Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"Pocahontas Meets Adriel Luis’ Slip of the Tongue"

Saw this excellent example of how community advocates can re-construct discriminatory cultural artifacts from the mainstream over on Sociological Images.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Teaching Sociology: How American Media Uses Violence Against Women in Afghanistan to Veil the Public

One of the more difficult things I find when teaching popular culture is getting students to connect media trends to broader trends in society. It is not difficult for students to identify patterns of discrimination. But identifying discrimination alone misses critical context.

Since 2001, the media has been saturated with coverage of “The War on Terror” (or whatever the slogan of the day is). I recently read an extremely interesting journal article by Carol Stabile and Deepa Kumar (2005) in Media, Culture & Society, titled “Unveiling imperialism: media, gender and the war on Afghanistan.”

Stabile and Kumar’s article makes the following key points:

  • Prior to 9/11, American politicians and American media were not concerned at all with women’s rights in Afghanistan or other Middle Eastern countries. Following 9/11, all of a sudden, the American military became Afghan women’s saviors across American televisions and in major print sources.

  • American media constructs the military’s efforts to liberate Afghan women from their oppressive Afghan male counterparts as a first-time effort, thereby dismissing any and all efforts Afghan women have taken to liberate themselves.

  • American media fails to acknowledge that when the United States armed and trained the mujahideen in the 1980s to push back the Soviet Union, the CIA was completely aware of the mujahideen’s extreme sexist tendencies. Thus, American efforts were far more invested in securing contracts to oil pipelines through Afghanistan and winning the Cold War than they were in humanitarian/women’s rights.

  • American media never acknowledges that since the Soviet Union was ousted and the Taliban took over Afghanistan (due heavily to American support), Afghan women’s rights declined immensely.

  • And since America’s military presence in Afghanistan, our media suggests Afghan women’s conditions have improved, when in reality they have hardly changed.
Some text from Stabile and Kumar’s article:

When we look at the condition of women today in Afghanistan, it becomes clear that the US never really had their liberation in mind. While some things have changed since the collapse of the Taliban for women, much remains the same. So, for instance, women may now venture out in certain regions without a male escort, but they still do not enjoy basic human rights. And while 1.5 million Afghan children now attend schools – one third of them girls – more than 3 million children do not go to schools because no infrastructure exists. Reports reveal that women are still punished according to Islamic laws. Kabul jail had no women prisoners shortly after the fall of the Taliban, but as of April 2002 women were being incarcerated for crimes such as leaving their husbands or having relationships with members of the opposite sex (Ahmed-Ullah, 2002). One year after the US attacked Afghanistan, the war-ravaged country had the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world (Sierra Leone was number one): 1700 out of every 100,000 women died during pregnancy or childbirth. In the US, the maternal mortality rate is 12 out of every 100,000 (Reuters, 2002). In December 2002, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting continued violence against Afghan women, particularly in the Western regions of Afghanistan (Human Rights Watch, 2001). (p. 775, 776).

The bottom line is that the American media does not present a realistic, accurate portrayal of Afghan women because Afghan women's so-called emancipation due to American efforts serves as a moralistic veil, influencing the American public to continue supporting the war. But what’s clear is American economic, political, and military efforts are not truly invested in Afghan girls’ and women’s rights; they are interested in oil.

How then, do we interpret TIME magazine’s recent issue and its cover portrait, showing Aisha – an 18-year-old Afghan woman whose nose and ears were cut off after she fled her abusive in-laws? Richard Stengel, Managing Editor for TIME, discusses the cover portrait in his article, “The Plight of Afghan Women: A Disturbing Picture”:

In the end, I felt that the image is a window into the reality of what is happening — and what can happen — in a war that affects and involves all of us. I would rather confront readers with the Taliban's treatment of women than ignore it. I would rather people know that reality as they make up their minds about what the U.S. and its allies should do in Afghanistan.

The much publicized release of classified documents by WikiLeaks has already ratcheted up the debate about the war. Our story and the haunting cover image by the distinguished South African photographer Jodi Bieber are meant to contribute to that debate. We do not run this story or show this image either in support of the U.S. war effort or in opposition to it. We do it to illuminate what is actually happening on the ground. As lawmakers and citizens begin to sort through the information about the war and make up their minds, our job is to provide context and perspective on one of the most difficult foreign policy issues of our time.

Explicitly, it appears TIME is taking an apolitical approach, simply reporting the news so to speak – reporting what is out there, in turn, allowing the public to make their own assessments. Implicitly, however, it is what is not reported (what is never reported) that makes this picture and the attendant discourse entirely political.

The messages implicitly conveyed: Afghan men and Afghan culture are horrible; American culture is great. We are, once again, the white knights coming in to save the tortured, helpless women of color from their demonic brown-skinned men. Orientalist discourse, truly at its best.

The messages never conveyed: American foreign policy helped set the stage for this hideous practice to transpire by knowingly supporting a regime rooted so deeply in sexism years ago. And now, America continues to invest more in its ubiquitous war machine than it does in say Afghan women’s and girls’ education (seriously, how many schools have been built and sustained by American efforts?) or in public health facilities. Oh, and dimensions of sexism (institutionalized and personal) persist in the United States.

At the risk of being opportunistic myself, the TIME magazine portrait and its attendant stories, coupled with Stabile and Kumar’s article make for an excellent teaching/learning opportunity. Simply viewing the TIME magazine cover and articles, one could easily point to horrifically sexist norms, and stop there. With Stabile and Kumar’s article, the questions and discussion become much richer.

Does the mainstream American media inadvertently (or deliberately) collude with American political, economic, and militaristic entities by using women’s rights as an opportunity to make our country look good, when really, we simply want resources? If efforts were truly being made to impede violence against women, why isn’t our military taking a stand in and around the Democratic Republic of the Congo (listen to this inspiring podcast)? What should America’s role really be in the Middle East if women's rights are a central concern?

Full Reference:

Stabile, C. A., & Kumar, D. (2005). Unveiling imperialism: media, gender and the war on Afghanistan. Media, Culture & Society, 27 (5), 765-782.

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Mixed Martial Arts, Fighters Rights, and an Enforced Muhammad Ali Act?

For those who believe that a society and all its components are best understood through its economic system, we need to examine external regulation if we are to understand and predict future worker-employer relationships. This is true for any industry, sporting or otherwise, including mixed martial arts (MMA).

Those familiar with combat sports history know that boxing is among the most corrupt sports in the modern era. While all sports include dimensions of constructed spectacle, boxing’s track record in manipulating theatrical drama is particularly bothersome. The backdrop to boxing mega-fights, dramatized press conferences and other pre-fight hype includes a plethora of unknown, underpaid fighters, sacrificed in manufactured mismatches that build prospects’ reputations.

As a combat sport promoted through gladiator type pageantry, MMA inevitably follows a good portion of boxing’s promotional structure. Fighters typically build their reputation at the local level in smaller shows, working their way through modest paydays in organizations that have varying levels of oversight. The sacrifices of today are deemed worthwhile in hopes that financial dreams are realized in a larger organization tomorrow. As noted previously, these hopes and dreams are rarely met, and the stories of unknown fighters remain, unknown.

The process for every fighter is long and arduous – physically taxing on one’s body, emotions, pocketbook, and social network. In working through the process, fighters incessantly go through what Spencer (2009) calls “body callusing” – “whereby the fighter takes his/her body as a site of action and aggressively seeks…to harden the body and turn it into a weapon” (p. 127) that can distribute and endure pain.

Because MMA has been institutionalized for under two decades, we are still unable to tell the long-term health effects its training and competitions have on participants. But considering MMA’s physical demands, it is appropriate to ask how fighters will be protected in the years to come by external regulating bodies, if they are protected at all.

Federal Regulation or Not?

Central to this issue is whether or not industries should be regulated by the free market, states, or federal government. Under the Reagan-Bush era, governmental regulation was defined as a hindrance to individual rights and private enterprise. Essentially, this political ideology professed that entrepreneurs, their innovation and business drive should not be stymied by oppressive federal oversight. The flip side to this political paradigm is that an unbridled free market without regulation fuels brutal business practices where business owners act dishonorably, exploiting labor as they market their product.

With regard to MMA, regulation in the United States materializes on a state by state basis. This was accomplished first in 2000 in New Jersey, just before Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta and Dana White took over the helm of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 2001. Since then, the UFC has actively sought regulation, serving as MMA’s principle lobbyists across the United States and selected cities beyond U.S. borders.

A key topic in the push for regulation is fighter safety, more specifically, how the “Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts Combat” minimize major sporting injuries. This is one of two publicly debated issues (the other being the glorification of violence). Lost in the public discourse, however, is how regulation protects fighters’ financial interests.

Maher (2010) provides a few notable examples rarely discussed across the MMA media landscape. California, for instance, does not allow individuals who have been licensed within the MMA industry within the past two years to serve on its athletic commission, thereby deterring conflicts of interests between commission members and private MMA organizations. Nevada’s commission requires a “bout agreement” in advance of matches which insures that fighters are compensated their promised purse (i.e., payment).

“Deal content,” or compensation, on the other hand, is currently not regulated. Thus, fighter pay is essentially determined by each individual fighter’s bargaining power, which is contingent upon his/her fight record, management team, and especially public notoriety. In short, there is very little, if anything, in the way of state regulation that assists fighters in advocating for what they may define as fair pay and other occupational rights (e.g., broad-based health insurance). Federally, occupational rights specific to MMA are non-existent.

Bolstering Regulation Via a Federally Enforced Muhammad Ali Act

As stated by Varney (2009), Congress passed the Professional Boxing Safety Act (“Safety Act”) into law in 1996 to help clean up the sport while providing federal oversight. The act requires that (1) all boxing matches are supervised by state athletic commissions; (2) all boxers go through a physical examination by a certified physician to determine his/her physical fitness; (3) an ambulance and/or medics with proper medical equipment be on sight; and (4) a physician be present at ringside.

The Safety Act clearly has a focus on physical safety and is more or less mimicked in the MMA industry. The Safety Act, however, does not address in any way the potential financial exploitation of fighters. Thus, the Safety Act was augmented in 2000 with the Muhammad Ali Act (“Ali Act”), which calls:

  • To protect the rights and welfare of professional boxers on an interstate basis by preventing certain exploitative, oppressive, and unethical business practices;

  • To assist State boxing commissions in their efforts to provide more effective public oversight of the sport; and

  • To promote honorable competition in professional boxing and enhance the overall integrity of the industry (Varney, 2009, p. 288).
Perhaps most importantly, the Ali Act also requires that bout information be provided to the State Attorney General upon request as a means to further “discourage a promoter from engaging in unfair or unsavory business dealings” (Varney, 2009, p. 292).

Varney’s work explains how the Ali Act would benefit MMA fighters. For example, boxing matches on Indian reservations must follow Ali Act regulations. MMA matches on Indian reservations are entitled much more leeway, often allowing for matches without proper medical testing and unequal matchmaking (e.g., unreasonable weight differences between fighters).

Furthermore, Varney argues that arbitrary/subjective enhanced bonuses provided to select fighters by MMA promotions would be lessened if these financial rewards were properly and publicly disclosed. While these arbitrary bonuses help the selected fighters, they obviously do not help the majority of other fighters competing on respective fight cards. And being subjectively distributed, the bonuses could point to favoritism on the part of the promotion.

A properly administered Ali Act in MMA would also insure that title fights and ongoing employment were based on objective rankings (which would be based on fight records and opponents fought). This would help prevent deserving fighters from being released or “buried” by promotions if they expressed disagreement with certain managerial practices. And finally, a properly enforced Ali Act in MMA would standardize minimum bout agreements.

Of course, even if the Ali Act was applied to MMA, it would change nothing unless it was enforced. Title IX is a perfect example. While Title IX mandated gender equity across all sectors of educational institutions, its impact was not felt until universities began enforcing it. Enforcement for Title IX only came with threatened legal action. In MMA, fighters currently lack the power and solidarity to take such action.

Federalization and Unionization

Fighters could be empowered if MMA was legally sanctioned in all 50 states, and done so in standardized form. Maher (2010) worries that because some states currently regulate MMA with stricter guidelines than others, MMA promotions (particularly those on the fiscal bubble) may “race to the bottom” by holding events in states where regulations are the most relaxed (i.e., cheapest), thereby increasing the risk to fighters. This could also apply on Indian reservations, where regulations appear the most lenient and least costly economically for promotions.

Unionization is also relevant here. Maher writes, “Existing state regulation does little to regulate the terms of the deals between promoters, managers, and fighters…. Like laborers elsewhere, MMA athletes face significant bargaining disadvantages relative to promoters, in terms of financial and legal resources, education, and alternative employment” (p. 41).

A fighters union could help push for minimum compensation and other worker rights, such as extended health insurance and initial planning into some kind of pension plan. The alternative outlook is increased numbers of aged-out veterans who continue to fight paycheck-to-paycheck, snared in by the sport’s onerous fiscal structure (see for example,
Jonathan Snowden’s recent piece on Jens Pulver).

A drive towards unionization, however, cannot materialize until a number of other legal conditions are ironed out. As Maher explains, if MMA fighters are considered independent contractors, as opposed to company employees, unionization is not an option. However, when fighters are under exclusive promotional contracts (meaning they cannot fight for another organization) and are engaged in “an essential part of the [promoter’s] normal operations” (p. 43) (i.e., fighting), fighters stand a good chance of being defined as employees, who could then advocate for unionization.

What does the future pose for fighter rights in MMA?

Maher (2010) speculates that fans may be inclined to see increased federal regulation since our current economic crisis is blamed heavily on a lack of federal oversight. Previously,
I noted that most fans would not seriously support fighter rights since improved fighter rights means higher company costs, and in turn, higher costs for fans to watch MMA, and I believe this to still be the case.

In the era of Obama and the President’s extremely minor push towards expanded health care (Clinton’s health care reform proposal was actually stronger), the conservative backlash to federal regulation has been extremely strong. Coupled with the ongoing economic crisis, bank bailouts, and high unemployment rates, the American public’s frustration with “big government” continues to fester. Unfortunately, if calls for government to “stay out of our lives” continues, this allows the free market to run unchecked, leaving the average worker with less leverage, and fighters more exploitable.

That is unless, someone, somewhere, with significant influence takes action.

Non-internet References:

Maher, B. S. (2010). Understanding and regulating the sport of mixed martial arts. Hastings Communication & Entertainment Law Journal, 1-43.

Spencer, D. C. (2009). Habit(us), body techniques and body callusing: an ethnography of mixed martial arts. Body & Society, 15 (4), 119-143.

Varney, G. (2009). Fighting for respect: MMA’s struggle for acceptance and how the Muhammad Ali Act would give it a sporting chance. West Virginia Law Review, 112, 269-305.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Reading Eminem and Rihanna's 'Love The Way You Lie'

Ever since Eminem and Rihanna's video for their hit song "Love The Way You Lie" was released, I've been thinking about the song's violent lyrics and its video's violent imagery. The folks over at Sociological Images helped me wrap my initial thoughts around the video:

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a beautiful song. Rihanna’s vocals are gorgeous; it’s was hard to not feel heartfelt while listening to them. And that’s the problem. It’s a powerful form of socialization. That we might internalize the message that passionate love and incontrollable rage go hand-in-hand is really very scary. It suggests not only that you should tolerate interpersonal violence but that, if there is no violence in your relationship, perhaps you don’t really love one another.

How many individuals feel happy when their partner expresses jealousy, even goes into a jealous rage? Why is that dynamic normalized in varying degrees? There's no denying the song's popularity. According to Yahoo! Finance, "Love the Way You Lie," "...has reigned at No. 1 on the Digital Songs chart for five consecutive weeks and has sold more than 1.4 million downloads." A portion of the lyrics:

Told you this is my fault
Look me in the eyeball
Next time I'm pissed
I'll aim my fist
At the dry wall
Next time
There will be no next time
I apologize
Even though I know it's lies
I'm tired of the games
I just want her back
I know I'm a liar
If she ever tries to fucking leave again
I'mma tie her to the bed
And set the house on fire

Graphic and shocking to say the least, as are the images in the video, which features movie and television stars Megan Fox and Dominic Monaghan:

Graphic and shocking was largely the point. The song was authored by Eminem, who then asked to collaborate with Rihanna, in part because of her history as an intimate partner violence (IPV) victim (listen
here for an excellent discussion on Rihanna, Chris Brown, and the gendered politics of IPV). Against my general principles, I dug into the "bee-bop" popular culture internet sites to see what I could find about how this song and video were intended to address IPV. In fact, there are direct connections being made between the video and IPV.

For instance, Megan Fox has
donated her video appearance fee to a shelter for battered women. And in a VH1 interview with Rihanna, the music star explains her and Eminem's personal connection to the song's theme:

"It's something that, you know, [Eminem and I have] both experienced, you know, on different sides, different ends of the table," she said.

"It just was authentic. It was real," Rihanna continued. "It was believable for us to do a record like that, but it was also something that needed to be done and the way he did it was so clever. He pretty much just broke down the cycle of domestic violence and it's something that a lot people don't have a lot of insight on, so this song is a really, really powerful song and it touches a lot of people."


Ultimately, the song was something Rihanna felt was in line with her past relationship. "The lyrics were so deep, so beautiful and intense. It's something that I understood, something I connected with," she revealed.

"The concept of 'Love the Way You Lie' was essentially a look at the relationship that Eminem was in with his wife, Kim, so I kind of felt like I was playing Eminem a little bit, and Megan Fox was kind of playing Kim.

"It's the story of them getting to know each other, and it's the story of their tumultuous relationship, and it was the story of the breakdown of their relationship," he continued. "Ultimately, what I think he's trying to say in the song ... is that he should have walked away a little bit quicker than he did and not let it get as messy as it did."

At least explicity, there was critical thought put into this popular culture artifact. My question is, how will young people from different demographics and different life experiences interpret the song's and video's violent content? The one empirical study I could find on Eminem's music and its effects on listeners found that young adults who listened to his songs with misogynistic lyrics were largely unaffected by them, though the study was only conducted with research participants who were college students (Cobb & Boettcher, 2007).

In my
dissertation, adolescent research participants spoke quite openly about the ways they saw IPV as completely normal. These were teens who had experienced multiple forms of violence throughout their lives (peer, family, romantic, drug, physical, verbal) -- certainly not the average college student. I wonder what their interpretations would be.

Then yesterday, I heard a male radio DJ essentially state the following after "Love The Way You Lie" was played: "You know, Megan Fox is supposed to play an abused victim in that song's video, (chuckling) but in the video, she's the abuser. I didn't see her get hit once. She was doing all the hitting!" Uh, yeah, real funny. Was that the video's intent? And did he miss all the punching of the walls (physical intimidation)? Contrast that point of view with a female student in my Sociology of Popular Culture class:

As for the video, I think maybe it has good intentions, especially using two artists who have a history with IPV, but I don't think it will be beneficial. Using [Dominic Monaghan] and Megan Fox (a sex symbol for everyone today) [it] seems to glorify the topic by using two high end celebrities. This video seemed like it wanted to make domestic violence look sexy and possessiveness look masculine.

Perhaps for some listeners, the song and video do raise consciousness regarding IPV prevention -- what Monaghan said the video is intended to accomplish. But certainly not for everyone. For the student quoted above, the video was offensive and reified traditional gender norms. To get a little academic, from John Storey (1993): image containing references to pop music culture might be seen by a young audience as an index of freedom and heterogeneity, whilst to an older audience it might signal manipulation and homgeneity. Which codes are mobilized will largely depend on the triple context of the location of the text, the historical moment and the cultural formation of the reader (p. 80).

Since people with different social histories interpret popular culture differently, I'd be interested to see how young people from different demographics digest this song and video. Do the cultural artifacts problematize IPV (the stated intent) or further normalize and perpetuate this form of violence?

Or, as indicated by the radio DJ, does this video mobilize codes that perpetuate misunderstandings about co-occurring violence in intimate relationships? For instance, too many people assume that when males and females hit each other, the physical ramifications are equally harmful. Does the video gloss over the fact that verbal abuse, social isolation, and other forms of control (e.g., forcing what a partner wears) can be more damaging than physical violence?

The song's and video's influence will likely diminish over time. Nonetheless, "Love The Way You Lie" demonstrates how people's readings of the same cultural product can vary greatly, and how received meanings can be shaped more by audiences' past experiences than by the cultural producers.

Non Internet Sources:

Cobb, M. D., & Boettcher, W. A. (2007). Ambivalent Sexism and Misogynistic Rap Music: Does Exposure to Eminem Increase Sexism? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 37 (12), 3025-3042.

Storey, J. (1993). An Introductory Guide to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

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