Barbie has been an aerobics instructor, an astronaut, a rockstar and a doctor. Next up: feminist Barbie? Donâ€™t hold your breath.
Over the last few years, Mattel has shrewdly been giving their star doll a more feminist-friendly makeover – theyâ€™ve made Barbie a paleontologist, a computer engineer and presidential candidate. It makes sense – Barbie has long been the face of unrealistic beauty standards foisted on young girls, so playing up the blonde dollâ€™s brainiac bonafides is necessary if parents are going to buy it for their daughters guilt-free.
And I must admit, their latest ad – a further attempt to convince consumers that Barbie is actually wonderful for young girls – does pull on the heartstrings.
The commercial opens up with college students filing into a lecture hall while words flash across the screen: what happens when girls are free to imagine they can be anything? The students, who appear to be filmed without their knowledge, are shocked and delighted when their teacher comes out and she is … a young girl. â€œHello, my name is Gwyneth,â€ she says in an adorable lispy way, â€œand I will be your professor today.â€
The same scenario is played out over and over – a little girl comes out in a veterinarianâ€™s coat to check on a shocked grownupsâ€™s cat (â€œHave you ever seen him fly?â€). Then a soccer coach, a museum tour guide and a businesswoman in an airport. The adults gamely play along, smiling at these girlsâ€™ indisputable cuteness.
At the end of the advertisement, though, we see that the young â€œprofessorâ€ is not in fact in a classroom, but in her bedroom, pretending that her Barbie is teaching other dolls. Final words come across the screen: when a girl plays with Barbie, she imagines everything she can become.
Except fat, of course. Or not white. Or anything other than the still very standard, horrifyingly-proportioned Barbie. Donâ€™t get me wrong, imaginative play is great – and I recall doing a lot of pretending with my own Barbie dolls. (Though most of that involved Barbie getting it on with Ken, or forcing her to undergo horrible haircuts.) But imaginations are limited when girls are given only a narrowly defined idea of what being a woman looks like. And in Barbieâ€™s case: it looks like â€˜impossibleâ€™.
Even when Mattel has made efforts to make Barbie less awful in the past, theyâ€™ve messed it up. Computer engineer Barbie had an accompanying book that made her look like a dolt:
â€œIâ€™m only creating the design ideas,â€ Barbie says, laughing. â€œIâ€™ll need Steven and Brianâ€™s help to turn it into a real game!â€
And when presidential candidate Barbie came out three years ago, the description said it let girls â€œtry on fabulous careersâ€ (as if theyâ€™re a dress?) and that Barbie for President wore â€œa smart suit in her signature pink … [and] accessorize with a sophisticated pearl necklace and earrings.â€ Thatâ€™s quite a platform.
If my daughter asks me for a Barbie one day, I likely wonâ€™t deny her. Sheâ€™ll be inundated with sexism her whole life, I canâ€™t hide that from her – the best I can do is teach her to be a critical and skeptical thinker. Especially when it comes to toy companies using feminism to help their bottom line.