Gender Identity in Barbie-land – The Case of Scandinavia

In this post I am trying to explain why Norwegian girls are turning into Barbie dolls and why it is relevant for the transgender debate.

Originally published on September 16, 2013

One of the major question any transgender person will ask herself is this: How much of what makes me who I am is nature and how much is culture?
The Nordic Barbie-look. Just as slim as the
American version, but  with less hair spray.
From Swedish H&M advert

I am not certain it is even possible to give a definite answer to this question, given the complex interaction between genes, epigenetics, hormones, inborn temperament, nurture, culture and social pressure. But we have to ask.

Norway - the second most feminine country

I am living in one of the biggest gender role experiments in modern history. It is called Norway. This gives me a somewhat unique perspective as regards the discussion of sex and gender.

Lately I have asked myself the following question: How can it be that the women of the most egalitarian and "the second most feminine country in the world" look more and more like Barbie dolls?

I am not joking: While young Norwegian women from the 1970's and all the way up till the 1990's displayed a wide variety in dress code and hair style, the city girls of the current era display a strange conformity in looks: narrow waist, long loose hanging hair, tight fitting clothes.

This trend is most apparent among teenagers and women in their early twenties, but the style is becoming increasingly popular among more mature women, as well. They are becoming increasingly feminine, some of them extremely so, and except for the lack of hair spray, they look very much like Barbies.

Barbie bodies, but no Barbie minds

It is not that they behave like Barbies, mind you. Far from it!

If you allow me to simplify, I would say that the current generation of young Norwegian women is one of the most mature, clear thinking, self confident and independent ever. They are, after all, most of them, daughters of liberated men and emancipated women.

They take their equality with men for granted (even if there continue to be some simple minded blokes out there who haven't gotten the memo). Moreover, these girls are confident that they can become whatever they want, and since this country has not felt the effects of the economic crisis, surprisingly many of them actually can.

The reason for this is that they live in a country where women increasingly dominate the political and cultural scene. Half of the party leaders are women (including the chairs of three right wing parties), and Norway is shortly getting a female Prime Minister. We even have a law (implemented by a conservative, male, minister, mind you) saying that 40 percent of the seats of company boards is to be occupied by women.

Throughout my own working life, most of my bosses have been women, as have the majority of my colleagues.

Men and women sharing feminine values

My joke about Norway being the second most feminine country in the world is no joke at all. This is a scientific finding made by Professor Geert Hofstede and his colleagues, based on a survey of the mental maps or attitudes of IBM employees all over the world.

He has developed a masculinity vs. femininity scale which measures "the distribution of emotional roles between the genders".
Norwegian individualistic woman with
a dash of Barbie. Photo: Robert Neuman/

Hofstede defines masculine and feminine societies this in this way:

"A society is called masculine when emotional gender roles are clearly distinct: men are supposed to be assertive, tough, and focused on material success, whereas women are supposed to be more modest, tender and concerned with the quality of life.

"A society is called feminine when emotional gender roles overlap: both men and women are supposed to be modest, tender, and concerned with the quality of life."

The most feminine-scoring countries in his study are Sweden, Norway, Latvia, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Hofstede writes:

"In the most feminine countries, Sweden and Norway, there was no difference between the scores of men and women, and both expressed equally tender, nurturing values. In the most masculine countries in the IBM database, Japan and Australia, the men scored very tough and the women fairly tough, but the gender gap was largest."

Hofstede refers to the US bestseller Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, and adds dryly that in the most feminine countries both sexes are from Venus. And he is right about this. Most Norwegians find the aggressive masculine ideals of -- let's say -- the American National Rifle Association or the Albanian mafia not only offensive, but totally incomprehensible.

Among other masculine countries we find the Czech Republic, Greece, Argentina, India and the Arab countries. Great Britain and the US are on the masculine side, as well.
Geert Hofstede index for measuring cultural masculinity vs. 
femininity in countries. The most masculine on top.
Click on image to read

Masculine ≠ individualistic

Please note that Hofstede distinguishes between the dimension masculine/feminine on the one hand and individualist/collectivist on the other.

As he points out, many researchers tend to believe that collectivism is a feminine value, while individualism is masculine.

This is not the case all over the world. Norwegians may be feminine, but they are also fiercely individualistic. Many Asian countries are collectivist and masculine at the same time.

Gender values are not reflected in gender expressions

My point here is that Norwegian girls and women live in a culture where values that are normally considered feminine dominate "the social discourse".

When you combine this with a strong individualistic streak, you would expect Norwegian women to express themselves using symbols that are less Barbie-like.

After all, the dominant theory says that gender is the end result of "social construction". If men and women share feminine values, that should be reflected in their language, including fashion and other gender relevant symbols. They should become more alike.

We see the exact opposite.

The death of unisex

Alternatively you could say that women living in a feminine culture should be expected to appear feminine. But if there was a connection between feminine cultural attitudes and feminine clothing and appearance, you would expect boys and men to appear feminine as well.

The fact is, however, that the more egalitarian and feminine Norwegian culture becomes, the more masculine looking men appear.

Manly men from the 1980's
(New Romantics)

In the 1970's male and female clothing and hairs styles were hard to keep apart in this country. Both the hippie and the disco styles converged on a kind of unisex type of expression. The 1980's saw a strong feminization of men as regards both dress code and hair styles (think Wham!). Since the 1990's however, these gender specific expressions have diverged.

(Jo Paoletto has an interesting collection of unisex fashion ads of the 1970's, documenting this divergence).

Some argues that this trend is the end result of an advertising industry gone mad. Commercial interests have built walls between the pink, fluffy, sphere of girls and the blue, violent, zone of boys.
The new Norwegian man.
From Norwegian
fashion company Cubus

I am sure this is part of the explanation. I know radical, feminist parents who continue to give their kids gender typical toys, fearing harassment and social exclusion. Still, given the strong overall socialization towards equality and feminine values, I doubt sexist marketing can explain it all.

So, given the egalitarian context and their strong individualism: Why do Norwegian boys and girls choose to express themselves in this stereotypical manner?

Camilla Schreiner and ROSE

I believe we may find a tentative solution to this puzzle in another study, this one by the Norwegian scientist Camilla Schreiner.

She has written a thesis based on the ROSE study on the relevance of science education. She has compared the perceptions 15 year old students have of science.

She noted, as many have before her, that student's interest in science are sex-specific. But she also found great differences between students in different countries.

Modernization leads to feminization?

Using the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) Human Development Index as an indicator of a country's level of modernization, she found the following:

"There is a tendency for all girls in all countries to be interested in the same subjects, and similarly for all boys, but we often find that the more modernized a country is, the larger the sex differences are. There were no topics with the opposite pattern, i.e. with a tendency for girls and boys to approach each other's interest with an increasing level of development."

"When interests are interpreted as signs of late modern identities, this result can be understood as follows: The more modernised a country is, the more girls accentuate that they are girls and the more boys accentuate that they are boys." (p. 14)
Camilla Schreiner (photo: Mentz Indergaard)

Young girls in Ghana aspire to be engineers and natural scientists. Young girls in Norway do not.

Identity formation

Schreiner points to the role of identity formation:

"The late modern project of identity construction is a consequence of individualisation. As a person's identity is no longer seen as inherited or given, identity construction is a task and a project imposed by late modernity on everyone (Frønes, 1998; Giddens, 1991). Who one wants to be and how one will develop one's self is perceived to be up to each person to decide.

"In premodern societies, one's identity is ascribed and determined on the basis of sex, parent social status, etc., while in late modern societies one's identity is increasing managed through one's personal reflexive choices of identity signs (Côté, 1996)."

The girly girls of Norway are modern, not conservative

Norwegian girls do not chose educations and occupations that are feminine according to the historical tradition. Teacher, priest and doctor used to be male occupations in Norway. Now they are increasingly dominated by women, as Norwegian girls and women – somehow – see them as no threat to their female sex identity.

In other words: This surprising new symbolic gender polarity does not reflect a conservative longing for traditions and the past, but a modern need for individualistic identity building.

In one paper Schreiner says that she considers the lack of unisex departments in clothing stores and the fact that girls and boys read different types of magazines, to be effects of the same underlying phenomenon. (Schreiner/Sjøberg 2006 p. 14)

Hoftede and Schreiner united

Observant readers will now point out that there seems to be a contradiction between Hofstede and Schreiner.

According to Hofstede Norway is distinguished by a lack of gender difference, value wise, while Schreiner argues that boys and girls are becoming increasingly different.

This is probably no paradox at all.

There is admittedly a certain overlap between deeply held values and the choice of symbols to express masculinity vs. femininity. Girls who avoid the natural sciences, for instance, often argue that they would like to "work with people" as opposed to "work with things". "Working with things" is clearly perceived to be something men would like to do.

That being said, it seems that contemporary Norwegian youngsters have somehow managed to decouple the visual expression of sex (fashion and other symbols) from their deep-felt ideals about gender (equality, equal opportunities etc.).

Boys and girls agree completely on the importance of gender equality and anyone's right to choose whatever occupation they may like. It just that when it comes to choosing for themselves, a majority of them follow the gender divide

The desire for desire

The Barbie look does not say: "I am a stupid, sexy, blonde, bimbo. Do what you want with me!" It says: "I am a strong, independent, intelligent, and sexy woman. I want your respect and your desire!"

They never say the "I want your desire" part out loud, of course. Not in so many words. That would be bad formt. But let's get real here. Sex is very much on the mind of Norwegian teenagers, boys and girls, and we all want to be loved.

The modern Norwegian girl wants to be respected as a human being equal to men, but she also wants to be loved and desired as a woman. In order to achieve this she has to find a way to tell the world that she is a desirable woman.

The traditional role of the housewife is dead and gone in Norway, and when men start looking after the kids, an interest in childcare is no longer enough to confirm your "womanhood". Given that Norwegian women are taking over more and more occupations, the work place is not proof of sex identity either.

They therefore look for new ways to express their sex identity, and they do so by making use of fashion and accessories.

Schreiner says:

"For a boy it is important to signal that he is not 'girlish' -- in the same way a girl wants to show that she is not 'boyish'."

In order to avoid that misunderstanding the new generations make use of the symbols available to them, and right now the most feminine symbol of all is the Barbie-look.

I suspect the male Hipster look reflect the same kind of need. The full beards and the rugged clothes serve as a counter-balance to the fact that many of them are child-rearing fathers and feminists.
A well groomed Hipster combines aspects of femininity
and masculinity (photo: Marija Jovovic)

What this means for transgender

Norway can be understood as a social experiment aimed at determining whether there is a biological core to your sex identity.

If "gender identity" is socially constructed only, you would expect to see a convergence of male and female gender expression in Norway. What you see is the opposite.

For me this is a clear indication -- although not proof -- of a deep felt need to be read as a man or a woman. I suspect that this need is related to sexuality in the broader sense: to sexual desire and the longing to be desired. This need is not limited to heterosexual persons.

Political progressive marketing does not stop the barbiefication
of Scandinavia.
Swedish marketing of gender neutral toys.

If there is such a basic drive towards expressing a gender identity, it is clear that it is not defined by temperament, abilities or other personality traits. If there are any differences at all between men and women in this respect, they are marginal and only valid on an aggregated statistical level.

Nor is this gender identity defined by specific symbols or ways of behavior. Men and women make use of the symbols they have at hand. There are many cultures where long loose hanging hair and a narrow waist would be considered a sign of masculinity.

Moreover, this drive varies in strength. There is always a minority of people who feel unease when asked to choose between being male or female.

This leaves us with a drive that entices most boys and girls, men and women, to express their gender identity with whatever symbols the surrounding culture may provide. Such a drive could be compared to the hunger instinct. The feeling of hunger encourages you to eat, but the preference you may have for particular types of food is cultural.

This gender identity drive would explain why kids at a certain age reduce their playtime with kids of the opposite gender. They make boy-clans and girl-clans in order to be able to test out their roles as boys and girls. The Barbie look of the modern Norwegian woman could be understood as an extension of these games.

This would also explain the need many transgender feel to make use of the symbols of their target sex. If this is the case crossdressers crossdress in order to express an inner sex identity. In this context a male to female crossdreamer's urge to dress up as Barbie makes perfect sense. The crossdresser is doing exactly the same as Norwegians assigned female do.

In such a model it becomes impossible to take the sex out of gender completely, in the sense of distilling a kind of "womanhood" that is totally devoid of sexual desire. The drive towards recognition as a woman definitely has a strong sexual component. But that does not mean that you can reduce femininity (transgender or non-transgender) to sexual desire -- no more than French cuisine can be reduced to a count of calories.

The gender identity drive is rather like a catalyst that can generate a wonderful diversity of beauty, joy and human creativity. If we let it. And there, my friends, lie the transgender tragedy.

Camilla Schreiner 2006: Exploring a Rose Garden, Norwegian youth's orientations towards science – seen as signs of late modern identities Based on ROSE (The Relevance of Science Education), a comparative study of 15 year old students' perceptions of science and science education

"Realfag i feminin drakt" Presentation of Camilla Schreiner's research in Norwegian, Norwegian Ministry of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion.

Camilla Schreiner and Svein Sjøberg: "Jeg velger meg naturfag!"
University of Oslo/Research Council of Norway 2006

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