Barbie has been many things in her time, from an astronaut to a pop star — and now, she’s launching herself into the business world with her latest incarnation, Entrepreneur Barbie. A commendable endeavor in theory, Mattel’s new creation is backed by a team of “Chief Inspiration Officers” made up of real life female leaders like Reshma Saujani of Girls Who Code, Jennifer Hyman and Jenny Fleiss of Rent the Runway, and Deborah Jackson of Plum Alley; she’s leaning in, pink wardrobe and all.
Let me say first and foremost that the idea itself is a step in the right direction. I love that Mattel has teamed up with all of these inspiring women, and I think it has the potential to send great messages to kids. As Saujani put it when speaking to Wired recently about the doll’s release, “You can’t be what you can’t see. Unfortunately we live in a culture where girls are bombarded with images of male coders and engineers that just don’t look like them…. And then we wonder why girls don’t pursue careers in tech!” She continued, “We have to change popular culture and start showing more women, more cool, dynamic, creative women, in these roles.”
Saujani is right; the trouble is, I don’t really know if Barbie is the best representative for that goal.
Like Salon’s Sarah Gray, I think the execution of the whole idea is deeply, deeply flawed. “Entrepreneur Barbie is a modern woman with her smartphone and her tablet stuck in a sexist, outdated, dangerous representation of femininity,” she writes. “I take umbrage with the fact that, even though this doll is backed by an awesome group of diverse women — aimed at providing positive representation — Barbie still represents this problematic view of women (objectified by men in Sports Illustrated ).” Add to that the fact that Entrepreneur Barbie herself is only vaguely business-y — she’s got a smartphone and a tablet and a shift dress — and, well… it’s just not enough, given what Barbie has historically (and, as seen in the Sports Illustrated incident, continues to) represent.
Mattel did, by the way, respond to the Sports Illustrated backlash in a way that tried to spin it as a positive; “As a legend herself, and under constant criticism about her body and how she looks, posing in [Sports Illustrated] gives Barbie and her fellow legends an opportunity to own who they are, celebrate what they have done and be #unapologetic.” Although this is a common — and admirable — defense used by many women criticized for posing in sexy magazine photos, The Wire points out that there’s a big problem here: “Those women aren’t a corporate team made up of mostly men discussing how to best sexualize their product (that is target to children) to make a profit.”
Barbie in and of herself remains intensely problematic because of the mixed messages she sends. She’s not the “woman who has it all”; she’s a woman who cutely performs the part of “positive role model” without actually being one. As Carrie Kerpen of Inc. wrote, “Mostly, becoming a female entrepreneur is about having the confidence to take risks. And handing young girls misproprotioned dolls who give them a skewed view of what’s beautiful isn’t going to help there.” But at least there’s hope on the horizon; with toys like Lammily and IAmElemental gaining traction, we’re clearly starting to see a move in the right direction. I’m going to become an aunt this fall, and believe you me, I’m going to make sure my niece has these kinds of gals in her toy box. The future quite literally depends on it.