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.

The practice of pairing the word “men” (which refers to adults) with “girls” (which does not) reinforces a gender hierarchy by mapping it onto age.  Jason S. discovered an example of this tendency at Halloween Adventure (East Village, NYC) and snapped a picture to send in:

photo

Sara P. found another example, this time from iparty.  The flyer puts a girl and a boy side-by-side in police officer costumes.  The boy’s is labeled “policeman” and the girl’s is labeled “police girl.”

11

This type of language often goes unnoticed, but it sends a ubiquitous gender message about how seriously we should take men and women.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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 FOBEquestria.com or Military Bronies on Facebook (with over 10,000 members).

4

8

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:

9

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.

Serena Williams, the winner of 21 Grand Slam titles and arguably the greatest living female athlete, was understandably exhausted after defeating her sister and best friend Venus Williams in the U.S. Open earlier this week. So she wasn’t having it when, during a post-match press conference on Tuesday, a reporter had the gall to ask why she wasn’t smiling.

Williams looked down and gave an exasperated sigh before shelling out the best response an athlete has given in an interview since football player Marshawn Lynch’s “I’m just here so I won’t get fined” trademark phrase.

It’s 11:30. To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t want to be here. I just want to be in bed right now and I have to wake up early to practice and I don’t want to answer any of these questions. And you keep asking me the same questions. It’s not really … you’re not making it super enjoyable.

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 1.17.53 PM

Nervous laughter may have broken out in the crowd, but what Williams expressed wasn’t a joke. All women are expected to perform femininity at the cost of being their authentic selves in the public sphere. Williams had just experienced what was likely one of the most emotionally and physically draining matches in her career. Taking on your sister in a high-stakes game isn’t easy. She had told the Associated Press before her win:

She’s the toughest player I’ve ever played in my life and the best person I know. It’s going against your best friend and at the same time going against the greatest competitor, for me, in women’s tennis.

It makes sense that she would not be smiling ear-to-ear during the media conference. But it turns out no matter how insanely accomplished or famous you become, you will still be subjected to the innocuous-sounding but ever-so-pernicious “why don’t you smile?” interjection from those who feel entitled to make demands of women. Williams’ retort was her attempt at dismantling that sense of entitlement. For those who say the reporter’s question was a harmless jest, they should ask themselves if Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal would ever be expected to defend their stern or tired expressions.

And the problem exists not just in the image-heavy world of professional sports. On Wednesday, Apple did little to change the public’s perception of the tech industry as a sexist one. During a launch presentation in San Francisco, the first woman to be seen on stage at the male-dominated event wasn’t a keynote speaker or even a presenter, but a model in a magazine photo. Adobe’s director of design used her image to show off the Photoshopping capabilities of the new iPad Pro.

What did he decide to Photoshop one might ask? A smile onto her face. He could have altered literally any aspect of any image he wanted but decided instead to force a woman’s visage into a grin.

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 1.16.15 PM

What happened at the tennis conference and the tech launch are symptoms of the same problem. Women, whether athletes or models, are often seen as products. They’re meant to be consumed and enjoyed, and expressions of personality — like not constantly grinning — distract from their role as ornaments.

It’s the reason projects like Stop Telling Women to Smile by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh have cropped up to address the microaggressions women face on a daily basis. Women don’t exist to smile for men and aren’t obligated to present a cheerful disposition to the world. To expect that denies us our humanity and only reinforces male privilege.

Anita Little is the associate editor at Ms., where this post originally appeared. You can follow her on Twitter.

In this two minute clip, comedian Kate Berlant casually makes the case that women should steal cosmetics because, to paraphrase Berlant, no one should have to constantly pay for their own domination.

Enjoy!

Thanks Letta!

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

11By Carolita Johnson. Read more at Oscarlita.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Flashback Friday.

In the contemporary U.S., individuals choose who to marry based on personal preference, but there is a specific script by which those choices become a wedding day. Not everyone follows the script, but everyone knows it: the man decides to ask the woman to marry him, he buys a ring, he arranges a “special” event, he proposes, and she agrees. Many of us grow up dreaming of a day like this.

But this isn’t the only possible way to decide to marry. A reverse script might involve female choice. We can imagine a world in which, instead of hoping to be chosen, women decide to propose and men can only marry if they get asked. Another alternative script might involve no proposal at all, one in which two people discuss marriage and come to a decision together without the pop question and uncertain answer.

Of course, many couples essentially decide to marry through months or years of discussion, but these couples frequently act out the script anyway because, well, it’s so romantic and wonderful.

Or is it?

Andre M. sent in a clip of John Preator, a finalist on a previous season of American Idol. In the clip, he proposes to his girlfriend Erica on Main Street at a Disneyland Resort. The clip exaggerates the patriarchal underpinnings of both marriage and the marriage proposal. It may or may not be real, but it doesn’t really matter for our purposes.

Here it is:

First, Andre says, the spectacle is a shining testament to our commitment to the idea of marriage as an ideal state. Everyone loves marriage! As Andre writes:

A whole rainbow of characters come out of the shadows to push her towards yes, from the smiling Asian janitor, to the African American guy knighted by our hero and his plastic phallus, to the disabled woman who wishes to trade her fate with the bride-to-be.

We are supposed to think: “How wonderful! How sweet! How perfect!” What is made invisible is the fact that, in addition to a potential site of wedded bliss, marriage is the site of the reproduction of patriarchal privilege (especially through women’s disproportionate responsibility for housework and childcare) and heterosexist (still excluding same sex couples). But the audience knows that they are supposed to feel elated for the couple and privileged to witness their special moment (whether they feel these things or not).

Second, the public nature of the proposal put a lot of pressure on her to say “yes.” The audience is asked to participate in urging her to agree to marry him (“come on folks, how about a little encouragement?!”). And the performers, as well as the performance itself, create conditions that look a lot like coercion. Could she have said “no” if she wanted to? As if breaking his heart wouldn’t have been deterrent enough, saying “no” would have disappointed the onlookers and ruined the performance. He put so much work into scripting the proposal and it was very clear what her line was. How many women, with less pressure, have nonetheless felt it difficult or impossible to say “no”?

Okay, so let’s assume that Erica did want to marry John and that they will live happily ever after. And let’s also assume that most marriage proposals in the U.S. do not come with this degree of pressure. The clip is still a nice reminder of (1) just how taken-for-granted marriage is as an ideal state (can you imagine her saying, “I love you more than life itself and I want to be with you forever, but marriage, no thanks!”) and (2) the way that the proposal script puts men in the position of getting to choose and women in the position of having to agree or go off script.

Originally posted in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.