This week sexting photos of Anthony Weiner were released on the Internet… again. The disgraced congressperson running for mayor of NYC dominated the news cycle while at the same time Robin Thicke’s song Blurred Lines sat at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. In this piece Nathan Palmer uses both of these situations to give us a chance to “flip the script” and look at how social context affect how we understand any situation.
Sociology often hides in plain sight. One approach to bringing it into view is to see the familiar as strange which we discussed last week. Another strategy is to “flip the script”. That is, take any situation and imagine how it would be different if it had happened to a person of a different race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, etc. or imagine if it had happened in another place or at another point in history. I have a couple of examples of script flipping to share with you, but first we should ask the sociological question: Why does this technique work in the first place? The answer is social contexts.
A context is the surrounding circumstances that help you understand a person, an action, or a situation. If I told you I punched a guy last Thursday you might be alarmed. However, if I told you that I mashed a dude’s face because he was attempting to kidnap my daughter, you’d probably not be alarmed because in the context of an attempted kidnapping violence is widely thought of as warranted.
Now take that understanding of context and apply it to the social environments we live in and you have a social context. Your experiences vary widely in the United States (and around the world) based on your social location (i.e. your race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, etc) and how your social location relates to the people, institutions, and cultures that surround you. For instance, if you are able-bodied, then you probably experience both the physical and social environments on your campus differently than if you have a mental or physical disability.
Flippin’ The Script
News broke this week that Anthony Weiner, the former congress person from New York who left office in 2011 after sexting photos of his genitalia surfaced online, had engaged in more explicit sexting. This was even more salacious given that at the time the news hit, Weiner was the leading candidate to win the democratic nomination for mayor of New York City. So let’s flip the script; what would have happened if Weiner was a woman?
Sociologist Nathan Jurgenson suggests that the case of Krystal Ball gives us a chance to answer that question. In the fall of 2010 Ball was running for office in Virginia when photos surfaced of her in a “naughty santa” costume. In said costume Ball was shown in sexually suggestive posses with her then husband who was dressed as a reindeer with a shiny bright red sex toy for a nose. Ball was soundly defeated in her bid for the House of Representatives. Jurgenson argues that the media coverage and specifically google image search results suggest that Ball’s sexually explicit images came to define her and because women are frequently used to titillate, the compromising image of Ball was shown over and over on the news.
When you’re flippin’ the script you want a clean apples to apple comparison and some will argue that Weiner and Ball is not such a comparison. Ball had never held office when photos of her surfaced, while Weiner had been a congressperson for over a decade. However, we do have to ask, would Weiner have ever got a second chance if he had been a woman?
Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke is as I write the #1 song on the Bilboard Hot 100. The song has drawn the ire of critics for sexually suggestive lyrics that have Thicke repeatedly telling a woman “I know you want it” and asking, “you like it hurt?” Also, we have to ask, are the blurred lines he’s talking about the lines between consensual sex and rape? But lyrics aside, the real controversy erupted after the NSFW music video for the song was released online.
The seemingly low budget video features topless women walking left to right while Thicke and co. sing. Days after release when the controversy was peaking, Thicke came out claiming he was being misunderstood. He said that the song/video was about the blurred lines between men and women these days. And to the critics that thought the video was degrading women he defended himself (I use this phrase loosely) by saying, “People say, ‘Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?’ I’m like, ’Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotten to do that before. I’ve always respected women.”
Parody is another way you can flip the script on a situation and that is just what the group Mod Carousel have done with Blurred Lines. The group rewrote the lyrics so that it was a woman saying sexually aggressive things to a man and rerecorded the video with the gender roles reversed. Reading the comments on the YouTube page it would seem that many people found the passivity of the men and the aggressiveness of the women disarming or even offensive. But this begs the question, why wasn’t the passivity and aggressiveness alarming in the original video?
Sociology is often about knowing the right questions to ask. Flippin’ the script on a situation by substituting a person, place, or situation for another is a way to see things from a new angle. The next time your teacher asks you to sociologically analyze something or “see the familiar as strange”, try flippin’ the script.
- In addition to the ways discussed above, how do you think that Anthony Weiner’s situation would have been different had he been a female politician? Also, how would things have been different if Weiner was a person of color?
- What are the social contexts that you experience everyday? Provide at least three examples of how your life would be different if you were a different race, class, gender, etc. or lived in a different time and/or place.
- Read this article about two 7 year old boys, one black and one white, that both took the family cars joy riding, but received two very different responses. How can we explain these distinctly different responses?
- Select a situation from either from your life, from the news, or from pop culture and flip the script on it. When you change the social context, how does the situation look different?