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3 Teaching Sex and Gender in an Ironically Sexist World

3 Teaching Sex and Gender in an Ironically Sexist World

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Doing Critical Pedagogy in an Ironically Sexist World


exercises that require students to scrutinize sexist media messages can provide

opportunities for students to develop a critical eye for identifying sexist media in its

more covert, ironic forms.

Assignments that draw upon popular culture can also help students to learn more

“deeply” about ironic sexism. Unlike the short-term memorization that characterizes “surface learning,” deep learning involves long-term comprehension and perspective transformation (Tagg 2003). Popular media analysis assignments that

highlight ironic sexism and feminist criticism provide students with an opportunity

to make meaning of course material in the context of their own lives. By drawing

upon the popular media that students engage daily, assignments are placed in a

highly relevant context, facilitating a deeper approach to learning (Roberts and

Roberts 2008). Moreover, deep learning also occurs when students have an “affective” connection to the material they are learning. Visual media steeped in popular

culture is often an emotionally resonant type of media that can enhance affective

learning (Andrist et al. 2014).

One example of an assignment that draws upon popular culture and can encourage students to identify and analyze ironically sexist media is a short writing assignment centered on online videos (Dean 2012a, b; see also Appendix A). In the

assignment students are required to find a short online video they believe carries an

ironically sexist delivery, and in one highly-polished page of writing, make an argument why they think the content is sexist. Students must draw on feminist analytical

concepts introduced in the course when crafting their analysis. In line with Tagg’s

(2003) insight about perspective transformation, students can be encouraged to

entertain other perspectives, even while making a strong case for their own. While

giving students experience in applying concepts, the exercise also encourages students to become more critical consumers of popular media.

Second, given that ironic sexism is often initially difficult to identify, dialogic

writing assignments that alternate between students submitting written analyses of

media and readers providing feedback are often useful. An example of this type of

assignment, titled “Rated R for Retro Sexism,” is included in Appendix A. This

assignment asks students to work closely with instructors to develop their critiques

over time, through iterative drafts, but the assignment can be easily modified to

encourage students to engage in a critical dialogue with each other in order to

sharpen their critiques of media. As Tsui (2002) notes, instructional techniques that

emphasize writing and rewriting are crucial for helping students develop higherorder cognitive skills, specifically, the ability to think critically, i.e., the type of

thinking students engage when analyzing and evaluating multiple interpretations of

media. Importantly, as Tsui’s research also demonstrates, the assignments that best

cultivate critical thinking do not simply ask students to write a lot, but rather require

students to synthesize, analyze, and refine their ideas through the writing process.

Ultimately, students have the challenging task of articulating what is sexist about

ironically sexist media. Thus, the third category of assignments we identify is

geared toward familiarizing students with course concepts, particularly those associated with feminist media criticism. Focused on reading comprehension, Roberts

and Roberts (2008) argue: “if the readings themselves elicit and require ‘perspective


V. Chepp and L. Andrist

taking’—a process that is at the very core of deep learning (Roberts 2002; Tagg

2003)—students will find that they become more deeply engaged” (130). We argue

that perspective taking is also centrally important in media analysis, and can be

achieved with either written assignments or classroom discussions. Specifically, a

debate-style, in-class activity in which students argue “for” or “against” the existence of sexism within a given piece of media can be effective. Class debates can

entertain the perspective that the media in question is simply “all in good fun,” but

students can be pressed to consider whether the media is also working to reinforce

patterns of inequality within patriarchal social structures, whether it promotes sexist

ideas, and whether it constitutes a legitimate, albeit satirical, critique of sexism.

Whether moderating a classroom discussion or providing students with feedback

on their written work, it is useful to take the role of the devil’s advocate. To return

to the case of ironic hypermasculinity in advertising, take the example of one memorable Old Spice commercial featuring actor Isaiah Mustafa, who seamlessly transitions from stepping out of a shower to mounting a white horse in the span of 30

seconds (Old Spice 2010). One typical dialogue between a teacher and student

might begin with a student pointing out that this commercial is sexist because it

conveys the idea that to be a real man one needs to resemble Mustafa, whose character emanates strength and confidence. The instructor might respond by asking the

student to consider whether it makes a difference that the commercial seems to be

making fun of itself and that the main character is clearly performing an exaggerated masculinity. If the student declares instead that the commercial is a critique of

masculinity, the instructor might ask the student to specify the critique. There are

many potential meanings in any given example of visual media, but what is the

preferred meaning? That is, what is the meaning Old Spice intends to privilege? In

this case, it is apparent that Old Spice is celebrating hypermasculinity—which functions to uphold hegemonic ideals of masculinity (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005;

Andrist and Chepp 2011)—and probably hoping viewers will associate this celebrated masculinity with their product.

Writing nearly half of a century before the emergence of ironic sexism,

Horkheimer and Adorno (1944) warned of the dangers of ideologies like ironic sexism in our modern culture industry. One of the major insights stemming from this

work was the recognition that popular media serves as a site of domination and a

means of maintaining the status quo. What Horkheimer and Adorno’s theory failed

to address, however, are the ways a critical pedagogy can respond to such ideologically saturated media, serving as a tool to combat the supposed monopoly the culture industry holds over us. Education is thus a crucial site of intervention, and

instructors can facilitate this intervention by drawing upon teaching techniques

rooted in a critical pedagogy: an approach to teaching and learning that is centrally

concerned with shifting power relations and promoting social justice through education (Freire 1970). In this chapter, we have offered several examples of such

teaching techniques that can help students critically engage the ironic sexism in

mass culture. In doing so, instructors can help students learn to recognize the myriad ways in which we live in an ironically sexist world and, at the same time,

empower them with the means to resist it.


Doing Critical Pedagogy in an Ironically Sexist World



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Chapter 16

Coding the Crisis of Masculinity

Kyle Green and Madison Van Oort

As Janet Roitman writes, “crisis is the unexamined point of departure for narration.

It is a blind spot for the production of knowledge about what constitutes historical

significance and about what constitutes social or historical meaning” (2013, 66).

The economy, the climate, and the institution of marriage are widely thought of as

being in crisis. So, too, it seems, are men. A quick skim through headlines in the

paper, popular news magazines, or on the Internet is enough to make clear that

American men are perceived as under attack and American masculinity as suffering.

The trigger for the incensed proclamations cover the spectrum from the decline of

manufacturing jobs, the increasing numbers of women in positions of power in the

workforce and political office, the educational successes of young women and girls,

the lack of attention paid to the domestic abuse of men, sexual assault legislation,

the rise of the “metrosexual,” and perceived lack of space for and celebration of that

good old, rough-and-tumble brand of masculinity. All fall under the umbrella of a

perceived crisis. And, while the loudest cries often come from the more conservative sources, the crisis of masculinity discourse has shown resiliency and adaptability, regularly returning with new iterations permeating the language of both the left

and the right. In particular, popular laments invoking the “Mancession,” and the

“End of Men,” transcend political party, and often the dialogue is both impassioned

and personal.1 It is the strength, pervasiveness, and contentious nature of the


The “Mancession” is a term that was coined during the 2008 economic crisis, referring to studies showing that the downturn more strongly hit men, with women in the service industry holding

onto their jobs (Thompson 2009). This term obscures the racial disparity in unemployment as

well as women slower job recovery (Covert 2012b). The “End of Men” refers to the argument

K. Green (*)

Utica College, Utica, NY, USA

e-mail: kyledgreen@gmail.com

M. Van Oort

University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN, USA

e-mail: vanoo009@umn.edu

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

K. Haltinner, R. Pilgeram (eds.), Teaching Gender and Sex

in Contemporary America, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-30364-2_16



K. Green and M. Van Oort

discourse that make it both an important and difficult topic for the sociology


In this chapter we seek to accomplish four goals. First, we situate the way that

scholars have treated the crisis of masculinity and argue for the topic as one worthy

of (critical) engagement in the undergraduate classroom; second, we reflect on the

pedagogical strengths and challenges of this topic; third, we argue for the value of

semiotic and discursive coding of commercials as a vehicle for prompting discussion of masculinity in contemporary America. We then offer the reader a teaching

activity based on our publication “‘We Wear No Pants’: Selling the Crisis of

Masculinity in the 2010 Super Bowl Commercials” (Green and Van Oort 2013), in

which students are given the opportunity to code the crisis presented in popular

commercials first aired during the Super Bowl (see Appendix A). We conclude the

article using reflections on our own experiences teaching the activity in Introduction

to Sociology; Research Methods, and Race, Class, and Gender courses to make a

call for embracing complexity and uncertainty in the classroom.


Academic Response: Contextualizing and Critiquing

the Crisis

Scholars, though not particularly convinced by the discourse of men in crisis, have

had a lot to say. Some of the most important work has been illustrating that contrary

to media rhetoric and public opinion, this is not the first time that American men

(and American values by proxy) were declared under attack. In fact, according to

sociologists Dworkin and Wach (2009), there have been at least three previous

major waves of “the crisis of masculinity.” The first occurred at the turn of the twentieth century as a reaction to the rise of first-wave feminism and changes to work

and family dynamics. Popular reactions to middle-class women’s declarations of

boredom with housewifery and demands for political voice included the creation of

the boy scouts and greater institutionalization of sports—both providing a space for

masculine ritual, a place to escape feminizing influence, and the affirmation that

men are different than women (see Kimmel 1996). The second wave crested in the

late 1970s and appeared as a reaction to the gains made by women during the

second-wave feminist movement and received attention due to the work of men’s

rights groups like the mythopoetic men’s movement and the Promise Keepers (see

Messner 1997). The third wave grew during the late 1990s, a time of increased

convergence of the social roles of men and women. During this wave the body was

attributed as both solution to and cause of the crisis. Gym memberships rose as men

sought muscle (and masculinity). In other words, providing historical context to the

“crisis” is a way of demonstrating that men are whining about the same old problems (eg Kimmell 1996) and that “fixing” a “wounded” and “threatened”

posited by Hannah Rosin in her popular book (2012) and article (2010), each bearing the name,

that patriarchy is coming to an end due to women’s success in the classroom and the workplace.

16 Coding the Crisis of Masculinity


masculinity is actually shorthand for reinstating a masculinity from times past when

‘men were men,’ the gendered hierarchy was more stable, and roles more defined.

Other scholars have provided detailed examination of the data in the specific

social areas seen as part of the crisis (work, education, crime, family, sexuality,

health, representations) to show that the crisis is based on misguided reading of

trends (e.g., Connell 2000; Adams and Coltrane 2004). One example comes in the

form of recent critiques of Hannah Rosin’s announcement of the “end of men.” In

Rosin’s influential essay in the Atlantic (2010), she asserts that women’s supposedly

innate sensibilities, like flexibility and empathy, make them closely compatible with

success in the “new economy” (Rosin 2010). However, critical race and queer theory scholars emphasize that Rosin ignores the maintenance of a white heteropatriarchy (Coontz 2012; Covert 2012a; Hernandez 2010). For instance, Rosin neglects

to mention that marginalized women continue to work in service sectors that are

often unstable and underpaid (Covert 2012b; Collins 1991; Ehrenreich and

Hochschild 2004; Parrenas 2008).


Teaching the Crisis: Risk and Rewards

Both types of scholarly engagement with the crisis do an excellent job undercutting

the claim that men and masculinity, in particular white men and white masculinity,

are in need of saving. However, there is a danger in too quickly dismissing a prominent discursive construction that shapes the commonsense understandings of many

of the students who fill the seats in our classrooms. Students are very skilled in

resisting that which calls into question basic beliefs they have been socialized into.

The crisis discourse is a particularly difficult topic to teach because it is often imbricated in other economic, racial, or nationalist concerns. For instance, in this postRecession moment, there are lingering fears about the job market, and attempts to

deconstruct the crisis discourse could be countered by the “reality” of the economic

crisis. Teaching this wave of the crisis is even further complicated by the social

context of an American society that celebrates itself as post-feminist and post-racial.

Students—especially those who are white, middle-class, and male-identified—may

argue that women and people of color have equal economic opportunities, and any

inequality is the result of personal failure. The exception, of course, is when white

men appear to be lagging behind. In those cases, scholarships or affirmative action

given to women, queer people, or people of color may be blamed for disrupting an

otherwise level playing field.

Confronting systems of power is never an easy task. Students are particularly

good at dismissing arguments about their privilege and the complicit relationships

they may have with any form of oppression. As bell hooks (1994) illustrates, this

often takes the form of directing distrust towards the instructor and dismissing the

critique as being driven by identity politics. In this regard, the white male instructor

is in a privileged position to question issues of race and masculinity without being

seen as having ulterior motives (see Messner 2000). In any case, students are able to


K. Green and M. Van Oort

play the game of giving the answer the instructor is seeking, while blaming the politics of the discipline for the teaching of untruths. A clear example of this is that one

of the authors, Kyle, has had a student come to his office to ask whether he actually

believes these things or if it is simply what he is required to teach. Here the student

was not swayed by the discussion of inequality, but instead because of a shared

identity as white men, assumed it was the pressures of the discipline that led Kyle

to join in the assault.

However, the same aspects that make this topic a difficult one to teach also make

it worthwhile. If the crisis is successfully engaged with, to borrow a turn of phrase

made popular by anthropologists, it can make the familiar strange and the strange

familiar. Through revealing the historical and structural forces that have shaped the

current iteration of the discourse, students are forced to reconsider their assumptions about the masculinity. The transformation pushes students who have embraced

many of the tenants of the discourse to be reflexive about their own lived experiences and ask whether things have to be or should be this way, as well as make

connections between the personal lived experience and larger forces. For those who

find the discourse strange and even alienating, they are able to better understand the

allure and persistence of the crisis language. The topic also presents an opportunity

to gain insight into what happens when culture lags behind and resists laws that

promote legal, political, domestic and economic equality (Turner 2008); for

instance, despite efforts by Presidents Kennedy and Obama to establish equal pay in

the workplace, women and workers of color continue to be framed as having an

unfair advantage over white men. For more advanced courses, the eternal return of

the crisis should not be cause for dismissal but rather should serve as a sign of the

power of the discourse. If men are never crisis-free, as Abigail Solomon-Godeau

(1997) suggests, this is impetus for students to also look within masculinity, rather

than just outside of it, for the source of the crisis (Edwards 2006).


Coding the Crisis: Building the Critique

The challenge then, is to teach the crisis in a manner that demonstrates the false

assumptions and provides historical contextualization while also taking seriously

the power of the discourse and the manner in which it has shaped the lived experience and outlook of the students. And yes, there is a clear contradiction between

men’s apparent entitlement to power and the sense of powerlessness they frequently

experience (Armengol and Carabi 2009); however, this contradiction should be

embraced as an opportunity to explore how particular narratives come to be pervasive, accepted, and “feel right.” But again, how does one turn a critical gaze toward

the powerful discourse while also encouraging the potentially resistant students to

do the same rather than raise their defenses?

To do this, we guide students through a basic discursive and semiotic analysis of

advertising, in particular, Super Bowl commercials (available in Appendix A). We

recommend this approach and subject matter for a number of reasons. First,

16 Coding the Crisis of Masculinity


advertising has long served as a key site for the dissemination of dominant discourses on gender and masculinity. Second, the Super Bowl is a rare cultural

moment where we know there are not only a lot of eyes on the screen (more than

100 billion tuned in for the 2010 Super Bowl), but that the commercials themselves

are a key part of the spectacle—attracting viewers, critics, and bloggers. With all

this attention we can be confident that the companies, who are spending over $3.5

million dollars per 30 s, are doing their best to craft a message that resonates with

the public. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the commercials provide a relatively low-stakes object to highlight how men’s bodies come to serve as important

sites that take on broader anxieties about gender and patriarchy in this contemporary

moment of capitalism. Through coding, the students are participants in mapping the

shifting presentation of masculinity and the increasing presentation of men as under

threat. The active engagement in the construction of the argument directs attention

towards the object of study—a cultural event seen as fun and frivolous—and helps

avoid tactics of denial targeted at the instructor and discipline.

Within the social sciences, there are a number of different approaches to coding

visual media. Content analysis, perhaps the most common within sociology, seeks

to discover common themes and patterns in a group of images or text. This often

takes a quantitative turn, with the goal of greater replicability and a desire to answer

more clearly objective questions. In contrast, we choose to have our students employ

a more qualitative approach that seeks to delve into the construction of meaning.

Here we fall somewhere between a semiotic approach where we seek to reveal how

meaning is attached to images and a discursive approach that shifts the analysis to

look at how the styles and rhetoric employed relate to fields of power. While the

semiotic and discursive approach lacks the potential for objectivity that content

analysis strives for, it makes up for it in the ability to have students employ a creative and critical lens in making sense of the meanings. Rather than detailed coding

and tabulation to measure the shifting representations of men, students approach the

commercials as puzzles to be understood—what do these symbols mean, why are

they employed this way in these commercials, and what does this tell us about our

contemporary understanding of masculinity?


Troubling the Crisis and Embracing Uncertainty

There is a common self-deprecating joke among sociologists that the reason they

are not the go-to experts for journalists is that they rarely make definitive claims and

will instead turn to their favorite adage, “it’s complicated.” In reflecting on our

choice to use a guided blend of semiotic and discursive analysis to provoke discussion of the crisis of masculinity, it became apparent that this is more than just a

pragmatic decision. It is also a call to embrace uncertainty, complexity, and the possibility that asking the right types of questions is better than being given an answer.

In this sense, deconstructing a pervasive discourse through a method that does not

leave the students with Truth is part and parcel to building critical thinking—the


K. Green and M. Van Oort

often-celebrated, but ever elusive quality that the sociological discipline and liberal

arts programs strive to instill in students (Nelson 1999).

In our experience, students initially struggle with the ambiguity of the discussion

and the lack of a defined takeaway point that might later appear on a test. Notebooks

are opened and closed, pencils lifted and set down, and sideways glances are given

to see what the adjacent student is writing. Some are hesitant when we explain that

within semiotic analysis, there is no Truth to be discovered, rather best arguments

are determined through insightfulness, evidence, clarity, and even creativity. Others

indicate doubt when we explain that no two scholars will arrive at the exact same

conclusion, as each brings differing histories and orientations to the project of interpretation. However, rather than attempting to cloak the subjective in a veil of scientific certainty, we let the strengths and limitations of the approach be learned through

practice. We give students freedom to highlight different signs as being central to

the message—with others helping to deconstruct the meaning and significance or

reining in the more extreme interpretations. And, perhaps most importantly, we

welcome questions from the skeptical.

Certainly, some aspect of the crisis can be measured objectively: what are the

gender differences in employment across industry? What are the different wage/

salary or education gaps? How have these things changed over time? These provide

an important base for establishing that we have not entered a post-feminist, postracial epoch of equality. However, we believe that the key to studying these kinds of

discourses sociologically is not to “prove” whether they are right or wrong but to

understand how they work. If advertising plays off of culturally agreed upon signs

and attempts to transfer those meanings to products (Rose 2001), as instructors, we

must teach our students to trouble the everyday assumptions they make about gender and social relations. In being able to ask questions about the construction of the

crisis in media and popular culture, it critiques many of the underlying, normalized

aspects of the discourse. For, returning to our introduction, if the crisis has material

effects because it is perceived to be real, then even this momentary act of critical

inquiry begins to erode the foundations of the power structure.


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