There's a new Barbie in town, and this one's all about breaking barriers.
Amid ongoing criticism about the iconic doll's damaging effects on young girls, Mattel has launched Entrepreneur Barbie. Decked out in a pink dress and black heels, Entrepreneur Barbie comes with a briefcase, a smartphone, a tablet computer and a real-life network of "Chief Inspiration Officers" — including Girls Who Code CEO Reshna Saujani, Rent the Runway founders Jennifer Hyman and Jenny Fleiss, and One Kings Lane top dogs Susan Feldman and Alison Pincus.
Of course, Mattel has released several career Barbies before, including an astronaut, a surgeon, a business executive, a CEO, a computer engineer and several presidential candidates (note: something the U.S. itself has not yet managed to achieve). This time, "career of the year" Barbie is starting her own company.
Image Credit: Mattel
"We always try to make career Barbie a reflection of the times," Mattel spokesperson Michelle Chidoni told CNNMoney. "Women entrepreneurs are more prevalent now and they're growing in number. [It's] a great way to encourage girls to also learn about this role."
"Becoming a female entrepreneur is about having the confidence to take risks," Carrie Kerpen wrote for Inc. "And handing young girls misproportioned dolls who give them a skewed view of what's beautiful probably isn't going to help there." Kerpen would have liked to see Mattel including information on Girls Who Code and a pamphlet on different types of women entrepreneurs with the pink-clad doll, "to help give girls an idea of what entrepreneurship truly means."
Over at The Wire, Danielle Wiener-Bronner thanked Entrepreneur Barbie for "teaching children to aspire vaguely to buzzwordy nothings;" Salon's Sarah Gray called the doll "a modern woman with her smartphone and her tablet stuck in a sexist, outdated, dangerous representation of femininity;" while Time's Jessica Roy said, "Much like many real life entrepreneurs, Entrepreneur Barbie seems to have little idea of what her company actually does."
Given the current climate for women at startups, perhaps next Mattel can craft "Silently Enduring Sexual Harassment With the Hope I Will Get a Raise" Barbie; "Making Less Than My Male Counterparts" Barbie; "Getting Turned Down by Investors Because I’m Pregnant" Barbie; or "I'm Going to Die Eating This Sad Salad at My Desk Alone" Barbie.
— Jessica Roy, Time
Those are all valid points — but one way to shatter a glass (or, in this case, plastic) ceiling is to weaken it one tap at a time.
"Unfortunately we live in a culture where girls are bombarded with images of male coders and engineers that just don't look like them," Girls Who Code's Reshma Saujani told Wired. "When you ask a girl what a computer scientist is, she usually pictures a geeky guy typing away. And then we wonder why girls don't pursue careers in tech! We have to change popular culture and start showing more women, more cool, dynamic, creative women, in these roles."
Saujani also said "You can't be what you can't see" — similar to the message from Geena Davis at the Institute on Gender in Media,"If she can see it, she can be it" — which unfortunately presents something of a conflicted idea, in that it undermines exactly what entrepreneurship stands for.
But Saujani touches on a crucial point. Why should all female entrepreneurs wear pantsuits, or jeans and hoodies, or other clothes that slot them neatly into the male version of success? Girls — especially younger girls, many of whom (although not all, obviously) do love pink and princesses and all these other "girly" things that have come to be abhorrent to feminism — want to see successful women who look like the women they dream about.
While the pervasiveness of pink among children's toys marketed at girls needs to be addressed, there's nothing inherently wrong with the color pink. And just because a doll has long legs, large breasts and blond hair, that doesn't make her less worthy of being a successful businesswoman.
Image Credit: Mattel
Yes, it would be ideal if the most popular children's toys were gender neutral and anatomically proportionate — and several companies, from Lego's female scientist to IAmElemental's female action heroes, as well as the much-lauded GoldieBlox and coding game Hopscotch, are tackling this head on. But there's no denying the power of Barbie: It has the largest Facebook fan page of any doll, according to Mattel. Every three seconds, another Barbie is bought, and 90% of all girls between the ages of three and 10 own at least one Barbie doll. That makes Barbie, which is arguably the most iconic and most popular toy in the world, one of the most effective channels of communication to young girls all around the world. We should embrace that.
"We have to meet girls where they are," Saujani said. "If we use the toys girls are playing with to encourage them in STEM fields, it doesn't matter if they are pink, blue, or orange."
As Laura Hudson wrote for Wired, "While Entrepreneur Barbie doesn't teach specific skills the way girl-oriented engineering toys like GoldieBlox do, it's selling something else: what Don Draper might call female entrepreneurship as a lifestyle. That is, it isn't about realities so much as fantasies and possibilities — by associating a glamorous, traditionally attractive woman with concepts of leadership and success, it arguably encourages girls to add 'entrepreneur' to their aspirations alongside more fanciful ones like 'princess.'"
Toys that break down barriers and defy stereotypes are, thankfully, starting to appear on store shelves. But, as they say, there's more than one way to skin a cat. If Barbie can teach girls while they play that entrepreneurship is something attainable and exciting — rather than the boring thing they think about while doing homework when they'd rather be playing make believe with their glitzy dolls — then that's useful, too. Let young ladies dream of leaning in, and let's entice more girls into business one Barbie-sized step at a time.