Criminal Justice Professor Robert A. Brooks, J.D., Ph.D., was honored recently at the fourth annual Deans’ Lecture Award event, in recognition of his contributions to his academic field.
Although, in Brooks’s case, perhaps it should be his “academic fields,” since the notably eclectic teacher has made contributions in fields as diverse as law, criminal justice, art, music, psychology, and sociology.
The Deans’ Lecture Award offers an opportunity to showcase the work of a tenured faculty member, Provost Lois A. Wims said at the start of the event. “We have a long tradition of recognizing excellence in teaching, as we should, and this is an opportunity to showcase that other very important part of our faculty’s accomplishments—scholarship and creativity,” she said.
Each year, award recipients give a brief lecture highlighting some facet of their scholarly work. Brooks chose to speak about research he and his husband, Alain Blunt, an associate professor of art at Bridgewater State University, have done on gender-related messaging on infant clothing, a topic they have personal experience with since they are raising two young sons.
In an engaging lecture that focused on clothing for children aged 0 to 24 months, Brooks said they downloaded images from 15 retailers’ websites and analyzed them from both a graphic design perspective and a sociological perspective. Their first analysis was done in 2013 and was followed by a second one in 2018. They plan to conduct another analysis this year.
“When you walk into a clothing store for kids you know which side is the girls’ and which is the boys’ mostly by color and texture, and that’s obvious,” he said. “To us, that’s more about the surface characteristics. We want to dig a little deeper and identify some themes inherent in the choices manufacturers make about creating clothes for kids.”
In the 2013 study, 1,789 images were analyzed. Among their findings was that assertiveness was often apparent in the sayings and designs of
boys clothing but largely absent from girls’ clothes. For example, a boy’s shirt might say something like “Mommy’s little rebel,” as if he’s ready to fight and take down barriers, while a girl’s shirt more likely would state something like “It’s all good,” indicating docile acquiescence to the status quo.
Brooks said that they found a lot of negative messaging on infant boys’ shirts, “things like ‘Here comes trouble,’ or ‘Be glad I’m not your kid’ … while ‘Keeping it sassy’ was about as pushy as the girls’ shirts got.” Sometimes, the contrast was particularly striking, with shirts like “Dad’s little devil” for the boys and “Daddy’s little angel” for girls.
The clothes for boys tended to be edgier than for girls—sometimes a lot edgier. “We saw a shirt in person at Babies‘R’Us, which is no longer in business, for a six-month-old boy and it said, ‘lock up the ladies,’ which is a bit troubling,” Brooks said. Another baby boy’s shirt said, ‘major hunk,’ but there was no counterpart for girls. “There’s ‘major hunk’ for boys, but ‘major babe’ for little girls would not be acceptable, would it? So, there’s an interesting double standard,” he said.
Another difference was gendered clothing that reflected sports aspirations. For the boys, there were many sports-related shirts that said things like “football champion” or “future quarterback,” but they found only one piece of little girls’ clothing with sports equipment on it—a soccer ball. That disparity is out of step with reality, Brooks said. “It’s my experience that girls play sports quite a bit,” he said. “I have nieces who are very proficient at sports.”
In the 2018 research, sayings on little girls’ clothing showed a little more assertiveness than just the passive sweetness-and-light themes that predominated in 2013, he said, although there was still a lot of the latter. However, words like fierce, bold, and brave started showing up on girls’ shirts by 2018, which was a new trend.
“We’re thinking the ‘Me Too’ movement and other social forces that occurred in those years had an impact,” he said. “We’re finally seeing
some movement. The words ‘fierce’ or ‘girl power’ would never have come up in 2013.” Among Brooks’s 2018 favorites that showed stronger aspirations for girls’ future roles were a graphic T-shirt showing a girl doing chemistry and one that said “I’m not bossy. I have leadership skills.”
It’s hard to say whether the improvement in social equality for girls’ clothing will continue in the follow-up research that will be done this year, Brooks said. “I’m really curious to see what is going to come up this year because it was not across the board [in 2018],” he said. “There was still a lot of traditional stereotyping, but there are these things that are bubbling up that look quite different that are promising.”
Brooks was introduced at the event by Raynold Lewis, Dean of Education. “I was given a choice of the longer version of Dr. Brooks’s biography, or the shorter version,” he said. “I chose the shorter version.”
Even in its short form, there is a lot of biographical information to cover because Brooks’s academic background, research, and other scholarly pursuits are so extensive. He has degrees in four different fields: an undergraduate degree in music management, a law degree, a master’s degree in clinical psychology, and a Ph.D. in sociology.
He has taught in the Criminal Justice Department at Worcester State since 2004, has served as chair of the department, and has contributed to many campus-wide committees, including the Institutional Review Board.
Much of his research is qualitative and far-flung. He has conducted content analyses of representations of alcohol use in daily comics, depictions of LGBTQ issues in criminal justice textbooks, and news media representations of bullying.
Dr. Brooks has published three books. The first, Temporary Attorneys and the Deprofessionalization of the Law, was published by Temple University Press in 2011 and is an ethnographic account of his and others’ experience working as temporary attorneys in Washington, D.C. The second, School Bullying: Kids, Culture, and the Making of a Social Problem, was published in 2014 by Lynne Rienner Press, and his most recent book, Criminology Explains School Bullying, was published in 2020 by the University of California Press.
Brooks also has authored or co-authored five published or forthcoming book chapters and several peer-reviewed articles. Additionally, he has presented or co-presented 43 papers at various regional, national, and international conferences.
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