The Gap: What Media Teaches 7 Year Olds About Being Female

“The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says: “It’s a girl.”
Shirley Chisholm

http://www.slideshare.net/anastasiyasmotrikova/negative-images-of-women-in-popular-culture-33002780
http://www.slideshare.net/anastasiyasmotrikova/negative-images-of-women-in-popular-culture-33002780

 

My intro anthro courses will be conducting video content analysis on the 1000 videos of black girls (13-17 and younger) twerking in my dataset. We will analyze the intersectionality of race, gender and age on YouTube.

They will work in pairs to analyze 15 videos each based on scholarly research on video coding and content analysis. I am working out the intersectional categories they will focus on together. With many teams we can analyze subcultural features at the same time. Each team will choose a code or two to analyze in their subset of videos. It might be focusing on sexualization of adolescent girls, YouTube personal vlogging, rap music videos and video vixens, or new media ecology, etc. They will find three scholarly articles to help them think like a social scientist about video content analysis and/or YouTube content creation.

Today I got this email from one of my 90 students. She is a non-black, twenty-something year old, undergrad. She wrote:

Hello professor,
I had an interesting experience today that I wanted to tell you about.

Today, I was babysitting a young girl, 7yo, and we were creating things out of clay. We decided to make a couple and she asked me to help her making the girl. She told me that the girl has to be tall and has to have a GAP BETWEEN HER TIGHTS! I asked her why and she said that that is how pretty and skinny girls look like. I told her that I don’t have gap between my tights and asked her if she things I am fat or ugly (believe me we have very honest and good relationship-we tell each other things). And she just froze and said no. And I could see how honestly she meant that and how she started thinking how come I am not ugly or fat when I don’t have gap between my tights. ( I messed up her mental map [of reality–a concept from our anthro textbook] I guess- can that be the case?)

And that make me think about twerking. If we communicate to a girl at tender age of seven this twisted image of how beautiful girl/woman looks like, couldn’t one of the reasons for black girls to twerk [sic] be that this is what cool/desirable/…. girls(women) do?

I am not sure if that has any value for our research, but I wanted to share my thoughts with you.”

I wrote her back with glee “YES!!!” This is one of those turning points in the learning process. It makes teaching and learning around vulnerable topics all the more worthwhile.

Our textbook introduced the concept of “zeros”

Zeros

Elements of a story or a picture that are not told or seen and yet offer key insights into issues that might be too sensitive to discuss or display publicly.

Most students would not think like me that mentioning a “thigh gap” likely tells me that the little girl is not black. Perhaps it’s biology–I rarely see black women with thigh gaps. Perhaps it’s because we tend to be thick versus thin in our hips. Surely there are black girls with and who desire a thigh gap. I did when Wonder Woman aka Diana Prince aired on commercial TV from 1975 to 1979. That was a year before Roots aired on ABC.

I was a true adolescent when I was watching actress Linda Carter twirl into her supernatural power. She was sexy and it was all about her body. Her thigh gap was real but I knew her powers were not. This was TV! After watching, I looked at my body in the mirror and thought…and this sounds crazy in hindsight only…but I thought “I don’t have a gap so how will I be able to have sex? There’s no room down there.” In other words, who will find me attractive? I didn’t see it in myself.  All I noticed was that I was missing that gap and from my adolescent point of view it signified what it meant to be a wonder, to be alluring, to be a woman.  That way of seeing still has me decades later.

That thought plagued my adolescent brain as my looking-glass self kept reminding me how I needed/wanted to be viewed by others. To be liked. I wanted to conform or contort my body to fit some hegemonic view imposed from merely watching television. No one told me you need a gap. My mother had no thigh gap. No boy said “Oh, I wish you had a gap!” I recall talking with other girls about it once. But none of my friends had thigh gaps. Well, Bernadette did! She was a neighborhood girl who tortured me later in high school. She was light-skinned-ed, skinny and tall compared to the rest of the girls in 8th grade. I was a loner. And I didn’t share my thoughts with other girls. I rarely do now. This is why voice is so important to the work I am doing. Finding your voice is key to empowering girls in my view to combat how prevalent the body is around the socialization of the female body in social and televised media.

Vids of Very Young Girls

My students, 90 in all in Spring 2015 semester, are just starting to learn how to conduct fieldwork and ethnography from Chapter 3 in the textbook titled Cultural Anthropology: A Toolkit for a Global Age by my department colleague Ken Guest.

Since this is a new textbook I am using this term, I took a suggestion from a senior sociology colleague and friend at the CUNY Grad Center. He suggested I have my students participate in a research project around my data instead of having them write papers as I ordinarily do.

So far, I have only introduced my students this term to one twerking video. Two week ago I blogged about it.I recently changed the title to: “Privacy? (No!) Adversity? (You Bet!): Black Girls’ Bedroom Twerking”. It features an 8 year old twerking on YouTube. I’ve flagged this video on March 6th for child abuse because the girl is below the YouTube age minimum and the comments are “grooming” her to make another video in her “panties”.  In the past, flagging videos has not worked but it’s something I am hoping to publicize to protect very young girls from such harm.

The Vulnerable Classroom

Teaching around this ethnographic fieldwork is really, really complicated as danah boyd’s book It’s Complicated points to. It involves virtual impressions and moving images that are misread, misinterpreted and often stigmatized. It features underage girls whom far too many of us do not assign agency. We perceive their lack of agency as being complicit in some symbolic action of soliciting sexual attention and they they are giving consent to male viewers to slut-shame them.

It involves dance moves that are racialized and sexualized by generalized others. These moves in visual motion can awaken sensual reactions that are usually reserved for private encounters and are perceived and sensed differently by women and men, girls and boys, in ways that are blurred by the broadcast nature of the medium.  And watching twerking videos mirrors a reality, no more accurately, it mirrors a mental map of reality that for many role-takers (parents, teachers, older folk, strangers, moral high grounders, etc.) in public are highly agitated by. It’s particularly agitating when it comes to any association with stigmas about black girls or  sexual adolescent girls. Another thing, it’s all about the female realm in a domestic sphere — bedroom culture — which given the emphasis on race and gender, on black femaleness, it’s complicated by issues of culture, power, hegemony, and stratification. Topics most undergrads are not facile with understanding yet. Oh!! And if that isn’t complicated enough,  my students and I occasionally watch these videos in a disembodied academic setting, a college classroom at a public university known for its wide range of ethnicity diversity as well as religions. THIS. IS. COMPLICATED ETHNOGRAPHIC WORK AND PEDAGOGY.

This is vulnerable ethnography as well as vulnerable and critical teaching and learning in mixed company. I have to help these diverse emerging adults accept that there are risks affecting the youngest, darkest, and socially most vulnerable YouTube participants and convince them that this is academic work. I have to help them not get lost in the fascination with what’s viral–YouTube viral videos–and learn to critically analyze a rich and extremely educative site of study–digital media and new media ecologies. I, too, am constantly challenging my own mental maps of reality as a result.

More soon.

The Black Girl YouTube Project Begins

I think Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” … at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.” 
― Audre Lorde

This fall I am teaching an Anthropological Analysis course for the first time in the department of Sociology and Anthropology at Baruch College-CUNY. I decided to use this process as a working group focusing on my latest research — black girls, explicit hip-hop videos and YouTube. I recently completed a chapter for the book Remixing Change: Hip-Hop and Obama titled “YouTube, Bad Bitches and a M.I.C. (mom-in-chief): Hip-Hop’s Seduction of Girls and the Distortion of Participatory Culture” edited by my great colleagues and friends Travis Lars Goma and Erik Nielson for a forthcoming publication by Oxford University Press. 

I did so much research and data collection that I realized I had the makings of a book. So ANT4800 Anthropological Analysis seemed a perfect realm to continue my research and empower and educate undergraduate students taking a capstone course how to conduct and apply anthropology’s distinctive research strategy — ethnography — to the intersectionalities of real-world politics including domestic race and gender issues to social media publicness and privacy to the globalization of mediated identities and culture. 

 

In our 5th week of collaborative study, we begin creating our own YouTube videos as participant-observation and collecting user-generated content for what I am calling simply the Black Girl YouTube Project. With 18 female and male students from various ethnic and national backgrounds from Bangladesh to Barbados in the course, we will collect data on YouTube videos via a Google Docs form that generates a spreadsheet of our data (which we will soon share). We will also be collecting data from the relatively new YouTube Trends Map and Dashboard

We will use the collected data to analyze the field of our study and ultimately create our own ethnography or anthropological introduction to black girls on YouTube before the semester ends. Hope you’ll follow our discoveries.


SPECIFICS OUR OUR YOUTUBE STUDY

Simply put, we are exploring digital ethnography, social media, and the identity construction and socialization of adoloscent black girls ages 13-17. The participatory culture or user-generated context of YouTube is our field of study. We will examine black girls’ user-generated content (twerking videos, blogs, memes, gifs, and more) and other re-presentations and/or mediations of or about black female embodied identity including representations inferred by VEVO’s always-on explicit hip-hop videos that include immersive advertising for liquor and other products including the strip club scenes.

This collaborative study involving myself and 18 undergraduate research assistants is unique at a college like Baruch better known for collaborative work in the Zicklin School of Business within our institution. Our model of ethnographic social science comes from the previous digital ethnography of YouTube by former U.S. Professor of the Year and KSU distinguished prof Michael Wesch known for his Anthropological Introduction to YouTube uploaded July 26, 2008 that has over 1.9 million views to date. His incredible research still resonates as does similar research by social network expert Professor danah boyd whose work on teens touches significantly on matters of gender and race but still too little research exists in this realm. Just search work in sociology, anthropology and ethnomusicology and see what you find on black girls in this digitally mediated age. It’s revealing but there’s little ethnographic research relative to social media and social networks yet.

I just found a great article by Dionne Stephens and Layli Phillips titled “Freaks, Gold Diggers, Divas, and Dykes” in Sexuality and Culture 7/1 on adolescent African American women’s sexual scripts that will be very useful to educating students in the group. This is not a light subject to take on in a classroom setting. It’s complicated. 

 

NEW BODY OF RESEARCH

This is a new line of research following my previous scholarship and award-winning book on the popular offline social play of girls called The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double Dutch to Hip-Hop.  Handclapping games, cheers and double-dutch jump rope and the rhymed chants and embodied percussive play are in decay and the rise of social media online and mobile devices contributed to its decay as  African Americans are the fast-growing mobile devices users in the U.S. and yet black girls represent the demographic with the highest rates of obesity which I discovered from examining the fight to end childhood obesity around FLOTUS Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign. Studying black girls online is a natural extension of my social media participation and presence since 2007.

In 2011, I was one of six finalists for Nokia’s Special Connecting People Shorty Award along with Amanda Palmer (of “The Art of Asking” TED Talk fame). We both lost to a school librarian in Iowa which speaks to the real power of participatory social media today.  But teen black girls on YouTube are “winning” on YouTube for all the wrong reasons if you asked me some days. 

BATTY-WUK AS FACE-WORK

The team of our Black Girls YouTube Project will be specifically studying twerking through first-hand personal study on YouTube rather than simply the firestorm of recent events sparked by Miley Cyrus in the blogosphere. We will track and analyze user-generated content including vlogs by or about black girls reflecting on the meanings of their symbolic, embodied behavior. Said another way, how do we understand their body work as “face-work” (following the sociologist Erving Goffman’s 1967 study). As social beings, we all do “face-work” — performing social calculations that involve evaluating situations and the context(s) of our audience(s) while also evaluating our own selves and how that self fits into a situation(s). “The image we portray of ourselves (our “face”) is constantly being negotiated, a process Goffman calls “face-work” (p. 12). And although the individual takes an active role in the presenting, preserving, and sometimes adjusting [of] her face [or ‘batty-wuk’ (body-work) in the case of many black girls], it is not an object of solo authorship….Face-work us a complex collaborative dance in which all participants and their every word, wink, gesture, posture, stance, glance and grunt take part” (Michael Wesch, “YouTube and You,” 2010, p. 22).

So how do we provide a richer ethnographic context to the stereotypical views of black girls in a social media vlogosphere that tends to play on 1) racial and gender stereotypes of low-class, loud and angry black females, 2) negative perceptions of social media as well as debased popular “views” or view counts that do not always reflect their perceived reality, and the influence of commercially mediated images of black female-ness by the lyrical blow jobs of VEVO music videos featuring popular rap artists from Lil Wayne to Nicki Minaj?

 

A CURIOUS CONNECTION FOR THE CURIOUS WHO QUESTION

Ultimately, we will ask:

How do we and how can we learn to understand the complex sociological dance and the “face-work” of a black girls’ life-world on YouTube and in the context-collapse of today’s socially-mediated public culture?