week 6

Out of this week’s readings, Oudshoorn’s chapters on the archeology of sex hormones and the development of the birth control pill were particularly fascinating. As with Ramanathan’s From Vishnu to Vegas look into the hair-selling industry, it is eye-opening to realize how many social, cultural, religious/spiritual, political, economical — and so on — processes factor into something that may seem like a simple activity now, like taking your daily Yazmin or going into Richie’s to buy a wig. 

Growing up in the 2000s in a socially liberal environment, and having started taking birth control at the age of 16, I absolutely took for granted all that went into this one pill. The first time I thought about the pill more deeply wasn’t until I was doing my undergraduate thesis research, some of which involved the history of sex in television. I came across Rodger Streitmatter’s Sex Sells!, the first chapter of which is entirely devoted to the relationship between the pill and the media — how quickly the former was embraced by the latter, and how deeply the latter changed because of the former. Streitmatter discussed the sexual revolution that followed the pill, which allowed the media to portray, for example, married couples sharing a bed on screen, or acknowledgements of pregnancies — things that would have scandalized audiences just years previously. I had not realized how repressed these mid-century audiences were, and was fascinated by the thought of how quickly they witnessed such drastic changes in media portrayals. 

It’s now very interesting to come back to this analysis of the birth control pill from an earlier perspective — not the changes that it brought on, but the changes and processes that were required for the sake of its development, let alone acceptance. The framing of the pill as family planning rather than contraception, and the use of woman-years or menstrual cycles in reporting data rather than simply women or participants really called attention to the power of persuasive communication. They may be subtle changes, but they can convey very different messages: contraception is about the full prevention of pregnancy, while family planning both highlights the family unit and can easily assume that pregnancies may still happen, just in the future. Showing data by menstrual cycles rather than by number of participants helps make it more impressive, obscuring issues of sample sizes or drop-out rates — but also has the effect of detaching the human subjects out of the data in some level; making it feel more clinical, rational, objective. Another extremely entertaining example of this was the mention that “The Spanish Pharmacopoeia described estrogen-progesterone combinations as effective in regulating menstrual cycles, but as having the serious side effects of preventing pregnancy.” I could immediately picture this as a scene in Mad Men or any period drama/comedy — a doctor almost winking at a young woman while telling her that her medication will unfortunately prevent pregnancy, while she solemnly nods, pretending this will be a grave sacrifice.

Other than the readings, this week I devoted a lot of time to preparing for the midterm paper. I solidified my reading list — including some books on the medium of reality television; some on immigration politics and media representation; one on the psychology of marriage; and Edward Said’s Orientalism. I narrowed down the couples whose 90 Day Fiancé content I felt warranted a rewatch, and eventually settled on just two to focus on (practicing a lot of self-restraint; my original list was eight couples, and I truly wanted to talk about them all). Following that rewatch, which resulted in some pretty extensive notes, I revised my outline to think about what specific topics I wanted to cover, and what artifacts could be generated from each. I settled on “otherness” as a general subject, looking at how the non-American partners in both couples are otherized through different ways: first, the way “risk” is only discussed when an American partner is the one risking themselves; second, how non-American ways of living are shown as strange or unacceptable; third, how non-American partners are questioned on their truthfulness or “real motives” regardless of their level of commitment; and finally, how the relationship or marriage priorities of non-American partners are overlooked or deemphasized in comparison to their American counterparts. This may have been heavily influenced by the fact that my first reading from my list was Orientalism, which I was very excited to get to, since I’d read the introduction during my undergrad. My original ideas for the project were a lot more focused on the different ethnic stereotypes portrayed on the show, but I felt like that could be said of many other shows — whereas these ideas of validity and transactionality in relationships, and how deeply immigration and “otherness” can factor in, feel a lot more unique to the 90 Day Fiancé universe. I feel really excited to delve deeper into the reading list and get the ball rolling on this project.

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