Margaret Mead vs. Tony Soprano
I have recently identified a series of anthropological "Halloween costumes" into which, since the 1960s, American popular writing, film, television, cartoons and advertising have tended to squeeze all anthropological knowledge. Each costume--Technicians of the Sacred, Last Macho Raiders, Evil Imperialist Anthropologists, Barbarians at the Gates and Human Nature Experts--reflects minor strands in some past or present anthropological writing. More important, each enacts a retrogressive politics with reference to culture and power on the US and global stage. The costumes, in other words, act as Procrustean beds, amputating those pesky limbs of anthropological knowledge that flop outside their predetermined grids.
Technicians of the Sacred, for example, posits anthropologists as time travelers who bring back to us visions of Noble Savages living nonviolently and cooperatively, practicing sexual equality, respecting the environment and engaging in religious worship somehow more "spiritual" than ours. Such a seemingly benign vision, however, yanks contemporaneous populations out of our shared stream of world history and prevents us from understanding the ways in which they lack political power on local and global stages. Last Macho Raiders imagines anthropologists as a guild populated by cool Harrison Ford lookalikes, virile, positive imperialists. This particular Halloween costume has long had little appeal to most members of the guild but remains widely used in popular culture. The Evil Imperialist Anthropologist, on the other hand, who is simply a Last Macho Raider seen from the viewpoint of the Raided, has roots in some Third World and Native American writing of the 1960s, became a stock postmodern character in much academic writing in the 1980s and spilled over into popular culture. Barbarians at the Gates envisions anthropologists as foolish multiculturalists, misguided salespeople hawking inferior--non-Western--cultural materials to a gullible American public. In other words, it is a rightist, racist framing of the Technicians of the Sacred trope, and has been heavily purveyed in New Rightist writing through our recent culture wars. And Human Nature Experts paints anthropologists as pure scientists--gatherers of facts alone. Of course we need to stand for empirical reality, but this particular trope functions in the public sphere today almost solely as a rationale for sociobiological arguments, as if all fact and logic were the sacred possession of that contemporary version of biological reductionism alone, and the active armies of distinguished anti-sociobiology scientists were a mere rumor in the wind.
We might say, then, that Freeman, in an act of simultaneous attack and self-aggrandizement, dressed Mead as a Barbarian at the Gates and himself as a Human Nature Expert. Ironically, though, Mead herself, over the decades, had no small hand in the fashioning of the Human Nature Expert costume. At the same time, the Halloween costumes are most definitely not unisex, and Mead, like the rest of us, never escaped her gender. Looping back to the years of Mead's intellectual coming of age and first writing helps us to trace the changing lineaments of "culture" in American politics, particularly that shifting overlap of gender and race that is so crucial to the framing of rationales for and protests against contemporary lines of stratification.
In the 1920s, counter to the assertions and interpretations of more recent commentators, Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa was written, and was read, not as a paean to free love or women's rights or even the romantic lives of "noble savages," but rather as a scientific account of certain differing cultural features in a "more simple" society that "we," meaning middle-class white Americans, might wish to adopt in order to raise "our youth" in a less stressful manner. Mead defined herself early on, as I have written, as an objective scientist, a professional social engineer. Despite her sometimes somewhat overblown lyricism--"A group of youths may dance for the pleasure of some visiting maiden," "lovers slip home from trysts beneath the palm trees"--Mead ultimately is no Technician of the Sacred, no romantic antimodernist. Her 1920s Samoa is a "shallow society" where "no one plays for very high stakes," of use to "us" as an object of scientific study: it is a "human experiment" under "controlled conditions."
While Mead worked almost solely with girls and women, and certainly wrote, as a contemporary reviewer put it, with the "clean, clear frankness of the scientist" about their sexual experiences, she did not draw explicitly feminist lessons from her fieldwork. Like many young women of her postsuffrage era, to whom feminism seemed both passé and potentially professionally damaging, Mead took advantage of the doors opened by the women's rights activism of her mother's and grandmother's generation (and indeed, by her own mother and grandmother) but did not herself join that ongoing movement. Nancy Lutkehaus of USC pointed out at the conference that Mead became a public intellectual in the 1920s because of her fortuitously advantageous position in time and space: based in New York, writing about the South Seas at a point when that region had caught the American public imagination, and indeed at just the point that newspapers and magazines were proliferating across the American landscape. And, I would add, because she wrote then not as a radical but as a modernist, advocating changes for the white middle classes--coeducation, less authoritarian childrearing, greater frankness about the facts of birth, reproduction, and death--already in the works in the Roaring Twenties.
But scientist or not, Mead was at times portrayed in the press as many anthropologists, especially female anthropologists, have been since: with a certain condescending, inappropriately sexualizing humor, identified with her inevitably stigmatized subjects. Lutkehaus has unearthed 1920s newspaper stories claiming that Mead went to Samoa to study the "origins of the flapper." And in the 1930s, a popular magazine coyly described Mead as "a slender, comely girl who danced her way into the understanding of the Melanesian people and became an adopted daughter and a sort of princess of the Samoans. When they anointed her with palm oil and indicated that a dance was in order, she did a nice hula and they declared her in--indicating the adaptability of the modern young woman if she just has a chance to step out."
It was one of the first steps on the long road toward my Sopranos interlocutor--herself, as we shall see, merely part of a vast contemporary phenomenon.