Sociology Focus

Tag Archives: Media

Normalizing TSA Groping with the Pillsbury Doughboy

Geico Insurance has come out with a number of “Happier Than…” commercials which compare very happy characters, like the Hump Day Camel on Wednesdays, with the happiness of changing to Geico Insurance. In a recent advertisement, the happy character is none other than the Pillsbury Doughboy. In this post, Ami Stearns argues that the Pillsbury Doughboy’s happiness at being poked and prodded by TSA serves to normalize the invasive practice of being touched during the airport experience.

His high-pitched giggle is instantly recognizable. His plump body calls to mind warm, fluffy biscuits just out of the oven. Pillsbury’s famous mascot, the Pillsbury Doughboy, represents the comforting family kitchen. We’re so used to the Doughboy that he’s become as much of the American cultural landscape as a Norman Rockwell painting. The sound of his giggle makes us salivate for crescent rolls like Pavlov’s dog. The Doughboy’s successful association with the typical family home environment has normalized, for example, the purchase of packaged, mass-produced, ready-to-bake biscuits, cookies, and pie crusts.

Normalizing is a societal process where certain desired behaviors are made to appear very normal or so everyday that they come to be taken for granted. Who desires certain behaviors? Well, everyone from governments to educational systems to the military to corporations. Television commercials play a huge role in normalizing behaviors, for example, buying a new car before the old one breaks down, shampooing your hair daily, feeding your entire family through a drive-through window, and drinking diet soda.

The Pillsbury Doughboy is quite familiar to American audiences. In fact, the Doughboy as a corporate mascot is second only in popularity to those little talking M&M’s. The Doughboy been seen everywhere from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to the children’s toy aisle, in addition to starring in hundreds of Pillsbury commercials. Lately, though, the pudgy mascot has been seen backing a different type of product: insurance. Geico Insurance’s series of popular “Happier than…” ads recently featured the Doughboy giggling uncontrollably while an airport TSA agent pokes him as he’s going through security.

An entire post could be written about the novel concept of cross-advertising auto insurance with unbaked cookies, but let’s concentrate on the details of the commercial itself while thinking about the normalization of monitoring and surveillance in our society. In the commercial, a TSA agent repeatedly tries to poke the Pillsbury Doughboy while the mascot’s giggling increasingly gets out of control. The announcers ask, “How happy are people who switch to Geico?” and volunteer the answer, “Happier than the Pillsbury Doughboy on his way to a baking convention.” Continue reading

Breaking Bad: Reclaiming Masculinity in a Perilous Political Economy

AMC recently aired its final episode of Breaking Bad. With the series now completed, one might wonder how so many viewers could maintain loyalty to protagonist, “Water White,” the dorky low-level crystal methamphetamine producer, turned vicious kingpin, who over five seasons inflicted unbridled violence on a slew of characters. Even Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan expressed a sociologically-driven curiosity with Walt’s ability to emit public sympathy: “I have kind of lost sympathy for Walt along the way…I find it interesting, this sociological phenomenon, that people still root for Walt. Perhaps it says something about the nature of fiction, that viewers have to identify on some level with the protagonist of the show, or maybe he’s just interesting because he is good at what he does.” In this post, David Mayeda breaks down Breaking Bad’s success, accounting for reclaimed masculinity in a failed political economy.

For the few of you out there unfamiliar with AMC’s fictional drama, Breaking Bad tells the story of fumbling high school chemistry teacher with a PhD – Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) – who “breaks bad” by ditching his conventional teaching gig to produce and eventually traffic crystal methamphetamine across New Mexico and the greater American Southwest. Key in the series’ storyline is that Walt is a conventional family man, deeply in love with his pregnant wife, Skyler, and teenage son, Walt Jr., who suffers from cerebral palsy. That’s a lot of financial responsibility for any high school teacher. To make matters seemingly impossible, Walt is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Hence Walt works in tandem with former pupil, Jesse Pinkman, to start cooking meth in hopes of making enough money for his family’s long-term future.

Over the course of five seasons, Walter White transforms from a dorky, emasculated high school chemistry teacher who cannot provide for his family, to badass drug kingpin, steeped in money and power. With nothing to lose, Walt’s ascent stems from an incessantly growing cunningness, elite intellectual acumen, and at times, departure from his once conventional moral compass. Viewers have watched Walt kill rival drug dealers, associates and kingpins, stand idly by while Jesse’s love interest dies; we even know Walt poisoned a young child. Despite these departures from conventional morality, a substantial portion of Breaking Bads viewers still sympathize with, even cheer for Walt. How can this be?

Sociologically speaking, the answer lies in Walt’s ability to establish a kind of hegemonic masculinity under dreadful circumstances that on a different level, also impacted so many Breaking Bad fans. Continue reading

Global Stratification in Real Life: “Elysium” as Nonfiction

Is global stratification futuristic? What does global stratification look like today? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how the filming locations used in “Elysium” rank.

I was recently reading about the film Elysium in Wired  (see, I don’t just read fashion magazines). I have not seen the film, but I am troubled by how the film  provides a futuristic portrayal of inequality by relying on existing global stratification for it’s backdrop (i.e., filming location):

  • “Elysium takes place in 2154, when the 1 percent live out their caviar dreams and enjoy spectacular health care on board the film’s titular space station—while the rest of humanity suffers on a ravaged, overcrowded Earth. The orbital utopia scenes were shot in Vancouver, British Columbia, while a Mexico City slum stands in for LA. Blomkamp spent two weeks of the four-month Mexican shoot filming in one of the world’s largest dumps, a place swirling with dust composed partly of ‘dehydrated sewage.’ ”

In other words, utopia already exists in Vancouver, Canada, while a location complete with “dehydrated sewage” can be found in Mexico City, Mexico. Futuristic inequality is not really futuristic because already exists in 2013 in the form of global stratification. Continue reading

Men & Clothes Age, but Women Stay Forever Young

In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how aging is portrayed in a fashion magazine to explore the norms of aging in popular culture. 

Woman emerging from older self

I picked up a copy of the August issue of Vogue at the newstand. This particular issue is “The Age Issue.” The cover proclaims: “Fall Looks for Everyone.”

I saw advertisements with Kate Winslet, Nicole Kidman, and Jennifer Aniston completely wrinkle-free. No surprise here, but disappointing, considering the issue’s theme is aging. I’m younger than all these women, yet I have more wrinkles than them. Of course, I have never found myself accurately reflected in the a fashion magazine.

Very quickly, I realized this issue of Vogue is not about growing old gracefully or even looking good at any age. The magazine was chock-full of advertising promising “younger looking skin in 15 minutes” or “fighting 7 signs of aging.” One advertisement was for some sort of serum that has “complete age control concentrate” on the packaging. Age control in a bottle. What? What does that even mean? The message I got from all of this is that the appearance of age can be controlled.

Shortly before reaching the mid-point of the magazine is an advertisement for cigarettes. Absent from the ad was any indication that smoking cigarettes causes wrinkles. For an editorial message completely bent on “controlling” aging, one would think that accepting advertising for a product that accelerates the appearance of aging would have been refused.

I read on (let’s be real, I skimmed). The writers of Vogue ask the tough questions:

  • “Can you wear grunge when your kids are wearing it” (p. 106)?
  • “Is traditional [plastic] surgery passé” (p. 120)?
  • “Is height loss inevitable as we age” (p. 134)?

Continue reading

Sampling Pinterest

The criticisms of Pinterest can teach us about the importance of sampling. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how random sampling and convenience sampling contribute to our understanding of what Pinterest is really about.

I have had a Pinterest account for about a year and a half. When I initially received my invitation, I began following a lot of people in the scrapbooking community that I did not actually know in real life. None of my friends in real life were on Pinterest. Over the last year, that has changed. I now follow the boards of not only complete strangers (wow, that sounds really creepy), but also the boards of people I know in real life (still sounds kind of creepy).

So who cares who I follow on Pinterest? Who you follow on any social network site shapes what you see in your feed on that site and your impressions of the site. For the first few months I was on Pinterest, it was a wonderful place to spend waste time because most of what appeared in my feed included crafty projects, color combinations, and scrapbook pages-all the things I really wanted to see and browse. Now my feed includes these items, plus fat-shaming imagery, homeschooling curricula, beautifully designed infographics, and sociologically-focused images (see Sociological Images or The Sociological Cinema). My feed changed as the type of people I followed expanded to more diverse groups using pinterest for different reasons. I went from following mostly people who were heavily involved in scrapbooking and other crafts, to people with a much wider range of interests. Continue reading

Hollywood’s Vast Left Wing Conspiracy

Is Hollywood indoctrinating us to be more socially liberal? Many conservative critics have argued that the mainstream media has a strong liberal bias, but that’s nothing new. However, recently Jonathan Chait, a vocal liberal political writer, wrote a piece in New York Magazine where he argues that the conservative critics are correct, Hollywood is a Vast Left Wing Conspiracy. In this piece Nathan Palmer explores Chait’s argument and uses it to illustrate how all media is culturally produced and inherently biased.


Hollywood is a liberal propaganda machine that is pumping out media that is pro-gay (Modern Family), pro-environmentalism (Wall-E), and anti-corporation (The Simpsons). This is the argument Jonathan Chait, a liberal social commentator, makes in a recent New York Magazine. In the 1990s, as Chait points out, conservative leaders fought against the pro-liberal bias in the media with groups like Christian Leaders for Responsible Television and Americans for Responsible Television. When 90s shows like Thirtysomething showed two gay men laying in bed together or Murphy Brown featured a main character who had a child outside of marriage conservatives like Vice-President Dan Quayle railed against Hollywood’s obvious liberal bias.

However, today there is almost no fuss made when shows like this fall’s The New Normal features gay couples parenting children. So what gives? Chait argues that perhaps social conservatives have given up the fight because this, “culture war is ongoing liberal rout.”

Regardless of your point-of-view media is sociologically interesting because it affects how we understand the world around us. Or put more sociologically, media is a cultural production that shapes how we socially construct reality. Let me explain.

Continue reading

Home Ownership is For Everyone

Stainless steel appliances. Granite counter tops. “Man-caves.” What’s not to love? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how fake or not, house hunting shows illustrate persistent class, race, and gender inequality in society.

Anyone who watches House Hunters for any length of time begins to notice clear patterns of desirable traits a home “should” have. Home buyers express strong desires for stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, “man-caves,” and a yard for the dog.

Like many other viewers, I held out hope that the show really was real and not like those other reality shows that are often scripted and heavily edited. Recent headlines suggest the show is at least partially faked. In hindsight, my inability to pick up on this fakery seems silly when considering the patterns of what home-buyers want emerge. Every home buyer can not be that narrowly-focused on stainless steel appliances and granite countertops.

While other observers have written about the conformity evident in house-hunting shows, inequality can also be observed in these shows. In particular, class, race, and gender inequality are quite evident in the content of house hunting shows. Continue reading

What Exactly Makes Merida “Brave”?

Why do people get married? Love, right? Maybe not. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how there are many reasons for marriage as illustrated in the film, Brave.

Pixar finally released a film starring a female lead!

In the Pixar movie Brave, which opened last week,the heroine is a young woman named Merida who is, of course, a princess. I’m actually not sure why Merida is even a princess except that the story is set it in medieval Scotland (and now she can be added to the Disney princess line-up and not be relegated to the sidelines like Mulan).

Much has already been written about Brave as yet another princess movie with untapped potential of actually crushing gender stereotypes. At least she doesn’t wear pink or long for prince charming or need rescued by prince charming, so there was some deviation from the princess trope.

In the end, (SPOILERS!) Merida rescues her mom and herself rather than needing the rescuing (if you ignore the part where she needs her three younger brothers to help her escape from her room in which her dad locked her).

I saw the film on Friday and instead of rehashing how Brave reinforces gender stereotypes, I am going to focus on the marriage in the film.

The gist of the film is that it is time for Merida to get married. She is to marry one of the princes of the other three clans in order keep the peace among the four clans. She is not interested in marriage and the men presented are, well, dolts. Love is not a prerequisite for this marriage. To find the best prince they hold an archery contest and even then, Merida shows them up as the best archer among them all.

What we see here is an alternative purpose of marriage, that is, marriage for political reasons rather than for love. Continue reading

On Digital Divides

Poor parenting leads to children wasting time with media according to recent news headlines. In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath discusses the digital divide and some of the questions left unanswered by news reports.

I learned from the New York Times that wasting time is new divide in digital era on Twitter.

The crux of the argument is that most Americans now have access to the digital world, which includes computers and Internet. What is different is how these tools are being used by poor and well-off families.

First, parents poor parents are blamed for not better monitoring and not having the knowledge of how to better monitor their children’s use of the computer. In contrast, more well-off parents are portrayed as clearly having it all figured out. It’s not like well-off parents never received surprise phone bills in the hundreds of dollars for smurfberries and lemonade for cartoon giraffes or anything like that. Clearly, the more well-off are better at monitoring their children’s use of computers. My parents did very little monitoring of my computer usage. That could be because it involved using dos to get to exciting games of solitaire and minesweeper and my Internet access while living at home consisted of a dial-up connection that you paid for by the hour. Continue reading

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: Women Making Blockbusters

Recent successful films with women leads tend to either resort to the stereotypical (e.g., The HelpThe Twilight Saga) or require women to act like men (e.g., Bridesmaids and The Hunger Games). In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores this second type of film.

One of the biggest films of 2011 and Judd Apatow’s highest grossing U.S.-film to date is BridesmaidsThe Hunger Games just opened,  and had the third highest grossing opening weekend ever.

Bridesmaids Hunger Games

Both films have female protagonists and were written by women.  In both cases, the protagonist stretches the portrayal of women on film, while at the same time, making men’s movies (i.e., films that include generous amounts of potty-humor or violence) with women in the roles normally reserved for men.

Is this what my feminist foremothers had in mind? Is this equality? Continue reading