Sociology course "Barbie Bash" Examines Gender Roles

Release Date: 4/15/2011

Mattel's bestselling Barbie doll has gone through a lot of changes since her debut in 1959.

However, you would be hard-pressed to locate any of the following at your local toy store: the Flyfishing Outdoor Barbie, the Handywoman Barbie, the Hooters Waiter Ken, Gladiator Barbie, or the Frederick’s of Hollywood supermodel Ken.

The one place you can find them is in Dr. Jesse Weiss’ Intro to Sociology class. For the third year, Dr. Weiss and his students have held a “Barbie Bash,” a project in which students are asked to examine gender roles in American society and design Barbie or Ken dolls which go against such gender categorization.

“After Christmas I buy up a lot of Barbies off the clearance racks,” said Dr. Weiss. “This project looks at gender socialization – the set of social and behavioral norms that are considered to be socially appropriate for individuals of a specific sex in the context of a specific culture – and so the assignment is to re-imagine Barbie or Ken in violation of stereotypical gender norms. They make new costumes and props for their dolls, and in their presentation talk about how they would market the Barbie, what they would call it, and whether or not they consider their projects to be positive or negative role models.”

Bianca Cea and Ana Hernandez display their prize belts and their “Hooter-licious” Ken doll.

“Barbie Bash” winners Bianca Cea and Ana Hernandez display their prize belts, their “Hooter-licious” Ken doll, and big smiles. The girls were winners of a project in Dr. Jesse Weiss’ Introduction to Sociology which looks at gender socialization issues by having the students re-imagine Barbie and Ken dolls that violate stereotypical gender norms.

After their presentations, students vote for the best modified Barbie, and winners receive Dr. Weiss’ jewel-encrusted gold wrestling-style prize Barbie Bash Belt – “Which I have decorated,” he explained to the class, “in my own free time, right before class, with some arts and crafts that are still all over my desk.”

One of the entrants in this year's bash was the CombatVet Barbie, who had a prosthetic leg. “Because Barbie is always able-bodied, we decided to create a Barbie that is a war vet,” said creators Matt Friant and Richard Rumpf. “The doll violates social norms because she has gone into combat and suffered. She would be marketed with the message that women and men are equal in military and even when something out of control is thrown into your life, it’s still possible to bounce back and continue on.”

Combat Vet Barbie came with decorations including her “Private Barbie” nametag, an Iraqi vet patch, a “Semper Fi” patch, and a tattoo of a heart with the letter “K” in it – for her boyfriend Ken, back home.

Other entrants, including the Victoria Secrets Runway Model Ken, the Gladiator Barbie, and the winning “Hooter-licious” Hooters Waiter Ken, all conveyed similar messages, according to their creators. As winners Ana Hernandez and Bianca Cea put it, “If you aspire to do something not standard for your gender, go for it. This doll teaches that men can sell chicken wings as well as women can.

“Usually men are trapped in the kitchen at Hooters, but not here,” they said.

Dr. Weiss said past notable entrants in the project have included Joe Ballerina (GI Joe re-imagined), Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Barbie, Stay At Home Ken, Transgendered Beauty Queen Ken, and Same-Sex Adoption Ken and Ken.

The dolls will be on display in the glass display cases on the first floor of Smith-Broyles Science Center through the end of the semester.