentioned herself:
Andersen Cooper himself calls Adele the anti-pop star for breaking the mold; in essence, fighting the ideal type of singer. Simmel said, “We envy the fashionable person as an individual, but approve of them as a member of the group” (The Philosophy of Fashion pg 237). Is anyone jealous of Adele, or truly accept her as a member of the top female artists? I’d venture to say no. But she does not seem to care in the least about fashion or aesthetic. She is instead starting a new trend inadvertently. Her unspoken message of being able to accomplish whatever you want to without being up to whatever society supposedly demands is incredible. This is even more valuable as she can never be separated from her role as fat, as well as a woman. By fighting accepted aesthetics, fashions, and ideals, she is what we need more of. Women need more women to see succeed at being themselves and not caring about selling their bodies (not in the literal sense) in order to make it.
I would like to close my discussion on societal pressures on women by bringing in the man who let the feminist paradigm come into existence: Karl Marx. The creator of conflict theory, he is also the best at explaining why equality through sex and class is beneficial to societies. Ashley and Orenstein summarize his beliefs on the future incredibly well: “Ultimately, communism rests on the will to realize justice, not on the inexorability of a specific form of social development” (210). The basis of communism and socialism lie in equality and everyone in a society working together towards a common goal; being self sustaining and not relying on aesthetics to get by, but sheer power and hard work to survive. Professor Daniel Little wrote, “The situations of everyday life in which patriarchy and sexism obtain—the situations in which existing social relations of power, authority, and dominance are assigned on the basis of gender and sex, including marriage, the family, and the workplace—create a situation of alienation and domination for women” (Marxism, Communism, and Women). The concept of alienation is a simple one to understand: a person can become isolated from what they are capable of through society’s expectations, mostly through their work (Arcaro notes 9/3/2013). Even today, the dichotomy of women’s roles creates isolation from themselves. For women in the past, being a housewife was the only option. Were they supposed to gain their self worth through the quality of their cooking, or the spotlessness of their homes? Their potential was lost; now, at least, there is a choice, but as discussed previously, women are still expected to find satisfaction and meaning through housekeeping. It is unjust to expect a person to find meaning in something they had no choice in pursuing, or were expected to pursue; this in turn creates alienation and perhaps even distance from the children and husband that put her in this situation. By minimizing the stress on women to still raise children (and maintain a job), more equality might be gained.
In closing, I feel that I have expressed my opinion quite clearly. Women today have an incredibly hard time of figuring themselves out and what they want in comparison to what they are expected to be. It is incredibly unjust to expect a group of people (in fact, half the planet) to be able to do everything all at once. To punish a woman for simply being a woman, like the health care debates of the past few years has brought up, is beyond disturbing. In addition, the leering, staring, catcalling, and rape culture we live in does not symbolize equality. Many pretend that we, as women, have made it through the woods to equality; they are sadly mistaken. While things are certainly better than they were fifty years ago, women still do not make equal pay to men. Men are not expected to maintain a home, balance a checkbook, help the children with their homework, and yet earn half a household income. While the concept of stay-at-home dads is increasing, they are judged and the role is stigmatized as weak and emasculating. So how do we fix the inequality and stigma that comes with simply being born with the “wrong” genitalia? It starts with changing a generation when they are first born; it begins with ending rape culture. It begins when children of both sexes realize they can both do whatever they want to do. There are no easy answers or immediate fixes, but hopefully with time, equality will improve. I’ll end with a quote from Sara Silverman: “Stop telling girls they can be anything they want when they grow up. I think it’s a mistake. Not because they can’t, but because it would never have occurred to them they couldn’t”.
Arcaro class notes, Fall 2013 semester, Sociology 216: Classical Theory.
Ashley, David, and David Michael Orenstein. Sociological Theory: Classical Statements. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1985. Print.
Gaga, Lady. “Do What U Want”. ARTPOP. 2013.
Gray, Richard J. The Performance Identities of Lady Gaga: Critical Essays. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012. Print.
Keith, Heather E. "Feminism and Pragmatism: George Herbert Mead's Ethics of Care." Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 35.2 (1999): 328-44. Print.
Little, Daniel. "Marxism, Communism, and Women." University of Michigan Dearborn. University of Michigan, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2013. <http://www-personal.umd.umich.edu/~delittle/Entry communism and Marxism on gender v2.htm>.
Simmel, Georg. "The Philosophy of Fashion." Ed. Marcus A. Doel. The Consumption Reader. Ed. David B. Clarke. London: Routledge, 2003. 238-43. Print.
Sydie, R. A. Natural Women, Cultured Men: A Feminist Perspective on Sociological Theory. New York: New York UP, 1987. Print.