When will more romantic comedies reflect living alone, cohabitation, and women getting more education than men?

The world of romantic relationships is changing: more people are living alone, cohabitating (maybe or maybe not marrying in the long run), and more women are obtaining college and graduate degrees than men. So when will romantic comedies reflect this?

I bring this up because I recently saw The Five-Year Engagement. This movie tackles the latter two issues I mentioned above: the couple lives together roughly 3-4 years before they get married (there is a clear period when they live separately). Also, the woman is working on a post-doc in social psychology at the University of Michigan while the man is a chef who has taken some classes as a culinary school. They end up having to try to compromise between their two jobs but little is mentioned about the relative status of the two professions. (A side note: how many people seeing this movie even know what a post-doc is? Is this mainstream? Also, I am undecided whether the film makes the field of social psychology look good or bad.) Yet, in the end, the couple still gets married. In fact, much of the plot of the movie is driven by the idea that the couple wants to get married but circumstances keep getting in the way. Additionally, the other main couple in the movie gets married quickly after they find out the woman is pregnant.

In the future, can the genre of romantic comedies survive without marriage at the end? Marriage is a nice plot device to end the film: they invariably show happy couples finally going through a marriage ceremony. It wraps up the story nicely. However, fewer American adults are married (51%) so are these films now more aspirational than ever and/or do they reflect the interests of a shrinking subset of the population? This also reminds me of the film (500) Days of Summer where marriage is not in the cards for the couple involved but movie viewers probably don’t get the same happy feeling at the end. I suspect romantic comedies will subtly or not so subtly change in the coming years to reflect these new realities and still try to provoke happy feelings even if marriage is not seen as much as the end goal.

Moms in TV advertisements buy products for the good of their families

Two sociologists argue that a majority of mothers in TV commercials buy products for the good of their children:

Nearly two-thirds of mothers featured in ads on prime time Canadian television are “intensive” moms who buy products solely for the good of the family, while non-mothers were more likely to be portrayed as independent free agents, enjoying themselves far more, a new analysis has found.

The lion’s share of mothers were shown to be “organized, informative and in control,” and always purchasing the product for the benefit of their children, according to University of Toronto sociology researchers Kim de Laat and Shyon Baumann, who combed through 68 television ads…

But Ms. de Laat and Mr. Baumann say the advertising they studied is promoting “sacrificial consumption” — a term they coined to describe the act of buying products primarily for the care of others, rather than for self-care.

“It’s only been within the past 20 to 25 years that we’ve seen increasing emphasis solely on the children to the point where women are supposed to derive satisfaction from all of this caregiving,” said Ms. de Laat, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto.

“Sacrificial consumption” is an interesting phrase but it isn’t a new idea. I’m reminded of the research of Viviana Zelizer (in Morals & Markets) regarding how the once controversial product life insurance came to be viewed as a necessary and sacrificial product that would provide for one’s family. What might be new here is the idea that these commercials are tying motherhood, a social role, to a particular action, providing for children. It attaches a different idea to products: if you’re family needs the product or would at least benefit, whatever money that needs to be spent is well-spent. Being a good mother means buying the “needed” products, not necessarily providing love, support, time, or attention. Do these commercials work by guilting people into action (i.e, “I’m not a good mother unless I do this”)? I wonder how this ties in with the whole idea of “concerted cultivation” where middle- and upper-class parents look to give their kids advantages (including necessary products?).

Is sacrificial consumption used effectively to sell products to other groups? Can you imagine such marketing aimed at men/fathers?

Elderly co-housing in France an alternative to Going Solo in the United States?

While Americans may be increasingly living alone, Le Monde reports on another trend: co-housing among the elderly.

This unconventional but pragmatic solution is happening all over France – dozens of house-shares have already been created, and they are giving food for thought to many in their 60s, 70s and 80s…

According to Yankel Fijalkow, urban sociologist and author of “Sociologie du Logement” [Sociology of Housing], “House-sharing for the elderly is a sort of group response to the ambient individualism.” Fijalkow says. “It is part of the same phenomenon as co-housing – houses with shared facilities – in Northern Europe and the United States or housing cooperatives. Faced by the fragility of the family unit, a desire emerges to recreate a quasi-family.”

But Fijalkow adds: “Let’s not be idealistic. Accommodation is expensive, and this is mostly a commercial transaction. With the current changes in family models, we go from being part of a couple to living on our own or in a house-share. People are flexible and adapt when the housing market is prohibitively expensive.”…

This system is being adopted all over Europe. Colocation Seniors, an organization in the western French city of Nantes was inspired by a similar project in Belgium, and has already helped dozens of seniors set up house-shares in the last three years, offering continuing support even after the house-share has been organized.

It is hard to know from this article how big of a trend this really is.

It is interesting to hear Fijalkow talk about these two motivating factors: a desire to have a “quasi-family” and economic realities. Which of these are more important? Does this suggest that people with more economic resources would not choose co-housing? It is already a foregone conclusion in many places that most families are fragile and/or past the breaking point?

This also reminds of the end of Kate Bolick’s article “All the Single Ladies” from November 2011. Here is where Bolick ends her thoughts on current relationships between women and men – a tour of a sort of dormitory for single women in Amsterdam:

The Begijnhof is big—106 apartments in all—but even so, I nearly pedaled right past it on my rented bicycle, hidden as it is in plain sight: a walled enclosure in the middle of the city, set a meter lower than its surroundings. Throngs of tourists sped past toward the adjacent shopping district. In the wall is a heavy, rounded wood door. I pulled it open and walked through.

Inside was an enchanted garden: a modest courtyard surrounded by classic Dutch houses of all different widths and heights. Roses and hydrangea lined walkways and peeked through gates. The sounds of the city were indiscernible. As I climbed the narrow, twisting stairs to Ellen’s sun-filled garret, she leaned over the railing in welcome—white hair cut in a bob, smiling red-painted lips. A writer and producer of avant-garde radio programs, Ellen, 60, has a chic, minimal style that carries over into her little two-floor apartment, which can’t be more than 300 square feet. Neat and efficient in the way of a ship, the place has large windows overlooking the courtyard and rooftops below. To be there is like being held in a nest.

We drank tea and talked, and Ellen rolled her own cigarettes and smoked thoughtfully. She talked about how the Dutch don’t regard being single as peculiar in any way—people are as they are. She feels blessed to live at the Begijnhof and doesn’t ever want to leave. Save for one or two friends on the premises, socially she holds herself aloof; she has no interest in being ensnared by the gossip on which a few of the residents thrive—but she loves knowing that they’re there. Ellen has a partner, but since he’s not allowed to spend the night, they split time between her place and his nearby home. “If you want to live here, you have to adjust, and you have to be creative,” Ellen said. (When I asked her if starting a relationship was a difficult decision after so many years of pleasurable solitude, she looked at me meaningfully and said, “It wasn’t a choice—it was a certainty.”)

When an American woman gives you a tour of her house, she leads you through all the rooms. Instead, this expat showed me her favorite window views: from her desk, from her (single) bed, from her reading chair. As I perched for a moment in each spot, trying her life on for size, I thought about the years I’d spent struggling against the four walls of my apartment, and I wondered what my mother’s life would have been like had she lived and divorced my father. A room of one’s own, for each of us. A place where single women can live and thrive as themselves.

How modern societies reconcile aging and individualism will be very interesting to watch.

“Almost 40 percent of U.S. working wives now out-earn their husbands”

This isn’t too surprising considering the number of women getting college and graduate degrees today, but a new statistic puts those education figures in a different light: “almost 40 percent of U.S. working wives now out-earn their husbands.”

Reading Washington Post reporter Liza Mundy’s book, The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family, out this March, was a genuine shock. Based on 2009 Bureau of Labor Statistics figures hot off the press (a government economist slipped Mundy the stats before they were published, in fact), “almost 40 percent of U.S. working wives now out-earn their husbands.” While that’s not the majority-grandiose subtitles definitely are the norm-it’s darn close to it. (For the record, my guess was 25 percent, the figure in the early ’90s.)

Luckily for my ego, Mundy tells me in an interview that she too was surprised at the 40 percent, and, better yet, she says, “Most of the expert readers I’ve given the manuscript to don’t believe it.” The lofty number of female breadwinners, or more accurately, female primary breadwinners, isn’t just a product of our devastating recession. As has been well publicized, largely male employment sectors such as manufacturing did contract the most during the recent economic downturn, accelerating the trend. But since way back in 1987, the slice of wives taking home more than their husbands has risen steadily, by a percentage point or so every year.

That’s principally because so many more women than men are getting undergraduate and postgrad degrees-by 2050, there will be 140 college-educated women in the U.S. for every 100 similar men-and because the economy is bifurcating between low-skill, low-wage jobs and high-skill, higher paying ones (that require a bachelor’s or more), with the middle emptying out.

Indeed, another title of Mundy’s book could’ve been The Big Flip. It’s the phrase she uses to denote the time not so far away-2025 is her hunch, based on her impressive research, which, in addition to a data dump, includes interviews with scores of ordinary people living the new reality-when more than half of the earners-in-chief in American households will be women. (Another factoid pointing toward the imminence of the flip: Nine out of the 10 U.S. job categories expected to grow most in the next decade-nursing, accounting, postsecondary teaching-are female dominated.)

While this is a weirdly casual account of these figures, the author is correct in suggesting this could lead to big changes in relationships and the established patriarchy.

One issue I haven’t seen raised when looking at data like this is while women may be making more money and be getting more degrees, will they really be in positions of power in society? While women may have relative power in the household (though having an economic edge doesn’t necessarily translate into more power), this doesn’t necessarily mean that these women have power in their workplace. You could end up with a situation where women’s status at home is up, which I think some would see as is a good thing, but they are still subordinates in male-led careers and workplaces, which would not be viewed as positively.

Is feminism over?

A short piece in USA Today suggests many young women today don’t want to be labeled as feminists:

The feminist has been portrayed as a woman who was “unhappy, angry, humorless and didn’t shave any part of her body,” says Terry O’Neill, national president of the National Organization for Women, which this weekend marks its founding 45 years ago with an event at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.

The stereotype, she adds, “became very powerful.” And it’s hard to get past for many young women today…

Sociologist Michael Kimmel of Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, N.Y., finds that reaction widespread. “Most of my women students have said ‘Feminism was your generation’s issue and we won. We can now do anything we want,'” he says…

Wendy Brandon, an associate professor of education and women’s studies at Rollins, says the women’s movement has evolved to focus more on what’s termed the “intersectionality” of gender, race, class and sexual orientation.

Quick thoughts:

1. We need more data on this. This article has completely anecdotal evidence.At the same time, I’ve heard similar responses from my students.

1a. I easily found a 2002 report from Gallup on the issue. As of 2001, 25% of women considered themselves feminists. This was down from 31% in 1991. This suggests that the term has been on a decline for a while. Or perhaps many women were never willing to call themselves feminists?

1b. However, the data also suggests that when asked about specific issues (pay, etc.), more people say work still needs to be done. So the label is more of the issue, not the issues raised.

2. If the label itself is a problem (similar to the connotations with the descriptor “liberal”?), why not look for a new term? Or run advertising campaigns to change the image of the term?

3. How much have arguments within the feminist itself hampered their efforts?

Space for sociological factors when looking at scientific research

I ran into this blog post discussing a recent study published in Hormones and Behavior titled “Maternal tendencies in women are associated with estrogen levels and facial femininity.” This particular blogger at Scientific American starts out by suggesting she doesn’t like the results:

Friend of the blog Cackle of Rad was the first person to send me this paper, and when I first tried to read it, I got…pretty angry. Being a rather obsessively logical person, I know why I felt angry about this paper, and I worked very hard to step back from it and approach it in a thoroughly scientific manner.

It didn’t work, I called in Kate. That helped a little.

In the end, it’s not a bad paper. The data are the data, as my graduate advisor always says. But data need to be interpreted, and interpretations require context. And I think what’s missing from this paper is not data or adequate methods. It’s context.

In the end, the blogger suggests the “context” needed really are a number of sociological factors that might influence perceptions:

So I wonder if the authors should make more effort to look into sociological factors. How does the intense pressure on women to become wives and mothers change as a function of how feminine the girl looks? I think you can’t separate any of this from this whole “women with higher estrogen want to be mothers” idea. This is why papers like this bug me, because they try to sell this as a evolutionary thing, without really acknowledging how much sociological pressure goes in to making women want to be mothers. And of course now I read them and I instantly get bristly, because what I see is people making assumptions about what I want, and what I must feel like, based on a few aspects of my physiology. It can be of value scientifically…but I don’t want it to apply to ME. I know it might be science, but I also find it more than a bit insulting.

I don’t know this area of research so I don’t have much room to dispute the results of the original study. However, how this blogger goes about this argument for adding sociological factors is interesting. Here are two possible options for making this argument:

1. Argument #1: the study actually could benefit from sociological factors. Definitions of femininity are wrapped up in cultural assumptions and patterns. There is a lot of research to back this up and perhaps we can point to specific parts of this study that would be altered if context was taken into account. But this doesn’t seem to be conclusion of this blog post.

2. Argument #2: there must be some sociological factors involved here because I don’t like these results. On one hand, perhaps it is admirable to admit one doesn’t like these research results. This can often be true about scientific results: it challenges our personal understandings of the world. So why end the post by again emphasizing that the blogger doesn’t like the results? Does this simply reduce sociology to the backup science that one only calls in to suggest that everything is cultural or relative or socially conditioned?

Perhaps I am simply reading too much into this. I don’t know how much natural science research could be improved by including sociological factors, whether it is often considered, or whether this is simply an unusual blog post. Argument #1 is the stronger scientific argument and is the one that should be emphasized more here.

A sociology PhD student is studying changing women’s clothing sizes while also not looking in the mirror before her wedding

This story has now been going around for a few days: a bride-to-be decided 6 months before her wedding to not look at herself in the mirror for the next year, blog about the experience, and draw attention to how women think about beauty and their bodies. What perhaps has gotten lost in this story is that this is being undertaken by a sociology PhD student who is writing a dissertation about women’s clothing sizes:

When Kjerstin Gruys got engaged to her longtime boyfriend, the former fashion merchandiser turned sociologist feared she would relapse into an eating disorder as she hunted for the perfect wedding dress. She was fiercely committed to researching her sociology Ph.D. on beauty and inequality, but was overwhelmed by the pressure of having a picturesque wedding. Her values and behavior were at odds, and she knew had to do something — and quick.

Instead of becoming engulfed in a vanity obsession, she committed to a year without mirrors — and launched the blog Mirror Mirror…OFF The Wall six months before her wedding date…

For her Ph.D. research, Gruys has moved on from body image and started examining vanity size — when clothing that was once, say, a size 8, becomes a size 6 so that women feel better about themselves, she said. By analyzing Sears catalogs from the past 100 years, Gruys said she’s seen drastic changes in clothing size over time. “I think the most interesting thing I’ve found so far is simply that clothing sizes have changed so dramatically, especially for women, and in the direction of getting away from having the clothing size and clothing measurements having any relationship to each other.”

“When we think of standards we think of things that make our lives more standard and more efficient,” she said. But clothing size standards are different across every fashion firm and even across brands within a firm. “We attach so much emotion to body size, women especially and companies want us to feel good when we are trying on their clothes.”

Both projects sound interesting and studying women’s clothing sizes from a sociology of culture perspective is something I wrote about recently.

It is also intriguing to think how this PhD candidate is mixing more traditional forms of research with blogging. This particular mirrors project is not simply being undertaken by someone like AJ Jacobs, a writer who has tackled some odd activities and then written about them (my favorite: The Year of Living Biblically). Rather, this is an academic who has a background in fashion who is also researching topics in the same subfield. The blog could function as more of a personal outlet but I assume it would be informed by sociological insights. I suspect we will see more of this in the future as academics would benefit quite a bit from blog side projects that draw attention to noteworthy issues as well as highlight their research.

A final thought: what would be an equivalent project that a man could undertake?

Linking the history of women’s clothing size and the sociology of culture

This article about women’s clothing sizes reminds me of the production approach within the sociology of culture: sizes were once regulated more closely.

This lack of sizing standards wasn’t always the case.

Until January 20, 1983, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Institute of Standards and Technology offered specifics for the sizing of apparel with body measurements for men, women, junior women, young men and children. These standards began in the late 1940s as a byproduct of the necessity for size-standardization in military uniforms during World War Two. Committees that included textile manufacturers, designers and retailers worked with the Department of Agriculture to determine these sizing standards and all adhered to it.

The program was discontinued in 1983. The measurements were not keeping up with the typical American body, which was changing due to better medicine and nutrition, along with an influx of new and varied ethnic groups. Sponsorship of these standards was assumed by private industry. That marked the start of sizing’s new Wild West, a lawless, volatile environment that continues today.

As the production approach would suggest, sizes were once standardized because of particular historical circumstances, namely, World War II. Once the regulation was deemed “unnecessary,” different companies took the sizes in completely different directions. The defense of the change given in the article, new bodies and types, doesn’t make much sense: the existing standards could have simply been altered rather than abandoned.

It would be interesting to see more on how the marketing and design of women’s clothes changed with the regulatory shift. Prior to 1983, companies couldn’t really play around with size and use it as a distinguishing feature. After 1983, different brands could use this as part of their image and sales pitch. Did brands that deviated a lot from the prior standards really help their cause?

A stable statistic since 1941: “Americans prefer boys to girls”

Amidst news that families in Asian countries are selecting boys over girls before they are born, Gallup reports that Americans also prefer boys:

Gallup has asked Americans about their preferences for a boy or a girl — using slightly different question wordings over the years — 10 times since 1941. In each instance, the results tilt toward a preference for a boy rather than a girl. The average male child-preference gap across these 10 surveys is 11 percentage points, making this year’s results (a 12-point boy-preference gap) just about average. Gallup found the largest gap in 1947 and 2000 (15 points) and the smallest in a 1990 survey (4 points).

The attitudes of American men drive the overall preference for a boy; in the current poll, conducted June 9-12, men favor a boy over a girl by a 49% to 22% margin. American women do not have a proportionate preference for girls. Instead, women show essentially no preference either way: 31% say they would prefer a boy and 33% would prefer a girl…

The degree to which Americans deliberately attempt to select the gender of their children is unclear. It is significant that 18- to 29-year-old Americans are the most likely of any age group to express a preference for a boy because most babies are born to younger adults. The impact of the differences between men and women in preferences for the sex of their babies is also potentially important. The data from the U.S. suggest that if it were up to mothers to decide the gender of their children, there would be no tilt toward boys. Potential fathers have a clear preference for boys if given a choice, but the precise amount of input males may have into a deliberate gender-selection process is unknown.

This seems to be one of those statistics that is remarkably constant since 1941 even though the relationships between and perceptions of genders has changed. Is this statistic a sign of a lack of progress in the area of gender?

Gallup suggests several traits lead to higher preferences for boys: being male, being younger, having a lower level of education (though income doesn’t matter), and Republican. So why exactly do these traits lead to these preferences? Outside of being younger, one could suggest these traits add up to a “traditionalist” understanding of families where boys are more prized.

The decline of men in the American workforce

The Economist examines some recent figures showing that men, particularly less-skilled workers, have lower levels of participation in the labor force:

The decline of the working American man has been most marked among the less educated and blacks. If you adjust official data to include men in prison or the armed forces (who are left out of the raw numbers), around 35% of 25- to 54-year-old men with no high-school diploma have no job, up from around 10% in the 1960s. Of those who finished high school but did not go to college, the fraction without work has climbed from below 5% in the 1960s to almost 25% (see chart 2). Among blacks, more than 30% overall and almost 70% of high-school dropouts have no job…

The main reason why fewer men are working is that sweeping structural changes in rich economies have reduced the demand for all less-skilled workers. Manufacturing has declined as a share of GDP, and productivity growth has enabled factories to produce more with fewer people. Technological advances require higher skills. For the low-skilled, low demand has meant lower wages, both relative and absolute. This in turn reduces the incentive to find a job, especially if disability payments or a working spouse provide an income.

Men have been hit harder than women by these shifts. They are likelier to work in manufacturing; women have been better represented in sectors, such as health care and education, where most job growth has taken place. Women have also done more than men to improve their academic credentials: in most rich countries they are likelier than men to go to university.

There is a lot to think about here. One reason that the article cites for this trend is the numbers of women (compared to men) who are getting college degrees. This has been noted by others (with some interesting data from the White House here) and it really does seem to be a sizable shift in American society.

A few other questions come to mind:

1. Could politicians promote policies that specifically target less-skilled male workers?

2. What are some of the broader consequences of this trend, such as the impact on community life or family life?

3. How could schools, particularly high schools and colleges, tackle this issue?