Sunday, October 24, 2021

Study: Do people mistake fluffy, young female-looking plants for men?

Image: tikTok

If you’ve ever watched a viral video on TikTok, you may have noticed several famous landmarks “caught on camera” by a seemingly young female artist. The video titles often read: “A very special girl…” Those are all very good intentions, but they also make us think that this young woman is heavily scrutinised because of her gender.

Now, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh claim that she’s just a plant with a personality. According to a study by psychology professor Eugene Drury and his doctoral student Alicia Noonan, their behaviour also fit a well-known “Botanical Sexism” Theory.

The Botanical Sexism Theory basically says that plants have feelings, like people, and so they are different from us. In this way, the plant can look exactly like us, but it acts like a monster.

Not surprisingly, this theory has found a home on social media networks like TikTok and Snapchat, where relatively young, female-looking people interact with botanically-centric objects like flowers, fruits, insects, and trees. The new study, which was released today, builds on Drury and Noonan’s previous research.

So, Drury and Noonan analysed the TikTok description of three famous landmarks in Pittsburgh. They matched them up to two celebrities, French footballer Thierry Henry and Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Over a four-day period, they posted one of three different pieces of TikTok footage from the video. As usual, the female voice had only female pronouns in it.

Some of the footage included seemingly overt sexist language and stereotyped nature. For example, the narrator of one video said: “This beauty is a sexually-attractive coneflower, native to the forests of Southern Alsace-Lorraine.” While The Courier USA quoted Noonan as saying this was just fiction from the park ranger’s mouth, Drury disagrees. He believes, citing the “Botanical Sexism” Theory, that “you could not have a forest full of beautiful coneflowers without the presence of women.”

This just exemplifies how our tendency to place women in a negative light may be rooted in “the ideas of limited and hard-evolving female characteristics and male agency that are pervasive in our culture and likely lead to discomfort with women.” They also point out that young women living in such isolated spaces may see gender-specific traits as the norms of nature.

Drury and Noonan say there’s a tendency to always think of women like this in regards to faces on a screen. Using the Botanical Sexism Theory, they think that we are noticing this phenomenon specifically because we see people more often than plants. That’s also why we keep hearing about this phenomenon, as the fact that it’s happening is somewhat of a shock.

Again, we need to be wary of over-thinking gender. It shouldn’t be that we are missing out on some sort of psychological abnormality. Drury and Noonan feel that, rather, young people in such isolated spaces are really confused by gender. We’ve used a stereotype to deal with the fact that the human brain is still developing, and then we end up having social interactions based on our perception of what they think of us.

Drury and Noonan seem to think that instead of trying to debunk it, we can just better adapt to it, as they point out that this phenomenon is highly prevalent but rarely discussed.

This actually seems like a perfect metaphor for the way everyone’s biased and ugly on social media. We jump from sexist problem to sexist problem, with most of them being “random awful people you interact with online.” We’re not imagining these occurrences, it’s true, and it’s happening. These ways of dealing with bias are just evolving, with social media serving as a tremendous accelerant.

If you’ve ever watched a viral video, especially on TikTok, consider looking inward and at yourself, because you’re to blame for this “botanical sexism”.

[University of Pittsburgh]

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