February 2007 Archives

the special generation

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i woke up this morning to more social anxiety about youth -- this time, NPR's Day to Day was covering a recent study which claims that "[college] students today are more narcissistic and self-centered than a generation ago." now, my mother assures me that she never told me i was special, so perhaps i escaped the worst of the "self-esteem movement." but according to psychologists at San Diego State, this recent trend can be traced to the indiscriminate emphasis on self-esteem and praise popular in parenting during the 80s. of course, the researchers then went on to add that this growing narcisissism is "fueled by current technologies such as MySpace and YouTube." ah, technological determinism.

at the risk of tooting the same tinny horn all the time, this just clamors "social anxiety! social anxiety!" the study purports to have relied on the "Narcissistic Personality Inventory," in which over 16,000 college-age students were surveyed between 1982 and 2006 using this psychological evaluation survey. admittedly, i tend to be wary of this kind of quantitative data, largely due to my own investments in ethnography and qualitative methods. what does it really tell us that students are increasingly agreeing with statements like "I think I am a special person" and "I can live my life any way I want to?" could this represent a part of larger cultural shifts in how we conceive of ourselves in American society? does this index actually indicate anything about social and behavioral changes, and is it sufficient to assess such cognitive trends?

but now i'm confused, because only a few days ago, APA researchers were all worked up about the negative effects of media on girl's self-esteem -- so it self-esteem good, or bad? or are researchers just bandying the term about without careful definition? given the cultural specificity of Western conceptions of selfhood, some care and clarity would be welcomed here. still, lead author Jean Twenge seems to think that today's youth are less empathic and more self-centered, and cautions that this shift could have damaging ramifications for society generally. as i've said before, youth are often a site where social anxieties are expressed concerning social reproduction, and youth are frequently and vaguely blamed for social changes that many find threatening. but are youth initiating these changes, or products of them?

the best part of this morning's interview with Twenge was when she claimed to hold the media responsible first, then parents and schools. ah, of course. but which media? that's right, magazines and television, in particular those that pander to youth. at no time did she point out that those media are generated for the sake of attracting advertising revenues, and that corporate interests tend to shape the media through which they promote their products. lastly, of course, Twenge includes MySpace and YouTube as proof that media are increasingly capitalizing on the narcissistic tendencies of today's youth, sites which revolve around individual identity. but perhaps these websites embody the same kind of cultural shifts that lead students to respond differently to the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. before asserting that changing attitudes signal dangerous trends in personal relationships, clearly closer research is needed to investigate how young people conceive of themselves, how they relate to others, and how they use (and produce) media.

QUANTOproject: prostitution for sale

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this website showcases a really interesting selection of graphical images that address issues of sexual exploitation and trafficking around the world, apparently submitted for a contest juried by QUANTOproject, an Italian organization trying to increase awareness of the topic.

many of the images are stark and powerful, but at the same time, they reveal particular cultural perspectives on prostitution. many of the images portray women and women's bodies, often alluding to pigs, meat, and money. i'm continually fascinated by how debates on prostitution tend to center around the women who sell sex for a living -- where are the customers, mainly men, who fuel this trade? if demand is understood to create supply in a market economy, why don't we crack down more on the men responsible for supporting the sex trade? where are the damning images of men objectifying and exploiting women and children?

as a related issue, i think a large part of the problem around sex work is precisely this constructed view that women sell their bodies, rather than selling sexual services. doctors, massage therapists, and other healthcare workers sell their skills to help people physically, but we never construe their actions in terms of making their bodies available wholesale. what is it about sexual services that connote temporary physical ownership of another? i'm find sexual slavery and forced prostitution abhorrent, but also i think we need to radically revisit our understanding of sex work in the first place, and how that view implicates particular cultural notions of women, bodies, gender, and sexuality.

(thanks to jwz for pointing out some of the images)

closet capital

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'Grey's Anatomy' ... and Closet -- New York Times

an interesting, if largely predictable article in the Times explores the growing consumer trend of buying brands and labels observed on television, especially fashion items such as shoes, clothing, and jewelry. the article tracks the increasing number of websites dedicated to connecting consumers to the brands sported by their favorite characters on shows like Veronica Mars, Grey's Anatomy, and Desperate Housewives. of course, popular media have long acted as vehicles that define current styles in fashion and drive accelerated consumption. while it's interesting to look at how these nascent websites are capitalizing on consumer interest in celebrity fashion, the article predictably parrots the superficial assertion that consumers are simply celebrity-obsessed, and have no independent taste or style of their own. according to this line of thinking, consumers (predominantly female) slavishly attempt to replicate the look of their favorite celebrities, in a debasing act of simian mimesis. as usual, this kind of account obscures the underlying economic strategies that drive taste and consumption in our culture.

fashion and style, in fact, often act as signifiers of status and position, in which the more elite and inaccessible products confer the greatest status (or cultural capital, as sociologist Bourdieu would have put it). celebrities, as members of the elite class, must continually seek out cultural goods and styles that are limited in availability, and which require insider knowledge to identify and acquire (the latest labels in "premium denim," cutting-edge couturiers, outrageously expensive designer shoes and bags, etc). once these products (or looks) become more widely known and available, their signifying power becomes attenuated, and those in elite circles must find other fashions to continue asserting their status. for middle-class consumers, these products are appealing not because so many women want to ape characters on TV, but because they promise to confer a certain kind of cultural credibility, indicating that the wearer is "in the know."

by suggesting that consumers are simply "celebrity-obsessed," the media continues to overlook a hierarchical status structure that continually reinforces the symbolic and economic power of certain groups over others. consumers are held solely responsble for elective fashion decisions, and the broader cultural and social context fades into the background, allowing readers to shake their heads in contempt for women who seem so beholden to popular images that they can't exercise any kind of sartorial independence. nowhere does the article investigate why certain programs inspire this kind of duplication more than others, nor does it explore the very gendered nature of this consumption. unsurprisingly, the Times simply perpetuates the very consumerism it purports to deride, by participating in the mystification of underlying economic structures.

leering after girlhood

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Goodbye to Girlhood - As Pop Culture Targets Ever Younger Girls, Psychologists Worry About a Premature Focus on Sex and Appearance
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vinyl and fishnet may be acceptable for the spooky set, but the Post reported this week that, according to researchers from the American Psychological Association, increasing sexualization of young girls contributes to harmful outcomes such as eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. this kind of alarmist article inevitably incites pricks of trepidation as i read through it. i share the researchers' concern for the impact of marketing and consumerism on young people (both male and female, of a range of ages) -- at best, marketing exploits insecurities about body image, attractiveness, and social self-worth to motivate consumption of products that purport to ameliorate our perceived flaws. consumption practices, moreover, tie into broader schemas of social status, in which accelerated consumption promises to keep us ahead of the latest trend curves to maintain our social position, when fundamentally, the economic system benefits the small minority who hold power in our society.

yet despite my deep reservations about this cycle of marketing and consumption, i remain equally concerned about the kind of moral hyperventilating over girls emulating adult sexuality. the APA researchers appear to be dovetailing Ariel Levy's superficial line of reasoning around "raunch feminism," the notion that pop culture has co-opted feminist values of sex-positivism and female empowerment, regurgitating them into a raunchy obsession with stripper fashion and porn imagery -- pole-dancing classes and waxed nethers, chintzy thongs and salacious baby tees. ever since bobby socks came into fashion, if not earlier, adolescent girls have been clashing with their elders over the sexual propriety of their sartorial choices -- often in collusion with marketers who benefit from selling the image of maturity to young people.

but in examining this issue of girls and "sexualization," we need to look more closely at the ways in which our society tends to project fears about social and sexual reproduction onto young people -- especially young women. while the researchers acknowledged that boys can be targeted as well, social fears about sexual precocity inevitably revolve around girls, whose bodies are far more likely to become objects for control and obsession. in a culture that continually defines women's worth in terms of their appearance and attractiveness, why are we surprised when younger and younger girls are targeted and affected by these messages? and how ironic is it that we sexualize young girls as part of marketing schemes, and at the same time, attempt to punish and control sex offenders more and more harshly. are we really so repulsed by the sexualization of children, or are we continually lured by it?

of course, the liberal media and blogosphere (like Salon's otherwise excellent Broadsheet) just lap up this kind of study with little thought or criticism for the underlying assumptions or methodology.

APA report:

freaky fashion feature

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A Piercing Look At Goth Culture And Fashion - washingtonpost.com

goth is back in the news media again--not as dangerous, deviant teen cult, but as fashion interest item! The Post has featured Gothic Beauty magazine, a slick goth lifestyle rag that largely conflates "gothic" fashion with busty women in tight corsets and heavy eyeliner, suggesting in the article that contrary to popular image, goth is really very forward-thinking and cutting-edge.

while it's nice to see goth treated a little more fairly in the media, Gothic Beauty offers a rather vapid representation of a subculture that has more going on creatively than implied by photoshoots of women in their undergarments, parading about in tight vinyl and poofy synthetic hair. Gothic Beauty largely propels itself by capitalizing on the sex appeal of its tattooed and pierced models, reducing goth fashion to freaky chicks in skimpy outfits. and as much as i'm in favor of alt models and creative clubwear, i think it does goth and other alternative women a disservice when our aesthetic is exploited for its purely erotic allure (reminds me of a certain quasi-controversial alt porn website...).

for something a little less shiny and more diy, check out Drop Dead Magazine (devoted to deathrock music and fashion, the horror-tinged, punky side of goth). sadly, the days are largely past of goth/industrial magazines that featured both music, fashion, and culture, at least in the US (r.i.p. Carpe Noctem).

as usual, though, the news media still can't quite decide if goths are just edgy, misunderstood artistes, part of the emerging "creative class," or an appropriate trigger for moral panic over loners who obsess over the occult and plot to murder their schoolmates. i suspect that context will reveal some of the disparity -- at times, media outlets are content to exploit the latter trope, dipping into broader social fears about youth to explain some sort of violent act or tragedy, yet the rest of the time, reporters prefer to mine colorful (or monochrome!) subcultures for their value as spectacle. at the risk of proffering an overly simplified explanation, both cases give off more than a whiff of prurient sensationalizing.

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