Swan Dive!

by Oliver Wang

In my haste to get that first post up yesterday, I forgot to write a basic introduction. Hi, I'm Oliver Wang, longtime reader, first-time guester.

I first met TNC back around 10 years ago, when he was writing for Time. I've never been a conventional investigative/news journalist—music criticism was my main interest—but I do think of myself as part of a larger community of writers so I've always paid attention when folks within that extended fam excel. It's been a real joy to see Ta-Nehisi's career arc in particular; to me, he's one of the foremost commentators on race and society and his eloquent insights often speak what's jumbled in my own head. Suffice to say, I consider it a huge honor to be guest-posting on his site.

I still write constantly, especially for NPR these days, but my day job is as an assistant professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach. My primary areas of interest are in race/ethnicity and popular culture and so I'm always interested in the intersection between the two. In particular, I try to stay attuned into how popular culture/media shapes our impressions and perceptions of social identities such as race, class and gender.

Not surprisingly, one of my favorite blogs (besides TNC's) is Sociological Images, a popular site run by Occidental's Lisa Wade and Nevada State's Gwen Sharp. Every day, they post up different images from around the world—taken from print ads, television, cinema, etc.—that reveal the ways in which we frame social issues and identities. They cover a stunningly diverse range of topics, from analyzing the gulf oil spill to the racial representation in Seventeen to pretzel ads.

Personally, I'm especially fond of when they look at the marketing of children's toys. This is always a favorite discussion in my social issues/problems class where we talk about where gender stereotypes start from. Sociological Images, for example, shared this gem from the 1980s:


As they point out: "It teaches girls all the important parts of being a mom:

  • Others will judge you as a mother based on how well-dressed and groomed your kids are.
  • Mothering requires a lot of repetitive, time-consuming work, but good moms think "it's a pleasure." There's also this much more contemporary example of the use of gender in toys marketed by US Airways.

    And for all you Mad Men fans, here's a post looking at how the Joan doll erases all of Chrstina Hendricks' signature curves (blasphemy!)

    I was hoping Wade and Sharp would do more with the popular Old Spice commercials that have become such a viral hit. They touched upon it, briefly, in February but as part of a longer post looking at a variety of ads dealing with modern masculinity.

    My wife happens to love these commercials and she argues they have a post-feminist sensibility[1] insofar as they poke fun at the inherent ridiculousness of masculine poses (white horses! motorcycles!). In her mind, The Old Spice Guy may speak like he's the Uber-Male but it's all a performative parody of "real manliness" (and presumably, female desire).

    I see where she's coming from but I'm a little more skeptical if only because these ads seem to want it both ways. The ads' deployments of well-worn masculine tropes are both subversive and strategic: they're silly enough to poke fun at the conventions of masculinity but they're still selling a product that's meant to either convince men "this is what women want" (even as it satirizes it) or women "this is what you should buy your man" (so he'll at least least be as funny and charming as the Old Spice guy). Most of all, the ads definitely sell Isaiah Mustafa (just as much as Alyssa Milano) and his impossibly perfect body as an ideal physical specimen.

    At the very least, Old Spice ads are a welcome respite from the eye-rolling drivel of Axe and Tag campaigns. And it also inspired the folks at BYU to come up with a rather brilliant parody ad extolling, of all things, the virtue of the library:



    Notes:
    [1] This would be the "good" kind of post-feminism, i.e. "the changes wrought by feminism" vs. the "bad" kind, i.e. "can't we just get past all this feminist equality talk?
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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