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 2010, Hasbro launched the fourth generation of the long lived My Little Pony© TV programs and toys.  What would happen in the next five years shocked not only Hasbro, but the world.  A new type of fan emerged: Bronies, originally dedicated men aged 16 to 25, but now both men and women from 14 to 35, primarily. Members of all branches of the military love My Little Pony, but there is a perception among them that Marines are the majority.

I’ve been analyzing social media and observing presentations on Military Bronies at Brony conventions in an attempt to understand how they experience and negotiate their fandom within the military.

You don’t have to go very far on the net to find them.  This is no trolling of middle aged men in the dark basements from the blackhole of the net. These are proud men and women in the service, coming together on pages like or Military Bronies on Facebook (with over 10,000 members).



They have created not only their own niche in the fandom, but their own art, music, and even military paraphernalia. Here’s an example of fan art by Sir-Croco:


Interestingly, they have had an influence in the progression of the show. It is believed, for example, that the development of the show’s Wonderbolts Academy and characters was a response to military fans. The show’s creators acknowledge that they mirror the Navy and Air Force flight demonstration teams.  And a former US Navy fan became so “horse famous” (the act of gaining notoriety as a fan icon), that he has now joined the cast.

Military Bronies are quick to defend their love for My Little Pony and point out the positive lessons taught by the show. For instance, the US Army’s Values statement includes the following: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage, while the elements of Harmony in My Little Pony are Loyalty, Honesty, Generosity, Laughter, Kindness, and Magic. With a bit of creativity, one can easily see similarity between the two.

Because My Little Pony is made by Hasbro for young girls and features females as their “mane” characters, some consider it to be deviant for teen and adult men to like the show. As one Brony said, they’re sold on “the pink aisle!” Male Military Bronies at times suffer from the kind of stigma and bullying reserved for feminine men and, because they are also often assumed to be gay, homophobia. One Brony, for example, discussed how his platoon sergeant refuses to inspect his room because it is plastered with My Little Pony paraphernalia that the sergeant does not want to see or be near.

But it’s okay to be gay in the military now, at least policy wise. It may be that the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” actually opened up space for Military Bronies. Before the repeal, love of My Little Pony might have been interpreted as a “tell” and punished accordingly, but today there can be no institutional response to soldiers’ sexual orientation, so stigmatization when it occurs seems to remain informal.

Male Military Bronies are a fascinating site of negotiations of masculinity in one of its strongest bastions. Along with their female counterparts they also represent an interesting new form of fan. I hope that my research will teach us a lot about how men negotiate gendered expectations and will check back in as my project develops.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Kevin W. Martin, MA is a doctoral candidate at the University of Missouri, specializing in queer theory, identity, and deviance. You can follow him in Linkedin, Facebook, and Twitter.

Lots of time and care consideration goes into the production of new superheroes and the revision of time-honored heroes. Subtle features of outfits aren’t changed by accident and don’t go unnoticed. Skin color also merits careful consideration to ensure that the racial depiction of characters is consistent with their back stories alongside other considerations. A colleague of mine recently shared an interesting analysis of racial depictions by a comic artist, Ronald Wimberly—“Lighten Up.”

“Lighten Up” is a cartoon essay that addresses some of the issues Wimberly struggled with in drawing for a major comic book publisher. NPR ran a story on the essay as well. In short, Wimberly was asked by his editor to “lighten” a characters’ skin tone — a character who is supposed to have a Mexican father and an African American mother.  The essay is about Wimberly’s struggle with the request and his attempt to make sense of how the potentially innocuous-seeming request might be connected with racial inequality.

In the panel of the cartoon reproduced here, you can see Wimberly’s original color swatch for the character alongside the swatch he was instructed to use for the character.

Digitally, colors are handled by what computer programmers refer to as hexadecimal IDs. Every color has a hexademical “color code.” It’s an alphanumeric string of 6 letters and/or numbers preceded by the pound symbol (#).  For example, computers are able to understand the color white with the color code #FFFFFF and the color black with #000000. Hexadecimal IDs are based on binary digits—they’re basically a way of turning colors into code so that computers can understand them. Artists might tell you that there are an infinite number of possibilities for different colors. But on a computer, color combinations are not infinite: there are exactly 16,777,216 possible color combinations. Hexadecimal IDs are an interesting bit of data and I’m not familiar with many social scientists making use of them (but see).

There’s probably more than one way of using color codes as data. But one thought I had was that they could be an interesting way of identifying racialized depictions of comic book characters in a reproducible manner—borrowing from Wimberly’s idea in “Lighten Up.” Some questions might be:

  • Are white characters depicted with the same hexadecimal variation as non-white characters?
  • Or, are women depicted with more or less hexadecimal variation than men?
  • Perhaps white characters are more likely to be depicted in more dramatic and dynamic lighting, causing their skin to be depicted with more variation than non-white characters.

If any of this is true, it might also make an interesting data-based argument to suggest that white characters are featured in more dynamic ways in comic books than are non-white characters. The same could be true of men compared with women.

Just to give this a try, I downloaded a free eye-dropper plug-in that identifies hexadecimal IDs. I used the top 16 images in a Google Image search for Batman (white man), Amazing-man (black man), and Wonder Woman (white woman). Because many images alter skin tone with shadows and light, I tried to use the eye-dropper to select the pixel that appeared most representative of the skin tone of the face of each character depicted.

Here are the images for Batman with a clean swatch of the hexadecimal IDs for the skin tone associated with each image below:

2 (1)

Below are the images for Amazing-man with swatches of the skin tone color codes beneath:


Finally, here are the images for Wonder Woman with pure samples of the color codes associated with her skin tone for each image below:


Now, perhaps it was unfair to use Batman as a comparison as his character is more often depicted at night than is Wonder Woman—a fact which might mean he is more often depicted in dynamic lighting than she is. But it’s an interesting thought experiment.  Based on this sample, two things that seem immediately apparent:

  • Amazing-man is depicted much darker when his character is drawn angry.
  • And Wonder Woman exhibits the least color variation of the three.

Whether this is representative is beyond the scope of the post.  But, it’s an interesting question.  While we know that there are dramatically fewer women in comic books than men, inequality is not only a matter of numbers.  Portrayal matters a great deal as well, and color codes might be one way of considering getting at this issue in a new and systematic way.

While the hexadecimal ID of an individual pixel of an image is an objective measure of color, it’s also true that color is in the eye of the beholder and we perceive colors differently when they are situated alongside different colors. So, obviously, color alone tells us little about individual perception, and even less about the social and cultural meaning systems tied to different hexadecimal hues. Yet, as Wimberly writes,

In art, this is very important. Art is where associations are made. Art is where we form the narratives of our identity.

Beyond this, art is a powerful cultural arena in which we form narratives about the identities of others.

At any rate, it’s an interesting idea. And I hope someone smarter than me does something with it (or tells me that it’s already been done and I simply wasn’t aware).

Originally posted at Feminist Reflections and Inequality by Interior Design. Cross-posted at Pacific Standard. H/t to Andrea Herrera.

Tristan Bridges is a sociologist of gender and sexuality at the College at Brockport (SUNY).  Dr. Bridges blogs about some of this research and more at Inequality by (Interior) Design.  You can follow him on twitter @tristanbphd.

Sociologists are interested in the workings of power. How is inequality produced and sustained? What discursive and institutional forces uphold it? How are obvious injustices made invisible or legitimized? Why is it so hard to change hearts, minds, and societies?

How does all this work?

Earlier this month, a sliver of insight was posted. It’s a clip of a speech by Anita Sarkeesian in which she reveals what it’s like for one person to be the target of sustained, online harassment.

In 2009, Sarkeesian launched Feminist Frequency, a series of web logs in which she made feminist arguments about representation of women in pop culture. In 2012, she launched a kickstarter to fund an ambitious plan to analyze the representation of women in video games. This drew the attention of gamers who opposed her project on principle and thus began an onslaught of abuse: daily insults and threats of rape and murder, photoshop harassment, bomb threats, and a video game in which her face can be beaten bloody, just to mention a few examples. Last fall she canceled a speech at Utah State University because someone threatened to commit “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if she went on. It’s been brutal and it’s never stopped.

So, is this power at work? Has she been silenced? And has her larger project – awareness of sexism and misogyny in video games – been harmed?

I’m not sure.

As an individual, Sarkeesian has continued to speak out about the issue, but how she does so and with what frequency has been aggressively curtailed by the harassment. In the four-and-a-half minute clip, with the theme “What I Couldn’t Say,” she talks about how the harassment has changed how she engages with the public. I offer some tidbits below, but here’s the full clip:

She explains:

I rarely feel comfortable speaking spontaneously in public spaces, I’m intentional and careful about the  media interviews I do, I decline  most invitations to be on podcasts or web shows, I carefully consider the wording of every tweet to make sure it is clear and can’t be misconstrued. Over the last several years, I’ve become hypervigilant. My life, my words, and my actions are placed under a magnifying glass. Every day I see my words scrutinized, twisted, and distorted by thousands of men hell bent on destroying and silencing me.

How she gets her message across has been affected as well:

[I cant’ say] anything funny… I almost never make jokes anymore on YouTube… I don’t do it because viewers often interpret humor and sarcasm as ignorance… You would not believe how often jokes are taken as proof that I don’t know what I’m talking about… even when those jokes rely on a deep knowledge of the source material.

And she feels that, above all, she’s not allowed to talk about the harm that her harassers are doing:

I don’t’ get to publicly express sadness, or rage, or exhaustion, or anxiety, or depression… I don’t get to express feelings of fear or how tiring it is to be constantly vigilant of my physical and digital surroundings… In our society, women are not allowed to express feelings without being characterized as hysterical, erratic bitchy, highly emotional, or overly sensitive. Our experiences of insecurity, doubt, anger, or sadness are all policed and often used against us.

A youtube search for the video reveals a slew of anti-Sarkeesian responses were published within days.


Sarkeesian’s revelations put an inspiring human face on the sacrifice individuals make to fight-the-good-fight, but also reveal that, in some ways, her harassers are winning.

That said, their grotesque display of misogyny has raised Sarkeesian’s profile and drawn attention to and legitimized her project and her message. That original kickstarter? The original call was for $6,000. Her supporters donated almost $159,000. The feminist backlash to the misogynist backlash was swift and monied.

Ever since, the abuse she’s suffered as an individual has made the issue of both sexism in video games and online harassment more visible. Her pain may have been good for the visibility of the movement. I wonder, though, what message it sends to other women and men who want to pursue similar social justice initiatives. It is a cautionary tale that may dampen others’ willingness to fight.

The battle is real. The gamers who oppose Sarkeesian and what she stands for have succeeded in quieting, if not silencing her and have probably discouraged others from entering the fray. But Sarkeesian’s cause and the problem of gamer misogyny is more visible than ever. The fight goes on.

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.

To begin, it wasn’t just a toy. It debuted in 1890 and it was the next in a long line of devices that had been invented to allow people to communicate with spirits. These weren’t intended to be pretend; they were deadly serious.

According to Lisa Hix, who wrote a lengthy history of such devices for Collector’s Weekly, the mid-1800s was the beginning of the spiritualist movement. People had long believed in spirits, but two sisters by the name of Fox made the claim that they could communicate with them. This was new. There were no longer just spirits; now there were spiritualists.

Amateur historian Brandon Hodge, interviewed by Hix, explains:

Mediums sprang up overnight as word spread. Suddenly, there were mediums everywhere.

At first, spiritualists would communicate with spirits by asking questions and receiving, in return, a series of knocks or raps. They called it “spirit rapping.” There was a rap for yes and a rap for no and soon they started calling out the alphabet, allowing them to spell out words

Eventually they sought out more sophisticated ways to have conversations. Enter, the planchette. This was a small wooden egg-shaped device with two wheels and a hole in which to place a pencil. Participants would all place their fingers on the planchette and the spirit would presumably guide their movements, writing text.

Here is an example of a planchette from 1900 and some pre-1875 spirit scribbling, both courtesy of Hodge’s fantastic website, Mysterious Planchette:2

These were religious tools used with serious intentions. Entrepreneurs, however, saw things differently. They began marketing them as games and they were a huge hit.

Mediums resented this, so they kept innovating new and more legitimate-seeming ways of communicating. In addition, the planchette scribbles were often difficult to read. The idea of using an actual alphabet emerged and various devices were invented to allow spirits to point directly to letters and other answers.

A Telepathic Spirit Communicator and a “spiritoscope” from 1855 (source): 3

Eventually, the concept of the planchette merged with the alphabet board and what we now know as the Ouija board was invented.

An Espirito talking board (1892) and the Mitch Manitou talking board (1920s) (source): 4

Here is an antique Ouija planchette:4

In the 1920s, mediums came under attack from people determined to prove that they were liars. Houdini is the most famous of the anti-spiritualists and Hodge argues that he “ravaged spiritualism.”

He set up little “colleges” in cities like in Chicago for cops to attend to learn how to bust up séances, and there was a concerted national effort to stamp out fraud.


The Spiritualist believers never successfully cohesively banded together, because they were torn asunder by their own internal arguments about spirit materialization.

Most mediums ended up humiliated and penniless.

“But the Ouija,” Hodge says, “just came along at the right time.” It was a hit with laypeople, surviving the attacks against spiritualists. And, so, the Ouija board is one of the only widely-recognized artifacts of this time.

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.

Lisa Hix has written a really nice story, “Why Black Dolls Matter,” for Collectors Weekly. The history of the topsy-turvy doll really caught my interest. The one below is characteristic. Believed to be from the 1870s, it is the head and torso of a black and a white doll, sewed together in the middle with a long skirt. The doll can be flipped from one side to the other.


The general consensus seems to be that these dolls were primarily for enslaved children, but the purpose of the dolls isn’t clearly understood.

Hix quotes one of the founders of the National Black Doll Museum, Debra Britt, who says that the dolls enabled enslave children to have something forbidden: a doll that looked like them. “When the slave master was gone,” she explained, “the kids would have the black side, but when the slave master was around, they would have the white side.”

At wikipedia, though, the entry for the dolls cites the author of American Folk Dolls, who makes the opposite claim.

It has recently been suggested that these dolls were often made for Black children who desired a forbidden white doll (a baby like the ones their mothers cared for); they would flip the doll to the black side when an overseer passed them at play.

Kimberly Wallace-Sanders, author of Mammy: A Century of Race, Gender, and Southern Memory, suggests that the dolls might not have been disallowed at all. Since enslaved black women often cared for their own children and the children of their white captors, perhaps the doll was designed to socialize young enslaved girls into their future roles as mothers to children of both races. According to Historical Folk Toys, the black doll sometimes was dressed in a headscarf and the white doll in antebellum-style dress, supporting Wallace-Sanders’ theory that the idea was to socialize girls into their role.

And, of course, we have even less of an idea of how the children themselves thought of these dolls or where their imagination led them.

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.

Earlier this year, Barbie posed for Sports Illustrated, triggering a round of eye-rolling and exasperation among those who care about the self-esteem and overall mental health of girls and women.

Barbie replied with the hashtag #unapologetic, arguing in an — I’m gonna guess, ghostwritten — essay that posing in the notoriously sexist swimsuit issue was her way of proving that girls could do anything they wanted to do.  It was a bizarre appropriation of feminist logic alongside a skewering of a feminist strawwoman that went something along the lines of “don’t hate me ’cause I’m beautiful.”

Barbie is so often condemned as the problem and Mattel, perhaps tired of playing her endless defender, finally just went with: “How dare you judge her.”  It was a bold and bizarre marketing move.  The company had her embrace her villain persona, while simultaneously shaming the feminists who judged her.  It gave us all a little bit of whiplash and I thought it quite obnoxious.

But then I came across Tiffany Gholar’s new illustrated book, The Doll Project.  Gholar’s work suggests that perhaps we’ve been too quick to portray Barbie as simply a source of young women’s self-esteem issues and disordered eating.  We imagine, after all, that she gleefully flaunts her physical perfection in the face of us lesser women.  In this way, Mattel may be onto something; it isn’t just her appearance, but her seemingly endless confidence and, yes, failure to apologize, that sets us off.

But, maybe we’re wrong about Barbie?

What if Barbie is just as insecure as the rest of us?  This is the possibility explored in The Doll Project.  Using a mini diet book and scale actually sold by Mattel in the 1960s, Gholar re-imagines fashion dolls as victims of the media imperative to be thin.  What if  Barbie is a victim, too?

Excerpted with permission:

14 1a 53Forgive me for joining Mattel and Gholar in personifying this doll, but I enjoyed thinking through this reimagining of Barbie. It reminded me that even those among us who are privileged to be able to conform to conventions of attractiveness are often suffering.  Sometimes even the most “perfect” of us look in the mirror and see nothing but imperfection.  We’re all in this together.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard and Adios Barbie.

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