Barbie has never exactly been a feminist icon, but last week Mattel was celebrated for a new advertising campaign that some say empowers young girls. In the “Imagine the Possibilities” commercial, the viewer sees young girls in professional settings — a science museum, a veterinary office, a soccer field — where they lead adults as if they are the ones in charge. At the end of the ad, the scene shifts to a girl acting out her role as a college professor with Barbie dolls in her bedroom. Across the screen flashes, “When a girl plays with Barbie, she imagines everything she can become.”

But does the Barbie commercial really send an affirmative message about women in male-dominated occupations? And how does it stack up against actual Barbie products?

To answer the first question, I invite you to watch the commercial with a special focus on how the adult observers treat the young girls who are acting out their career fantasies. From the very first scene, everyone the girls encounter has the same reaction: laughter. The idea that these girls can fill the roles they’re imagining strikes the adults as so silly that the only complete sentence any of the adults says to these girls is, “You’re kidding.”

The girls are cute or funny, but never a force to be taken seriously. While the storyline may seem to encourage women’s participation in the labor force, the laughter throughout the commercial suggests that the girls’ aspirations are seen as adorable or silly.

Is it just because they’re kids? I don’t think so. Compare the Barbie ad to toy commercials that target boys. The clearest example I found was the commercial for the i-Que Robot. Like in the Barbie commercial, children take the central speaking roles as adults react to them. Unlike the Barbie commercial, these adults appear captivated and impressed by the boys’ pitches about their toy. By the end of the commercial, it’s easy to imagine these boys as successful salesmen or engineers, everyone has already treated them as such.

Does Barbie back up their message, though, with actual opportunities for play? My quick search on Amazon for the phrase “Barbie office” was pretty disappointing. The commercial, in other words, is disingenuous; it’s out of line with the actual Barbie products available for purchase. After limiting the results to only those produced by Mattel or Barbie, the only office settings I found were a pediatrician’s office and a bright pink veterinary office — which are both associated with stereotypically feminine careers — and a post office that was discontinued in 1995.

There was also a computer and desk intended to be placed in a home setting. From my search for “Barbie office,” I more commonly found  career sets for Ken than viable work-oriented play sets for Barbie. Given the options, I find it hard to image how Mattel sees girls playing with Barbie the way the newest ad suggests they might.

As it turns out, Barbie’s new advertising campaign is just the latest in a long string of commercials that try to go viral by appealing to feminist audiences. I would be more impressed if the ad made girls aspiring to male-dominated occupations seem like forces to be reckoned with or, at least, made products that reflected their appropriation of feminist ideals.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Nicole Bedera is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is currently studying college sexual assault and construction of young men’s sexualities.

In 1994, a US immigration judge lifted an order to deport a woman named Lydia Oluloro. Deportation would have forced her to either leave her five- and six-year-old children in America with an abusive father or take them with her to Nigeria. There, they would have been at risk of a genital cutting practice called infibulation, in which the labia majora and minora are trimmed and fused, leaving a small opening for urination and menstruation.

Many Americans will agree that the judge made a good decision, as children shouldn’t be separated from their mothers, left with dangerous family members, or subjected to an unnecessary and irreversible operation that they do not understand. I am among these Americans. However, I am also of the view that Americans who oppose unfamiliar genital cutting practices should think long and hard about how they articulate their opposition.

The judge in the Oluloro case, Kendall Warren, articulated his opposition like this:

This court attempts to respect traditional cultures … but [infibulation] is cruel and serves no known medical purpose. It’s obviously a deeply ingrained cultural tradition going back 1,000 years at least.

Let’s consider the judge’s logic carefully. First, by contrasting the “court” (by which he means America)with “traditional cultures”, the judge is contrasting us (America) with a them (Nigeria). He’s implying that only places like Nigeria are “traditional” — a euphemism for states seen as backward, regressive, and uncivilised — while the US is “modern,” a state conflated with progressiveness and enlightenment.

When he says that the court “attempts to respect traditional cultures,” but cannot in this case, the judge is suggesting that the reason for the disrespect is the fault of the culture itself. In other words, he’s saying “we do our best to respect traditional cultures, but you have pushed us too far.” The reason for this, the judge implies, is that the practices in question have no redeeming value. It “serves no known medical purpose,” and societies which practice it are thus “up to no good” or are not engaging in “rational” action.

The only remaining explanation for the continuation of the practice, the judge concludes, is cruelty. If the practice is cruel the people who practice it must necessarily also be cruel; capriciously, pointlessly, even frivolously cruel.

To make matters worse, in the eyes of the judge, such cruelty can’t be helped because its perpetrators don’t have free will. The practice, he says, is “deeply ingrained” and has been so for at least 1,000 years. Such cultures cannot be expected to see reason. This is the reason why the court — or America — can and should be compelled to intervene.

In sum, the judge might well have said: “we are a modern, rational, free, good society, and you who practice female genital cutting—you are the opposite of this.”


I’ve published extensively on the ways in which Americans talk about the female genital cutting practices (FGCs) that are common in parts of Africa and elsewhere, focusing on the different ways opposition can be articulated and the consequence of those choices. There are many grounds upon which to oppose FGCs: the oppression of women, the repression of sexuality, human rights abuse, child abuse, a violation of bodily integrity, harm to health, and psychological harm, to name just a few. Nevertheless, Judge Warren, chose to use one of the most common and counterproductive frames available: cultural depravity.

The main source of this frame has been the mass media, which began covering FGCs in the early 1990s. At the time anti-FGC activists were largely using the child abuse frame in their campaigns, yet journalists decided to frame the issue in terms of cultural depravity. This narrative mixed with American ethnocentrism, an obsession with fragile female sexualities, a fear of black men, and a longstanding portrayal of Africa as dark, irrational, and barbaric to make a virulent cocktail of the “African Other.”

The more common word used to describe FGCs — mutilation — is a symbol of this discourse. It perfectly captures Judge Warren’s comment. Mutilation is, perhaps by definition, the opposite of healing and of what physicians are called to do. Defining FGCs this way allows, and even demands, that we wholly condemn the practices, take a zero tolerance stance, and refuse to entertain any other point of view.

Paradoxically, this has been devastating for efforts to reduce genital cutting. People who support genital cutting typically believe that a cut body is more aesthetically pleasing. They largely find the term “mutilation” confusing or offensive. They, like anyone, generally do not appreciate being told that they are barbaric, ignorant of their own bodies, or cruel to their children.

The zero tolerance demand to end the practices has also failed. Neither foreigners intervening in long-practicing communities, nor top-down laws instituted by local politicians under pressure from Western governments, nor even laws against FGCs in Western countries have successfully stopped genital cutting. They have, however, alienated the very women that activists have tried to help, made women dislike or fear the authorities who may help them, and even increased the rate of FGCs by inspiring backlashes.

In contrast, the provision of resources to communities to achieve whatever goals they desire, and then getting out of the way, has been proven to reduce the frequency of FGCs. The most effective interventions have been village development projects that have no agenda regarding cutting, yet empower women to make choices. When women in a community have the power to do so, they often autonomously decide to abandon FGCs. Who could know better, after all, the real costs of continuing the practice?

Likewise, abandonment of the practice may be typical among immigrants to non-practicing societies. This may be related to fear of prosecution under the law. However, it is more likely the result of a real desire among migrants to fit into their new societies, a lessening of the pressures and incentives to go through with cutting, and mothers’ deep and personal familiarity with the short- and long-term pain that accompanies the practices.

The American conversation about FGCs has been warped by our own biases. As a Hastings Center Report summarizes, those who adopt the cultural depravity frame misrepresent the practices, overstate the negative health consequences, misconstrue the reasons for the practice, silence the first-person accounts of women who have undergone cutting, and ignore indigenous anti-FCG organizing. And, while it has fed into American biases about “dark” Africa and its disempowered women, the discourse of cultural depravity has actually impaired efforts to reduce rates of FGCs and the harm that they can cause.

Originally posted at Open Democracy and Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow up on her research about female genital cutting here.

Flashback Friday.

I just have to say “wow” to this ad for Quartz counter tops, sent it by Lisa Ray of Parents for Ethical Marketing and Corporate Babysitter:

The ad depicts a little girl fantasizing about growing up, but growing up means (extremely) high patent leather pumps; growing up means sexualizing herself.

And the ad does sexualize the little girl who, from the top-scanning-down, looks like a sweet girl trying on mommy’s shoes, but from the bottom-scanning-up, looks like an adult woman who suddenly transforms into a child. The white cotton dress implies innocence and purity, but it’s a costume we regularly see adult women wear when we want to both sexualize and infantilize them. In other words, this ad nicely plays into the mythology endorsed by pedophiles that even little girls want to feel sexy, even little girls want men’s attention, even little girls want sex.

And, yet, we are supposed to think this is sweet. The text, “Harmonizing Beautifully with Life” is, of course, ostensibly about the counter tops. But aligned with the image, it naturalizes both the girl’s fantasy and the conflation of female sex with the performance of sexualized femininity (it’s just “life”; as if there’s a gene for Christian Louboutin shoes that activates in the presence of double X chromosomes). More than simply naturalizing the girl’s fantasy of self-objectification, it endorses it (it’s beautiful harmony).

Notice also the class story in the ad. Who exactly is class privileged enough to have the freedom to allow “the quiet moments” to “steal the show”? Well, apparently people who are rich enough to wear Louboutin shoes. Louboutin began putting red soles on all his shoes as a not-so-subtle way to advertise that the shoe was Louboutin and, therefore, a very expensive shoe. It worked.  Fashion writers started pointing out the red soles with glee, as in this story about Angeline Jolie on a red carpet. The fact that the sole of this shoe is red is no accident, it’s meant to add class to the counter tops, in both senses of the word.

A final word on race: That the girl in the ad is white is no accident. And it’s not only because marketers expect the majority of their customers to be white, but because of what whiteness represents. Her white skin symbolizes the same thing that the white counter tops and white dress symbolize: purity, cleanliness, even innocence. It is only because all those symbolic elements are there that we can put a black patent leather heel with a red sole on her and still think “sweet.”  Imagine the same ad with a black child. In the U.S., black women are often stereotyped as sexually loose, morally corrupt, irresponsible teen mothers on welfare. With that symbolic baggage, this ad would be a morality lesson on the hypersexuality of black girls and their propensity to “grow up too fast.” It wouldn’t look sweet, it’d look dangerous.

“Harmonizing beautifully,” indeed.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

Many sociologists argue that gender, as we know it, is not innate, but put on and performed. Certain moments of our lives, like weddings and quinceañeras, are opportunities to really emphasize femininity and masculinity; but gender is also performed in mundane ways every day in the ways that we talk, move, dress, and adorn ourselves.

These photographs of child beauty pageant participants, taken by Susan Anderson and published in her book High Glitz, illustrate how much of feminine sexual allure is put on and performed.  These kids are adultified with make-up and they also often wear false teeth and hair extensions. You can browse additional images at Powerhouse Books.


People often object to this sort of adornment on a child being unnatural, but when adult women use these same strategies — fake eyelashes, makeup, veneers, and hair extensions — it is no more natural. Adult women are, no less than those kids, performing femininity.

To take it one step further, as The Spinster Aunt does, if you react to the idea of child beauty pageants with horror, then than horror should be applied to the project of femininity itself, not just the fact that children are participants:

I submit that anyone who is uncomfortable with [the] Little Miss Perfect [pageant] is ethically obliged to be just as uncomfortable with femininity in general. Little Miss Perfect is merely one of a gazillion equally nauseating points on the Porno-Feminine Continuum within which all female citizens of the globe are confined by a culture of oppression.

So, if it’s troubling when girls do it (and, for that matter, also troubling to many when men do it), then why isn’t it troubling when women do it?

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Girls do more chores than boys and are less likely to get an allowance in exchange for their work. When they do, they are paid less.

Research projects on children’s time use find that boys do 43 to 46 minutes of housework for every hour that girls do. When asked to list the chores they do, girls list 42 percent more chores than boys. Girls are as likely as boys to participate in outside chores and more likely to clean their own rooms, help prepare meals, and care for sibling and pets; the only thing boys report doing more often than girls is basic housecleaning.


Another study by the children’s magazine Highlights confirmed the finding: 73 percent of their girl readers reported being assigned routine chores, compared to 65 percent of their boy readers. Girls spend more time on chores than they do playing; the opposite is true for boys.

Not only are girls more likely to be asked to help out around the house, they are less likely to get paid. The Michigan study found that boys are 15 percent more likely than girls to get an allowance for the chores they do. And when they do get paid, they get a lower wage than their brothers. Male babysitters get paid $0.50 more an hour than females. Girls do 35 percent more work than boys, but bring home only $0.73 cents on boys’ dollar.

The gender pay gap starts early.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard and Business Insider.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

From Reddit comes the story of an assignment given to high school students in a sex education unit of health class in Columbus, Ohio (as reported in theDispatch). The introduction reads (typos included):

Appreciating Gender Differences: Often there are many stereotypes attached to being male or female. Yet male and female together keep our species alive! Through knowing and appreciating the many differences in brain development and psychological processes of males vs. female one learn to accept and appreciate the differences.”

Then there’s this graphic: 1 (3) - Copy Yes, boys and girls in the class all got the same handout, with the normal human described as “you” and the one in the dress labeled “she.” After the graphic is a list of questions for the students to ponder in an essay, such as, “How might knowing these differences influence and impact an intimate relationship you might currently have or develop in the future?”

In her defense, the teacher naturally told the Dispatch that the point was to just “stimulate conversation.” But nothing in the assignment suggests the stereotypes might not be anything but true. None of the essay questions cast doubt on the facts presented. Consider revising the text like this:

Appreciating Gender Similarities: Often there are many stereotypes attached to being male or female. Yet male and female together keep our species alive! Through knowing and appreciating the many similarities in brain development and psychological processes of males vs. female one learn to accept and appreciate the similarities.”

That could be a useful opening to a unit on gender and development for high school sex education (without the graphic). Where did this come from? The teacher said it came from “an outdated book.”

With the power of Google image search, you can follow this image around the Internet, where it has been used by a lot of people to illustrate supposedly funny-but-oh-so-true stereotypes, like “Hilarious differences between men and women,” and on pages with sexist aphorisms such as, “A woman worries about the future until she gets a husband; a man never worries about the future until he gets a wife,” and on relationship advice pages, with conclusions such as, “If we understand this basic fundamental, there will be better relationships … steadier !!,” and even “Real, Honest Female Advice” for men who want to “start having unbelievable success with women.” It always has the same typo (“Figure Our Her Needs”).

I can’t find an original use, or any serious attempt at educational use, but I’d love to know who came up with it.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

In this Farm Bureau Insurance ad, a father and son paint a room pink and commiserate about how their lives will be ruined by the arrival of a baby girl.

1. Essentialize gender. A girl is coming? That means playing with dolls and having tea parties. Girls are girls. Us, we’re boys, so automatically we…

2. …belittle femininity. The stuff girls do is boring and trivial. Only girls would want to do those things. Girls are such a drag!

In short, all girls are girly and girly stuff is dumb.

I didn’t find it, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt; maybe they made the opposite commercial, too. One in which a mom and her daughter cringe over the idea of having to put up with booger-flinging and farting at the table.

But that would be equally bad. We don’t know a child’s personality just by anticipating the stuff between their legs. And it’s not true that male and female humans are so different as to enjoy entirely non-overlapping sets of things.

In daily life, we recognize each other for the complex and varied people that we are. Think about it. Practically the only place we see stereotypes this retrograde are on TV and in the movies. We’re not “opposite sexes,” but we’re surrounded by the idea that we are.

Thanks to @DustinStoltz anyway!

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

Some nice news has come out lately that the occasional toy store is taking the words boy and girl off of their aisle signs — mostly in Sweden, I say half-jokingly — but Google ngrams suggests that we’re nowhere near backing off of separating children’s toys by sex.

Sociologist Philip Cohen graphed the frequency of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” relative to “toys for children.” This is just language, and it’s just American English, but it’s one indication that the consciousness raising efforts of organizations like Let Toys Be Toys is still on the margins of mainstream society.

As you can see from the graph, the extent to which children are actively talked about as gendered subjects varies over time.

One explanation for why companies resist androgynous toys and clothes for children — an arguably adults, too — has to do with money. If parents with a boy and a girl could get away with one set of toys, they wouldn’t need to buy a second. And if they could hand down clothes from girls to boys and vice versa, they would buy less clothes. The same could be said for borrowing and trading between family members and friends.

It would really cut into the profits of these companies if we believed that all items for children were interchangeable. They work hard to sustain the lie that they are not.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. Find her on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.