During last night’s debate presidential candidate Donald Trump doubled down on his 2005 conversation with Billy Bush about “grabbing” women “by the pussy,” making moves on one woman “like a bitch,” and the apparent pride he takes in sexually assaulting women: “I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.” Answering moderator Anderson Cooper’s question, Trump claimed, “It’s locker room talk – it’s one of those things.”

From 2003-2005, right around the same time Trump bragged about his skill at sexual assault, I was studying how teenage boys at a northern California high school, River High, talked about girls and sex. Indeed, much of what they said sounded just like the “locker room talk” Trump refers to. Here are some examples:

In talking about their plans for Winter Ball Josh told Reggie, “I’ll be fucking pissed if I don’t get some.” Reggie advised him “That’s why you take a girl whose gonna do something. I got Jack Daniels!” Josh countered, “I got a big bag of marijuana…the sooner I get her drunk the sooner I get laid.” Reggie triumphantly bragged, “I can get laid any time, anywhere.”

Jerome complained that he was not “gonna get laid at Winter Ball.” Josh admonished “That’s why you gotta go for the younger ones fool! Like 12 years old!” Josh then claimed he was “so good” at sex that he couldn’t “control the girl from thrashing around on the bed and hurting herself on the headboard.”

In weightlifting class, Pedro proceeded to act out his previous night’s sexual adventures, “Dude I had sex with my girlfriend last night. She tied me to the bed! I was like damn!” Josh chimed in, shaking his head knowingly, “never let a girl tie you up.” Pedro laughed and continued to say proudly “I did her so hard when I was done she was bleeding. I tore her walls!”

In autoshop Jay talked about a girl he thought was “hella ugly” but had “titties:” “She’s a bitch. I might take her out to the street races and leave her there so she can get raped.” All the other boys in auto-shop, as usual, responded in laughter.

While Trump framed this sort of sex talk as “just words,” as “things that people say,” this sort of talk undergirds what feminist scholars call “rape culture” in which symbolic violence, especially humorous symbolic violence, dehumanizes women, reducing them to sexual objects. It is precisely the joking quality of many of these instances that make them so hard to see as serious endorsements of violence against women. The line between talk and action, however, is much less clear than Trump claims. For instance, Jay, the boy who talked about raping the “hella ugly” girl who was a “bitch” but had “titties” regularly harassed the only girl in his autoshop class:

One afternoon Jay walked up to Tammy and stood behind her deeply inhaling, his nose not even an inch away from her hair. Clearly uncomfortable with this, she moved to the side. He asked her if she was planning to attend WyoTech (Wyoming Technical College, a mechanic school). She responded “yes.” He said “I’m going too! You and me. We’re gonna be in a room together.” He closed his eyes and started thrusting his hips back and forth and softly moaning as if to indicate that he was having sex.

Girls at River High suffered from this kind of physical sexual “joking” on a regular basis:

Walking between government and drama classes, Keith yelled “GET RAPED! GET RAPED!” as he rhythmically jabbed a girl in the crotch with his drumstick. She yelled at him to stop and tried to kick him in the crotch with her foot. He dodged and started yelling “CROTCH! CROTCH!”

Locker room talk is not “just words.” It is not funny. It is not harmless. And it is certainly not limited to the locker room. This kind of sex talk is a central part of normative masculinity in the global West. It is a way in which some men simultaneously endorse and dodge such endorsement of sexual assault. It is a way in which violence against women and women’s bodies are rendered “just jokes” or “guy talk.” In fact, the girls in my study were often used by young men as props in their competition for status and recognition from one another.

As feminist scholar Adrienne Rich powerfully argued, heterosexuality not only describes sexual desires, practices and orientations; it is also a “political institution.” The “enforcement of heterosexuality for women as a means of assuring male right of physical, economic and emotional access” is a central component of gender inequality. The locker room talk examples of “mythic-story telling” in which boys and men tell humorous larger than life tales about their sexual adventures, their bodies, and girls’ bodies are an important way in which men maintain sexual dominance over women. And dominance is central to contemporary American masculinity – dominance over other men, dominance over other countries, dominance over one’s political opponent, and yes, dominance over women.

So, sure, let’s use Donald’s locker room metaphor. But let’s also remember that Donald was not actually in a locker room when he claimed to have participated in sexual violence and assault to barter for status with another man. He was on a tour bus. He could have just as easily been in a board room, the men’s restroom at a corporate law firm, a strip club, a fraternity, an internet forum, a workplace, a school, a family picnic. Having people claim that he “did not really mean” what he said, or that those comments are inconsistent with “the man they know” does not actually undo the power of the words. Trump’s “locker room talk” is more than locker room talk; it’s an interactional ritual in which boys and men participate. They do it to establish status amongst one another. And just like the high school boys I studied, women often play the “role” of prop in this dramatic performance.

So, yes, it may very well have been “just locker room talk.” But there’s actually a science of locker room talk, Mr. Trump. And it suggests that your “talk” is and was related to institutionalized forms of inequality that make life dangerous for girls and women (and, yes certain men). These “jokes” and “words” are not unique to one time or place and they are not without consequence; rather they are part of, and indeed central to, persistent gendered inequality and violence.


*A big thank you to Sarah Diefendorf and Tristan Bridges for their feedback on this essay.


Men can now openly enjoy My Little Pony, and some now call other men out for rape-supporting attitudes.  But as sociologists C.J. Pascoe and Tristan Bridges astutely note, in these cases men often still cling to a notion of manhood that they have and that the outsider lacks.  Not the right kind of Brony?  Then a guy might hear, “Go be normal somewhere else, faggot!”  Not the right kind of campus dating man?  Then the message might be, “You’re a rapist, not a real man.”  Pascoe and Bridges’ point is that toxic masculinity is about that act of denying a powerful social identity to others.  Redefining the behavior that suits a”real man” doesn’t change the way men seek acceptance from other men as men.

Sensing or at least presuming that being a man is what’s important to guys, rape prevention advocates have tried to appeal to manhood to get guys to rethink their assumptions.  As we explain elsewhere, the “My Strength” campaign offers a series of posters that remind men to choose to use their (presumably natural and superior) strength to protect women, rather than to rape them. 

Campaign for Caleb's Hope NGO. www.calebshope.com
Campaign for Caleb’s Hope NGO. www.calebshope.com

Likewise, the “Real Men Don’t Rape” campaign trades on how important manhood is to men, and attempts to redefine manhood as respectful, gentlemanly.

The “real men don’t rape” strategy hopes to convey that manhood ought to be defined by morality, not muscle.  But, as a photo from the campaign illustrates, it winds up essentializing male strength—as if that’s the one thing no one can challenge, that at the end of the day (or date), the man there is more physically powerful and ultimately dominant over the woman.

In the educational film designed to reconstruct gender for African American boys and men, My Masculinity Helps, many male allies are shown taking the problem of violence against women seriously.  One woman in the film states, “Men have power. Now let’s talk about how to harness that power for good.”  While we would all agree that we need those with privilege to embrace the social movement’s goals.  But why does it have to be about their masculinity and how useful or helpful it is?  The feminist movement has challenged gender ideology and, importantly, the centrality of demarcating manhood.  Could we imagine, and would we accept, a film about stopping racism called My Whiteness Helps?

C.J. Pascoe and Jocelyn Hollander argue, in a recent article published in Gender & Society, that campaigns attempting to mobilize men turns men’s not raping into a “chivalrous choice,  a courtesy extended to a subordinate rather than the respect due to an equal.”  These campaigns highlight women’s subordinate status and almost celebrate men’s putatively superior strength and power.  They oppose rape “in ways that work to reinforce, rather than challenge, underlying gender inequalities.”

When men are enlisted as allies in ways that attempt to make them feel good about themselves as men, we are continuing the rape culture by privileging men’s feelings.  That same privileging of men’s feelings and needs is exactly what men who abusively control their partner and sexually assault women expect: their feelings and desires to be prioritized.  Moreover, in this movement men continue to be framed as the more powerful sex, and women continue to be framed as damsels in distress who “real men” help and not hurt. “Real men” are still dominant—they are just to use that power and dominance benevolently.  This protectionist discourse actually works to reinforce some of the very beliefs that it appears to call into question.

The strategy behind “real men don’t rape” and “my strength” is meant to suggest that respecting women, rather than getting laid, is what makes you a man.  Of course, this tactic turns the tables, given the assumption that men are so eager, even desperate, to have sex with women (even if the women aren’t willing), because it helps them see themselves as manly.

As a result, we are now told that rape is something committed only by weird, desperate, unmanly men.  But, as we point out elsewhere, Prof. Michael A. Messner argues in his Gender & Society article that the effort to change rape culture by framing the problem as one of a few bad apples is a major break from the feminist movement that challenged rape to begin with.  As Messner puts it, in the 1970s feminist women and pro-feminist men thought that

“. . . successfully ending violence against women would involve not simply removing a few bad apples from an otherwise fine basket of fruit. Rather, working to stop violence against women meant overturning the entire basket: challenging the institutional inequalities between women and men, raising boys differently, and transforming in more peaceful and egalitarian directions the normative definition of manhood. Stopping men’s violence against women, in other words, was now seen as part of a larger effort at revolutionizing gender relations.”

As Messner points out, the institutionalization and professionalization of anti-rape work since that time has led us to embrace a health model of rape prevention, which has medicalized the problem of sexual violence–and thereby, at least in some ways, de-politicized it.  Once the overall problem of rape has been depoliticized, nobody cares that we’re kowtowing to some dude’s need for his manhood to be confirmed.

In those earlier days of the anti-rape movement, male feminist writer John Stoltenberg argued in his book Refusing to Be a Man that, when a man is making out with a woman, he should be more worried about being the friend there than about being the man there.   Stoltenberg’s point was far more radical than today’s tactic of simply reversing what counts as real manhood.  Stoltenberg suggested that we just stop worrying about who’s a real man.

whos-a-good-boyThe current campaigns basically presume men are like the dog waiting for affirmation in the dog meme–you know the one in which the dog is saying, “What if I never find out who’s a good boy?”

Our message to guys would be: No, you’re never going to find out who’s a real man.  Let’s move on and worry about what being a respectful human being actually looks and feels like. We really aren’t concerned about your masculinity, however you conceive it. Because your sense of manhood is not what this movement is about.


mccaughey-cermeleJill Cermele is a professor of psychology and an affiliated faculty member of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at Drew University. Her scholarship, teaching, and activism are focused on gender and resistance, outcomes and perceptions of self-defense training, and issues of gender in mental health. With Martha McCaughey, she was a guest editor for the March 2014 special issue of Violence Against Women on Self-Defense Against Sexual Assault. McCaughey and she also write the blog See Jane Fight Back, where they provide commentary and analysis on popular press coverage of self-defense and women’s resistance.

Martha McCaughey is a professor of sociology and an affiliated faculty member of the Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies Program at Appalachian State University. She is the author of Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women’s Self-Defense and The Caveman Mystique: Pop-Darwinism and the Debates Over Sex, Violence, and Science. With Jill Cermele, she guest edited the special issue of Violence Against Women on self-defense against sexual assault and blogs at See Jane Fight Back. www.seejanefightback.com

Dr. Jennifer SShewmaker with bookhewmaker is a nationally certified school psychologist, psychology professor, and mother to three daughters. Her book Sexualized Media Messages and Our Children: Teaching Kids to Be Smart Critics and Consumers takes on children’s consumption of sexualized media messages, providing parents, teachers, and professionals with strategies for abating their influence. Combining academic prowess with personal experience, she deftly demonstrates the impact of both positive and negative media messages. I sat down for an email chat with Jennifer—a colleague I “met” through the Brave Girls Alliance—to ask her more. To learn more about Jennifer’s work, check out her recent TEDx talk “Does Sexy Media Matter?” and visit jennifershewmaker.com. Follow her on FB and Twitter @drjenshewmaker.

Deborah Siegel: It kills me all over again to read of studies that, as you document, “link the consumption of sexualized media with body dissatisfaction and negative body behaviors such as dieting for girls even down to the age of six.” Six! And we know things only get worse as little girls grow up. At the same time, in the six and a half years since I myself became a parent, I’ve gone from “Never Princess” to “a little bit seems ok” to “I let my daughter keep the disembodied Cinderella head our cousin gave her and am now jamming in the car with her to Taylor Swift.” Any advice for parents who feel beat down by the culture, and our own confusions and compromises, to help us keep the faith?

Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker with her daughters
Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker with her daughters

Jennifer Shewmaker: This is such a good question. As parents we do have to find the best fit for our own families. For example, when my daughters were young, they enjoyed Disney Princess movies and costumes. I let them engage with princesses, but we also talked about the messages. So, with Snow White, I would ask, “What do you think about Snow White falling in love with the Prince like she did? Could she really know him, or can he really know here? How do you think people fall in love?” Giving young children the chance to think through ideas like that as they watch media helps them build their skills in becoming critical consumers, and learn to look at stories with a critical, realistic eye.

DS: Ok, so maybe not all is lost over here. It was a proud moment when my daughter called out Anna, from Frozen, for “falling in love at first sight” with the dude who turned out to be a bad guy. As parents, it’s not like we can issue a princess media blackout–nor would we necessarily want to perhaps, since these shows, it seems, offer teachable moments about the culture we live in. Critiquing the “external blocking” paradigm, whereby parents try to control the media content their children consume, you call instead for a more “ecological approach”. Can you explain what you mean by that?

JS: Sure. An ecological approach just means that we’re going to think about the environment in which the child is growing up. That includes the family their in, the peers they’re close to, the school they attend, and so forth. We have to ask what kinds of supports, skills, and messages a child is getting within that context. Media is a part of a child’s ecology, or environment, but it’s not the only part, and definitely not the strongest component. When a child has a family around them that helps them build their confidence and competence in critiquing media, when they have a peer group in which they build caring community, when they’re learning from all of the important people and groups in their lives to understand where their value lies, that is going to give them the tools to thrive, even when they face challenges like sexualized media. It goes back to those 5 C’s of thriving, confidence, competence, character, caring, and connection.

The 5 C’s

DS: I love this photo of you on a TEDx stage, with the “5 C’s” on the screen behind you. But as writers, educators, and activists who also parent or take care of children, it’s not enough to be the sage from the stage–right? Often our best lessons and learnings, I find, are the ones that take us by surprise. So I love asking gender experts this question: What’s surprised you most about the way sexualized media consumption has played out in your own home?

JS: When I started researching sexualized media, it was because I felt so overwhelmed by the messages. I really did wonder if there was a healthy way to address it. Once I discovered the 5 C’s of thriving, and started connecting those with the things I was hearing from kids in the interviews and surveys that I had collected, I began to understand that we don’t have to be afraid of negative or unhealthy media messages, we just need to know how to help our kids process them and build their skills to respond effectively. Now that my daughters are 12, 15, and 17, I see them using those skills everyday, and that is so encouraging. I know that what I share with parents will work, because it has worked in my very own family.

DS: Your book is anchored around “four interpersonal mediating variables” that can change the way adults living and working with children respond to sexualized media. What’s new or different about the way you’re understanding these wider contexts in which media literacy (or lack thereof) evolves?

JS: So many times when people have looked at media and how it effects kids, it’s been done from only one perspective. My idea is that we have to take a broader view, and understand that a child lives and develops within a context that’s dependent upon those variables, such as their gender, their family environment, connection to the culture of celebrity, and the other communities that they’re a part of. When we understand that each child can build the five C’s of thriving within each of these contexts, that gives us a good place to start in helping them become critical consumers of all kinds of media.

DS: Let’s throw another “C” into the conversation: consent. How early do you feel should we start talking with children—boys and girls—about consent? What are some age-appropriate ways to inform and forewarn, without scaring them?

JS: In the book I share an exercise that you can do with young children, even preschoolers, to help them begin to understand the concept of consent. This activity is called, It’s just a hug, and it’s one that I’ve used with young children for years. I start by asking them a few questions:

–Do you always want to be hugged?

–How does it feel if someone hugs you when you don’t want to hug?

–When you want to hug a friend and they don’t want to hug, how do they feel if you hug them?

–What might you do  instead of forcing a hug?

This activity gives you a chance to start building language around body ownership, that each person has the right to say what they do and don’t want done to their body, and the chance for everyone to think about asking for and obtaining consent, what to do when someone denies it, and how to refuse consent themselves. Once you’ve set up the idea of consent with this activity, you can talk about it in different ways as the child gets older.

DS: You write that sexualized media “presents a dilemma” for both boys and girls, and you note that many adults talk about that dilemma more openly with daughters than sons. Why is that, do you think? And how can we help adults feel more comfortable broaching these critiques with boys?

JS: I think that many adults think that “boys will be boys,” instead of understanding that our boys need and want guidance on how to develop healthy relationships and a healthy understanding of how to go about building those just as much as our girls do. For example, it’s really important for both boys and girls to understand the concept of consent from both the perspective of giving and obtaining consent. Both boys and girls can be sexually abused, assaulted, and manipulated, and we want all of our kids to understand both how to treat others with respect and how to ask for respect themselves.

I believe that open conversations about our bodies, good and bad touch, how to say no or yes to touch, and so forth are important for all kids. In the book I give some specific conversation starters to help us do that with all children. And, it’s vital that we have these conversations about consent and contraception with our boys as they get older. We don’t want our son to be the bystander who saw someone getting assaulted and didn’t step in, we want him to be the one who helped, who called an adult, who noticed something was going on and asked for help.


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Originally posted at the Gender & Society blog.

Researchers increasingly find that American men who are millennials—more than men of earlier generations—aspire to create relationships in which they and their spouse equally share earning and domestic responsibilities, including care of young children. Such egalitarian ideals are difficult to attain, however, given the time and energy demanded by today’s employers.

balanceOne oft-cited remedy to this problem has been the introduction of progressive work-family policies, such as paid parental and family leave as well as flexible workplace practices. Such policies make gender-egalitarian relationships considerably more feasible because they provide workers with the time and resources needed to more realistically balance the often competing demands of employment and family obligations. In practice however, men are much less likely than women to take advantage of such policies.

Why might this be the case? One possibility centers on pure economics: men tend to have higher paying and higher status jobs than women, and therefore may feel they have more to lose if they modify their work for the sake of family. However, men’s cultural beliefs about gender also likely play an important role. For instance, some men may not take advantage of these policies simply because they do not believe it is right for men to take on equal responsibility for family responsibilities.

Furthermore, sociologists routinely find that men’s preferences and behaviors are driven by their sense of social approval by other men. From this perspective, some men may not utilize or support work-family policies because they believe that other men will judge them negatively for taking advantage of such policies. In short, if men believe that their male peers value paid work as a distinctively masculine responsibility, they may fear that taking on a substantial amount responsibility for housework and childcare—the behavior that supportive work-family policies facilitate—will undermine their masculine identity within their social circle.

Our study tackles this complex set of issues by identifying and measuring the extent to which young men’s cultural beliefs about gender are relevant for their responses to supportive work-family policies. We implement a novel survey-experimental design to investigate whether the causal effect of the presence of supportive work-family policies on a young man’s preference to take on equal or primary responsibility for housework and childcare depends on his cultural beliefs about gender.

To that end, we focus on two types of cultural beliefs. First, we examine gender ideology: whether respondents believe that other men should have gender-egalitarian relationships. Second, we examine perceptions of masculinity norms: whether respondents believe that other men actually do aspire to have gender-egalitarian relationships.

In our survey experiment, which was conducted with a nationally representative sample of unmarried, childless, American men between the ages of 18 and 32, we asked each respondent to express how he would ideally prefer to divide work and domestic responsibilities with his future partner. As part of the study, we randomly assigned participants to one of two groups. In one group, participants were told to state how they would ideally organize their future work and family responsibilities under the assumption that supportive work-family policies—specifically, paid family leave, subsidized childcare, and flexible workplace practices—were in place. In the other group, we made no mention of such policies, but still asked the men about how they would ideally like to balance work and family like in the future. All participants then asked a series of questions about how they believe most men should organize work and family obligations, and how most men their age actually do prefer to organize these obligations.

Our key finding is that men’s responses to the supportive work-family policy prime are contingent upon their perceptions of normative masculinity—that is, beliefs about what the majority of other young men want. Among the subgroup of men who believed that the majority of their male peers actually want to take on equal or primary responsibility for housework and/or childcare, supportive work-family policies increase the chances of selecting a progressive relationship structure (e.g., being in an egalitarian relationship or being in a relationship where they would be primarily responsible for housework and childcare) by nearly 26 percent.

Further, we show that men’s responses to the supportive work-family policy prime are not contingent on men’s value-laden beliefs about whether men ought to share equally in earning and caregiving. While gender ideology matters for many things, it does not appear that deep changes to men’s ideological beliefs are a prerequisite for increasing men’s endorsement and take-up of supportive work-family policies.

Together, these findings contribute new and important insights to the study of work and family life, masculinity, and the determinants of men’s responses to supportive work-family policies. Whereas men’s overall resistance to interventions aimed at supporting dual-earner, dual-caregiver relationships has proven to be a stumbling block to attaining greater gender equality, our findings demonstrate that such resistance is far from ubiquitous, and is in fact contingent on a man’s localized perceptions of masculinity norms. Thus, our study identifies one key factor that contributes to persistent patterns of inequality in the workplace and at home. By designing work-family policies that take masculinity norms into consideration, policymakers and business leaders alike may take an important step toward dismantling patterns of inequality.


Sarah Thébaud is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a faculty research associate of the Broom Center for Demography. Her work investigates social psychological and macro-institutional sources of gender inequality in the new economy. In addition to studies on the relationship between gendered cultural beliefs, workplaces, and families, her research examines patterns of gender inequality in entrepreneurial activity, investment markets, and academic science and engineering. 

David S. Pedulla is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Faculty Research Associate in the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Using primarily experimental and quantitative approaches, his research examines the processes underlying racial and gender stratification in the labor market. One ongoing project investigates the gendered and racialized consequences of nonstandard, contingent, and precarious employment on workers’ social and economic outcomes.

Their article “Masculinity and the Stalled Revolution: How Gender Ideologies and Norms Shape Young Men’s Responses to Work–Family Policies” can be found in the August 2016; 30 (4) issue of Gender & Society

Photographer Rafael Ortega Stylist Susan Kurtz
Photographer Rafael Ortega
Stylist Susan Kurtz

Summer often means one thing for academics — time to catch up on the zillion things they’ve been trying to finish all year, most often their own research and writing.  I wrote the post (below) in March about the “new Barbie body” — three, in fact — whose introduction was considered radical for each’s deviation in shape from traditional Barbie. This was huge news back in January, with press coverage spanning most major newspapers and magazines, plus enthusiastic blogging.  Months later, while I haven’t been able to access a report on sales figures, it seems the response is still largely positive.

More timely, however, is the recent introduction of “President and Vice-President Barbie” — only sold in a pair although consumers can choose from a small range of ethnicities — although not body types.  Their branding shows an image of a “First All Female Ticket” button with Barbie’s trademark high-ponytail silhouette visible. With days to go before the Democratic National Convention begins, the timing is ripe, and the duo(s) seem to be flying off of Mattel’s website.  The invention of the two is presented in partnership with the organization She Should Run.

Releasing these dolls within a fraught political climate almost seems like an editorial choice on Mattel’s part.  Part of their “You Can Be Anything” series, the “You can do it!” boosterism that Mattel counts on is at its peak with this set as they know that Barbie as “career girl” is one of her strongest selling points.  (Interesting to note, Barbie (of varying ethnicities) also ran for President in 2012, minus a running mate.)

It’s hard to argue with this line (of thinking), but good to remember that it’s but one line (of products) Mattel sells among many that still largely reinforce feminine stereotypes through play, and more insidiously, claiming power through this fulfillment.  The free downloads (available on Mattel’s home site) that accompany the candidates include a laudable list of words that girls can circle to describe their own leadership abilities. What’s missing is how these descriptors are often in direct conflict with other, oppositional, qualities promoted to young girls and how they clash when the two combine (footnote: see vitriol surrounding Hilary Clinton).  Girls who are following the campaign, at any level, will likely learn this soon enough.

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In more timely news, straight ahead is the release of the July 30th Barbie film, Starlight Adventure, a pink-tinged sci-fi movie whose teaser reveals a range of Barbie figures of traditional body type.  The snippet of song available, “I can be anything….” is an echo of what Mattel is serving up to young girls.  It is hard to dispute the inherent optimism of this message — yet, (particularly as this political campaign unfolds), it’s hard to not think about what happens when idealistic platitudes meet with actual reality.

On the new Barbie body types:

It’s been a few weeks since Barbie, a maverick of (at least clothes-changing) reinvention, has done it again. Or, another way to frame her latest transformation is that the design and marketing teams at Mattel, (perhaps in response to declining sales), are finally ready to act on the message that the world of dolls is diversifying. Mattel has tried (and failed in my opinion) to offer a more radical doll with the Monster High line, but the iconic Barbie, stands (or balances) forever in her own category. Any change for her has been one of increments, but this time Mattel has taken a leap.


Generations of women have played with Barbie and there has been no shortage of wonderfully inventive feminist “make-overs” and interventions with the doll. Yet, Barbie’s impossible proportions have remained the same throughout the years, although — more signs of progress — almost a year ago a “flat-footed” Barbie with articulated ankles was released. A quick cruise through the Target aisle reveals Barbies available in a variety of skin colors and hair lengths, although the traditional blonde-haired, pale-skinned icon still dominates the shelves.

Praise has always been (sometimes begrudgingly) given to Barbie’s “career girl” persona and as I cruised the aisles with my 4-year-old we admired the snappy uniforms Pilot Barbie and Chef Barbie donned. Yet, despite the “vet set” (complete with pink and purple-decked office equipment), the emphasis on Barbie as fashion doll who engages in stereotypically feminine activity is still abundantly clear. I tried to move my little person more swiftly past the boxes for Barbie’s walk-in closet (packed with accessories) and a “dinner date” set complete with café table and chairs where she looked très intime with Ken.

Mattel’s big reveal was a trio of Barbies with different body types (petite, curvy, and tall, with one doll sporting bright blue hair). In the world of feminist activism around dolls, parenting, and the fight for more gender equity with kids’ toys and clothing, reaction has been cautiously optimistic. One cynical, yet commonly heard, response is that the dolls’ different body shapes means their clothing isn’t interchangeable, garnering more sales for Mattel. Another level of response, much discussed in comments and blogs, is whether girls will digest these changes and how — and, frankly, if the “curvy” Barbie didn’t go far enough, with wide hips that still don’t truly mirror the body shape of the average American woman. Comment threads have questioned whether giving a “curvy” Barbie might be perceived as an insult — reflecting the thought, again, that a less-than-thin body is still less than desirable.

Mattel strategically brought onboard a small handful of activists to consult and it’s unclear how much input was taken seriously, or might have even served as a strategy to leverage their efforts as collaborative and thereby inoculate themselves from later attacks. I am cautious about seeing companies promote what I’ve called “fauxpowerment”: a move the plays off of the idea of “empowering girls” but, in reality, serves their own interests.

Companies walk a fine line when using “body confidence” to espouse “feel good” boosts — at best it can be a step forward towards redefinition, at worst, it’s exploitation of the most undermining sort. This magazine pictorial (“Women Proving That Their Own Skin is This Season’s Hottest Accessory”) even references the new Barbies as a way of proving that there now is more body shape and color representation — but with the helping hand of a makeup product. Yet, general consensus seems to be that Mattel’s motives are well-intended — and given that Barbie is solidly in midlife an evolving body shape (and midlife rebranding) seems like a timely development.

Just as Disney has made strides towards reforming the Princess zeitgeist (although I’m sure would never dream of eliminating it), I think Mattel is ceding to some external pressure and sincerely trying to have Barbie evolve, although they are probably motivated more by the chance to pitch new merchandise as progressive to increase sales rather than any kind of deep corporate altruism.

The relationship between girls and Barbie, and women and Barbie isn’t one that shows any sign of ending, even decades past the years she was an active presence within a girl’s life — which is exactly why her influence and continuing development is so important.

Note: The video above is from 2009.  Barbie was created in 1959. Now 57, she’s ready to run again for political office.

This month’s column features our first guest-post from Liz Borkowski, MPH. Liz is the managing editor of Women’s Health Issues and a researcher at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She focuses on reproductive health, paid leave, and US health policy, and is a regular contributor to the public health blog The Pump Handle.


What’s the best way to help lesbian and bisexual (LB) women lose weight, when their communities may question the very goal of weight loss? That’s a question behind the “Healthy Weight in Lesbian and Bisexual Women: Striving for a Healthy Community” (HWLB) initiative. The answer they came up with was to focus the program on physical activity and nutrition, rather than numbers on a scale. Their findings suggest that this can be an effective approach for helping lesbian and bisexual women adopt healthier habits. Nearly all (95%) of participants achieved one or more of the health objectives, which included nutrition and physical activity goals as well as weight reduction. That included 57% of participants increasing their weekly physical activity minutes by 20% – habits that, if sustained, could contribute to years of improved health.

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The Women’s Health Issues supplement about the study contains lessons for healthcare providers who serve lesbian and bisexual women. As Natalie Ingraham and her colleagues explain in an article about provider interventions, lesbian and bisexual women may not disclose their sexuality to providers who seem to presume heterosexuality; lack of disclosure can lead to inadequate care. Weight bias can also be common among healthcare providers:

“…stigma and discrimination related to sexual orientation and gender identity may be compounded by stigma related to weight and body size.”

To address this, the researchers developed and evaluated two curricula for providers to enhance their ability to provide high-quality care to LB “women of size” (overweight or obese). Focus group participants explained that they wanted providers’ help in overcoming barriers to healthy habits, not providers making them feel shamed or blamed for their weight. Based on this feedback and prior studies, the team developed two curricula that involved cultural competency training and motivational interviewing (MI) techniques:

“Rather than trying to convince clients to change, providers trained in MI elicit arguments for change from the clients themselves…These techniques help clients to explore and resolve ambivalence, develop self-efficacy, and set personal goals.”

The team pilot tested the “academic format” training with physicians, residents, and medical students at universities in Washington, DC and Nashville, Tennessee. They pilot tested the “clinic format” training with staff and providers at Lyon-Martin Health Services, a Program of HealthRight360, which provides care to LGBT clients in the San Francisco Bay Area. Ninety-six participants completed tests before and after the trainings; results showed the most change on questions about patient-provider interactions and LB women’s avoidance of care.

Specifically, after the trainings, more participants (correctly) agreed with the statements “Lesbians and bisexual women may avoid health care because they don’t trust the practitioner to be culturally competent” and “Overweight and obese women often delay or avoid health care if they feel their health care provider holds a bias against women who are large.” More participants also (correctly) disagreed with the statement “Physicians/nurses should always instruct their overweight/obese patients to lose weight.” There was also more (correct) agreement with this statement, which encapsulates what providers can do to help overweight clients:

“Patients who are advised by their physician how to modify their behavior to lose weight are more likely to lose weight than those who do not get this advice.”

While the authors of this article note the need for additional research on these curricula – including studies to see whether they improve clinical practice – their findings, combined with the findings of the overall HWLB study, have some clear implications. Instead of instructing all overweight or obese lesbian and bisexual patients to lose weight, providers should offer advice on adopting healthier behaviors. It is key that this advice be presented in ways that don’t contribute to stigma on the basis of larger size or sexual orientation.  To better serve lesbian and bisexual patients, health care providers should familiarize themselves with cultural norms and problematic stigmas that LB women may face. Then, during patient interactions they should make sure to sensitively include “open and positive acknowledgement of sexual orientation.”

Less than twelve hours after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Omar Mateen’s father said to reporters that his son’s actions “had nothing to do with religion.” Yet religion was front and center to many people’s reactions to the tragedy. Why?

The most obvious answer is that Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic state of Syria and the Levant (commonly referred to as ISIS) in a 911 call he placed during the shooting (it is worth noting that he also claimed allegiance to other groups in conflict with ISIS).

We know that ISIS kills people for being gay. Yet social media users were quick to point out following the Pulse shooting the ways in which the LGBTQ community—particularly Latino/as and African Americans—also face physical and symbolic violence at the hands of other Americans.


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The same day as the shooting, Texas politician Dan Patrick posted this tweet (later apologizing and claiming that the tweet had been scheduled days earlier).


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But Patrick’s attitude is similar to religious conservatives who advocate against gay and transgender rights. Omar Mateen’s homophobia, while it aligns with terrorist groups like ISIS, could well be the result of watching the 700 Club. Andrew Sotomayor writes pointedly, “Every preacher, pastor, or priest who’s falsely claimed that LGBT people are ‘sinners,’ ‘perverts,’ or told someone to ‘pray the gay away’ contributed to this murder.”

Some Muslims have pointed out widespread homophobia within their religious communities (examples here, here, and here). But just as swiftly as conservative politicians blamed radical Islam for the incident, progressives responded by speaking out against Islamophobia and generalizations about Muslims as extremists or uniformly anti-gay.

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For many, religion is an indirect villain in this tragic story—fueling the hate of a violent man; straining the relationships between victims and their friends and families; and contributing to a climate in which LGBTQ people may not feel safe in their homes and jobs. Yet in the days following the shooting, many religious communities have become places of solidarity and support. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly half of the LGBT population in America is affiliated with a religion. And a sizable minority (17 percent) report that religion is “very important” in their lives. LGBTQ Christians, Muslims, Jews and their allies have organized countless vigils, written commentary, walked in Pride marches, addressed the Pope, mourned in gay bars. For LGBTQ people, religion may often be the villain, but it is important to recognize that it is sometimes also the healer.

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ACLU Lawyer Gillian Thomas’s book, Because of Sex, demonstrates that once a law is passed, the work has just begun. Thomas traces fifty years of court cases that interpreted the meaning of sex discrimination as established by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Thomas grips her reader from the start, opening the book with the controversial introduction of “sex” into the Civil Rights Act by Howard Smith (Democratic Representative from Virginia). To this day, scholars debate whether this addition was a sincere attempt to promote gender equality or a sexist joke aimed at derailing the Act. Ultimately, the clause stayed in and the Civil Rights Act passed prohibiting discrimination because of race, color, religion, national origin, and sex. However, as Thomas and other scholars have pointed out, because “sex” was a last minute addition to the law, its meaning received little attention from Congress. Therefore, it has been up to the courts to interpret what sex discrimination looks like. This is where Thomas spends the majority of her book.

Thomas argues that Title VII has led to “revolutionary” legal and cultural change and consequently “transforming what it means to be a woman who works” (p. 229). Each chapter of Because of Sex tackles one court case that made its way to the Supreme Court and set precedent for the interpretation of sex discrimination in employment. This case study approach allows Thomas to introduce her readers to all the players involved in each of these cases, giving background and historical contextual information that brings each case to life. For example, I’m very familiar with Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, wherein sex stereotyping was ruled sex discrimination after Ann Hopkins was denied partnership for her management style and told to go to charm school. What I didn’t know was that after winning her case, Hopkins was offered $1 million to NOT return to work at Price Waterhouse. Hopkins turned them down and rejoined the firm after fighting them in the courts for nearly a decade. According to Thomas, Hopkins became a fierce advocate for diversity in the firm, which explains in part why now you can see Price Waterhouse on top lists of workplaces promoting diversity. What really hit home for me was how long these landmark cases take and how life moves on for the plaintiffs in the meantime. Their names may go down in legal precedent and/or history books for changing the direction of sex discrimination law, but in the meantime, they have to pay the bills. And as someone suing for employment discrimination, that isn’t always easy.

This is a book that fellow wonkettes may pick up for a quick and informative read. It may not be a book for academics looking to cite new research. Thomas does not situate her book within a larger literature, her argument lacks a theoretical or empirical contribution, and her methodology of choosing which cases to analyze is unclear. However, Thomas writes with a narrative style that makes reading legal cases accessible and enjoyable.   Let’s face it – reading about the law can be quite dry and boring even to those of us who are sincerely invested in its nuances, idiosyncrasies, and possibilities. Thomas uses her legal expertise and experience to translate the law for everyday readers. I especially appreciated how she threw in important procedural details to those of us who do not practice law. For example, she shows how a case moves from a district court, to an appeals court, and, if their petition is accepted, to the Supreme Court. Once at the Supreme Court, Thomas explains that there is no trial. Instead, each side’s lawyer has thirty minutes to present their argument and it is expected for the justices to jump in immediately and ask questions. Therefore, lawyers typically practice their argument through moot courts or assemblies of their peers, anticipating the questions justices may ask.

Because of Sex would also be a great supplementary text in college courses. For instance, I can imagine assigning sections of it in a Gender and Work course to help my students understand the various forms of sex discrimination. In my experience, the only form of sex discrimination college students know about is wage inequality. The case studies in Thomas’s book provide clear illustrations that sex discrimination can also involve denying employment to mothers, height and weight restrictions, discriminatory pension plans and leave policies, sexual harassment, and sex stereotyping in promotion decisions.   Thomas’s book could also pair well with legal mobilization literature, providing tangible examples of how people consider their legal rights, the various actors involved in advocacy, and how legal cases connection to larger social movements.

Because of Sex by Gillian Thomas is a good introductory text for folks looking to explore how courts have interpreted sex discrimination since its introduction to the Civil Rights Act.

abortion book coverThe thought of publishing a book is very seductive. A book offers the opportunity to explain ideas in detail. For some, it signifies an academic arrival. Once you publish a book, you are officially part of the knowledge production machine, you have a compelling way to engage the conversation. My book, on abortion politics [Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America], was meant to be that.

But this story is not about the intensity of the topic, but the intensity of the book. I love my book. I am proud of it. But the process stunned me. It took four years for my book to get published (from the initial submission to its publication) and I had almost no contact with my editor during the revision or publication process. I learned that the reality of publishing a book does not always live up to the Hollywood montage that plays out in our minds. This may sound obvious…but it surprised me.

When I am asked to give advice on writing a book, I answer: You need to be practical about your book. Here are a few things to consider when you get serious about moving a book from the montage in your mind to reality.

How your institution and department feel about books? When I arrived at Florida State University, I learned that my department was fine with my publishing a book. The provost at the time, however, was not. His part-true, part-disciplinarily parochial view was that books are just dissertations that publishers agreed to put in print, again. After I was done feeling disappointed, I realized I would have to be careful about when I published a book on the same topic as my dissertation. I didn’t want to spend years on a book that ultimately hurt (rather than helped) my career.

What are the publication expectations for promotion or just keeping your job? These vary dramatically by institution, but are important to your decision-making. If you are at an R-1, then your book might only count if it is published by a “top tier” press, which will be interpreted however the powers-that-be see fit. In this situation, you want to do the background work to figure out the prevailing definition of “top tier” and determine exactly what will make that book count. For example, some institutions want the book published and reviewed before they will count the book toward promotion. If you have more publishing leeway, think of the academic publishing universe as your proverbial oyster! There are a number of exciting academic presses that don’t have university in their title (think Routledge, Sage, Polity, and Ashgate) but are publishing great stuff. Use this opportunity to find a good fit for you.

How long can you wait to get reviews? How about for your book to come out?  You can hardly believe the variability in review times for academic publishers. I waited over a year for two reviews! I made good use of the reviews, and revised the book in less than six months. Then I waited another year for the contract. Others put in this kind of time and never got that contract. For me, I actually stepped up the pace by shopping my manuscript around to other publishers and obtaining competing contracts. Be aware, getting competing contracts can be tricky business, particularly since some of the big-wig publishers do not allow you to submit your manuscript elsewhere while it is under review. I also asked a friend to contact the editor on my behalf. It was tough: The top-tier press would help me with the promotion and raise I sought. But there were otherwise very attractive features to other publishers.

Do you really want to write a book? Think hard about whether writing a book will bring you pleasure. I (half) jokingly refer to academia as the “profession of pain,” and truly believe it is critical to find pleasure in our work where we can. I really enjoyed writing my book and, despite the lingering bad taste in my mouth about the process, I am really pleased with my final product. Writing, for me, is bliss. I love to get comments and rewrite (something, by the way, that you cannot always count on an editor to do). Others have observed that I get grouchy on the days I cannot write due to other professional obligations. This isn’t true for everyone. If writing the equivalent of ten papers in a row with minimal feedback doesn’t sound appealing, you should think seriously about creating a writing plan that doesn’t look or feel like torture, or put off writing that book for now.

We are awash in books. My home and office are crowded with bookshelves packed with the fiction and nonfiction books that I’ve read and want to read. In retrospect, it is not surprising that I had a romanticized understanding of the academic publishing industry. While I am sure that I still have much to learn, I am finishing up my second sole-authored book. The process is going much better. My editor is excited about the book and, even though the deadline is looming large, so am I.

Deana A. Rohlinger is a Professor of Sociology at Florida State University.  She is the author of Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America (2015). Learn more about Deana’s work at www.DeanaRohlinger.com.

C.J. and her public school teacher female partner have had some version of the following conversation with faculty wives (those married to men) countless times over the past decade:

Wives: “Wow, my husband just works so hard. It’s like I’m a single parent. But academia’s just like that –totally unpredictable. He has to work evenings and weekends to get published and travel all the time to conferences. I have to not work/adjust my schedule/work part time to make sure child care is covered/food is made/house is taken care of.”

C.J.’s public school teacher partner: “Huh. That doesn’t sound like C.J.’s schedule at all. She works 9-5 and we share childcare equally. She does some work after they go to bed and during naptime (and let’s be honest between the 4 am and 6 am wakeups in those early days), but we have a fairly regular schedule and division of labor. FullSizeRenderShe grocery shops, I take the kids to dance classes while she does so. She puts the kids to bed, I clean the house. Mornings are evenly divided between the two of us (though we do make the kids stay in bed until 6:20 so we can both get in early morning workouts!). Sure there are evening events/conferences/invited talks, but we plan those out in advance to make sure each of our jobs are covered. In fact when C.J. travels the table is covered in Tupperware and prepared meals so she holds up her part of the labor before she leaves (see image). Weird, it’s like our partners work in two totally different industries.”

Over and over and over again. So it was with only a little surprise that I read this headline in the Washington Post: “The Surprising Reason Why Lesbians Get Paid More Than Straight Women.” It turns out Marieka Klawitter, professor of public policy, examined 29 studies “on wages and sexual orientation and found a 9 percent earnings premium for lesbians over heterosexual women.” She suggested that this premium was due to lesbians’ increased levels of education and work experience.

Another another recent study, the article goes on to point out, showed that lesbians who had previously lived with a male partner made 20% less than those who never had lived with a man (though even these lesbians still made more than heterosexual women who lived with a male partner). Indeed, this “male partner penalty” reflects what Philip Cohen points out in this graph about women’s median earnings as a proportion of men’s by education (below). You can see the increase in salary proportionally for those who have not only never had kids, but are also not married.

Graph produced by Philip Cohen - https://familyinequality.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/gender-gap-statistic-gets-it-from-all-sides/
Graph produced by Philip Cohen –

So what is going on here? We, in consultation with Facebook friends, have a few ideas:

  1. See the conversation above – that perhaps the premium is reflecting the fact that women in same-sex couples don’t perform a full second shift and perhaps engage in a more equitable division of labor. Time is not valued or undervalued by gender, in other words.
  2. Women’s work success may threaten their heterosexual relationship and they may reduce their professional efforts. This reduction is reflected in salary. Certainly research by Christin Munsch on women’s earnings and cheating patterns suggests that women’s earning power may not positively affect heterosexual relationships. (Idea credit: Kate Howlett McCarley)
  3. The wage premium has nothing to do with lesbians and everything to do with whether or not a woman lives with a man. We might see something similar for single straight identified women. (Idea credit: Siri Colom)
  4. The living with a man penalty might reflect regional patterns of homophobia and be less about the man himself. (Idea Credit: Megan Carroll)
  5. This might have something to do with queer gendered embodiments in the workplace. As Jane Ward asked “did they control for butchness?” Or Terri Eagen-Torkko suggested (tongue perhaps in cheek): “It’s probably just the half of us who are ‘the man.’” Indeed, could it be that there is something about the way one “does gender” that is different when one is lesbian identified? So lesbian identified that one has never lived with a man? More assertive perhaps? As such less prone to the mistakes women are told they make in negotiating salaries?
  6. Finally, these findings need to be squared with the recent study that showed that women who might be read as queer because of their work experience are less likely to be called by prospective employers in the first place. (Idea credit: Dawne Moon and Sascha Demerjian)

It’s likely a combination of all of these factors and more. But given the difference male partners make in the equation, we can’t shake the notion that domestic division of labor plays a big role here. And while those of us in same-sex couples may be freer to create new scripts for these duties, as Tristan can attest, it’s challenging, but can be done, in heterosexual relationships, too.

In heterosexual relationships, the script is institutionalized such that deviating from it is challenging for many reasons beyond people feeling like “less of a man” or as though they are failing to live up to motherhood ideals. While actually measuring an equitable division of labor is challenging in any relationship, there are social forces working against heterosexual couples attempting for forge egalitarian divisions of labor—perhaps particularly when they have children. Part of this might have to do with actual, authentic collaboration and support. The joys and burdens of relationships need to be balanced, and it’s probably not all that shocking to hear that lesbian couples might be better at this. Heterosexual relationship scripts are institutionalized in ways that make men and women unhappy (though, for very different reasons). Challenging these means forging new scripts—a march that is invariably uphill.

Indeed, we have learned to rely on one another as coauthors in this way as well—passing papers back and forth and trying to assess work/family balance issues, and more. It enriches our work lives. The labor for this blog post itself, in fact, was aided by a queer digital network of people interested in similar issues and ideas and eager to help. In the end, these studies seem to raise as many questions as they answer about sexuality, gender, and the wage gap. And we ought to consider the questions posed as well as those that appear to be answered.