Monthly Archives: December 2012

Culture, Religion, and Inequality in “The Curse of Chalion”

Lois McMaster Bujold is a well-beloved science fiction and fantasy writer, and I read her award winning book “The Curse of Chalion” at the recommendation of a friend and my spouse. I tore through it, and now, I’m starting the second book that won a Hugo award called “Paladin of Souls.”  The fantasy world is set in an analogue to Europe in medieval times.  As I was listening to “Stuff you Missed in History Class” podcasts this week, I suddenly realized that there were similar characters and situations to life like of Juana “La Loca,” the daughter of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon.  From listening to the podcasts, it seems that she may not have deserved the stigmatizing label that was applied to her: she was manipulated by others who hoped to control the crown.  When I noticed this connection, I went to see if the world really was inspired by this period.   While the story may be based on this period in history, the plot is fresh and diverges considerably from history.

Similar to my posts on George R. R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire,” I’m always interested in exploring inequality in fantasy worlds.  I felt that Bujold did a good job of exploring gender inequality and stratification.  The characters live in a patriarchal society, where men have more power and privileges than women.  However, women sometimes come to power in a monarchy.  The characterization of all of the main characters was excellent in this one.  While Cazaril fulfills many gender roles, he is also very sensitive and introspective.  I appreciate the fact that he does not seek out violence against others, as a principle.  He is in charge of one of the heirs to the throne, a young woman in her teens, and she is shown to be impulsive, intelligent, and decisive.  She is shown to shine compared with her younger brother, the direct heir.  Of course, this book also dealt with stratification based on position in the hierarchy.  While there are tensions between different cultures, there does not appear to be nationalism or racial inequality.  (By racial inequality here, I mean different treatment based on perceived genetic differences, like skin color in the U.S.)

As a sociologist, I’m particularly interested in culture, particularly norms and values, as I’ve discussed before here.  Bujold does an excellent job of showing you the culture of her world organically.  She exposes the reader to the values of the society, including religious values through the discussion and actions of the characters.  The norms of the world are different than ours but are developed in understandable ways.  I loved how she explored religion in the book, and I enjoyed the nod to “The Canterbury Tales” at one point.  There appears to be religious stratification based on the different gods, and I hope this is explored more in the second book.  Finally, the prose is lovely and the plot is fast paced. I’m looking forward to reading her second book, “The Paladin of Souls” over the holiday.



Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Sociology

Review of “Mortality” by Hitchens and Brief Thoughts on Violence and Gender

“To the dumb question ‘why me’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?” (Hitchens 6).

This post may be a bit different than the others because this short book evoked many emotions including sadness, fear, and joy, as well as the fact that I’m dealing with my turmoil over the deaths of the children and teachers at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut right now.

Part 1: Book Review of “Mortality”

This book review is of Christopher Hitchens book, “Mortality,” written after he was diagnosed with cancer.  Although I was well aware of who Hitchens was considering the fact that he was a controversial public figure, I have never personally read any of his materials until now.  I decided to start at the end of his life and work backwards.  This short book of only just over a hundred pages only took me part of an afternoon to read at my favorite coffee shop, and it brought me to tears.  It is rare that I cry when reading, especially in public.  In some ways, the book is raw look at the experiences of having terminal cancer, but it was told by a writer with a brilliant mind and expansive knowledge.  At one point, he discussed how he did not fit some of the stages of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief.  I loved this quote by Hitchens:

In one way, I suppose, I have been ‘in denial’ for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light.  But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have no succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me (5).

He goes on to discuss his feelings of loss at not seeing important family and societal events, but he also recognizes this as a form of self pity, using the quote that I placed at the top of this post.

Additionally, Hitchens spends time discussing the norms surrounding being a cancer patient and interacting with other people.  One of my favorite parts of the book is when he explores the norm surrounding the phrase, “How are you?” (40).  In the US, as he mentions we often ask the question without expecting a deep, or even true, answer.  I think about how many times I’ve been having a terrible day and someone asks me this at the grocery store. At some point, I decided that the rote response (or lie), wouldn’t work for me anymore.  Often, I say “I’m okay,” which still may be overly enthusiastic compared to my actual feelings.  I’ve actually seen this “script” discussed as both a positive and negative for society.  Hitchens discusses his own responses to this question, depending on who is asking.

Throughout the book, he discusses his feelings about the people rejoicing, often for “religious” reasons, in his painful death. (Hitchens was a loud voice for a particular type of atheism.   I thought that this section of the book was truly powerful.  I personally despise it when people discuss how it’s God’s will that something negative or positive happens and how victims of a particular situation brought it on themselves with some kind of “immoral” act.)

The most powerful section of Hitchens, “Mortality,” for me was the one on the erosion of his ability to continue to use his powerful, well-known voice.  Of course, it is heartbreaking for anyone to lose their voice, but for a man who made a great difference, for good or ill in the world based on speaking, it seems even more tragic.  This was the section that brought me to tears.  He discusses how voice is tied to identity and gives some excellent advice for authors that I’ve taken to heart, relating to finding your voice.

As far as recommending this book, I found it to be a powerful look at illness, cancer, life, death, religion, identity, and many other topics.  As I have lost loved ones to cancer and have seen the physically and emotionally wracking effects first hand, I actually found his words to to be very refreshingly realistic and hopefully helpful for interacting with persons with terminal cancer in the future.  Some readers may prefer to remain blissfully ignorant of the many changes a person’s body and mind may go through during cancer and might find this book to be too “accurate” or detailed.  For me, though, I generally  prefer to know the unvarnished truth.  His advice on identity, finding your voice and writing were helpful to me as a writer, and I might write a post exclusively on that another time. I respect Christopher Hitchens, even when I don’t agree with his positions, because he was willing to cut right to the heart of the matter.  I look forward to reading “Hitch-22” sometime in January.  I was pondering this book still when the tragic shooting happened in Connecticut, and it led to some of the following thoughts.


Part 2: Mortality of Children in Tragedy

Obviously, dying is dying in one regard. It comes for all of us eventually, and in that way maybe it is “fair.”  But we emotionally experience it quite differently depending on all kinds of factors, depending on our culture and norms, religion (or lack thereof), philosophy, the age of the person(s) dying, our relationship to the person dying, the type of death, how directly it impacts our daily lives and many other factors.  This week, I felt a great deal of sadness at both thinking of Christopher Hitchens slow, painful death, and the sudden and untimely death of children and staff at Sandy Hook school in Connecticut. Like many people, I find myself thinking about the implications of all of this.  As a sociology instructor, while I think it is important to talk about gun control and the ease at which people can get assault rifles, I tend to reflect more on other cultural factors.

As Jackson Katz said in his documentary, “Tough Guise” in 2001, we need to be thinking about violent masculinity.  (If you haven’t had a chance to see this documentary, it is very relevant, though older.)  Masculinity, and femininity for that matter, are not the same from culture to culture, as has been shown through anthropological studies like Margaret Mead’s work.  (There are critiques of some of this research, too.)  Even what is considered ideally feminine or masculine within the history of the US has changed.  “Tough Guise” focuses on “violent” masculinity and how images in the media may play a role in shaping the identities of men in our culture.  Although my students and I usually laugh at points in the video, like when it is shown how ridiculously “ripped” even the action figures that boys play with have become over a few decades, there are many extremely serious points.  Katz points out that school shooters are men.  He addresses why he thinks this is happening.  This week he has written a blog post for Huffingtonpost.  Near the end of the video, Katz points out that all of us have a role to play in changing the norms surrounding this, including women.  For other sociologists, there is a post on sociological cinema with a clip of Katz’s documentary this week.  (I highly recommend sociological cinema for finding good clips to demonstrate concepts for class. I use it all the time during the semester in both my online and seated classes.)

I realize that I may personally play a role in this violent masculinity.  While I ethically disagree with violence as a solution to problems, I put my money into all kinds of violent portrayals of masculinity, as witnessed by this blog.  I’d like to live in a society where men do not have to be seen as violent or aggressive to be good men.  Personally, I think that there needs to be more blurring of the lines when it comes to gender.  We need to move away from rigid, dichotomous definitions of what it means to be a woman or man. As adults, we need to reduce our own behaviors bullying others so that children and teens will be more tolerant and even accepting of a wide range of people.  Children learn from role modeling, and adults often subtly (and not so subtly) act in ways that are disparaging towards others.  While I feel that the individual is important, and we should learn to think for ourselves, I feel that the strong streak of individualism in the US may be our undoing.  We need to form stronger bonds with others in our communities, reaching out past the normal lines that divide us.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Sociology, Writing

Review of “The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times” by Arlie Hochschild

In reference to consulting for online dating:  “So part of getting the ‘real you’ out there required the suppression of the too real you” (Hochschild 25).

“The very ease with which we reach for market services may also prevent us from noticing the remarkable degree to which the market has come to dominate our very ideas about what can or should be for sale or rent, and who should be included in the dramatic cast-buyers, branders, and sellers—that we imagine as a part of a personal life” (Hochschild 223).

Although I teach introductory sociology at a community college, I discovered sociology by accident as an elective during my junior year of college.  Psychology and sociology both intrigue me.  For more than a decade, I’ve been a fan of Dr. Arlie Hochschild’s research and writing style.  Her previous research on the emotional labor that we perform to do our jobs, as well as her research on the second shift work that (mainly) women perform when they arrive home from their jobs fascinates me.  When I saw that she was publishing a new book on “The Outsourced Self: Intimate Life in Market Times,” I knew that it had to go on my bookshelf.

While Hochschild performs outstanding research, I like the fact that she tries to reach a larger audience than academics with her writing style.  This trend continued in “The Outsourced Self.”  It was an easy read in terms of the language, but emotionally, I found it to be both a challenging and rewarding read.  At times, the topics addressed in the book were heartbreaking as people tried to muddle through their lives in modern times.  Many of the interviewees outsourced some work to others while maintaining control over other aspects of their lives.  Hochschild’s use of her own family experiences in the past and present to illustrate the differences over time were helpful and interesting. She begins the book by talking about the village from a century ago, where there was a spirit of “just do.”  This is the idea that the entire community would pitch in to help others without even questioning.  Today, we are moving more and more towards employing strangers to complete the work we need done instead of family, or even friends.  However, while there are many examples of how this change may be harming people, there are also examples in the book of positive relationships between the people hiring work to be done and those completing it.

It struck me as important that people drew the “line in the sand” about outsourcing in different places.  The book covers outsourcing throughout the entire life course, from birth to death.  It actually begins with a look at at online dating.  While many people are likely familiar with online dating, I was surprised to learn just how much of the process people were willing to turn over to a consultant.  This section disturbed me because it seems that people are allowing themselves to be quantified and objectified by the market.  I wonder how this impacts how people view themselves and others.

In the second chapter of the book, I was already well aware of the wedding planner phenomena, as my family decided to hire one for the day of our wedding.  We did this due to the fact that family members were in different places, similar to the people discussed in the book.  Hochschild points out that “through outsourcing, they repersonalized their lives” (55).  The consultant talked to the couple about their relationship and helped them come up with a very personal display of their wedding.  The couple (and others) got to choose what they did want to be in control of versus what they were willing to hand over to the consultant.  After the marriage, couples therapists can help the couple through difficulties in their relationship.  It used to be the case for many families that you did not talk to strangers about your problems.  In one of the cases in the book, Rachel and Roger visited Sophie for counseling.  Sophie was involved in their lives, even being present when Roger was dying.  I was mildly surprised about the fact that online couples counseling is growing.

There are two chapters on surrogacy: the first from the point of view of the parents employing a woman to carry their child and the second from the point of view of the surrogates.  For me, these chapters were the most emotionally difficult to read.  On the one hand, I don’t want to be inherently afraid of new technologies.  However, there is a huge component of global inequality involved in this.  There is great stigma attached to the women who are willing to be surrogates in many places like India.  Often, they are doing this because they don’t seem to have many other choices.  It isn’t always the case, but sometimes, the infants are removed after a Caesarean section.  This causes the surrogates to feel more alienated compared to when they are able to hand the infant over willingly to the other parents.  Then, for some, it feels more like a gift than just a cold financial interaction.  Surrogates were also instructed to “think of their wombs as carriers, bags, suitcases, something external to themselves” (99).  Perhaps this allows the women to be surrogates, but I still wonder what is the cost.  Does this create alienation from one’s own body?  Like many other goods and services, Hochschild also brings up important questions as to different clinics in various countries trying to undercut one another.  There are many other great sections in this book like a discussion of outsourcing care of the elderly.  With the baby boomer generation aging, combined with the fact that average life expectancy is longer, there are important norms to be established regarding the care of older individuals.

I highly recommend this book for anyone, academic or not.  From an academic standpoint, it is an important work.  Yet, it also resonated with me personally.  Many people I know, myself included, have to decide about how much of our lives we want to outsource to others.  What is ethical?  What isn’t?

Questions for thought:

(1) What outsourcing are you comfortable with in your life?  What do you feel like you should do for yourself or your family?

(2) If you’ve done this type of labor, how do you feel that it impacts you?  Positively?  Negatively?

(3) How do we avoid objectifying people?

(4) What should the community be responsible for?  Are we better off now or not?


Filed under Book Reviews, Sociology

Bending and Conforming to Gender Roles: “Once Upon A Time” Season 1

[Spoilers through the last episode of Season 1]

Prince Charming states, “You’re a girl.”

Snow White corrects him before knocking him out with a rock, “Woman.”

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been avidly watching the first season of the TV show “Once Upon a Time,” and finished it last weekend.  Although I haven’t heard many people talking about this show, it’s really entertaining, beautiful, and gruesome.  Of course, I’m always watching for stereotyping and gender roles, and the show seems to fulfill some traditional gender roles while turning others upside down.  The premise of the show is that an evil queen (and witch) decides to get revenge on Snow White and other fairy tale characters by transporting the characters to our world.  The characters have no memories of their former lives, and  the show explores both worlds in the first season.  While the story line in our world develops chronologically, the fairy tale world is explored out of order.

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, I appreciate character development and exploration of identity.  Since the characters don’t remember who they are, many of them are struggling with aspects of identity and feeling unfulfilled in their lives in our world. Although there are criticisms of Maslow’s hierarchy, the psychological concept, the characters begin to self-actualize and determine who they are throughout the season.  However, the evil queen, determined to make them suffer, blocks them at every turn.

Many sociologists and others have critiqued Disney’s movies and heroines for various reasons, including ethnocentrism, racism, and sexism.  Speaking to gender, most, if not all, of the princesses reified traditional, US femininity.  For purposes of this blogpost, I’m going to focus solely on Snow White, due to the fact that her life is the central focus of Season 1 of “Once Upon A Time.”  In the original Disney film from 1937, Snow White is hated by her step-mother for her beauty, and Snow White becomes the victim of her step-mother’s nefarious plotting.  Snow White is essentially enslaved by her step-mother and is the target of a murder plot because the magic mirror informs her step-mother that Snow White is the fairest.  Although this likely refers to outward beauty, which lends itself to objectification, it may also relate to the fact that Snow White also fulfills many traditional feminine gender roles like being kind, caring, and hard working, at least in terms of cleaning.  Eventually, she falls victim to a plot with an poisoned apple and is revived by “true love’s” kiss by Prince Charming.

In “Once Upon a Time,” in the fairy tale world, Snow’s story is woven over the course of the season.  It turns out that, as a girl, she fulfilled some of the gender roles of her predecessor, but then her step-mother, the Queen, decides to get revenge for an event that happened when Snow was a child.  Snow has to flee the huntsman, but she becomes a warrior and a thief to take care of herself in the forest.  She does become friends with the Dwarves, but she doesn’t have the same relationship with them.  While she meets her “Prince Charming,” she steals valuables from his carriage.  He chases her down and reacts with surprise that she’s a woman, leading to the interaction and dialogue included in the beginning of this post.  One of my pet peeves that I occasionally slip into myself is calling grown women, “girls,” which infantilizes us.  I think this interaction encapsulates the key components of this incarnation of Snow White.  She is action oriented and dominant while standing up for herself and others.  She doesn’t conform to the gender roles of her own society, nor our society’s traditional gender roles.  Eventually, they both rescue one another from danger.  Snow White and “Prince Charming” marry, and the evil Queen comes to destroy everyone’s happiness.  The gigantic spell carries them all to our world.  They save their infant daughter, Emma, from the curse by sending her to our world.  She is raised in the foster care system, has a child at a young age that she gives up for adoption, and comes to Storybrook when he needs her help.  Emma is also not a traditional heroine based on US values.

In the fairy tale world, Snow is not shown as a demure person who fulfills the gender roles expected of her.  In the “real” world of Storybrook, Maine, she, like all the characters, have no memories of her past.  Here, she is a school teacher, fulfilling her gender roles.  Occasionally, her old personality asserts itself in startling ways throughout the season.  She begins having an affair, and eventually gets called names like “tramp” by the other characters.  This looks at how sexism remains in our culture, where women are often censured more than men for their sexuality.  (Men are also subject to social control when it comes to affairs.) To spoil the end of season 1, Snow’s daughter, Emma, saves her own son with “true love’s” kiss.  Although this is a refreshing change to the traditional idea that “true love” is romantic love, in some ways, it still relates to traditional gender roles.  Emma gave up her son at birth, and the show is developing her road back to motherhood.  While I enjoyed this plotline, I also think that it reinforces traditional gender roles for women.  On the other hand, Emma is shown repeatedly to enact masculine gender roles.

I look forward to seeing how the show handles gender roles in Season 2 as more characters begin to show up.  It’d be illuminating to explore the gender roles of villains in the show, too.

What examples of gender roles do you see in Season 1 of “Once Upon a Time”?  What examples are there that bend the rules?



Filed under Fantasy, Sociology, TV Show Reviews