Barbie is Late to the Feminist Party

Why Scientist Barbie is not Mattel’s feminist ticket and what Mattel can do to enter feminist discourse.

Image by ErikaWittlieb from Pixabay

In 2019, Mattel announced a worldwide licensing agreement between its Barbie brand and National Geographic to create a Barbie product line that features dolls dressed in typical outfits for various occupations such as Astrophysicist, Polar Marine Biologist, Wildlife Photojournalist, Entomologist and more. Scientist Barbie, dressed as a ‘rough’ scientist, is wearing field clothing and has binoculars to represent scientists like Nalini Nadkarni, the tree scientist who sparked the idea 15 years ago.

Scientist Barbie is continuing a long tradition of Barbies dressed in different career outfits. Every few years, Mattel Inc., the American multinational entertainment and toy manufacturing company, announces a new line of products, featuring Barbie in different clothing, body figures, or settings.

Barbie’s collaboration with National Geographic to present Scientist Barbie is a commendable step. More toys should offer a diverse range of femininity and masculinity or offer gender-neutral identity. Scientist Barbie is a nice idea with a positive potential: offering diverse professions of Barbies to inspire girls to explore different career paths. The basic idea is that it is essential to introduce girls to a variety of professional options and that playing with a scientist doll could encourage them to imagine becoming a scientist and pursuing that path. Simply put, more options spark the imagination to explore different career paths.

Barbie, one of the most iconic dolls in history, has a long history of drawing criticism and analysis of its figure and feminine characteristics. Both the doll, launched 60 years ago, and its parent company Mattel, have witnessed drastic changes in public opinion and the perception of gender, femininity, identity, and race. From a conservative view of femininity in the late fifties to a gender-fluid discourse and a public demand of more diverse dolls, representing different skin tones, body figures, and now, careers.

Barbie’s pivotal role in these public discourses, often as a target of harsh criticism, attests to the doll’s important cultural role as a feminine icon. The doll has been a part of many children’s toy shelves, as well as their parents’. Some of the direct criticism about Barbie’s ambiguous feminist identity is voiced by the same mothers who played with the doll when they were their daughters’ age.

The question of whether Barbie is feminist at all is threaded through Barbie’s identity as a brand. In the case of Scientist Barbie, some criticized Barbie’s feminist appeal, arguing that rough clothing and binoculars are not enough. Outfits, they argue, can be changed, and their impact on little girls is minimal. Playing with dolls, they continue, does not necessarily have an impact at all.

However, focusing on the binary question of whether Barbie is feminist or not, is not what really matters here.

The important question about Barbie should address the current feminist discourse, asking what Mattel can do to promote Barbie’s brand and social capital while elevating feminist discourse and living up to their clients’ expectations. This question, addressing both the company’s financial interests and its corporate social responsibility, is not unique to Mattel. It is at the core of many large companies’ business strategies, as they steer their products in the current turbulent market, where customers define themselves through the products they consume and demand that they are aligned with their ideology and world view, regardless of the products’ physical characteristics. Today, companies need to expand their brands to include ideology and cultural values, in addition to the products’ market-wise advantages.

Customers view Barbie as an ideology in a box, dressed, and accessorized to tell a story. The story could be nostalgic — parents or grandparents buying their children and grandchildren the same doll they knew. The story could be one of woke political awareness — parents offering their children more diversified options of role models. The story could be children’s demands to have the newest doll on the market or the one their friends have.

Barbie’s brand is no longer just a dialogue between children and their parents when shopping for toys. Barbie’s cultural role as a feminine figure has put her on center stage for a long time. Her current dialogue moves beyond Mattel’s commercial choices. It signals Barbie’s ideology and values, and it could establish her reputation as a feminist icon or as an outsider to the feminist world.

If Mattel thought this step would put Barbie’s brand on the feminist table and make her an honorary member in feminist discourse, this is unfortunately not the case.

Scientist Barbie is not an innovative product because the current feminist discourse has already acknowledged the importance of encouraging girls to enter STEM research and practice. At this point, adding another type of doll to the toy shelf seems redundant and superficial. By choosing the easy path of dressing up as scientists, Barbie is entering an already saturated feminist discourse, but the new doll does not offer any innovative promise. Mattel’s move is somewhere between too little and too late.

There are numerous programs, initiatives, and scholarships designed to introduce STEM to girls and encourage them to follow this path. This is not to say that equality has been achieved and that girls and boys are equal in STEM subjects. Much work needs to be done in this area. Yet, Barbie is late in joining the effort that began a long time ago. Barbie is late in terms of creating an effect on girls, on the public perception of girls in STEM and on feminist discourse.

Mattel has missed addressing Scientist Barbie’s contribution to feminist discourse or the doll’s actual impact on girls. When launching the product line, they should have addressed the social context and answered questions such as these: why is this product relevant NOW? What is Barbie’s contribution to today’s culture? The focus here is not on the type of answers Mattel will offer, but more on addressing these questions to promote Barbie’s brand and invite her to enter feminist discourse.

The current feminist discourse about women-scientists is focused on acknowledging women’s powerful roles in science, working toward equality in access to positions of power, and engaging in the constant battle to explain scientific truths to the public — fighting disinformation and doubt. The values that this feminist-scientist discourse is based on are acknowledgment, equality, and truth. If Barbie wants to say something meaningful, Mattel should consider developing a more complex story for their product line. This story should begin with understanding the values that shape current feminist discourse and Barbie’s iconic cultural role as a multi-generational popular toy.

Mattel acknowledged the changing public discourse when they offered Barbies with various body types, which proved to be a success. Now they need to see that the discourse has gone beyond what the physical dolls stand for. The feminist-scientific market is focused on identity and values such as equality and truth that are a core part of the parents’ identity. The ticket to the feminist party would be to transform these values into children’s play. This process will involve expanding the meaning of children’s toys for a new era. It will offer Mattel the opportunity to give Barbie another career, becoming not only a scientist but also a part of the innovative feminist avant-garde in the toy industry.

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