Family Friendly?

In the days leading up to Father’s Day this past Sunday, one could find a number of advertisements providing helpful suggestions on what to buy for Dad.  Home Depot, for example, suggested men really wanted to be fixing things and involved in construction—a task much easier accomplished with the help of their special “Man” gift card.  Just last month, diamond and flower companies were busy spending dollars encouraging families to give Mom the gifts she deserved.

These holidays remind many of us that the media presentations of family dynamics—and the women and men that make up these families—are often distorted. Educational institutions are increasingly teaching students to be critical in their consumption of many of the gendered images they see in the media. Miss Representation (2011), is but one recent example of a documentary aimed at increasing the awareness about the impacts of current media representations of men and women.

Whether it is stereotypes of men seeking power tools and women seeking diamonds or the hyper-sexualized images of males and females in the media, we need alternatives portraying men and women differently.  In this context, the idea of a family friendly outlet sounds promising.  As someone who listens occasionally to Christian music radio stations, I hear this claim often asserted, and acknowledge they do often offer positive messages.   That said, I often end up changing the dial, or turning off the radio completely, due to a lack of a family friendly encouraging message.

I have not analyzed the songs played on most Christian radio channels or those gracing the Billboard charts for their messages about families and gender.  Nor do I listen enough to pretend to know most of the messages emitted over their airwaves.  We do know that men dominate the industry. In an article available online penned about two years ago, Christianity Today brought attention to the fact that men performed 96% of the top 50 Christian songs of the decade (even as between one-fourth to one-third of Christian artists were women).

While a quick glance at a list of popular songs reveals that a majority do not describe different lived experiences for men and women, a significant amount do.  In one song, a woman is encouraged to find meaning in cleaning up Cheerios. Women are reminded that God is there when they are waiting up anxiously for their spouse to come home.  A girl struggling with her image is fulfilled by the notion that God sees her as beautiful.  I don’t object to the message in these songs. Caring and cleaning for one’s family can be an act of love.  Christian faith should speak into angst over appearances.  But these are not uniquely female issues.

Just as troublesome as the fact that only women are struggling with certain issues is that only men are struggling with others in the songs.  It is a man who is anxious about providing for his family. Men are encouraged to show more leadership in their families. And it is a man who is struggling to connect the dull moments in his work with the larger mission to which he has been called.  Taken together, the models of men and women portrayed in Christian songs promote a restrictive view of gendered roles.

When inspirational messages or short teaching messages about families are shared on the radio, messages are more direct and more normative.  Again, not all provide different teachings for men and women, but some do. One example that stands out is the notion that girls really want to be loved, and boys are competitive and want to succeed—a message even my six-year old sees as ridiculous. Such messages are not confined to Christian radio, but often asserted from pulpits as well.

As a sociologist who teaches on the family, I often remind my students that images of “traditional families” promoted by many evangelical churches (especially those that are largely white and middle/upper class) are not historically accurate. My students read a book written almost 20 years ago, Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War Between Traditionalism and Feminism by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. In this book, she does an excellent job critiquing the notion that our evangelical models of families are in fact traditional. Some students are often surprised by what they read, and find it challenging to consider the ways culture is embedded in proclaimed Biblical models (progressive and conservative alike).

My observations on Christian radio are not a call to re-ignite mommy (or daddy) wars, or to argue against songs about God drying tears of insecurity, or comforting a lonely mother.  Central to the Christian faith is the idea that being loved by God should be core to our identity.  But I do want to argue against the implicit notion that not being pretty, or not being a good enough mother, are the central issues women care about.  As a parent of three girls, I want more for my daughters.  I want them to hear about women seeking to follow God by taking risks, women fighting injustice in the world, or women wrestling with intellectual and vocational questions.

Family friendly radio claims seem to be based in the fact that they do not air songs with profanity; lyrics are not too sexy; commentators do not make crass jokes. On all accounts, I support these aims. But it’s not enough. A claim of being family friendly should encourage all kinds of families through building them up and building up the members that make them. It should encourage both women and men to lead their families, and encourage them to explore and use their God-given gifts and talents.

At the moment, I have yet to find a station claiming a family friendly label that I would certify. For my family, turning off the station is sometimes the best way forward.

Fair Trade Battles

At the end of 2011, Fair Trade USA resigned from its membership in FairTrade International (FLO).  Just last month, an advertisement in the Burlington Free Press (Vermont) made headlines.  Equal Exchange, the largest fair trade coffee company in the United States, urged Green Mountain Coffee to leave the Fair Trade USA network.  Business Week and others covered the conflict.

This incident represents growing division over how to best help the population that fair trade was intended to represent.  Perhaps the central reason for the split between Fair Trade USA and FLO was the decision  of Fair Trade USA to work with large plantations and estates (instead of the traditional small farmers and cooperatives). Is it better to work with large farms to promote fair wages for workers, even if the ideals of democratic governance and ownership of the product by producers (requirements of FLO) do not occur?

While not trying to simplify all of the issues involved with a decision to include large farms, one issue at stake concerns the relationships consumers and producers have within alternative markets.  My guess is that most of us do not know the people that bake the bread that we eat, sew the clothes that we wear, build the houses we inhabit, or assemble the components in our computers.  One of the initial aims of the fair trade network created in the early 1970s was to try and make the market more personal.  Consumers were connected with producers through more direct buying relationships; narratives of producers were highlighted as important to the products themselves. You can drink coffee and know under what conditions (and where) the beans were picked.

As someone who studies the intersection of religion and the economy, I’m particularly interested in the role of Christian actors in alternative trade movements.  Religious organizations were important to the formation of the first alternative trade network (following the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in 1968). Yet twenty years before that, the Mennonite Central Committee was involved in selling artisan goods produced in the global South to consumers in the global North, in a precursor to what was to become Ten Thousand Villages.

Christians are a relational people, both in terms of their interactions with the Divine, and their interactions with other women and men. Different traditions talk about these relationships differently, but most highlight the importance of these relationships.  For example, the Reformed tradition prioritizes the covenant among God’s people, while Catholics are more likely to rely upon concepts of solidarity and the common good.

This most recent disagreement between Fair Trade USA and FLO should cause us to think more critically about the relationships embedded within our economic transactions. I do not want to argue in this post for or against the decision of Fair Trade USA.  But for those of us who try to engage in ethical consumerism, what do we value?  Is the central goal higher wages for producers and workers?  Is it something more? How do we see ourselves in relationships with those producers, and what does it mean to have integrity in such interactions?

 

 

What Makes a Development Expert?

by Amy Reynolds

With discussions currently underway, the World Bank is expected to name a new president next week.  Three candidates are being considered for the position:  Nigerian Finance Minister and managing director at the World Bank, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala;  Columbian professor and former Colombian Finance Minister José Antonio Ocampo; and Dartmouth University President and medical doctor Jim Yong Kim.

The two institutions that make up the World Bank—the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and the International Development Association (IDA)—have the goal of reducing poverty and promoting development.  As stated on their website, “The IBRD aims to reduce poverty in middle-income and creditworthy poorer countries, while IDA focuses exclusively on the world’s poorest countries.”

What are the qualifications most important for leading an international development-focused organization? Reading through the various articles supporting (or pointing out flaws in) the different candidates, the debates over their qualifications raise at least three important questions about economic development and poverty more generally.

1)  Who should hold the power within a development organization?  The World Bank (headquartered in D.C.) is largely controlled by Europe and the U.S.(based on money invested into the bank). From the bank’s founding in 1944, it has always had an American president. In fact, this is actually the first time that non-U.S. candidates are being considered, even as many predict Kim will be elected because he was nominated by Barack Obama.

Should those putting in the most money have the most say? Should each country have an equal vote? Or should those countries most affected by the policies of the bank be given more weight?

As nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz suggests in an opinion piece,

Since expertise on development by and large lies within the emerging and developing countries—after all, they live development—it seems natural that the World Bank’s head would come from one of those countries.  While the US, the international community, and the Bank itself repeatedly emphasize the importance of good governance, a selection procedure that de facto leaves the appointment to the US president makes a mockery of it.

2)  What is the end of development?  Economic growth is often seen as central to the

equation, alongside issues such as life span and quality of life. The World Bank uses the Human Development Index (HDI) to take into account a number of factors.

As someone who studies the underlying values of markets, I reject the notion that markets are simply efficient structures for the allocation of goods. Likewise, I would argue that development is too often equated with economic growth, and more important than measuring development is figuring out what it entails. Our current markets (and development paradigms) often value individualism over the community; efficiency over equity. We must acknowledge that assessing how to define and measure development is an ethical, and not merely technical, process. As I find in my own research, economists and theologians rarely provide similar answers over the central aspects of development.

3)  Who is an expert in development?  I find this to be one of the most interesting questions in the current discussions, perhaps because the answers are so different.  Okonjo-Iweala and Ocampo are economists; Kim a medical doctor with a doctorate in anthropology. While Forbes and the Economist, alongside a cadre of World Bank leaders, seem to be endorsing Okonjo-Iweala, other development economists have endorsed Ocampo.

What are the most important skills we want a “development expert” to have. Is having experience on the ground important?  Being able to design economic models? Evaluating the data produced by those models? Having experience making economic policy decisions? Understanding the interaction of a local culture to development programs?

While this debate is currently being followed in the media, it is not that dissimilar from those being held in boardrooms in the religious development world.  A number of Christian relief & development organizations have selected as recent presidents those with expertise in the financial and business world; others value someone who has spent time in various parts of ‘the field.’  As a recent post on this site highlighted, when Christianity Today asked what development initiatives were most (cost) effective, it was the economists who made that evaluation.  Kim’s nomination, at the very least, challenges the notion that economic expertise is the most central development-related skill.

Given the current power structures, it seems likely that Jim Yong Kim will take over from current president Robert Zoellick later this month. As someone who spent time with World Relief (a Christian relief and development organization) in El Salvador, I will be watching for the announcement.  Yet to be honest, I’m perhaps equally interested in the responses of both friends and public leaders, to better understand how they think about poverty, development, and power.

Gendered Assumptions and Weak Ties

by Amy Reynolds

This past Saturday, Barbara Mikulski from Maryland became the longest-serving female congressperson in the history of the United States, having been elected to the Senate in  1986. She is currently one of 17 female senators (an all-time high for the United States). Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox suggest in Men Rule (a report released by American University) that the United States ranks 91st when it comes to the representation of women in national office.

One of the findings of Lawless and Fox is that part of the gender gap in political representation is connected to ambition. One of the seven variables affecting ambition is the lower encouragement women receive to run for office. They argue:

The 2011 gender gap in political ambition—based on a variety of measures—is roughly the same magnitude as it was in 2001. Women today remain just as unlikely, relative to men, as women ten years ago to consider running for office. . . . Because of deeply embedded patterns of gender roles and norms, becoming a candidate will remain a far less appeasing and feasible option for women than men, at least for the foreseeable future.

Such a finding seems to go hand in hand with a 2011 article from the American Journal of Sociology by David Cotter, Joan Hermsen, and Reeve Vanneman that suggests gender role attitudes have not changed much since the turn of the century.  Especially interesting to me was the report that only around 70% of respondents claimed that working mothers could have warm relationships with their children.

While gender roles are not the same as they were fifty years ago, some of the same assumptions persist. (A recent petition, Dad’s Don’t Babysit, [Read more...]


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