Once told to be hotties (even judges wanted to be hotties!), girls were next told to empower themselves by being hot employees, as both the culture and corporations set aside long-standing concerns about sexual harassment in the workplace—abandoning possible societal, industry-wide, or even governmental remedies—in favor of sex-positive corporate feminism. The 2013 publication of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” marked a steepening in the decline of structural efforts to reform workplaces. Instead of fighting for equal pay, equal work, and family leave, women were told that they needed to empower themselves, one by one, through power dressing and personal exertion. Unsurprisingly, Barbie and Bratz leaned in, too. MGA relaunched Bratz with the latest mindless lingo of corporate-friendly girl power in a box. “We have doctors, lawyers, journalists,” MGA’s C.E.O., Isaac Larian, told Forbes. “Now more than ever before, Bratz empowers girls.” The rebranded dolls, though, had no discernible interests in such careers. Instead, the Bratz, who, like Barbie, started out as teen-agers, now came with hobbies, including yoga and running, and wardrobes newly inspired by study-abroad travel. Mattel ran its own Sandbergian campaign—“When a Girl Plays with Barbie, She Imagines Everything She Can Become”—and promoted Doctor Barbie, who, with her stethoscope, wears stilettos, a miniskirt, and a white lab coat embroidered, in pink thread, “Barbie.”
Empowerment feminism is a cynical sham. As Margaret Talbot once noted in these pages, “To change a Bratz doll’s shoes, you have to snap off its feet at the ankles.” That is pretty much what girlhood feels like. In a 2014 study, girls between four and seven were asked about possible careers for boys and girls after playing with either Fashion Barbie, Doctor Barbie, or, as a control, Mrs. Potato Head. The girls who had played with Mrs. Potato Head were significantly more likely to answer yes to the question “Could you do this job when you grow up?” when shown a picture of the workplaces of a construction worker, a firefighter, a pilot, a doctor, and a police officer. The study had a tiny sample size, and, like most slightly nutty research in the field of social psychology, has never been replicated, or scaled up, except that, since nearly all American girls own a Barbie, the population of American girls has been the subject of the scaled-up version of that experiment for nearly six decades.
#MeToo arises from the failure of empowerment feminism. Women have uncannily similar and all too often harrowing and even devastating stories about things that have happened to them at work because men do very similar things to women; leaning in doesn’t help. There’s more copying going on, too: pornography and accounts of sexual harassment follow the same script. Nobody writes anything from scratch. Abandoning structural remedies and legislative reform for the politics of personal charm—leaning in, dressing for success, being Doctor Barbie—left women in the workplace with few choices but to shut up and lean in more and to dress better. It’s no accident that #MeToo started in the entertainment and television-news businesses, where women are required to look as much like Barbie and Bratz dolls as possible, with the help of personal trainers, makeup artists, hair stylists, personal shoppers, and surgeons. Unfortunately, an extrajudicial crusade of public shaming of men accused of “sexual misconduct” is no solution, and a poor kind of justice, not least because it brooks no dissent, as if all that women are allowed to say about #MeToo is “Me, too!” The pull string wriggles.
Jill Lepore, “Valley of the Dolls”, The New Yorker (22 January 2018), 70.