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Messner honored for pioneering work in gender studies

Michael Messner, center, is flanked by former PhD students during a reception after the ceremony where he won the Jessie Bernard Award. (Photo/Sasha Hondagneu-Messner)

Michael Messner, professor of sociology and gender studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, is the first man to be honored with the Jessie Bernard Award, given in recognition of scholarly work that has broadened the horizons of sociology to encompass fully the role of women in society.

For his contributions to feminist teaching and pioneering research on the role gender plays in sports and the media’s coverage of women in sports, the American Sociological Association (ASA) presented Messner with the coveted award during its annual meeting on Aug. 18 in Denver, Colo.

“To have my name associated with Jessie Bernard, that itself is an honor,” Messner said. “In sociology it’s the highest honor that you can receive as a gender studies scholar.

“This award is validation of collective efforts of my colleagues and grad students. People say you don’t achieve success solely by yourself and it’s true.”

Established in 1976, the award was named for sociologist Bernard, a noted feminist scholar whose work helped to inspire the incorporation of women and gender into sociological theories and research.

Messner was chosen by the ASA’s eight-member selection committee.

“Michael Messner has engaged in important work throughout his professional career that embodies this award’s tenor,” said Sally Hillsman, ASA executive officer. “The American Sociological Association would like to congratulate Messner, the first man to receive the Jessie Bernard Award, and thank him for his many contributions to the field.”

For the past 26 years, Messner’s research has explored gender-based violence, men’s responses to feminism and gender relations in youth sports. His study of television news has documented that women’s sports are rarely covered, and when they are covered, they are often sexualized and trivialized. Messner’s findings have been used by women’s sports advocacy organizations to argue for increased and better coverage of women’s sports.

“Mike has pioneered the sociology of gender and sports,” said Christine Williams, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at The University of Texas at Austin, who nominated Messner for the award. “I can think of no other sociologist who has done more to promote feminism in research and activism than Mike Messner. He deserves this major recognition for his outstanding research on gender and his unstinting dedication to feminism.”

Messner’s interest in the field was sparked when he was an undergraduate at California State University, Chico in the 1970s during the women’s and anti-war movements. Discussions on gender and social inequality intrigued him.

“I started thinking about what feminism has to do with men and how some of the ways we raise boys can be hurtful and limiting to boys and men when it comes to health and their emotional capacity,” Messner said. “Boys are taught to orient themselves to violence and to suppress their emotions, and all of that was interesting to me.”

He went on to earn a PhD in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley, where he focused on gender, men and masculinity. Since 1989, Messner has released a “Gender in Televised Sports” report published every fifth year. He compares coverage of men’s and women’s sports during two weeks in March, July and November, focusing on the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. sports news segments on network affiliates KABC, KNBC and KCBS in Los Angeles. He also looks at three weeks of ESPN’s nationally televised highlights show SportsCenter during the three months.

He has authored several articles and award-winning books, including It’s All for the Kids: Gender, Families and Youth Sports (University of California Press, 2009), which focuses on gender and sexual discrimination against women coaches in youth sports. He also wrote King of the Wild Suburb: A Memoir of Fathers, Sons and Guns (Plain View Press, 2011).

Messner’s current research focuses on men who work with boys and men to prevent domestic violence and sexual assault. The study aims to understand how different historical moments shape, enable and constrain men’s work with women as allies in preventing gender-based violence. As part of the study, he and his team have interviewed people ranging in age from 20 to 70.

Messner’s honors and awards include the California Women’s Law Center’s 2011 Abby J. Leibman Pursuit of Justice Award, the USC Associates Award for Excellence in Teaching and the USC Dornsife Raubenheimer Award for Research, Teaching and Service. He was named Distinguished Feminist Lecturer by Sociologists for Women in Society in 2006, and he received the Career of Distinguished Service Award from the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport in 2007. He has served as chair of the Sex and Gender Section of the ASA and president of the Pacific Sociological Association.

At USC Dornsife since 1987, Messner enjoys his work in the classroom as much as his time in the field.

“My teaching is extremely important to me,” Messner said. “In my undergraduate teaching, I want my students to think critically about their own lives, about power, gender, race, class and sexual orientation, and all kinds of inequality issues. I want them to come out of a class being thoughtful of that.”

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