All posts by amias

Timely Sociology: Gay Rights at the Ballot Box

On Tuesday evening, Dr. Amy L. Stone, assistant professor of sociology at Trinity University, gave a reading and discussion of her recently released book Gay Rights at the Ballot Box at Bookwoman, one of the many vibrant independent bookstores here in Austin.  It was a great event well attended by UT sociology students as well as by the Austin LGBT community at large, and given the impending election, incredibly timely as well.

Outside of the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Hate Crimes Act, which protects gay, lesbian, and transgendered people from crimes based upon their sexual or gender identity, LGBT persons have no rights codified on the federal level.  As a result the LGBT community has engaged in a state strategy.  This has led to some results, but these results are always vulnerable to recension and are heavily dependent on the sways of public opinion.  Dr. Stone’s interest lies in the ways in which these state campaigns interact with the larger LGBT movement, and at times, how they reveal tensions between those who feel they may benefit from these rights and those who feel they may not (such as transgendered individuals and gays/lesbians of color).

To explore the interactions between national and state based activism, Dr. Stone researched over two hundred anti-gay ballot measures across the United States in a six year study.  How do state based LGBT organizations fight discriminatory political measures?   Stone’s work identifies three main strategies.  One, they identify and mobilize.  This can be as simple as “feet on the ground,” door to door activism in smaller states, or it can be a complex process of finding, tracking, and micromarketing to progressive voters in a large state such as California.  Two, they create effective messaging.  Early messaging focused on anti-gay measures as being invasions of personal privacy and infringements of “big government” onto the lives of individuals, but these met with little success.  More recently the message has been that anti-gay measures are about discrimination, and Stone reports that this framing is much more effective.  As Stone astutely pointed out to us however, the message is anti-discrimination, not pro-equality, as full equality is still seen as radical.  And three, in states looking to pass enhanced Defense of Marriage Acts that would divest marriage rights from heterosexual civil unions and domestic partnerships as well as gays and lesbians, effective messaging makes the “Super DOMA” as much about the rights of unmarried heterosexuals as it is about same sex marriage.  This takes the “gay” out of “gay marriage,” and as a result, the messaging is both highly effective and highly problematic.

More recently, anti-gay and gay rights ballot measures have expanded from states where ballot initiatives are common or where the LGBT community is demographically strong – Oregon or California, for example – out to heartland states.  But unlike the former, the lack of prior ballot measures has meant these new states do not have the stable and robust activist organization that comes after a series of protracted political battles.  As a result, these LGBT communities face an uphill battle fighting the measures and receive little support from national organizations, who see these campaigns as losing bets.  Nonetheless, Stone demonstrates that while these battles indeed often end in defeat, the legacies are robust statewide organizations that prime the community and produce the structures for more effective political mobilization in the future.

Part of Dr. Stone’s analysis also looks at the ways in which the religious right has modified their argument against LGBT rights to fit the rapidly changing culture.  Here we see a move from virulent, openly homophobic rhetoric painting gays and lesbians as deviant, possibly pedophiliac predators to more subtle messaging.  For example, Stone related to the audience one ad where a young girl returns from school to happily inform her parents  that “two princes can marry each other and I can marry a princess too!”  The underlying message: big government is using public education to socialize your children into morals you may not agree with.  Another ad Stone discussed highlighted a gay man opining that he doesn’t really need gay marriage, he’s perfectly fine with civil unions!  Stone suggests that this ad works towards telling “on the fence” voters that it’s OK to vote against gay rights, that their ideals of equality and their desire to keep marriage “heterosexual only” are NOT in contradiction.  (I found this line of messaging eerily similar to some presidential ads I have seen recently, where the focus is on convincing the independent white 2008 Obama voter that it’s OK to not vote for Obama this time)

In sum, Dr. Stone’s work offers one of the first truly comprehensive sociological analyses of state based LGBT political mobilization and as a result is an essential text for those interested in LGBT rights specifically or public policy generally.  Furthermore, her attention to the interaction between national and state organizations should offer interesting data and insights for scholars of social movements and political change.  A special thanks to Bookwoman for hosting such an informative and important event.

Gay Rights at the Ballot Box is available for purchase in Austin at….wait for it….Bookwoman (5501 N. Lamar)!  For those not lucky enough to live in Austin, Gay Rights at the Ballot Box can be purchased at amazon.coms everywhere. 

UT Sociology Graduate Community: The Race & Ethnicity Group

This past Friday, the Race & Ethnicity graduate student community group held its first meeting.  Founded in 2009, the group was created with three main goals in mind.  The first is to offer graduate students interested in race & ethnicity a supportive and collaborative place to workshop and discuss their work and papers in progress.  The second is to create a timely space where we can critically examine the ways in which race & ethnicity operate in current events and if necessary, make a political intervention into the discourse.  This was the case last spring, when several members of the race & ethnicity group along with Dr. Ben Carrington authored a Daily Texan column addressing the Trayvon Martin shooting.  Our final goal is to bring in respected and innovative scholars of race & ethnicity to discuss their works with the UT community.  To that end, the group has sponsored or co-sponsored talks by Drs. Joe Feagin, Adia Harvey Wingfield, John Sugden, and Beccy Watson among others.

This fall, we will be examining media representations of race broadly and the ways in which race & ethnicity are understood and discussed by the media in the 2012 election specifically.  In June, UT sociology professors Dr. Ben Carrington and Dr. Simone Browne co-edited a special issue of Qualitative Sociology entitled “The Obamas and the New Politics of Race” (currently available for free) and at our next meeting we will be discussing selected articles from the issue as a springboard into our semester-long conversation.  As part of our speaker series, in December we will be privileged to welcome Dr. Avery Gordon, author of Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination.  Dr. Gordon’s work demonstrates that past or haunting social forces control present life in different and more complicated ways than most social analysts presume and offers new ways to theorize the complex intersections of race, gender, and class.

We encourage any UT graduate students involved in race & ethnicity studies to e-mail Amias Maldonado ( for details on future meetings, as we strive to create a multidisciplinary, inclusive atmosphere that encourages intellectual collaboration and academic community.

Image Credit: Humanity, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collabratory

Marx Attacks!: A Lesson in Collective Effervescence

Here at the UT Department of Sociology, we believe in one simple truth: the history of the world is the history of football (or soccer, if you’d like to be American about it) struggle.  There is a dialectic between the talented and the talentless, and out of that primordial stew, somewhere, somehow, the UT Sociology Intramural Football team arose.  Now in its fourth year, the team stands as a shining example that graduate students do indeed recognize a world that exists outside our piles of books and revise-and-resubmit articles.  Under the name Marx Attacks! – for we are both economic materialists and a green, space faring race from Mars that has come to destroy the planet in a very 1950s pulp fiction way – we continue to fight the good fight, confident that one day the people will rise up behind us and declare to the world “Hey, these guys are pretty good for being grad students!  Maybe we should let them score more.”

The team is always looking for new players of any skill level to join. We play outdoors at the IM fields for four weeks in the fall, and indoors at the Rec Sports Gym on campus for four weeks in the spring. We try and practice once a week, and often head to the Flying Saucer afterward. During practices, we sometimes scrimmage against other departments and programs – mainly history and LLILAS.

Professors Javier Auyero, Ben Carrington, Art Sakamoto, and Alex Weinreb (together known as the “athletic vanguard”) have graced us with their presence on occasion in the past; professors, students, and enthusiastic spectators are welcome. The more, the merrier!

Email Eric Borja if you’d like to join us:


Chicken & Soda: Power and Stereotypes in Advertisements

Recently, Burger King has been under fire due to a leaked commercial starring hip-hop singer Mary J. Blige promoting their new crispy chicken wraps.  In the commercial, a customer asks a Burger King cashier what’s in the new crispy chicken wrap, and before she can answer, Blige appears in the dining room and rhapsodizes about “crispy chicken, fresh lettuce, three cheeses, ranch dressing wrapped up in a tasty flour tortilla.”  During the performance, Blige’s vocals are backed by a hip-hop beat and the Burger King slowly transforms from a fast food eatery to a hazy night club, replete with flashing multi-colored lights and patrons getting their groove on.

The ad was quickly picked up as a topic of conversation by our ravenous cyberculture.  Unsurprisingly, most of the attention was focused on the ways in which the ad invokes and promotes black stereotypes in the service of appealing to a black demographic.  As a blogger on Madam Noire put it, “Having a black woman sing about chicken was no mistake. They’re trying to reach the “urban” (aka black) demographic. And God knows black folk, won’t buy anything unless there’s a song, and preferably a dance, attached to it.”  Even Forbes magazine contributed a piece showing how the ad has significantly decreased the standing of Burger King in the African-American population.

In the Burger King ad, racial stereotypes – black people love fried chicken and hip-hop! -are used to try and sell a product to a specific demographic.  By employing these stereotypes, Burger King left itself open to the critique that their representation of the black consumer is essentialist and offensive.  Yet this advertising strategy is not new, and in fact has been successfully employed as recently as last year:

In the ads run by Dr. Pepper in 2011, their new diet drink Dr. Pepper 10 was sold with the tagline “it’s not for women,” and used a variety of masculine stereotypes – Yay action, guns explosions!  Boo romantic comedies and “lady drinks”! – to pitch their product to a specific demographic: men.  In essence – and leaving aside the deeply problematic ways in which the commercial denigrates femininity – this advertisement was just as essentialist and offensive as the Burger King ad, only it drew on stereotypes of masculinity instead of black people.  And while this advertising campaign indeed did hurt Dr. Pepper’s standing in the eyes of consumers,  the commercials continue to run and you can still like Dr. Pepper 10 on Facebook for access to Dr. Pepper 10’s “Ten Manaments.”  So what’s going on here?  If both of these advertising campaigns are using stereotypes to sell products, why has the backlash against the Burger King ads caused such an uproar while the Dr. Pepper 10 campaign continues?

The largest difference in these two advertising campaigns is power.  I hope I’m not rocking anyone’s world when I say that men hold more power in our society than black people.  By this I mean to say that in our patriarchal society men, through their demographic weight at advertising firms, movie studios, and television channels, especially in terms of upper management and direction, are well situated structurally to define what a “real” man is.  If the exaggerated masculine identity in the Dr. Pepper 10 ad is a joke, the position of men in creating the ad means the joke is self-deprecating.  By contrast, black people have by and large very little say in the sort of images and identities that circulate depicting blackness and black culture.  If the stereotypical blackness in the Burger King ad is a joke, the joke is on them.  To put this sociologically, we might say that that the powerful position occupied by men in society allows them to choose, or assume the hypermasculine identity displayed in the Dr. Pepper 10 ad, but it also allows them to reject it.  For black people however, the lack of power means that the vision of blackness put forth by Burger King does not come from black people themselves but is imposed, or assigned by the dominant (white) culture.  Because the identity is assigned externally and because the identity lines up with dominant cultural stereotypes, there is no option to accept or reject the association made between themselves and the chicken loving, clubbing version of themselves offered by Burger King.

Another way this power imbalance shows up is in heterogeneity of representation in media.  Dr. Pepper 10 may play into a stereotypical version of masculinity, but there are a myriad of cultural productions that display different performances and embodiments of masculinity than shown in the ad.  We have Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jason Stratham, but we also have Jim Carrey or Adrian Brody.  We have Team Edward, but we also have Team Jacob.  But when it comes to portraying black people, the types of representations offered in popular media are much more stereotypical.  While there has been arguable progress on this point, representations showing black people as angry, violent, criminal, or hypersexual still dominate American movies, television, and advertisements.  In short, the Dr. Pepper 10 ad does not lead the average viewer to the conclusion that all men must be like that, because the idea that there are more diverse ways to “be a man” than those offered in the commercial is patently obvious to them.  In contrast, because the media shows us less ways to “be a black person,” the vision of blackness promoted by the commercial snugly fits into the limited identities popular culture puts forth, thereby helping to reify stereotypes about black people.  Furthermore, and unlike men, there are many places in the United States where the largest exposure people have to black people is through media representation, giving these representations added weight in shaping who black people are or should be in the eyes of the viewer.

Another factor that must be taken into consideration when sociologically thinking about the reasons for these disparate responses is history.  The association between black people and fried chicken has a long history, dating from the days of slavery where blacks ate fried chicken in the form of table scraps from slave owners.  Then in the early days of film, blacks were uniformly portrayed as chicken eating, dancing and jiving buffoons, willing to lie and commit crimes to get their chicken fix.  More recently, we might recall Fuzzy Zoeller’s line to Tiger Woods after winning his first Masters championship asking him not to order fried chicken and collard greens for the Champion Dinner.  The idea that all black people like fried chicken is obviously problematic, as its posits what one likes to eat as somehow derived from biology instead of being a personal predilection.  As Dave Chappelle facetiously put it, “All these years I thought I liked chicken because it was delicious.  It turns out I’m genetically predisposed to liking chicken.”  For black people, having Burger King assume they like fried chicken signals more than just culinary disposition.  It also aligns with a long cultural history which uses such apparently benign stereotypes to buttress more nefarious ones.  If the average white viewer believes that his “black people like fried chicken” view has been validated through the Burger King commercial, the leap to take more negative stereotypes about black people  as fact – criminality or hypersexuality, for example – is a much smaller one.  This process has been touched on by some commentators during the course of discussing the ad when they describe the ways in which they avoid eating foods traditionally associated with the black community in public, afraid that the impression they want to give (“I like this food”) is not the impression people get (“See?  Black people really do like that food!”).  This again points to the workings of power in the difference between assumed and assigned identity.

In conclusion, the disparate reactions to the Burger King and Dr. Pepper 10 commercials demonstrate that you can’t examine how stereotypes operate in society without paying attention to power and history.  As shown in this popular parody of the Mary J. Blige ad, Burger King failed to realize that when you deal in racialized generalizations, you’re bringing a lot more to the table than just a tasty wrap.


Amias Maldonado is a doctoral student at the University of Texas.  His research interests include gender, sexuality, and critical race theory.  He was born and raised in San Antonio and as such, he finds both fried chicken in a tortilla and Dr. Pepper without real sugary goodness completely ridiculous.