This weekend was the first time I heard Meghan Trainor's new song "Dear Future Husband." Wow -- the lyrics of this song present a lot to analyze about changing attitudes on gender roles and marriage. There's a nod to some feminist attitudes, such as the presumption of women's employment and the assertion of the wife not doing all the cooking, but it's mostly a song that draws on feminine stereotypes and sexualized imagery. In many ways, the lyrics are a good example of egalitarian essentialism, a new cultural ideology which blends feminist attitudes and traditional gender roles.
Thinking maybe the song was satirical, I checked out the video. Unfortunately, this didn't resolve my confusion, as the video contains kitschy 1950s-era imagery and I wasn't certain it was, in fact, meant as a parody. Meghan Trainor has responded to the controversy regarding the song's sexist message; however, her response left a lot to be desired.
"Everyone's going to say something. I don't think it's sexist. I just wrote a song for my particular future husband out there, wherever he is. I'm just preparing him. Letting him know what's up."
The song itself provides much to analyze, but its reception is also interesting. The React Channel produced a video of young people analyzing the song lyrics. Their reactions to each of the lines offers insights into what young men and women are thinking about gender roles and marriage.
The young men initially seem to take stereotypical pronouncements about relationship dynamics as normal and acceptable, but the young women seem a bit more skeptical (lyrics are bolded in red):
Take me on a date; I deserve it, babe; And don't forget the flowers every anniversary
Young Man: "She probably works hard in the house...doing wife things. She totally deserves it."
You got that 9 to 5; but, baby, so do I; So don't be thinking I'll be home and baking apple pies
Young Man: "This lyric kind of throws me off. Because she says she'll be the perfect wife but if you want some apple pie than you just.....what? Go to McDonalds and get it?"
Young Woman: "I feel like that was the old-school view of a wife. They would just sit at home and bake and cook and clean."
You gotta know how to treat me like a lady; Even when I'm acting crazy; Tell me everything's alright
Young Man: "Women do get a little bonkers sometimes. And I think she's admitting that here."
Young Woman: "That's kind of messed up. That's not how a relationship should function."
Young Man: "That's a contradiction. 'I'm not going to be the stereotypical woman.' But now, 'I want you to treat me like the stereotype.'"
The young men sound conflicted about these stereotypical gender roles, but the young women are generally appalled. Notably, one young women exclaims that marriage is just not worth it if it involves these stereotypical gendered divisions of labor.
'Cause if you'll treat me right, I'll be the perfect wife; Buying groceries, Buy-buying what you need
Young Man: "Everyone has their own definition of a perfect wife."
Young Man: "I'll do servantry kinds of things is what it sounds like."
Young Woman: "That sounds so stereotypical. You know what, babe -- you do the groceries.....if that's what being a wife means, then f*** marriage!"
Yet, they all seem to react negatively to the wife holding more power in the relationship:
Make time for me; Don't leave me lonely; And know we'll never see your family more than mine
Young Man: "She's trying to wear all the pants in the relationship. This dude is not going to wear any pairs of pants."
Young Man: "If my significant other told me this, it would be over."
Young Woman: "This kind of shit pisses me off so bad."
In the end, most seemed to think this was not the kind of relationship for them:
Young Woman: "Dear Meghan Trainor. That is not the kind of love that is in any way shape or form, right."
As a sociologist studying romantic relationships and inequality, I find this cultural artifact incredibly fascinating. I'm currently working on a research project exploring race and gender differences in trends of young people's marital aspirations and preferred divisions of labor. I use data from Monitoring the Future, an annual survey given to a nationally representative group of American 12th grade students since 1976. I'm analyzing four indicators of marital attitudes, and a vignette measuring attitudes about potential work and family arrangements. If you're going to be at the Population Association of America's annual conference this week, come by Poster Session 1 (Thursday, April 30 / 8:00 AM - 10:00 AM) and see my poster. I'd love to discuss my findings with you and talk more about the sociology of this song!
Canadian band Magic! received international accolades for their song "Rude." The premise of the song is about a man asking his girlfriend's father for permission to marry her.
I was surprised to hear a new song about a ritual that seems so out of date given the modern times of normative cohabitation before marriage, rising egalitarian ideology, and increasing delay in marriage (meaning more people are well into adulthood before considering marriage). In the song, the singer refers to his potential father-in-law as an "old-fashioned" man. This echoes research findings that couples often enact gendered engagement roles and frame them positively as traditional and old-fashioned. This same study also found that most couples plan their engagement together, rendering the request a performance for his father-in-law and girlfriend, who often viewed it as romantic.
While still popular, there is some evidence that this ritual is up for debate. A Slate article this year asked, "Is it seemly or sexist to ask your future in-laws for their daughter’s hand in marriage?" Notably, the lyrics to "Rude" reference seeking the father's blessing, rather than permission. While permission invokes imagery of women as property, blessing implies the request is symbolic of respect rather than objectification.
In the song, the girlfriend's father says no to the request to marry his daughter. The boyfriend labels him rude and insists he's going to marry her anyway. Responding, Benji Cowart parodied the song to tell the "dad's side of the story."
While it's telling that he refers to his daughter as a princess and threatens violence if his daughter elopes, what stands out the most was why the dad found the boyfriend un-marriageable. In the late 1980s, William Julius Wilson called attention to the association between joblessness and rates of female-headed families, referred to as the male marriageable pool index. Recently, the Pew Research Center released survey data that found men's steady employment is important to women in choosing a partner. This parallels research findings that Professor Philip Cohen and I are working on (previewed here).
At last, another parody video was created with the "daughter's side of the story." She rejects outright the premise that either man in her life should make decisions for her. After pointing out how outdated the concept is, that women are not possessions, and that these are controlling actions, she asks, "How about what I say?"
Although couples are increasingly deciding together to get engaged, proposals continue to be performed, largely by men for women. A 2012 study found that 2/3 of college undergraduates "definitely" want a man to propose, often citing gender roles, tradition, and romance. An exception to this cultural ideology appears during Leap Years in some countries when superstition allows for women to propose to men. For example, in Scotland and Ireland, on February 29th, women propose to men. They made a movie about it, so it must be true.
Whoa. It turns out a new trend has emerged. The promposal. It is apparently a fancy way of labeling the act of asking someone to prom. Making the internet rounds lately was an example of a promposal by a high school senior who asked his girlfriend to prom via a fake letter rescinding her acceptance to the University of South Carolina.
Never hearing of such a thing as a promposal, I decided to investigate. I started where all outstanding sociology graduate students do to conduct research. Wikipedia. Turns out, there is no Wikipedia entry for promposal. "How could this be?!" I asked myself. Undeterred, I turned to Google.
The first hint of the usage of the word promposal, according to Google, comes from the Canadian newspaper Ottawa Citizen, who apparently held a promposal contest. Unfortunately, the link provided leads to a "page not found" screen. The term makes a minor appearance in 2012 but seems to pick up traction in 2013. You can blame Huffington Post for reviving it and bringing it to the U.S. national stage. Regional interest has been mostly limited to Ottawa, Toronto, and New York, but given the widespread attention of the trend this year, it seems to be catching on elsewhere.
There are now tumblr pages, Pintrest pages, and even a Twitter handle (@ThePromposal) for documenting promposals. As far as I can tell, they seem to replicate the stereotypical courtship norms of dating and engagement proposals. One Huffington Post article calls attention to girls who are bucking the norms and asking their partners to the dance. However, this more gender flexible behavior is clearly not the norm, as evidenced in this statement: "With that said, here are some of our favorite #ladypromposals so far." Thus, promposals in general are assumed to be male initiated. Qualifications such as lady are used otherwise. By the way, if you go to Twitter and #ladypromposals, no tweets exist. On the other hand, #promposals is popular.
Despite gains in youth's attitudes about gender egaitarianism in relationships, promposals seem to evidence Ellen Lamont's findings (published in Gender and Society) that young women attempt to reconcile egalitarian ideology with conventional gendered courtship norms. While the promposal trend is still developing, how it reinforces or transforms gendered courtship norms remains to be seen.
The Huffington Post posted an article this week titled Dating After Divorce: Relationship Expert Offers Tips. At the end of the article, the author instructed readers to check out their slide show of what celebrities have to say about divorce. It seemed to elevate celebrities’ opinions to the same level as the “expert” in the article. This led me to wonder how much “advice” about relationships we actually consume from celebrities. And, are we listening?
I've tweeted a number of articles this week that provide an overview of how popular culture has shaped the public’s opinion of marriage equality. We've become accustomed to, and acknowledge, how television and movies influence our beliefs, but what happens when the advice moves from television and movie scripts to celebrities themselves offering opinions? Does the advice carry more importance? Less?
Just last week, Jada Pinkett Smith provided advice (her opinion really) on Facebook on what to do if your spouse cheats.
Oprah is known for offering her opinion, as well as hosting and launching the careers of many “experts.” Unfortunately, some of her guests turn out to provide terrible advice that many of her fans follow unquestioningly. For example, John Gray in Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and Dr. Phil have both provided harmful relationship advice to America (see A Decade of Advice for Women and Men in the Best-Selling Self-Help Literature and An Analysis of Dr. Phil's Advice About Relationships).
But, what about celebrities with even fewer qualifications than those so-called experts? Just as it is difficult to distinguish the “news” portion on Fox News from their commentary and opinion time slots, it’s getting ever more challenging to know when relationship advice is coming from an expert (a therapist, psychologist, social scientist, etc.) or someone simply famous. On the other hand, celebrities can play an important role in challenging unhelpful relationship beliefs. For instance, many have spoken out about their experiences with domestic violence and have brought much-needed awareness to this social problem.
There’s no doubt about the role of culture and celebrities in influencing norms. Celebrities not only shape but also reflect the norms of our society. So the real question is, how do consumers distinguish the good from the bad?
I've been thinking a lot about the progression of social change lately. Sometimes it is easy to overestimate how far we have come (marriage for same-sex couples by a popular vote!) and at other times, it is hard to believe it's 2013 given the public discourse (revisiting Roe vs. Wade). There have been numerous studies and articles published recently that seek to highlight both progress and traditionalism. Lifescience summarized a recent study that found heterosexual college students prefer men propose marriage, are appalled at the thought of the female taking the proposal initiative, and that while 60% of women were okay with adopting their husband's last name, about 60% of men were against taking their wive's last name.
It is not surprising then, that if even at a liberal campus students hold stereotypical gender beliefs when it comes to romantic relationships that a man in Florida who changed his last name to his wife's last name would be accused of fraud. In Florida (and I'm guessing a number of other states), only women can adopt the last name of their husband upon marriage, while men have to file burdensome and costly paperwork to do the same. What is new is that a male Florida resident is challenging this sexist law. In the past, there have apparently not been enough heterosexual couples where the man desires to adopt the female's last name that a policy change has been called upon. Time stands still. Yet, with more states legitimizing marriage for same sex couples, states will have to review their procedures as gender will not provide a go-to hierarchy for property ownership and an automatic loss of identity.
All this reminded me of the summary of the book "The Unfinished Revolution" written by Kathleen Gerson. Her data demonstrated that while more couples are striving for an egalitarian relationship, when confronted with barriers and needing to rely on a "fallback plan", men and women's plan B's are different: men prefer more stereotypical gendered divisions of labor and women prefering to be single. Which leads me to wonder if more progress has in fact occurred than we typically capture in data, but that a tipping point of collective action in changing the structural frameworks (such as policies that only allow women to change their name upon marriage or normalizing paternity leave) that maintain unequal relationships has not yet been reached. As long as the status-quo supports men's fallback plans, it's hard to document changing attitudes.
A further illustration of this notion of time and social change was an article published this month in the American Sociological Review. The researchers found that in relationships where men participate in doing more of the stereotypical female household chores, the couples' sexual frequency is less than compared to romantic partnerships with more stereotypical divisions of labor. Because the data that was used in the study was collected more than two decades ago, a conversation ensued about whether the results were still relevant. The optimist in me would like to believe they would not, as much progress in terms of gender equality has been gained in two decades (in fact, the first passing of the Violence Against Women Act was during the time of this data collection). However, as Salon reports, politicians are still siphoning off money from needed social welfare programs to promote the institution of marriage, as some politicians view the decline in marriage as the solution to women's poverty (See this blog post for another rebuttal).
In this sense, regardless of the passage of time, marriage remains the answer to women's poverty, not progressive ideas such as equal pay for equal work, affordable childcare, or flexible work hours. Social change remains slow and stagnant in those regards, and repeated calls for "traditional families" (or as Stephanie Coontz put it, "The Way we Never Were") resist real societal changes that might actually strengthen marriages (those equal partnerships that we know make relationships stronger, healthier, and happier). Confusingly, even as things appear to change, they sometimes stay the same. David Blankenhorn, known for opposing same-sex marriage changed his stance in 2012. While this seemed like progress at first glance, what he actually is doing is attempting to co-opt the LGBT activist cause of access to a societal institution and trying to repackage it in a way that pushes marriage as a solution to poverty. (You can hear his agenda on a recent podcast of "As It Happens" which starts at 33:25). Instead of fancy messaging to make marriage seem cool, why not investigate what people who are not married (whether by choice or opportunity) have to say on the matter? My guess is it's because we don't want to hear what they have to say. That might call us to real action.