The language of leadership, Inclusive Barbie, Jussie Smollett

February 13, 2019

Why is it that when a male politician speaks in a powerful tone, he is considered just that, but when a female politician does so, she is marked “bossy,” “shrill,” or “bitchy” by both men and women? Or what about the “impassioned plea” of a male politician crying, versus the perceived weakness and deficiency of a female politician crying? Linguists tell us that the way we perceive and interpret other people’s language is steeped in assumptions and prejudices. This can result in a double-bind for women in leadership roles, or—as we’ve seen with Hillary Clinton and now Elizabeth Warren—for women running for president. In the context of language, the double-bind means that in order for a woman to be considered authoritative (or presidential), she must “talk in a style that is associated with authority” but also “talk in a style that is associated with femininity.” The kicker is that our society has a “long history of only men holding positions of authority,” leaving women stuck no matter what they say or how they say it. There is an inkling of hope emerging, though. Research shows that women in the top of their fields “are subverting old stereotypes of women in power…like the “Iron Maiden” or “Mother” figure, and using them to powerful ends by leveraging aspects of these identities that intersect with transformational leadership identities.”

Can a Woman Sound Presidential?, by Jennifer Sclafani for Scientific American

Barbie is no longer exclusively thin, blonde, and blue-eyed—especially in recent years, when the doll’s parent company, Mattel, added over 100 new looks to represent a broader range of races, ethnicities, and body types. This week, Mattel announced that the newest line of dolls will include Barbies with physical disabilities, along with braided hairstyles and less conventionally curvy bodies. In order to accurately create Barbie’s wheelchair and prosthetic limbs, the design team worked with both UCLA and 12-year-old Jordan Reeves, who attracted nationwide attention when she designed her own 3D-printed prosthetic arm that shoots glitter. It was Reeves who suggested that Barbie’s prosthetic be removable, according to vice president of Barbie Design Kim Culmone, who called the suggestion “one of our first big ahas…that’s not necessarily something we would have realized [is important]…to someone living with this experience.” Since 2015, Mattel has made efforts to combat its non-inclusive reputation, resulting in greater representation among toys for children of different races, sizes, and now abilities.

Barbie Is Now in a Wheelchair and Has a Prosthetic Leg, by Brittney McNamara for Teen Vogue

Alongside the importance of LGBTQ+ visibility among celebrities and pop culture at large is the equal importance of not taking this visibility to mean that LGBTQ+ people and people of color are safe. The recent attack on openly gay Empire actor Jussie Smollett—during which two men in ski masks beat him, wrapped a noose around his neck, poured bleach on him, and screamed violently racist and homophobic slurs—left countless people, particularly within the LGBTQ+ of-color community, feeling shaken, horrified, and devastated. Writer Naveen Kumar points out that “many of us may have considered fame some sort of shield from randomized acts of violence,” and that the attack “serves…as a wake-up call that celebrity doesn’t equal immunity from persecution, particularly for LGBTQ+ people and people of color.” Tragically, statistics show that Smollett is not alone: from 2016 to 2017, attacks against Black people and LGBTQ+ people went up by 16% and 15%, respectively. Kumar reminds us that “it takes great risk for many queer people and POC to simply live as they are…A high-profile incident like this can at best serve as a call to action.”

The Attack on Jussie Smollett Shows the Paradox of Queer Visibility, by Naveen Kumar for them.