gender: masculinity

Mattel, creator of the Barbie doll, has launched “a doll line designed to keep labels out and invite everyone in—giving kids the freedom to create their own customizable characters again and again.”  This doll has minimal makeup, a short hairstyle with an attachable long-hair wig, a flat chest, flat feet (for wearing sneakers, hiking boots, or platform sandals), and clothing that includes femme and butch options.  The clothes and accessories can, of course, be interchanged into dozens of different combinations. 

Creatable World Doll – Let Toys Be Toys Blog

For those old enough to remember the 1960s dolls, I have one word for you:  Skipper.  For those too young to know, Skipper was Barbie’s little sister and had a pre-pubescent body: flat chest and flat feet, since she was too young to wear heels. Imagine Skipper only with hair that could go off and on, and a more expansive wardrobe (which, in the 60s, we would have called “tomboy”).

Vintage Skipper By Mattel Doll, Barbie's Little Sister, Stock Number 0950, Copyright 1963
Vintage Skipper Doll, Joe Haupt, Flicker CC

In fact, Mattel sidestepped controversy by diplomatically calling the new doll “customizable” rather than gender-inclusive.  This doll does not include adult body types at all.  It is more of a genderless kid than a gender inclusive adult.  For gender inclusion recognizes that policies, programs, and language need to be broader to encompass the fluidity of gender expression and orientation.  According to Gender Spectrum, the organization whose mission is to create a gender-inclusive world for all children and youth, gender inclusivity means being open to everyone regardless of their gender identity and/or expression.  Gender inclusion would thus include people with large breasts who identify as men and people with penises who identify as women.    

Of course, Mattel’s 12-inch plastic dolls were never particularly realistic, and never had genitalia.  In addition, anyone with even an ounce of creativity could, and did, dress their Barbie doll in the clothing that came with a Ken or G.I. Joe doll, cut off Barbie’s hair, pierce Ken’s ears, draw on tattoos, create their own accessories, and so on.   

Interestingly, Mattel has already made Barbie dolls dressed as men.  Between 2011 and 2019, Mattel released an Elvis Barbie, a David Bowie Barbie, a Frank Sinatra Barbie, and an Andy Warhol Barbie.  These are standard buxom Barbie dolls dressed as the iconic male figures.  Some might consider these dolls at least as gender-bending as the Creatable WorldTM dolls.  But they are also less threatening because they are marketed to adult collectors, not to kids who will play with them.  And Mattel has yet to create Marilyn Monroe Ken or Barbra Streisand Ken. (If you’re listening, Mattel, I’ll accept royalties.)

Frank Sinatra Barbie
Frank Sinatra Barbie, Miss Vinyl, Flickr CC

Changing your Barbie’s skin color was a little more challenging, but by 2009, Barbie’s 50th anniversary, Mattel had released far more ethnically diverse Barbies, although they were still primarily princesses, graceful goddesses, and buxom movie stars.  Over its nearly 60-year history, Barbie’s body shape remained a lingering complaint of feminist critics, well after Barbie got more racially diverse and Teen Talk Barbie no longer said “Math class is tough.”  For even the pilot and presidential candidate Barbies had big chests and really tiny waists, making one wonder if she would hit that glass ceiling pointy boobs first.  Sure, it could be seen as a sign of strength that Barbie does everything Ken does, only in downward pointing feet that only fit in heels.  But as millennials began to become moms who buy (or refuse to buy) Barbies (see, e.g., this feminist mom’s explanation), and Mattel’s sales started to plummet, Mattel began to rebrand itself in 2016 with the launch of new Barbie body types—petite, tall, and curvy. 

Perhaps Lena Dunham, whose nudity in Girls was considered transgressive, deserves thanks.  We should also thank the artists and activists who had a dream for Barbie and used social media to share it, going much farther than Mattel to re-imagine Barbie, gender, and pop culture.  Indeed, they make Creative WorldTM dolls look pretty conventional.  The changes Mattel has been making can be seen as a direct result of the willingness of artists, activists, and fans to playfully engage with—rather than simply criticize—their dolls.  Creatable WorldTM dolls may be another step Mattel is taking to embrace diversity and include more consumers.  How far it will go might once again depend on what fans of the dolls demand and how creative people get in making their own visions known.

Martha McCaughey is Professor of Sociology at Appalachian State. She blogs on sexual assault prevention at See Jane Fight Back (www.seejanefightback.com)

For feminists, liking Barbie is tough.  This top selling American toy has long been criticized for fueling sexist stereotypes, because women are not actually focused on dream houses, dream dates, beauty, and unbridled consumption. 

And yet Mattel has made attempts to refashion the doll as women’s positions in society have changed.  By the 1990s Barbie had careers as a firefighter, police officer, and in the military.  She had also been a racecar driver, a pilot, and a presidential candidate.  However, the 90s also gave us the infamous Teen Talk Barbie whose voice box had been programmed to say, “Math class is tough.”

The Barbie Liberation Organization (B.L.O.) switched Teen Talk Barbie’s voice box with that of talking G.I. Joe, and put the altered dolls back into their original packages and back onto store shelves.  They released videotapes to major television news outlets explaining their action and calling attention to Mattel’s outdated gender ideology.  With G.I. Joe saying, “Let’s sing with the band tonight” or “Wanna go shopping?” and Barbie saying, “Dead men tell no tales” the B.L.O.’s media-savvy culture jam threw our gendered expectations into sharp relief.   

In addition to the B.L.O., women’s groups expressed concern that Barbie’s math-anxious statement would discourage girls from pursuing math and math-related fields, and so Mattel removed the offending remark from Barbie’s voice box.

Inspired by the B.L.O. and other culture jammers, for Barbie’s 50th anniversary in 2009 I initiated a “Barbies We Would Like to See” exhibition on my campus.  The exhibition included Muslim Girl Barbie (made from a 1960s Skipper doll), Stay-At-Home-Dad Ken, Public Breastfeeding Barbie, and Lesbian Wedding Barbie—to name a few.

Public Breastfeeding Barbie and Lesbian Wedding Barbie (Photos by Martha McCaughey)

And now, as Barbie turns 60, we can see how participatory social media has made it possible for anyone with a dream for Barbie to share it instantaneously and widely.  For example, Black Moses Barbie videos on YouTube use Barbie dolls to depict imagined moments in history with Harriet Tubman, and photographer Mariel Clayton creates elaborate scenes with Barbies—sometimes violent, sometimes sexual, sometimes both—which she photographs and shares on her public Facebook page.  There are entire Instagram accounts devoted to depictions of Barbie and social critiques made through Barbie, for instance Sociality Barbie, the anonymous Instagram feed with over 800,000 followers that depicts Barbie as a Portland, Oregon hipster.  In our documentary video on Barbie in the age of digital reproduction (produced by Martha McCaughey and Beth Davison, linked above), we see how these artists and Barbie hackers go much farther than Mattel to re-imagine gender and pop culture.  Indeed, they make curvy Barbie, released in 2016, and the gender-neutral Creative WorldTM dolls, released this year, look pretty conventional.

In line with Rentschler and Thrift’s (2015) argument that feminist meme propagators do feminist cultural production, Barbie artists and activists sharing their altered dolls on social media are doing feminist cultural production and creating “feminist community-building media” (Rentschler 2019).  In this age of digital reproduction Mattel can neither thwart nor ignore what people want to do with their dolls.  Indeed, the changes Mattel has been making to their dolls can be seen as a direct result of the willingness of artists, activists, and fans to playfully engage with—rather than simply criticize—their dolls. 

Barbie has always been malleable.  Thanks to feminist media, perhaps Mattel can now acknowledge what Barbie hackers have long known: that gender, like the doll itself, is plastic.  

Martha McCaughey is Professor of Sociology at Appalachian State.  She is the author of The Caveman Mystique: Pop-Darwinism and the Debates Over Sex, Violence, and Science, and Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women’s Self-Defense.She blogs on sexual assault prevention at See Jane Fight Back.

Works Cited

Rentschler, Carrie, 2019.  “Making Culture and Doing Feminism.” Pp. 127-147 in Routledge International
Handbook on Contemporary Feminism
Ed. by Tasha Oren and Andrea Press.

Rentschler,
Carrie and Samantha Thrift, 2015. “Doing Feminism in the Network: Networked
Laughter and the Binders Full of Women Meme” Feminist Theory 16:3:329–359.

Talks about product design are a great tool for thinking about sociology because they show us just how much work goes into understanding our basic assumptions about the things we use everyday. Design shows us which parts of a product are absolutely essential for function, and just how much is only there for show. Small choices in color, curvature, or casting can do a lot to shape how we use products and what we assume about people who use them.

Karin Ehrnberger recently sent in her TEDx talk on a product re-design to swap a hand blender with a hand drill. The talk highlights gendered expectations for household labor and shows us what happens when we shake up those assumptions in the design. Fans of pointlessly gendered products will love this talk, and I also think it has a lot to teach us about labor itself, especially in how Ehrnberger highlights the difference between what gets to be a “tool” and what is just an “appliance.” Check it out!

Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.

In the United States, men have higher rates of life-threatening health conditions than women — including uncontrolled high blood pressure and heart disease. Recent research published in Socius shows they are also less likely than women to consider becoming vegetarian, and changing these eating habits may be important for their health and for the environment.

To learn more about meat and masculinity, Researchers Sandra Nakagawa and Chloe Hart conducted experiments to test whether a threat to masculinity influences men’s affinity to meat. In one experiment, the researchers told some men their answers from a previous gender identity survey fell in the “average female” range, while others fell into the “average male” range. The authors expected men who received “average female” results to feel like their masculinity was in question, and possibly express stronger attachment to meat on later surveys.

Men who experienced a threat to their masculinity showed more attachment to meat than those who did not experience the threat. They were also more likely to say they needed meat to feel full and were less likely to consider switching to a diet with no meat. This study shows how gendered assumptions about diet matter for how men think about maintaining their health, highlighting the standards men feel they must meet — and eat.

Allison Nobles is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota and Graduate Editor at The Society Pages. Her research primarily focuses on sexuality and gender, and their intersections with race, immigration, and law.

When I was eight, my brother and I built a card house. He was obsessed with collecting baseball cards and had amassed thousands, taking up nearly every available corner of his childhood bedroom. After watching a particularly gripping episode of The Brady Bunch, in which Marsha and Greg settled a dispute by building a card house, we decided to stack the cards in our favor and build. Forty-eight hours later a seven-foot monstrosity emerged…and it was glorious.

I told this story to a group of friends as I ran a stack of paper coasters through my fingers. We were attending Oktoberfest 2017 in a rural university town in the Midwest. They collectively decided I should flex my childhood skills and construct a coaster card house. Supplies were in abundance and time was no constraint. 

I began to construct. Four levels in, people around us began to take notice; a few snapped pictures. Six levels in, people began to stop, actively take pictures, and inquire as to my progress and motivation. Eight stories in, a small crowd emerged. Everyone remained cordial and polite. At this point it became clear that I was too short to continue building. In solidarity, one of my friends stood on a chair to encourage the build. We built the last three levels together, atop chairs, in the middle of the convention center. 

Where inquires had been friendly in the early stages of building, the mood soon turned. The moment chairs were used to facilitate the building process was the moment nearly everyone in attendance began to take notice. As the final tier went up, objects began flying at my head. Although women remained cordial throughout, a fraction of the men in the crowd began to become more and more aggressive. Whispers of  “I bet you $50 that you can’t knock it down” or “I’ll give you $20 if you go knock it down” were heard throughout.  A man chatted with my husband, criticizing the structural integrity of the house and offering insight as to how his house would be better…if he were the one building. Finally, a group of very aggressive men began circling like vultures. One man chucked empty plastic cups from a few tables away. The card house was complete for a total of 2-minutes before it fell. The life of the tower ended as such: 

Man: “Would you be mad if someone knocked it down?”

Me: “I’m the one who built it so I’m the one who gets to knock it down.”

Man: “What? You’re going to knock it down?”

The man proceeded to punch the right side of the structure; a quarter of the house fell. Before he could strike again, I stretched out my arms knocking down the remainder. A small curtsey followed, as if to say thank you for watching my performance. There was a mixture of cheers and boos. Cheers, I imagine from those who sat in nearby tables watching my progress throughout the night. Boos, I imagine, from those who were denied the pleasure of knocking down the structure themselves.

As an academic it is difficult to remove my everyday experiences from research analysis.  Likewise, as a gender scholar the aggression displayed by these men was particularly alarming. In an era of #metoo, we often speak of toxic masculinity as enacting masculine expectations through dominance, and even violence. We see men in power, typically white men, abuse this very power to justify sexual advances and sexual assault. We even see men justify mass shootings and attacks based on their perceived subordination and the denial of their patriarchal rights.

Yet toxic masculinity also exits on a smaller scale, in their everyday social worlds. Hegemonic masculinity is a more apt description for this destructive behavior, rather than outright violent behavior, as hegemonic masculinity describes a system of cultural meanings that gives men power — it is embedded in everything from religious doctrines, to wage structures, to mass media. As men learn hegemonic expectations by way of popular culture—from Humphrey Bogart to John Wayne—one cannot help but think of the famous line from the hyper-masculine Fight Club (1999), “I just wanted to destroy something beautiful.”

Power over women through hegemonic masculinity may best explain the actions of the men at Ocktoberfest. Alcohol consumption at the event allowed men greater freedom to justify their destructive behavior. Daring one another to physically remove a product of female labor, and their surprise at a woman’s choice to knock the tower down herself, are both in line with this type of power over women through the destruction of something “beautiful”.

Physical violence is not always a key feature of hegemonic masculinity (Connell 1987: 184). When we view toxic masculinity on a smaller scale, away from mass shootings and other high-profile tragedies, we find a form of masculinity that embraces aggression and destruction in our everyday social worlds, but is often excused as being innocent or unworthy of discussion.

Sandra Loughrin is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Her research areas include gender, sexuality, race, and age.

Despite the fact that women played a key role in the development of modern technology, the digital domain is a disproportionately male space. Recent stories about the politics of GamerGate, “tech bros” in Silicon Valley, and resistance to diversity routinely surface despite efforts of companies such as Google to clean up their act by firing reactionary male employees.

The big tech story of the past year is unquestionably cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. So it’s a good time to look at how cryptos replicate the gender politics of digital spaces and where they might complicate them.

Women’s Representation

Crypto holders are not evenly divided between men and women. One recent survey shows that 71% of Bitcoin holders are male. The first challenge for women is simply their representation within the crypto space.

There are various efforts on the part of individual women to address the imbalance. For example, Stacy Herbert, co-host of The Keiser Report, has recently been discussing the possibility of a women’s crypto conference noting, “I know so so many really smart women in the space but you go to these events and it’s panels of all the same guys again and again.” Technology commentator Alexia Tsotsis recently tweeted, “Women, consider crypto. Otherwise the men are going to get all the wealth, again.”

Clearly, the macho nature of the crypto community can feel exclusionary to women. Recently Bloomberg reported on a Bitcoin conference in Miami that invited attendees to an after-hours networking event held in a strip club. As one female attendee noted, “There was a message being sent to women, that, ‘OK, this isn’t really your place … this is where the boys roll.’”

The image of women as presented by altcoins (cryptocurrencies other than Bitcoin) is also telling. One can buy into TittieCoin or BigBoobsCoin, which need no further explanation. There is also an altcoin designed to resist this tendency, Women Coin: “Women coin will become the ultimate business coin for women. We all know that this altcoin market is mainly operated by men, just like the entire world. We want to stop this.”

Cryptomasculinities

The male dominance of cryptos suggests it is a space that celebrates normative masculinity. Certain celebrity endorsements of crypto projects have added to this mood, such as heavyweight boxer Floyd Mayweather, actor Steven Seagal and rapper Ghostface Killah. Crypto evangelist John McAfee routinely posts comments and pictures concerning guns, hookers and drugs. Reactionary responses to feminism can also be found: for example, patriarchal revivalist website Return of Kings published an article claiming, “Bitcoin proves that that ‘glass ceiling’ keeping women down is a myth.” Homophobia also occurs: when leading Bitcoin advocate Andreas Antonopoulos announced he was making a donation to the LGBTQ-focused Lambda Legal he received an array of homophobic comments.

However, it would be wrong to assume the masculinity promoted in the crypto space is monolithic. In particular, it is possible to identify a division between Bitcoin and altcoin holders. Consider the following image:

This image was tweeted with the caption “Bitcoin and Ethereum community can’t be anymore different.” On the left we have a MAGA hat-wearing, gun-toting Bitcoin holder; on the right the supposedly effeminate Vitalik Buterin, co-founder of the blockchain platform Ethereum. The longer you spend reading user-generated content in the crypto space, the more you get the sense that Bitcoin is “for men” while altcoins are framed as for snowflakes and SJWs.

There is an exception to this Bitcoin/altcoin gendered distinction: privacy coins such as Monero and Zcash appear to be deemed acceptably manly. Perhaps it is a coincidence that such altcoins are favored by Julian Assange, who has his own checkered history with gender politics ranging from his famed “masculinity test” through to the recent quips about feminists reported by The Intercept.

In conclusion, it is not surprising that the crypto space appears to be predominantly male and even outright resistant to fair representations of women. Certainly, it is not too dramatic to state that Bitcoin has a hyper-masculine culture, but Bitcoin does not represent the whole crypto space, and as both altcoins and other blockchain-based services become more diverse it is likely that so too will its representations of gender.

Joseph Gelfer is a researcher of men and masculinities. His books include Numen, Old Men: Contemporary Masculine Spiritualities and The Problem of Patriarchy and Masculinities in a Global Era. He is currently developing a new model for understanding masculinity, The Five Stages of Masculinity.

Thanksgiving is upon us. Typically, a time in which we all get together and collectively celebrate the genocide of Native Americans at the hands of Puritanical European conquerors. This tradition now includes family gatherings, expressions of thanks, love and self-congratulations, bountiful feasts, and uncomfortable social and political conversations, all revolving around the all-important turkey dinner.

Turkeys are notoriously difficult to cook perfectly and with good flavor. And, while women are generally held responsible for the grunt work involved in turkey preparation, it is men’s contributions that matter the most: carving, traditionally, and, now, seasoning.

Luckily, the invisible hand of capitalism has developed a masculine method for men to fulfill their manly role of seasoning—one that doesn’t involve any sissy sprinkling. It’s Season Shot: a way for a hunter to deliver exactly the right amount of flavor to a turkey, via shotgun, at the precise moment of his victory over nature. It’s boldness and self-reliance in a (nut) shell.

For those girly men and women who don’t know about hunting, shotguns are different from rifles. Instead of a bullet, they shoot a hollow shell full of small balls of steel. Shotguns are especially well-suited to murder most fowl, as it makes it easier to target small, moving game. Season Shot replaces the standard steel with seasoning granules. Why delicately season a fresh¹ turkey, when you can blast in the flavor? Varieties includes Cajun flavor, Lemon Pepper, Garlic, Teriyaki, and Honey Mustard.

We dare you to find a more manly way to do women’s work.

The additional positives of using Season Shot are plentiful. Firstly, dental. You won’t suffer a broken tooth due to a pellet your wife or some other woman failed to fish out of the carcass. All your teeth will encounter is flesh.

Secondly, there is the efficiency.  You season the bird on impact; marinating starts immediately as the body heat melts the seasoned pellets. Men don’t like to waste time.

Thirdly, benevolent patriarchal protection of the environment. As it says on the Season Shot website:

Our environment is the basis for the sport of hunting. Without a healthy environment how would our hunting fare? Why damage the very thing that allows us to do what we love? Season Shot is the answer. This is the first truly environmentally safe ammunition, Season Shot stands out above the rest. Using fully biodegradable shot, Season Shot is the right choice to protect what we love.

The final advantage is a thank you from your ol’ lady. She can’t nag you for spending the whole day eating, napping, and watching football while she furiously coordinates guests, pets, decorations, and a meal large enough for a small army after weeks of extensive thought and preparation—no, not when all of her work would be wasted without you and Season Shot.

In short, Season Shot gives us men a safe and environmentally friendly way to indulge our obsession with guns, protect our masculinity, and produce more egalitarian holiday chores. Thanks, capitalism. You’ve done it again.

¹Note: Authors suggest using extreme caution on frozen turkeys due to potential ricochet. Authors also suggest only using outdoors.

D’Lane R. Compton, PhD is a lover of all things antler, feather, and fur. An associate professor of sociology at the University of New Orleans with a background in social psychology, methodology, and a little bit of demography, she is usually thinking about food, country roads, stigma, queer nooks and places, sneakers and hipster subcultures. You can follow her on twitter.

Tony Love is a fan of most sports, a rural person stuck in the city, and conducts social psychology experiments on his own children and pets for fun. He researches social psychology and criminology as an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky. He is especially happy when confronted with cookies and especially unhappy when confronted with exercise. Sometimes he writes serious sociology articles that only other sociologists read.

In February, CBS Sunday Morning aired a short news segment on the bro hug phenomenon: a supposedly new way heterosexual (white) men (i.e., bros) greet each other. According to this news piece, the advent of the bro hug can be attributed to decreased homophobia and is a sign of social progress.

I’m not so sure.

To begin, bro-ness isn’t really about any given individuals, but invokes a set of cultural norms, statuses, and meanings. A stereotypical bro is a white middle-class, heterosexual male, especially one who frequents strongly masculinized places like fraternities, business schools, and sport events. (The first part of the video, in fact, focused on fraternities and professional sports.) The bro, then, is a particular kind of guy, one that frequents traditionally male spaces with a history of homophobia and misogyny and is invested in maleness and masculinity.

The bro hug reflects this investment in masculinity and, in particular, the masculine performance in heterosexuality. To successfully complete a bro hug, the two men clasp their right hands and firmly pull their bodies towards each other until they are or appear to be touching whilst their left hands swing around to forcefully pat each other on the back. Men’s hips and chests never make full contact. Instead, the clasped hands pull in, but also act as a buffer between the men’s upper bodies, while the legs remain firmly rooted in place, maintaining the hips at a safe distance. A bro hug, in effect, isn’t about physical closeness between men, but about limiting bodily contact.

Bro hugging, moreover, is specifically a way of performing solidarity with heterosexual men. In the CBS program, the bros explain that a man would not bro hug a woman since a bro hug is, by its forcefulness, designed to be masculinity affirming. Similarly, a bro hug is not intended for gay men, lesbians, or queer people. The bro hug performs and reinforce bro identity within an exclusively bro domain. For bros, by bros. As such, the bro hug does little to signal a decrease in homophobia. Instead, it affirms men’s identities as “real” men and their difference from both women and non-heterosexual men.

In this way, the bro-hug functions similarly to the co-masturbation and same-sex sexual practices of heterosexually identified white men, documented by the sociologist Jane Ward in her book, Not Gay. Ward argues that when straight white men have sex with other straight white men they are not necessarily blurring the boundaries between homo- and heterosexuality. Instead, they are shifting the line separating what is considered normal from what is considered queer.  Touching another man’s anus during a fraternity hazing ritual is normal (i.e., straight) while touching another man’s anus in a gay porn is queer.  In other words, the white straight men can have sex with each other because it is not “real” gay sex. 

Similarly, within the context of a bro hug, straight white men can now bro hug each other because they are heterosexual. Bro hugging will not diminish either man’s heterosexual capital. In fact, it might increase it. When two bros hug, they signal to others their unshakable strength of and comfort in their heterosexuality. Even though they are touching other men in public, albeit minimally, the act itself reinforces their heterosexuality and places it beyond reproach.

Hubert Izienicki, PhD, is a professor of sociology at Purdue University Northwest.