gender

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.

As summer approaches and ads for part-time student work start popping up all over campus, it is a good time to talk about the sociology of sales. The Annex podcast recently ran a segment on multi-level marketing (MLM) organizations, and I just finished the binge-worthy podcast series The Dream, which follows the history of these companies and the lives of people who sell their products.

Photo Credit: Retrogasm, Flickr CC

Sometimes called direct sales or network marketing, these organizations offer part time, independent work selling everything from handbags to health supplements. The tricky part is that many of these groups spend more time encouraging people to recruit friends and family to sell, rather than moving products through traditional retail markets. People draw on their nearby social networks to make sales and earn bonuses, often by hosting parties or meeting in small groups.

You might have seen pitches for one of these groups at your local coffee shop or campus. Some MLMs get busted for using this model to build illegal pyramid schemes, while other direct sales companies claim to follow the law by providing employee protections.

Photo Credit: Neo_II, Flickr CC

MLMs are a rich example for all kinds of sociology. You could do an entire Introduction to Sociology class branching out from this case alone! Here are a few examples that The Dream inspired for me (find episodes here):

  • Economic sociologists can talk about the rise of precarious labor and the gig economy—conditions where more people feel like they need to be entrepreneurs just to survive. MLMs are particularly good at using these social conditions for recruitment.
  • Sociologists of gender will have a lot to say about how these groups recruit women, targeting our gendered assumptions about who needs part-time, flexible work and who is best suited to do the emotional work of sales. Pair readings with Episode 2: “Women’s Work.”
  • I’ve seen a fair number of MLM pitches in coffee shops and accidentally walked into a few in college. Watching these pitches is a masterclass in symbolic interactionism, and students can see how people build rapport with each other through face work and sales parties as rituals. Pair with Episode 3: “Do you party?” 
  • Many of these companies are either religiously-affiliated or lean on religious claims to inspire and motivate recruits. Sociologists of religion and culture can do a lot with the history of the New Thought movement. Pair The Protestant Ethic with Episode 4: “The Mind is a Fertile Field.”
  • Political sociologists can use the history of how these groups get around regulation to talk about corporate influence in the political world and how elites coordinate. Sociologists of Law will also love the conversation about legitimacy, especially how direct sales organizations learned to distinguish themselves from “clearly illegal pyramid schemes.” Pair with Episode 7: “Lazy, Stupid, Greedy or Dead.”

This is a great focus topic for the social sciences, both because it touches on so many trends in the US culture and economy, and because college students and recent graduates are often a target market for many of these groups.

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

SocImages authors and readers love pointing out pointlessly gendered products, especially children’s toys in blue and pink. Since gender is about what we do in the world, all the things we use for work and play can give weight to assumptions about gender differences that aren’t true. Critics of pointlessly gendered products emphasize that small differences in design—from color to function—can ultimately add up to big differences in how people learn to act in the world.

Gendering toys isn’t just about the color, it is also about what we teach kids to do with them. That’s why I got a huge kick out of this video: a compilation of old commercial shots of “white boys winning board games.” Of course, I haven’t done a systemic sampling of old commercials to see if girls win too, but this compilation makes an important point about how we can miss tropes that only show one outcome of social interaction over and over, especially competition.

I remember being a competitive kid when it came to board games. I didn’t like losing at all, and it took quite a few years until I learned to just enjoy playing on its own. After this compilation I look back and wonder whether I just felt bad about losing—as most of us do from time to time—or whether a part of that feeling was also a sense that something was wrong because I was “supposed” to be winning like the other boys. That’s the power of gendered socialization.

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

On January 31, The New York Times responded to a letter from Kimberly Probolus, an American Studies PhD candidate, with a commitment to publish gender parity in their letters to the editor (on a weekly basis) in 2019. This policy comes in the wake of many efforts to change the overwhelming overrepresentation of men in the position of “expert” in the media, from the Op-Ed project to womenalsoknowstuff.com (now with a sociology spinoff!) to #citeblackwomen.

The classic sociology article “Doing Gender,” explains that we repeatedly accomplish gender through consistent, patterned interactions. According to the popular press and imagination — such as Rebecca Solnit’s essay, Men Explain Things to Me — one of these patterns includes men stepping into the role of expert. Within the social sciences, there is research on how gender as a performance can explain gender disparities in knowledge-producing spaces.

Women are less likely to volunteer expertise in a variety of spaces, and researchers often explain this finding as a result of self-esteem or confidence. Julia Bear and Benjamin Collier find that, in 2008 for example, only 13% of contributors to Wikipedia were women. Two reasons cited for this gender disparity were a lack of confidence in their expertise and a discomfort with editing (which involves conflict). Likewise, studies of classroom participation have consistently found that men are more likely than women to talk in class — an unsurprising finding considering that classroom participation studies show that students with higher confidence are more likely to participate. Within academia, research shows that men are much more likely to cite themselves as experts within their own work.

This behavior may continue because both men and women are sanctioned for behavior that falls outside of gender performances. In research on salary negotiation, researchers found that women can face a backlash when they ask for raises because self-promotion goes against female gender norms. Men, on the other hand, may be sanctioned for being too self-effacing.

Source: Fortune Live Media, Flickr CC

Knowledge exchange on the Internet may make the sanctions for women in expert roles more plentiful. As demonstrated by the experiences of female journalists, video game enthusiasts, and women in general online, being active on the Internet carries intense risk of exposure to trolling, harassment, abuse, and misogyny. The social science research on online misogyny is also recent and plentiful.

Photo Credit: Sharon Mollerus, Flickr CC

Social media can also be a place to amplify the expertise of women or to respond to particularly egregious examples of mansplaining. And institutions like higher education and the media can continue to intervene to disrupt the social expectation that an expert is always a man. Check out the “Overlooked” obituary project for previously underappreciated scientists and thinkers, including the great sociologist Ida B. Wells.

For more on gendered confidence in specific areas, such as STEM, see more research on Gendering Intelligence.

Originally Posted at There’s Research On That

Jean Marie Maier is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Minnesota. She completed the Cultural Studies of Sport in Education MA program at the University of California, Berkeley, and looks forward to continuing research on the intersections of education, gender, and sport. Jean Marie has also worked as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Gumi, South Korea and as a research intern at the American Association of University Women. She holds a BA in Political Science from Davidson College.

Happy Valentine’s Day! A sociological look at love is always a little awkward, because it means coming to terms with just how much our most personal, intimate, and individual relationships are conditioned by the cultures we live in. Dating preferences reflect broader patterns in social inequality, external strains like job insecurity can shape the way we think about romantic commitment, and even the way people orgasm can be culturally conditioned.

Classic sociological research finds that love follows cultural scripts and repertoires. While every relationship is unique, we learn fundamental patterns about how to love from the world around us. Breaking those scripts can be uncomfortable, but also hilarious and genuine. This year the internet has gifted us two amazing examples where romantic scripts and comedy collide.

One comes from research scientist Janelle Shane. Shane recently trained a machine learning algorithm using a collection of phrases from those candy hearts that always pop up this time of year. After detecting patterns in the real messages, the program generated its own. You can see a full set of hearts on her blog. These hearts get so very close to our familiar valentine scripts, but they miss hilariously because the program can only ever approximate the romantic gesture.

The other comes from comedy writer Ryan Creamer, who has uploaded an entire series of simple, earnest, and distinctly not pornographic videos to PornHub. Hit titles include, “I Hug You and Say I Had a Really Good Time Tonight and Then I Go Home,” and “I Ride in a Taxi and Don’t Have Sex With the Driver.” Check out Joana Ramiro’s analysis of Creamer’s work, capitalism, and intimacy at Jacobin. 

This Valentine’s Day, take a moment and see if you’re just following the typical social script. Breaking up the romantic routine can lead to a genuine laugh or two, and you might even learn something new about your relationship.Evan Stewart is an assistant professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. You can follow him on Twitter.