Margaret Mead vs. Tony Soprano
And so it goes. While such consistent failure to engage with empirical reality, and the condescending notion that US fieldwork must of necessity be merely "easy poking around," are extremely annoying to those of us who have done arduous research in American settings, I want to make a different point. That is, the culture of forgetting involved here enacts what I have labeled the anthropological gambit, or the pseudo-profound claim that "we" are like "primitives." The attribution of "our" characteristics to "them," and vice versa, is always good for a laugh in popular culture. "We" are only the Ik, the Tasaday, the Trobrianders. An X is only a Y.
As if to prove the point, the day before I left for the Barnard conference, the New York Times happily declared that "some distant day, anthropologists may discover what was surely the tribal art of 20th century American suburbia: paint-by-number paintings."
There is nothing innately wrong with cuteness--it is after all a matter of taste. The point, though, is that the gambit, which is ubiquitous in the public sphere, is inherently political, engages in hidden rhetorical work. It certainly represents Edward Sapir's "destructive analysis of the familiar," one element of a liberatory cultural critique in use in the West at least since Michel de Montaigne's ironized cannibals. But it does so in a profoundly ahistorical, noncontextual way, and so places Others at temporal distance to ourselves and effaces the questions of history and power on both poles of the contrast.
Finally, anthropologists like Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict pioneered an open-minded consideration of the varieties of cross-cultural human sexuality. Esther Newton, who recently published a memoir magnificently titled Margaret Mead Made Me Gay, spoke compellingly at the conference on the impact of her adolescent reading of Mead's "defense of cultural and temperamental difference." But that reputation for sexual frankness, combined with femaleness, the anthropological gambit and exoticism at home, has also long made women anthropologists, as I have noted for Margaret Mead, vulnerable to sexually insinuating popular-cultural costuming. In the rollicking postwar musical and film On the Town, recently revived on Broadway, a sex-crazed debutante "anthropology student" character throws herself at one of the sailors on leave because he "exactly resembles Pithecanthropus erectus, a man extinct since six million BC." The television series 90210 had a sluttish "feminist anthropologist" character, and Sarah Jessica Parker, in Sex and the City, calls herself a "sexual anthropologist." The way things seem to be going, we might want to specify another media Halloween costume for the feminist anthropologist: bustier and fishnets.
Feminist anthropologists tend to be a pretty tough bunch and certainly can take care of ourselves. (One of the conference participants pointed out to me with great glee that she was wearing fishnet hose.) The real issue is the one with which I began: the deadly intersection of the distorting Halloween costumes, the anthropological gambit and garden-variety sexism in the public sphere preventing the popular dissemination of actual knowledge on gender, culture and power. Consider my own experience. I write about gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and class formation in the American past and present, particularly in American cities, and I have done popular writing on racial injustice (and its connections to gender) in the present. But when does the Fourth Estate contact me? Let's just review instances from the past few years.
A 20/20 reporter called, wanting a professor to explain on-camera why "some men are sexually attracted to very obese women." (He kept trying to assure me that the show "would not be sleazy." Right.) A public radio show host invited me to do a Valentine's Day show with her on love and courtship ritual. A local television newswoman wanted my "anthropological" analysis of why women were buying Wonderbras. A Newsweek reporter asked for my thoughts on why, despite so many decades of feminism, American women still enlisted the aids of hair dye, makeup, plastic surgery and diets. Didn't that prove that we were genetically encoded to try to attract men to impregnate us and protect our offspring? A young stringer for Glamour called, looking for "expert" analysis of why women are attracted to certain types of men. An Essence reporter wanted my thoughts on why Afro-American women, according to her, repeatedly and irrationally fell for "thugs." And last fall, a Good Morning America producer begged me to appear on a show with the theme "Is Infidelity Genetic?"
So I wasn't entirely surprised by the Tony Soprano call, with its silly implications of a homogeneous feminism obsessed with mass media portrayals of sex roles. And I don't think even the Whitmanesque Margaret Mead, today, would have an easier time of it. In her memorable last years, Mead could and did play the progressive Sibyl, the wise elder using her vast cross-cultural knowledge to comment favorably, to a largely adulatory press, on the increasing social liberalization that we saw around us. But that was before Jimmy Carter, with whom Mead was closely politically allied, lost disastrously to Ronald Reagan in 1980. It was before the New Right, before the race and gender backlashes of "the underclass" and "feminazis" and the internal problematics of identity politics, before the second, more successful rise of sociobiology, before the global rightward tilt and recent neoliberal triumph, before the corporate consolidation and increasing tabloidization of the media. And, of course, it was before the "turn to language" complexified the ways in which we all envision science, culture and knowledge.
We no longer unproblematically invoke "science," but consider it a culturally contingent, powerful process. Emily Martin of Princeton and Rayna Rapp spoke at the conference about their ongoing and highly regarded research on gender in the production and consumption of scientific knowledge. But both scholars also work actively and even teach with bench scientists. Similarly, many of us work to reposition our analyses, no matter what their regional focus, both to reduce the United States and to enlarge it, always with the goal of accurately apprehending gender, culture, history and power. That is, we no longer simply observe the world from the perspective of the West, but instead consider the long regional and global histories of contact, trade, power politics, racial and ethnic formation and shifting political boundaries of which the United States and other Northern and Southern nations are part. At the same time, we no longer attempt to see the United States just as one among many nations--as in "an X is only a Y"--as it is still and has been the locus of global imperial power since the end of the Second World War.
These less Olympian, more nuanced understandings are a harder sell in the public sphere, but along with other progressives, we continue our Sisyphean engagement. And Mead's image, although not entirely according to her intentions, continues to inspire radical visions of American and global potentials: of international understanding, of gender, race, class and sexual equalities, of a different, more egalitarian world. Marcyliena Morgan of UCLA, for example, reported that the hip-hop-involved adolescent Afro-American girls with whom she works see Mead as "a liberating force." As Rayna Rapp ringingly concluded, "Collectively, we are surely on the case."