Barbie’s Feminist Makeover, Few People Have Problem With That.

 Barbie’s Feminist Makeover, Few People Have Problem With That.

barbie makeover

It looks like Barbie has another makeover: last week toymaker Mattel announced that they were launching a variety of dolls to honor women in STEM, making miniature models of pioneers such as United States healthcare workers Amy O’Sullivan and Dr Audrey Cruz, a Canadian doctor and campaigner Dr Chika Stacy Oriuwa, and – of course – Oxford vaccine designer Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert.

Of all the accolades Gilbert has received this year – a damehood, the Albert Medal from the Royal Society of the Arts, a standing ovation at Wimbledon – I am sure she is most thrilled by being immortalised as a pant-suited plaything.

Whilst I am all for greater representation and variety in toys designed for women, I am not convinced by Barbie’s feminist rebrand. It is easy to ascertain this so far another example of a business trying to form a fast buck through virtue signalling; Barbie’s sales had been nose-diving but the launch of various ‘special release’ additions (ranging from David Bowie to Rosa Parks) have helped to spice up profits.

If you would like your child to have an interest in biology, then give them a bug-collecting kit, not a Barbie.

But the thought that swapping Barbie’s sequins for a stethoscope will somehow ‘inspire subsequent generation of women into STEM careers’ is wishful thinking; at the top of the day, playing with a doll is still playing with a doll.

Mattel has tried this trick before: in 2015 they launched a replacement marketing campaign called ‘Imagine the Possibilities’ during which they tried to repair their brand image problem by focusing on the positives of imaginative play and pushing the thought that Barbie can teach young girls that they ‘can be anything.’ Yet Barbie’s association with various professions is nothing new – for many years we have had Astronaut Barbie (first launched in 1965), Firefighter Barbie (1995), Paratrooper Barbie (2000) and paediatrician Barbie (1994 – complete with tight pink jeans), to name a few.

These additions have not had any impact on broadening girls’ career aspirations. Take one study which found that girls are not any more likely to think about medicine because they played with Doctor Barbie instead of Fashion Barbie, but girls who played with Barbie’s generally were more likely to possess fewer career choices than girls who played with Mr Potato Head.

Why? Researchers suggest that this is often because Barbie is ultimately a sexualised toy, and albeit you give her glasses, a white laboratory coat and a clipboard, girls are still going to specialise in her appearance instead of her accomplishments. The reasons behind this are complex, but ultimately we sleep in a hyper-sexualised society that affects everything from girls’ Halloween costumes to song lyrics. After all, who can forget the time Abercrombie and Fitch marketed push-up bikinis to women as young as 7 and created a line of thong underwear in children’s sizes with the words ‘eye candy’ printed on them?

It is no surprise that from a terrifyingly early age girls are conscious of the worth of beauty and sexuality. One study found that girls aged 6-9, when asked to select the doll they might wish to appear as if, were far more likely to settle on a sexualised doll over a more life-like one. And this is often why Mattel’s latest ‘tribute’ is, to use Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert’s own words, so ‘very strange’. If parents genuinely want to show their daughters to careers they will not remember, whether that be a vaccinologist or a genetic researcher, then giving them a piece of pretty plastic is hardly the best way to stimulate their intellectual curiosity.

Men dominate STEM industries for an array of reasons, but I can guarantee it is not because they played with Astrophysicist Action Man or Statistician Stretch Armstrong. They were, however, more likely to possess been given other, more useful toys, like Lego or a toy telescope or a science kit. That’s to not say that twiddling with dolls is inherently bad; it can help children to develop empathy and social processing skills, and that I am personally wont to happily spend hours twiddling with figurines (although admittedly these were Pokémon instead of My Little Pony). However, let’s not pretend that a doll can make a toddler hooked into engineering.

You can hardly blame Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert’s rather bemused expression in the promotional photographs – after all, people with such accomplishments normally get large monuments in their likeness, or a Nobel prize (although only ten women have ever won these in Chemistry or Physics), and it’s hard to imagine a male scientist being transformed into a toy (a collectable Chris Whitty, anyone?) Let’s just hope that parents see through this gimmick; if you want your child to be interested in biology, then give them a bug-collecting kit, not a Barbie.


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