First, I have to admit I am a huge fan of American football. I say "admit" because it is hard to be a football fan these days. I think that is partially because of all the controversies (e.g. the long term effects of all those concussions on the players, its awful track record with violence against women, the openly racist name of the Washington Redskins, etc). But it's also because I am a Buffalo Bills fan and the Bills have the longest playoff drought in the NFL (yes, even longer than the Cleveland Browns). These facts can make it painful to keep watching the game.
But I do keep watching the game, and I am excited to watch the Super Bowl (if for no other reason than to root against the Patriots). And, given that I am a sociologist, I cannot separate my experience as a fan from my experience as a sociologist. So, inevitably, I always find myself sociologically analyzing various dimensions of the game. I suppose there are times where it would be easier if I could just chuck my sociologist hat and enjoy the spectacle itself, but you cannot just "turn off" thinking like a sociologist. Plus, I would probably not feel like I was being a responsible viewer if that happened. So I got to thinking about the various ways a sociologist can go about observing the Super Bowl and analyzing it sociologically. I discuss a few applications below (concerning the ads, the fans, and the game itself) and then mention why discussing these things during the Super Bowl sometimes can be tough.
Many fans look forward to the commercials aired during the Super Bowl. The ads can be very entertaining and fun, and are some of the most interesting and relevant places for sociological analyses. This is especially true for discussing gender. A few years ago, we wrote extensively about the new masculinity depicted in Super Bowl ads. For example, the Dodge Charger commercial below aired during the 2010 Superbowl. The commercial pokes fun at the idea of women emasculating men. Women are depicted as nagging relatively powerless men. In the clip, men are redeemed through driving a sports car. The ad makes a clear connection between masculinity and driving fast but also represents the desires of men as antithetical to the desires of women.
For other examples, see this Pepsi Max commercial from the 2009 Super Bowl. It offers the first diet cola that is flavorful (i.e., potent/powerful) enough for men. This Best Buy commercial from the 2012 Super Bowl reflects stereotypical portrayals of men's and women's occupations.
Ads can also be very politically charged, and the commercial below which aired during half time of the 2012 Super Bowl, represents a direct attack against unions. It is an excellent illustration of the use of ideology to promote false consciousness. The supposed union workers in the ad complain about unions taking such high union dues and state that they did not vote for the union (suggesting that they don't want the union and that it does not represent their interests). This demonstrates the use of ideology, or the dominant ideas that help to perpetuate the oppressive class system. They seek to discourage workers from joining unions in hopes of making them easier to control. When workers accept such ideas as truth, it promotes false consciousness. False consciousness occurs when a class does not have an accurate assessment of capitalism and their role within it, but instead adopts the ideology of the ruling class, and acts against their own class interests. See our full analysis here.
More and more women are watching NFL games. In fact, female fans are the league's fastest growing demographic. But it is interesting to observe the different norms and expectations for male and female fans. Take, for instance, the commercial below marketing NFL apparel to women. A series of attractive women throw NFL jerseys at their partners and storm off as Leslie Gore sings "You Don't Own Me" in the background. Finally we see it is because women get their own NFL jerseys—"NFL Apparel Fit For You." These words flash on the screen as a woman models her "Fit For You" jersey for a man, who checks her out approvingly. The commercial suggests that for women, part of being an NFL fan is performing a sexualized femininity for men.
At your Super Bowl party, you could pay attention to the gender norms of fans watching the game. You might notice other norms around clothing/appearance in relationship to the game, who is yelling/cheering louder, what kinds of assumptions are made about other fans' knowledge of the game, etc.
Have you ever noticed how the NFL is dominated by African-Americans? So that must be evidence that black people are genetically superior athletes relative to white people, right? Wrong. While it is true that certain sports (e.g. NFL football, NBA basketball) are dominated by African-Americans, other sports (e.g. NHL hockey and professional golf) are dominated by whites. Contrary to popular conceptions about race and sports, there is no genetic basis to race or any group differences in leg muscles, jumping ability, etc. It is socially constructed, which is another way of saying that the meanings we attached to race have been created through social interaction. Meanings and categories of race vary across space and time. The reasons that certain racial groups dominate certain sports is a combination of economic factors (relative to basketball, hockey and golf have much higher costs to participate in them and these costs are whites are more likely to afford those costs) and cultural factors (e.g. certain racial groups come to value, and self-select into, certain sports more than others). The documentary, Race: The Power of an Illusion, addresses the genetic-basis of race (or lack thereof). The segment of 30:00-32:00 addresses race and NBA basketball:
Speaking of dominant black athletes playing in the big game on Sunday, how about Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman? Readers might remember that in last year's NFC championship game, the Seahawks defeated the San Francisco 49ers in a thrilling victory that secured their spot in Super Bowl XLVIII (which they went on to win). Immediately following the Seahawks' defeat over the 49ers, Sherman gave an emotional, on-field post-game interview with FOX Sports reporter Erin Andrews. In the interview, Sherman portrayed a loud and brash display of aggression, in which he “trash talked” San Francisco receiver Michael Crabtree. In the clip below, political commentator and TV host Chris Hayes highlights how the media framed Sherman--a black football player--as a “thug” after the interview. Hayes discusses the framing of black men and athletes as violent and hypermasculine with Dr. Jelani Cobb from the University Connecticut.
There is no doubt that American football is a violent sport. But how this dimension of the game plays out off the field gives us great insight into American society more broadly. And the issues of domestic violence, including the controversial actions of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and others, were at the center of NFL discussions throughout the entire season. We have written about this issue previously, including a sports commentator's victim blaming that teaches women not to "provoke" men into hitting them. However, in a long overdue attempt to address this issue of violence against women, the NFL has launched its No More campaign. For all the missteps in how the NFL has handled these issues, their highly visible ad campaign offers an excellent way to open up conversations about gender violence in our society. For example, a 30-second version of this ad will air during the first quarter, and might offer the best opportunity to open up some interesting conversations during the game:
Preparing for the Backlash to Sociological Analyses of the Super Bowl
Beware: depending on your audience, interrupting the entire game with all your sociological insights may not make you the most popular person at the party. Some people prefer to be caught up in the spectacle of the funny ads with cute puppies, heavy hitting plays, and greasy food. After all, sometimes we all just need a break and I would be lying if I said I don't enjoy those things too. But it is also true that people often get uncomfortable when you challenge their worldview ("What do you mean race isn't a real thing?!") or they might get defensive when you analyze inequalities inherent in those entertaining ads. This reaction is no accident; in fact, it is how dominant ideologues work to maintain power. When people have taken for granted beliefs about the way the world works (e.g. believing in inherent differences between men and women or that unions are bad), it helps to legitimate those differences and obscure the injustice inherent in our systems of race, class, and gender. Your sociological analyses of the Super Bowl can be subversive and when people themselves are invested within those systems, they might just push back. So good luck, and enjoy the big game!
Paul Dean is co-creator and co-editor of The Sociological Cinema, and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Ohio Wesleyan University.
Luxury cars, mansions, tailor-made suits…these are often the stereotypes people have of the pastors of black megachurches, defined as congregations with a weekly attendance of 2,000 or more. Reality shows like “Preachers of LA” that feature megachurch pastors such as Bishop Noel Jones, Bishop Ron Gibson, and Bishop Clarence McClendon driving luxury cars, surrounded by an entourage, and living in million dollar homes only fuel these stereotypes. The size and concentration of resources in black megachurches has made them the target of criticisms to an extent that smaller churches have not been. For example, minister and civil rights activist Al Sharpton and political scientist Fredrick Harris have criticized black megachurches for using their power to legislate morality and focusing on material prosperity rather than working to end poverty. In general, black megachurches are accused of abandoning the social justice legacy of the Black Church in favor of a theology of prosperity, which blends positive confession, scriptures, and an emphasis on economic advancement.
Black Church, Inc.: Prophets for Profit is a 2014 documentary film directed by Todd L. Williams that takes a critical look at the Black Church and how the pursuit of profit corrupts the morality of the Black Church and its ability to serve the community. The documentary begins by explaining the history of the Black Church as a central institution in the black community and what sociologist E. Franklin Frazier called a “refuge in a hostile world.” The scene cuts from images of small black churches to images of megachurches such as The Potter’s House pastored by T.D. Jakes and New Birth Missionary Baptist Church pastored by Bishop Eddie Long, who the narrator suggests are not just “holy men” but are also “business men.” The rest of the film follows this pattern, juxtaposing the role of the Black Church as an institution committed to helping “the least of these” and enacting societal change versus black megachurches as institutions committed to increasing the finances of the pastors rather than helping the community. The documentary asserts that prosperity gospel is particularly detrimental to poor black communities who give their money to megachurches with the expectation that they will achieve the same financial success as megachurch pastors. According to Black Church, Inc., black megachurches are popular because they specialize in entertaining people and, as a result, congregants are distracted from asking critical questions about church finances and social problems affecting the black community. In the end, Black Church, Inc. alleges that “black megachurches have caused the Black Church to lose its prophetic voice.”
While Black Church, Inc. provides a suitable starting point to discuss changes in the black religious landscape and the role of black churches in black communities, there are a number of weaknesses in the documentary. The primary weakness is the treatment of black megachurches and prosperity theology as interchangeable. Undoubtedly there are black megachurches whose pastors preach prosperity theology and abuse their leadership positions for financial gain. However, the entire documentary is based on generalizations that all black megachurches are prosperity churches. This mischaracterization seems to occur because a number of the most high-profile black megachurches that have television ministries are prosperity churches (e.g., Creflo Dollar’s World Changers Fellowship Churches and Eddie Long’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, both of which are featured prominently in the documentary). Black megachurches, just as smaller black churches, adhere to a range of theological orientations and it is imprudent to assume that all black megachurches are prosperity churches and therefore have rejected efforts to improve the black community.
Indeed, empirical research establishes that all black megachurches are not abandoning “the least of these” for the pursuit of material wealth; unfortunately, Black Church, Inc. is completely devoid of any empirical research. Contrary to presumptions made in Black Church, Inc. that all black megachurches eschew public engagement and social service provision in favor of prosperity, nationally representative research by sociologist Sandra Barnes and political scientist Tamelyn Tucker-Worgs show that black megachurches are more publicly engaged than smaller churches and all megachurches, regardless of race. In her sample of sixteen black megachurches, Sandra Barnes has found that most clergy explicitly espouse a social gospel message or it is embedded in a broader message informed by the model of Christ. These churches sponsor programs such as Community Development Corporations, voter registration drives, schools, credit unions, prisoner reentry initiatives, job training, health clinics, and neighborhood revitalization programs that aim for community empowerment. Barnes also discovered that the size of the megachurch did not necessarily determine the number and type of social programs offered, as some “smaller” megachurches sponsored more programs than considerably larger megachurches.
The secondary weakness of Black Church, Inc. is a reliance on the narrative that the Black Church has always resisted racial and economic inequality, with Black Church activism during the Civil Rights as a classic example. Yet, this is a mischaracterization of the history of the Black Church in the U.S. The Black Church does not exist in a vacuum and is shaped by the social and political context of the time. As a result, the Black Church has a complex and contradictory history that at times accommodated to the status quo, at other times challenged it, and sometimes did both simultaneously. Although it is a common narrative that the vast majority of black churches participated in the Civil Rights Movement, it was only a minority of black churches that did. Nevertheless, as shown by Aldon Morris, the work of those churches was indispensible to the organizing success of the movement. With a better understanding of this complex and contradictory history, the makers of Black Church, Inc. could have examined how the current social and political context shapes the strategies of action taken by black megachurches. Unfortunately, the makers of Black Church, Inc. took the bait of public perceptions of black megachurches and missed the opportunity to ask more nuanced and meaningful questions.
Overall, Black Church, Inc. would best serve as a documentary exploring the role of churches as tax-exempt institutions and how some pastors use their leadership roles to engage in financial mismanagement. However, the broad generalizations regarding black megachurches and prosperity theology in Black Church, Inc. only serve to further the stereotypes of black megachurches as a substitute for significant inquiry of the study of black megachurches.
Kendra Barber is a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is currently completing her dissertation which examines how black megachurches in Washington, D.C. are addressing racial inequality.
As critical movie goers, we sociologists can go crazy when we watch Hollywood movies. In an effort to appeal to mass audiences, they often rely on gender stereotypes and misrepresent other cultures with overly simplistic characters. They are frequently driven more by superstar celebrities than intelligent writing. They are willing to rely on gimmicks to manipulate the viewer’s emotional responses and awe them with dazzling special effects to entertain viewers—often at the expense of complicated plot lines. And these are some of the reasons why we must use clips from Hollywood films in our classes.
The mass appeal of Hollywood films make them especially powerful vehicles to engage students. Consider Disney's Pixar film, A Bug’s Life, which was a widely successful film and immediately invokes warm and fuzzy feelings in our students. The plot follows the life of a young ant, Flik, who leads a rebellion against greedy grasshoppers that feed on food harvested by the ants. In this clip, Hopper, the head Grasshopper, berates one of his minions for suggesting that the grasshoppers give in to their demands:
Through very engaging story telling and award-winning animation, A Bug’s Life, has entertained audiences of all ages. What probably has not occurred to students, however, is that it is an excellent illustration of Marxian theories and concepts; see our full analysis of how it illustrates Marx's theory of exploitation, class consciousness, and ideological control.
What makes Hollywood films so entertaining and useful in the classroom? One reason is they skillfully develop emotionally charged scenes with talented actors and actresses that can move audiences. Consider this clip featuring a passionate performance from Julia Roberts, who has won several awards for best actress:
In the clip, Julia Roberts’ character encourages her students to be independent women, seeing their potential to be more than subservient accessories to a man’s household. Her advocacy for an uncompromising lifestyle is met with criticism and resentment from conservative students, who argue that it challenges "the roles you were born to fill." Hollywood videos like this do not derive their power by claiming to be some unvarnished truth (like with documentaries) but rather from their capacity to tap into powerful emotions. Through a form story-telling, they resonate with viewers based on a relationship, feeling, or experience that is perceived to offer a view of truth, even when the characters and events are, strictly speaking, fictional. For viewers that might view our gender roles as biological phenomena, this type of affective learning can help them to see through the eyes of others in ways that were not previously possible.
Another reason Hollywood films are so powerful is that they are drawn from popular culture, which also means that they have already been voraciously consumed, widely shared on social media, and come across as immediately relevant. Instructors therefore do not generally need to devote much class time to establish the context of scenes or characters. Consider these scenes from Fight Club, which end in the following line:
Characters like Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, and the film more generally, are immediately recognizable to most students. When they can relate such material to concepts like the culture industry, students can more easily see how sociological theory is relevant for everyday life; they can overcome their fears of theory as some overly abstract thing that is disconnected from their own experiences.
As such, Hollywood videos have unique strengths for addressing a particular set of learning goals. For example, they can promote humanistic values by emotionally connecting with viewers and illustrating the constraints of gender (as with the clip from Mona Lisa Smile) or by teaching students to think theoretically (as with the clips from Fight Club). They can also teach media literacy, or the ability to critically interrogate media by identifying intended messages, assumptions, and meanings. This documentary clip offers us an example of how we might interrogate the hidden messages of the Disney film, Beauty and the Beast:
For other examples of sociological theory applied to Hollywood film clips, see these examples:
In fact, in our research on teaching with video (see our full article in Teaching Sociology), we argue that Hollywood films share these properties with several other types of video. We situate them in a broader category of videos that we call pop fiction, which also includes short films, music videos, and television shows. As with pop culture media in general, the intent of pop fiction videos is to entertain audiences. Using situations that promise powerful punch lines and characters with whom viewers can emotionally identify, these videos will keep our students captivated by the power of sociology.
Paul Dean is co-creator and co-editor of The Sociological Cinema. He is also an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Ohio Wesleyan University.
Originally posted on Teaching TSP
This year I taught Introduction to Sociology. In order to discuss the power of discourse in society, I showed by students Chimamanda Adichie’s 2009 TED Talk called “The Danger of a Single Story“. My students were enamored. We had a fascinating and engaging discussion about single stories and the ways in which they affected my students’ lives and their engagement with the world around them. As a result of this phenomenal class, I developed the following assignment that I thought other sociologists would like to adapt to fit their courses.
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Amidst ostensibly ironic inversions of power in the Monsters films and The Incredibles, male bodies are still ranked according to a tragically familiar social paradigm, whereby bigger, stronger, and more athletic men and boys are invariably understood as superior to smaller, more delicate, or intellectual ones. (here: 34)
In C.J. Pascoe’s research on masculinity in American high schools, she coined the term “jock insurance” to address a very specific phenomenon. Boys occupying high status masculinities were afforded a form of symbolic “insurance” that enabled them to transgress masculinity without affecting their status. In fact, their transgressions often worked in ways that actually shored up their masculinities. This kind of “jock insurance” is relied upon as a patterned narratological device in Pixar movies. Barrel-chested, brawny, male characters are allowed to be buffoons; they’re allowed to participate in potentially feminizing or emasculating behaviors without having those behaviors challenge the masculinities their bodies situate them as occupying or their status (in anything other than a superficial sort of way). For instance, Sulley, Mr. Incredible, Lightning McQueen, and Buzz Lightyear perform domestic masculinities in ways that don’t actually challenge their symbolic position of dominance. Indeed, the awkwardness with which they participate in these roles implicitly suggests that these men naturally belong elsewhere.
The films in Pixar’s collection show a patterned reliance on controlling images associated with the embodiment of masculinity that shores up the very systems of gender inequality the films are often lauded as challenging. To be clear, I like these films – and clearly, many of them are a significant step in a new direction. Yet, we continue to implicitly exalt controlling images of masculine embodiment that reiterate gender relations between men and exaggerate gender dimorphism between men and women.
Tristan Bridges is a sociologist at The College at Brockport (SUNY).
Hollywood is a routine offender in promoting transphobia and cissexism—the negative attitudes and discrimination directed toward people whose gender identity, or perceived expression, is different from the sex they were assigned at birth. In my view, few films are as offensive as Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, which demonizes and delegitimizes transgender individuals through portraying the serial killer, Jame Gumb—otherwise known as Buffalo Bill—as a psychotic transgender person. At the same time, normative expressions of gender are idealized as innocent. The result is a transphobic dichotomy with cisgender and transgender positioned as moral opposites.
For those who haven’t seen the film, Silence of the Lambs follows FBI Academy student Clarice Starling, played by Jodi Foster, as she solves a recent string of murders in the Midwest committed by the serial killer known as Buffalo Bill, played by Ted Levine. She enlists the help of an incarcerated cannibalistic serial killer and former psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter, who analyzes the case files in order to uncover Buffalo Bill’s true identity. In this process, Starling discloses a traumatic event in her childhood involving waking up to the screaming of lambs about to get slaughtered. She ran away from her family ranch, attempting to save one of the lambs, but was unable to. Here, lambs are a symbol of innocence. Starling’s inability to save them and her subsequent nightmares are manifestations of her guilt. The film’s title is a reference to the end of Starling’s nightmares, when the screaming lambs become silent, ideally through her solving the Buffalo Bill case and saving his living victim, Catherine Martin. Throughout the film, it is revealed that Buffalo Bill is a transgender woman. She has applied for sex-reassignment surgery, cross-dresses, and prefers to hide her penis between her legs. Ultimately, Starling saves Martin through the clues that Lecter slowly discloses in exchange for a chance at a prison with better living conditions. In the end, Starling kills Gumb, and the closing scene of the film is of Lecter’s escape and intent to kill Frederick Chilton, a doctor who worked at Lecter's prison.
In reality, the opposite of the killer transgender trope is true. Often, transgender people, specifically women, are the victims of hate crimes based on their gender identity. In 2012, transgender women were victims of nearly 54% of anti-LGBT related homicides. Perhaps the dehumanizing representations of these individuals in mass media helped spread the idea that transgender lives are less valuable, and by extension, murdering them is more justifiable.
In addition to crazed killers, Silence of the Lambs portrays transgender women as imposters. After analyzing the Buffalo Bill case files, Hannibal Lecter muses, “Billy hates his own identity, you see, and he thinks that makes him a transsexual, but his pathology is a thousand times more savage and more terrifying.” This quote enforces the idea that other people can determine a person’s gender identity. Although Jame Gumb was a ruthless murderer who skinned people alive, if she identified as a woman, she was a woman. If a person thinks they are transgender, they are. In real life, transgender people’s identities are often scrutinized by cisgender people. There is a fascination with the genitals of transgender people, based upon the erroneous idea that one’s sexual organs determine gender. In a recent interview with Orange is the New Black actress Laverne Cox and RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Carmen Carrera, Katie Couric asked Carrera, “Your private parts are different now, aren’t they?” This display of cisgender privilege (a cisgender actress would never be asked about her genitals) threatened to derail an otherwise constructive discussion about gender. Ultimately, the condition of Carrera’s genitalia bears no relation to her womanhood.
A closer look at the diction of Lecter’s quote reveals more subtle issues. His use of the word “more” before “savage” and “terrifying” implies that there are savage and terrifying elements to actual transgender people. Since Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer himself, one might question his credibility as an arbiter of the film’s overall message. However, in addition to being a sociopathic serial killer, he was also a brilliant psychiatrist, whose analysis of the Buffalo Bill case files led to Gumb’s ultimate demise. His views regarding Gumb are highly regarded and portrayed as astoundingly accurate. Therefore, his psychoanalysis of Gumb represents the ultimate message of the film itself and should be seriously considered.
One of the most memorable scenes in Silence of the Lambs is the one where Gumb dresses up in a flowing cloth, tucks her penis between her legs, and poses in front of a mirror, all while wearing the hair and scalp of one of her victims. This scene is often touted as the film’s most disturbing moment. Buffalo Bill is supposed to be scary not only because she murders and skins her victims, but because she is male-bodied in women’s clothing. The “cross-dressing” is portrayed as especially sinister and perverted, but to stand or dance in front a mirror with one’s penis tucked between her legs is an exercise many transgender women actually perform. The film distorts this completely normal and often empowering activity with the juxtaposition of Catherine Martin screaming for help from the bottom of a dry well in the background. Real life transgender people may internalize this scene, and think that they should hide their non-normative gender expressions at the expense of their emotional well-being.
In addition to demonizing and stigmatizing gender fluidity, Silence of the Lambs idealizes normative gender expression. Conformity to gender roles is seen as innocent, an antithesis to gender variance. This is emphasized in the scene in which Gumb applies lipstick as she utters the chilling line, “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me. I’d fuck me hard.” This scene is cut at the same time as Martin screams from the bottom of the well, just as the lambs screamed. Nobody could hear Martin, she was effectively silenced. The film showed a few seconds of Gumb, then switched back to a few seconds of Martin. Martin is illustrated as the innocent victim, conforming to the gendered damsel in distress trope, in contrast to Gumb, who is the gender-bending killer.
It is important to identify transphobia in films for a variety of reasons. In addition to media reflecting the prevalent attitudes and ideas of a society, media can also shape the ideas of a society. The negative representations of transgender people in visual media, especially film, contribute to their overall discrimination. In addition to the disproportionate amount of transgender women killed in anti-LGBT homicides, there is a high frequency of suicide among this subjugated population. 41% of Americans who are transgender or gender nonconforming have attempted suicide at least once in their lives. This startling statistic may be related to the lack of positive media representation for transgender people. Identifying transphobia and cissexism in film is a means of placing the responsibility back on media corporations and holding them accountable for how they portray marginalized groups. Fair portrayals of oppressed groups of people leads to an awareness of their real life issues. For transgender people, such issues include job discrimination, violence, healthcare, and exclusion in a variety of spaces. In real life, transgender people are not the killers, but rather the innocent victims of horrific hate crimes. The film Silence of the Lambs ignores this fact, effectively silencing the lambs.
Savannah Staubs is an undergraduate sociology major and activist at University of Maryland, College Park. She skillfully avoids employment by illustrating zines, collecting leaf skeletons, playing her ukulele, and studying environmental justice.
One of the items resulting from this work has been a Teaching Sociology article, published earlier this month. Written with our friend and colleague Michael V. Miller, the article outlineï»¿s a pedagogy to facilitate effective teaching with video. First, we describe special features of streaming media that have enabled their use in the classroom. Next, we introduce a typology comprised of six overlapping categories (conjuncture, testimony, infographic, pop fiction, propaganda, and detournement). We define properties of each video type and the strengths of each type in meeting specific learning goals common to sociology instruction. We conclude by discussing the importance of a video pedagogy for helping instructors to employ video more consciously and efficiently.
The full article can be found on the journal's website, but we have summarized our video teaching typology in the table below. The table is meant to convey the diversity of video clips available to instructors for teaching sociology. As you can see, it extends far beyond the traditional documentary or feature film. In addition to describing each video type and the subcategories that are available in it, we offer a sample of learning goals for teaching with the type. Note that the learning goals are not mutually exclusive, but some types lend themselves particularly well to specific learning objectives. The last column links to several examples catalogued on The Sociological Cinema.
Example Learning Goals
Realistic documentation of actual events that connect multiple levels of reality and depict the conjuncture of distinct historical processes
Documentaries, visual ethnographies, and news clips
Knowledge of how Culture and Social Structure; Develop sociological imagination
People testifying or offering firsthand accounts, or expert opinions, of particular events and issues
Amateur or professional street interviews, stand-up comedy routines, poetry slams, lectures, TED talks, and video blogs
Develop Humanistic Values and Social Responsibility; Develop empathy
A Girl Like Me features interviews with young African American women; NBC news broadcast of an interview with a man who was mistakenly detained at Guantanamo Bay; amateur street interviews reveal common misperceptions of feminism
Expert narrators employing special effects to present information (e.g. statistical data) and abstract concepts
Videos with flowing data, and schematic visualizations (e.g. RSA Animate videos)
Quantitative literacy; Understanding of research methodology and data analysis; Think theoretically
Hans Rosling shows the changing relationship between life expectancy and income for 200 countries over 200 years; RSA Animate video provides illustration for a theoretically-rich explanation of 2007 financial crisis from David Harvey
Widely recognized celebrities and artists, with whom viewers can emotionally identify, attempt to entertain and captivate audiences
Hollywood feature films, short films, music videos, and television shows
Media literacy, Think theoretically; Develop empathy
Seinfeld clip conveys ideas of Goffman and symbolic interactionism; Macklemore music video discusses same-sex love, marriage equality, and homophobia; Fight Club excerpt illustrates theory of the culture industry
Messages typically created by governments or corporations to promote an ideology, policy, or product
Government propaganda videos, commercials, opinion-based news programs
Media literacy; Think theoretically
When the creator takes an existing video (e.g. a news clip, feature film, advertisement) and reconfigures it to subvert the original meaning and deliver social criticism
Video mashups, culture jams, and some avant-garde film
Critical thinking; Media literacy; Think theoretically; Personal empowerment
WHAT IS THE AMERICAN DREAM?
Let's start with a clear definition of the American Dream by drawing from this clip, which features a debate between Tom Horne (Arizona superintendent of public instruction) and sociologist Michael Eric Dyson. While the debate focuses on teaching alternative racial or ethnic histories in schools, Horne's comments concisely convey what constitutes the American Dream. Among other things, Horne argues "we should be teaching our kids that this is the land of opportunity, and if they work hard, they can achieve their dreams, and not teach them they're oppressed." In short, the American Dream is about having "hope for the future" and being able to realize one's hope through hard work and merit. It presumes that one's origins (e.g., class background, race, etc) do not affect where they end up in life in any significant way.
HOW REAL IS THE AMERICAN DREAM?
If the American Dream is a reality, then it must give everyone an equal shot at moving up (or down) in society. And one of the pathways that is most essential for social mobility is education. The argument goes something like this: everyone, through universal public education, has equal opportunities to succeed as long as they work hard. So our first question is: do American youth have equal opportunities in our educational system? This clip from The Oprah Show addresses this question by having students from an inner-city Chicago public school and a public suburban school trade places. The students are shocked to see the extreme inequalities in the school facilities, educational curriculum, and teacher quality--all which shape student outcomes and performance. Like academic studies on educational inequalities (e.g., Jonathan Kozol's class study on Savage Inequalities), it illustrates how students from poor neighborhoods attend poor schools and students from wealthy neighborhoods attend wealthy schools with great resources. On average, wealthy schools in the US spend 2-3 times more money per pupil than poor schools. Students in the US are not given equal opportunities in schools.
Another way to assess if the American Dream is a reality is to examine mobility patterns. If mobility really is about hard work and merit, we would expect that individuals have an equal chance at moving up and down the class hierarchy. This video from the PEW Economic Mobility Project helps us by providing visual animations that depict income mobility. It looks at how absolute mobility (when a person earns more money in inflation-adjusted dollars than their parents did at the same age) and relative mobility (a person's rank within the income distribution as a whole) work—while also highlighting how both types of movement relate to American Individualism. It shows that the US is doing well in absolute mobility, but not relative mobility. When explaining relative mobility, the video highlights “stickiness at the ends” by showing how there is a great deal of movement in the middle classes—but the poor and the wealthy at the top and bottom of the social hierarchy tend to experience little if any movement both within, and across generations. In other words, where you start can have a big impact on where you end up.
But do Americans experience more mobility than individuals in other countries? In this short news clip, journalist Fareed Zakaria summarizes some empirical evidence about social mobility in several countries. In terms of intergenerational mobility in the US, nearly 50% of men whose fathers were in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic spectrum, remained at the bottom. In comparison to Denmark and Sweden, only 25% of men remained in the bottom fifth of the spectrum. The phenomenon of "stickiness at the ends" (described above) is more likely to happen in the US. This leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that the American dream is really only alive and well in Europe.
So while mobility rates are lower in the US, and it is especially difficult to move up from the bottom, some individuals do succeed in moving up. What do their experiences tell us about the American Dream? This video from The Boston Globe tells the story of two young brothers trying to overcome difficult barriers (read associated article here). Johnny and George live in Dorchester, MA, a Boston crime and poverty "hot spot." In addition to their economic issues, they face many family challenges (e.g. their father committed suicide 3 years ago, and their mother has a disability preventing her from working outside of the home). But while people in such neighborhoods are often depicted as being hopeless, Johnny and George are very hopeful and seek a better life. They work hard to achieve grades at the top of their classes, earn their own spending money through tutoring, and have received help from a local mentor and non-profit organizations. Viewers might reflect on how Johnny and George's story reflects the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" ideology of the American Dream, but it also demonstrates that everyone needs help to do so. Therefore, it underscores that while some opportunity does exist, success cannot be understood merely through individual effort and merit. To move out of the bottom, people need a variety of supports, such as financial support (often from government programs), a quality education, and mentors.
IF THE AMERICAN DREAM IS NOT A REALITY, WHY DO SO MANY PEOPLE BELIEVE IT?
The videos above suggest a more complicated picture of the American Dream than what people tend to believe. On the one hand, some people are able to experience upward mobility. On the other hand, where you start has a powerful impact on where you end up; the number of people who move from the bottom towards the top is relatively small. And the closer you are born to the top, the more likely you are to get there (or stay there). Furthermore, when we look at many European countries, people born into the bottom of the class hierarchy there have a better chance of moving up. So, if the American Dream is largely a myth, and does not reflect reality, why do so many people believe in it?
Ideologies are not necessarily connected to reality; in fact, they often are distorted conceptions of reality. This PBS NewsHour report explores everyday Americans' sense of economic inequality in the US. Drawing upon an academic study and everyday interviewers with tourists in NYC, it shows that average Americans consistently underestimate how much inequality exists in the US. In other words, their belief about American society and how it works is very different from the economic reality. Commentators in the clip partially explain this misconception by noting how we tend to experience social life in segregated, more equal communities, and base our perceptions on those experiences; we miss the inequality in broader society. Note that the clip also features research showing that overall, Americans (both Democrats and Republicans) want more economic equality.
But the ideology of the American Dream is also explicitly reproduced throughout media and popular culture. For example, this car commercial illustrates this ideology with a discussion of the excellence that has come out American garages: "The Wright brothers started in a garage, Amazon started in a garage, Hewlett Packard started in a garage ... the Ramones started in a garage. My point? You never know what kind of greatness can come out of an American garage." It suggests that anyone can do great things from humble beginnings. The emphasis on "American" suggests that this idea is a uniquely American characteristic, thereby reinforcing viewers' (misguided) sense of the American Dream as reality. Note that the first video above also shows how our key institutions (e.g. American education system) reinforce this ideology.
GEORGE CARLIN: THE IDEOLOGY OF THE AMERICAN DREAM IS ABOUT POWER
Finally, it is no coincidence that the myth of the American Dream is reproduced throughout our media and our institutions. George Carlin explains this relationship in this stand-up routine (In typical George Carlin style, it is full of expletives and vulgar sexual metaphors). He begins by emphasizing the gap between "the owners of this country" and the rest of us. Carlin states that the owners control the politicians by lobbying to get what they want, but they also control people through education and media. They keep the educational system just good enough to educate people to be obedient workers but keep it poor enough so that it does not teach people enough to be able to think for themselves. They use the media to tell people what to believe, what to buy, and what to think. Because people can vote, they suffer the illusion that they have "freedom of choice." Suffering from false consciousness, they support ideas that are against their own self interests; for example they accept the reduced pay, fewer benefits, and less social programs that the owners claim are in their interests. All the while, they remain powerless to the owners--i.e., wealthy individuals who have an interest in reproducing the ideology of the American Dream because it helps to legitimate their position within society. The clip ends with the statement: "it's called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it."
To learn something about the invisible logic of patriarchy, simply listen closely to the strategies women deploy in order to refuse men. If “I have a boyfriend” is a tried and proven way of getting men to stop harassing, then boyfriends—i.e., men—are accorded respect, and how a woman is treated does not necessarily hinge on her own wishes.
So whether a boyfriend really exists, women often fly a boyfriend flag high in order to turn away men in public spaces, but for those who return home to an actual boyfriend, the flag is of no use. To navigate this more intimate space, it seems that one way women can turn their boyfriends down without fear of retribution is to declare they’re menstruating, and here again, one can deduce the twisted logic of patriarchy. Women are anatomically dirty and undesirable at least once a month, an idea Hollywood movies regularly reflect and promote.
In 1986, Marie Shear famously wrote in her review of A Feminist Dictionary that “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people,” and my sense is a good many people read this quote as an inflammatory provocation or an exaggeration born from anger. It is neither. If part of what it means to be a person is to be regarded as the final authority in matters related to one’s own desire, then women are not yet regarded as people.
Last quarter I worked as a teaching assistant for my advisor Andy Szasz’s class on Contemporary Sociological Theory. This means that I attended lectures, graded student work, and led two break-out classes of 30 students each. Like the time I taught classical theory, I assigned the students the task of supplying me with a constant stream of media sources related to the class content. You can see the text of the assignment below, and read descriptions of how I used some of their media pieces in class below that.
After you choose your media piece, write a 1 page, type-written essay that includes the following:
- Short summary of the media item.
- Description of what sociological theory your media piece relates to, and how it relates to that theory.
- The strengths and limitations of your selected media piece for understanding the sociological theory in question.
- A description of how you suggest using this media item in section in order to help the other students better understand the sociological theory discussed in your paper.
The Frankfurt School, part 1
The Frankfurt School, part 2a: The Culture Industry
The Frankfurt School, part 2b: Consumer Society
- I used a video of a rapping toddler and a comedy sketch to help explain structuralism, read about it here. The comedy video also applies to some of Goffman and Garfinkle.
Goffman and Garfinkel
- See my post on using Pink Floyd to help students understand Foucault here.
Postmodernism and review
Tracy Perkins is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz with a focus on social movements and environmental sociology. Her master’s research analyzed women’s pathways into environmental justice activism in California’s San Joaquin Valley, and her doctoral research explores the evolution of California environmental justice advocacy over the last 30 years. See more of her work at tracyperkins.org and voicefromthevalley.org.
Advocacy & Social Justice
Social Mvmts/Social Change/Resistance