Banner
    Hey, Barbie—Show Me The Science!
    By Andrea Kuszewski | December 15th 2010 10:21 PM | 30 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Andrea

    Andrea is a Behavior Therapist and Consultant for children on the autism spectrum, residing in the state of FL; her background is in cognitive

    ...

    View Andrea's Profile
    While Christmas shopping today with my sister and little 3 year old niece, I noticed something that rather disturbed me. And as difficult as it is for me to say this—it was Barbie.

    Claire and Barbies
    OMG. So many Barbies!

    First, let me say that I loved Barbies as a young girl. I mean, I REALLY LOVED Barbies. I had so many Barbies, I lost count. I had a Barbie townhouse, a cottage, sports car, horses, boy-friends (Ken), etc, etc. I had so many clothes for Barbie, I had a huge trunk to keep them all in. As a wee lass, I spent pretty much all my time divided between reading encyclopedias and playing Barbies (what—didn't everyone?). So while I write this post, I am saddened to see my once beloved Barbie in such a painfully different light.

    Barbie was the conduit for bringing my fantasies to life—working a challenging, yet fulfilling career, jet-setting, having a fabulous wardrobe, saving the lives of random citizens, and raising pets. Every so often, she was married, but usually single and loving life in the fast lane. Interestingly, Barbie's fantasy life from my youth is frighteningly similar in many ways to my current life. Only she had better clothes. But I digress.

    I am not going to complain about Barbie's waist-to-hip ratio, or her idealistic/unrealistic beauty, or her breasts. I have no issue with Barbie's physical appearance or wardrobe—I have a problem with Barbie's career choices.

    Now, I admit I have not been toy shopping in quite a while (since I don't have children of my own), so what I am about to discuss may not come as a surprise to some of you. There is a line of Barbies called "I Can Be..." which, essentially, is Barbie suited up in various professions. This is supposed to be a campaign to educate girls on the many different exciting careers that they have to look forward to as they grow up. You may remember News Anchor Barbie that was announced a few months ago:
    newsanchor
    For the record: I heart the outfit. Especially the shoes.

    Computer Engineer
    This is Computer Engineer Barbie—she's hot.

    Apparently, News Anchor Barbie and Computer Engineer Barbie were added after a public vote for new professions to augment Barbie's CV (interesting fact: News Anchor Barbie won the "girl's vote" and Computer Engineer Barbie won the "popular vote"). These are fantastic additions to the initially chosen group of professions. As I looked through the remaining choices, each subsequent one made me wince even more, with a few exceptions.
    Lots O Barbies
    Some of the dolls I saw in the store.

    I went to the Barbie website to see the available choices in this line, hoping with all my might to get a wider selection than what was present in the store. And this is what I found. Get a load of all the exciting things Barbie is telling girls she can be when she grows up:

    According to Mattel, I can be...
    1. A Pizza Chef (random anyone?)
    2. A Pet Vet
    3. A Babysitter (a babysitter? Really?)
    4. A Dentist
    5. A Ballroom Dancer
    6. A Computer Engineer (+1 Mattel, or rather, the public that voted for it)
    7. A News Anchor
    8. A Racecar Driver (cool!)
    9. A Kid Doctor (le sigh.)
    10. A Ballerina
    11. A Bride
    Oh, where to start with this. Let's start with the positive and work our way to WTF, shall we? Computer Engineer—awesome. But this was only at the request of the people. Dentist, Racecar Driver, Pet Vet, Ballerina—all good. Pizza Chef and Ballroom Dancer—strangely random. I'm guessing the dancer was chosen due to the popularity of that show Dancing With the Stars. And for the badass dress.

    What's the deal with Babysitter Barbie? I can be a babysitter when I grow up? Seriously?! Of all the possible choices out there, is that one of the best and most interesting careers to strive for? Oy.

    I also have some issues with Kid Doctor Barbie. First of all, why not use the correct term, which is Pediatrician? Also, will no other type of doctor do? We are told we can be a doctor, but only a kid doctor. Because women are supposed to have kids, so this makes perfect sense to them, right? What about Surgeon Barbie? Or Radiologist Barbie? Or Neurologist Barbie? I would have killed for a Barbie playset that included an MRI machine or X-Ray films. Yes, those types of doctors may be lesser known to young girls, but isn't the whole point of this line of "I Can Be... Barbie" to inform and educate girls about the exciting careers that are available to them? I mean, girls typically love these dolls already, so you have them at "Hello, Barbie"—why not take advantage of that opportunity to really educate them and show them some of the wicked cool stuff that women do?

    And saving the best for last: I can be a... Bride. Thanks for that enlightenment, Barbie! I think I actually grit my teeth and let out a few choice adult words when I saw this. Mattel is saying, if I try really hard in school, I, too, can be a bride. Not a woman with a career who also happens to be married, but a bride. Not a woman who decides she wants to be a mother, but a bride. So, if Ken had an "I Can Be..." line, would one of the options be Groom Ken? Or Husband Ken? Just wondering.

    Finally, where is Scientist Barbie? Do they think they have the science field covered with Vet, Dentist, and Kid Doctor Barbie? What about Biologist? Or Physicist? Or Astronaut? Or Ecologist? Or, one of my favorite types of scientists, Paleontologist Barbie? Just imagine the potential accessories!

    With all of the effort being made by so many organizations—as well as individuals—in trying to promote STEM fields to young girls, I am deeply disappointed in Mattel. Mattel has girls in the palms of their hands, and this is how they deliver.

    Recently, I've heard some in the scientific community making HUGE outcries against really positive and inspiring campaigns, such as The Science Cheerleaders, because they "feel they don't represent women in science well enough" or "to their liking". But are they ok with "Babysitter" and "Bride" being two of the eleven careers chosen to inspire young minds? 

    As a scientist, I am not ok with this. Maybe Mattel should consult Darlene Cavalier of Science Cheerleader to get a clue as to the breadth of opportunities out there in science, tech, engineering, and math for girls. And as for you, Barbie, I want you to show me some science! But feel free to do it in a fabulous pair of heels.


    *P.S. I'm getting on a plane in a few hours and won't be able to answer comments until (Thursday) early afternoon, but I'll get to them ASAP.

    **Photos 2 and 3 courtesy of Mattel.

    Comments

    I agree. When I saw Computer Engineer Barbie I felt good -- Then I read the little blub. It was all about the glamor and clothes, nothing about accomplishment or learning.

    Thanks, Andrea! Yet another excellent post. I'll charge my phone while I wait for Mattel to call.

    Hank
    The market for this is young girls, many of whom have a babysitter, so just like a young girl might get a baby doll to be like mom, a young girl may be wanting to be like a babysitter.

    Generally, I think this is no big deal.  If Mattel were selling stripper Barbie or thongs to 7 year olds, then I would be in the trenches with you.    Don't get me started on the objectification of Ken...
    Great post! I'm also a female scientist and would really enjoy seeing Science Barbie. I hated Barbies as a child but if I saw Microbiologist Barbie or Biochemist Barbie, I'd totally buy one for anybody with a little girl.

    Jane de Lartigue
    Great post Andrea! I think we have to give them some credit for heading in the right direction, but you're right, they could do a whole lot more, and not just in the science arena, they could have athlete barbie or lawyer barbie for example. I absolutely LOVE the idea of paleontologist or radiologist barbie, and all the potential accessories, that would be awesome!!
    WHERE IS BABYSITTER GI JOE?!!!

    Shouldn't we be going out there and taking an hour or two out of our lives every year/month/whatever to talk to kids about the careers they can have? I am sure schools would love to have us. I have volunteered with public schools for quite some time and everyt ime I go, they LOVE listening about my job. As an historic archaeologist, some people think my job is boring because I have nothing to do with Egypt or Greece, but I have learned a lot from teachers and now am able to really pique their curiosity.

    As a woman, showing up and telling ALL the kids, including minorities and kids with mental and physical disabilities, that they can study hard enough to do just about anything...it is really priceless. WE can be the "Barbies" that display a REAL rolemodel to children.

    Andrea Kuszewski
    Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    @ Darlene: Seriously. Mattel needs to hire you as a consultant!

    @ Hank: I have no problem with there being a Babysitter Barbie, just not in the "I Can Be..." line of career Barbies. Of ALL the possible careers that women can have, they chose only 11—and one of those was Babysitter. That's pathetic.

    @ Julie and Jane: Microbiologists, Paleontologists, Biochemists—how completely awesome would the lab set-ups and accessories be?! Maybe a dino skeleton!! Oh, the possibilities, and oh, the great many missed opportunities for awesome.

    @ Becca: Right?! I think I'd fall over from cardiac arrest if a Ken from a career line of dolls was something like Babysitter or Groom. Wrong and demeaning on so many levels.

    @ Archaeologist Barbie: (<3!!) I speak to kids about my work, too. They are often surprised, then fascinated by the range of possibilities out there—some jobs they never knew existed. Shouldn't it be our responsibility to make sure girls are informed of their choices? Youth is the time to cultivate scientific interest, and so many girls are clueless about the things they could actually pursue as a career.

    And one last note: I do applaud Mattel for not going all full-cliche and having Teacher, Nurse, or Fashion Designer Barbie on the career list. Not that there is a thing wrong with those careers, but girls already know those are options on the table.
    Shanah
    Actually Barbie was an Astronaut 3 times. 1965, 1985,&1994
    In the Science Field she's been a Astronaut, Paleontologist, and Computer Engineer.

    I wouldn't put too much weight in Wikipedia, since it's a public run site but there's some info:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbie%27s_careers


    By the way Ballroom Dancer is a career... It's not b/c of the show either. Ever go to a place where they teach ballroom? By talking with them you will find out in competitions, there's $ to be won and the more successful you are the more clients want to be taught by you, which in hand makes money to live off of. Every pro you see on tv, teaches ballroom as a living. You can't be considered a "Pro" until you make money at ballroom dancing. As one of my many random jobs to make money in a suck-y economy... I was a ballroom dance teacher. It is a whole loooooot harder to train for than you think it is, as a career, and I was a dance minor in college.


    Gerhard Adam
    Archaeologist Barbie?  Sorry, but what makes anyone think that this is even remotely appealing to little girls?  Also, what makes anyone think that we should be determining what fantasies children engage in.

    The argument might make more sense if we were seeing something radically different from the Ken dolls, but this simply isn't so (except for more emphasis on being in the military).
    http://www.manbehindthedoll.com/KEN101.htm

    Ken does have a "Best Man", "Soda Jerk", and "Pizza Delivery" version as well.

    In truth, the biggest influence on little girls is going to be their mothers.  So when you can demonstrate that mothers would prefer to buy Astronaut Barbie over Bride Barbie, then you would see the market change.  I suspect that isn't likely to occur.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Sorry to burst your bubble, but as a little girl, I would have LOVED an archaeologist Barbie. I had a Zoologist Barbie, which was the closest thing at the time, and I had a lot of fun with it. As an 8-13 year old, I read everything I could get my hands on about anthropology, archaeology, paleontology, and biology. I loved learning about human culture, dinosaurs, and animals. I was also very creative and made props and clothes for my Barbies to engage in a rich fantasy life. My Barbie was *always* the professional, never Ken. He mostly stayed at home while I was playacting Barbie.

    My mother was a beautician when I was growing up. I saw what kind of life that gave her and I wanted more. An intellectually stimulating life. I love my mother and appreciate her. But I have never wanted her life. And I used my allowance money to buy my own Barbies. Who were seldom white and blonde.

    I grew up in the 80's and 90's, when female cops, doctors, lawyers, scientists, etc. were becoming more and more common. The world is for the taking. Ken has had his day. It is no longer a man's world.

    Gerhard Adam
    I had a Zoologist Barbie ...
    That's great, so what's the problem? 

    I'm glad to see you pursued your interests and similarly I would encourage everyone (either gender) to do the same. 

    The problem here is quite simple.  Either Barbie is being marketed based on the desires of the consumer (i.e. mothers/daughters), or it is being marketed based on an agenda.  If it is the former, then there's little basis for complaint.  If it's the latter then there needs to be more evidence.

    If it's neither, then it's irrelevant.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Shanah
    Archaeologist Barbie... Heck yeah!!! It would def. have appealed to me. :D
    But I was weird, liked nerdy things, and knew what an archaeologist was at a very young age. :)
    Shanah
    P.S..... I would get a petition for a variety of Scientist Barbies. I mean atm isn't the government trying to "push" the issue of more science for kids esp. for girls anyways. :)
    Amen!
    I do remember there being an Astronaut Barbie when I was a girl, but the fact that her uniform transformed into a short Disco dancing number for when she was... I guess out dancing after a log day of space exploration, it didn't really fully inspire as it could have. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xvf75fvvbdI

    I'm write for SheHeroes and couldn't agree more with this post, which really gels with the message we're always putting out there at SheHeroes.

    Hank
    I do remember there being an Astronaut Barbie when I was a girl, but the fact that her uniform transformed into a short Disco dancing number for when she was... I guess out dancing after a log day of space exploration, it didn't really fully inspire as it could have
    But that is just being multi-purpose.  It was a big idea back then, like the mullet - business in front, party in the back.

    Barbie was culturally avant-garde in many ways.
    Bonny Bonobo alias Brat
    I have a confession to make, I didn't really like Barbie much. I think I found her body pretty scary, though I did like the way you could press a button in her stomach and her hair grew an inch. My preference was for ordinary dolls that you pushed around in toy prams, fed with magic milk emptying bottles and occasionally drowned in the bath.

    For some reason I had a double bed as a kid and every night I lined 10 dolls across the bed next to me, all lying with their heads on pillows, so I could hardly move. My favourite doll who had little porcelain teeth, walked and talked (with a bit of help) and turned her head from side to side with every step, then one day she broke her neck and had to go to dolls hospital and came back with a fixed, glued neck. Looking back I think playing with those dolls was good preparation for having children, without the drowning and broken necks one hopes of course. The kids definitely took over the bed at night for a few years and made it difficult to move without smothering them, so I was well prepared for that, unlike my husband.

    Now I realize though that I may have missed out on an important body image training by not playing much with my Barbie doll, maybe I might have been more self critical of my body shape than I am now and better dressed? I'm amazed at how slim and beautifully dressed so many of my friends are and how important it is for them to stay so slim and chic, which is of course healthy and attractive. They are equally amazed at my total inability to diet and shed a few kilos at will like them. I will have to ask them if they used to play with Barbies. As for the career Barbies, I didn't even know that they existed before now but it hasn't stopped me from having a pretty good IT career until recently, though maybe I could have been better dressed for the part. I'm not sure what my new career, Telephone Counsellor Barbie would look like and wear, other than comfy clothes and a pretty flash telephone headset, probably not very inspiring to most kids though.
    My article about researchers identifying a potential blue green algae cause & L-Serine treatment for Lou Gehrig's ALS, MND, Parkinsons & Alzheimers is at http://www.science20.com/forums/medicine
    I don't see how Barbie differs from a Cheerleader, really. Both are meant to be sexy, both are objectified, both don't even begin to scratch the surface of sheer work and effort it takes to establish a career, both are meant to entice little girls with shiny prettiness and both have something to sell and they do so by using their bodies. And Barbie has been a Cheerleader, vet, and doctor... and none of it is taken seriously because it's just a game.

    You'd think with the massive popularity of Grey's Anatomy and other medical shows, they would have put in Surgeon barbie! Or even Nurse barbie..granted it's a stereotypically female profession, but com'on! I'm pretty sure Barbie has been a nurse in the past, but still, you think they would have revamped it and put it out again. (For the record, you can do lot with nursing depending on how far you go with it, and what you specialize in.)

    I'm not surprised Computer Engineer barbie made it on the list due to the public. As an electrical engineer, and a member of IEEE, there is always a a concern that we need to get more people into engineering. the sciences and mathematics. There is also a push to get more women involved and more minorities.

    In fact I just filled out a survey for IEEE (It's the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, it's a professional organization) that asked us what we wanted the society to push for with our funds. As a professional organization, we do our best to push the government into things we think is needed; such as more research towards greener electronic tech, or making sure the infrastructure of the power grid isn't falling apart and is keeping up with new technology for example.

    Gerhard Adam
    Sorry, but I don't get it.  Why would anyone think that Archaeologist Barbie, or Biologist Barbie, or even Surgeon Barbie would have any appeal beyond someone already interested in those subjects.  Does anyone really believe that merely having a toy with such a label is sufficient to generate some kind of interest in the actual topics? 

    If such an interest is already present in the child, then the Barbie is hardly necessary to reinforce any ideas of a career.
    Mundus vult decipi
    At least, Barbie can practice professions for supporting her feminized boyfriend : Ken... And once again, your paper made me smile. Thanks !

    Well, I think we have to remember that the toy companies have no incentive to increase their diversity only to fit certain societal "good" values. They have only to answer to their shareholders.
    It's very nice that you feel like this, and intellectually I agree with you, having 2 daughters and fighting the "princess" meme with the "dinosaurs are cool/science is real" meme every @#$ day, but I wouldn't say anything about their commercial position without having a good look at their marketing research. They are there to take your money. Not to have a moral stand.
    You are clearly not the typical american woman for your age (sadly) my dear. You have no kids, you have an upper level education and a pretty liberal view on life.
    They do NOT care about your opinion.
    Want to change this? Guide us outside the protective bubble of science blogs. Go to mommy blogs, where the money is.
    You will see there how much of an statistical aberrance all of us commenting here are. Never forget that.
    Awesome rant...yes
    Appropriate rant...yes
    Important rant (in the large scheme of things)...not really (unless you get a lot of money or customers behind you that I have not noticed)

    So...let's go for the outreach!, and for the complex understanding of the human universe. Not the feel good preaching to the choir, where we all are "Yeah, we are right, we are right, they are either dumb, or evil "

    Ah, and don't get me started on the boys toys and their bent towards militarization.
    And @archeologist barbie ... I thought the world was for BOTH barbie and ken and transgender doll (without name) . Don't fall on the errors of your predecessors. Being a women does not make you better either.
    It makes you a human.
    Just like all the men that do all those things you don't like.

    Richard King
    I also have some issues with Kid Doctor Barbie. First of all, why not use the correct term, which is Pediatrician?
    Why not also use the correct term for “kid”, which is “child”.

    A nephew of mine met his wife to be at university. She is a civil engineer who plays rugby (a little like American football but they do not bother with the crash helmets and padding) as well as being generally competitive at sports. How about her for someone on whom to model Barbie?
    Mr King,
    Great for your nephew's wife. It's not common for a woman to be civil ingeneer... but don't try to reduce the danger of football for a question of padding. American footbal is far more dangerous than rugby and even, sometimes... lethal.

    Richard King
    Walt K (not verified):

    What I wrote was at least a little “tongue in cheek”. I guess your sense of humour went walkabout. I hope you find it again.

    I have not statistics on the relative dangers of rugby and American football. However, it is not unknown for there to be fatalities in rugby. There have certainly been serious injuries; broken necks and incapacitatingly damaged backs, etc. There are have also been fatalities in football, real football that is, the sort you actually play with your feet; called soccer west of the Pond. One of those fatalities was that of a student who “died after an accident whilst playing Intramural football in March 1999”; a Trophy was donated to the University by the students of his Hall that year. Besides, there is inherent risk in most pursuits, including sports and, as far as I am aware, in common with other sports, there is no compulsion to take part.

    During the late 1960s I was staying with a couple in Luton during an industrial training period. The male partner was keen on rugby. He told me a story about a team rugby players from this Country taking on an American football team, an event in which I got the impression he was either peripherally involved, or rather close to it. The story goes that the rugby players did not bother with the protective equipment but still came off best. I do not know how much truth there is in the story but its teller told it straight. I have, at times, considered asking the questions page of the Daily Mail, “Answers to Correspondents”, run by Charles Legge, where all sort of abstruse matters come up but it is not exactly at the top of my list of priorities.
    Paul Frank
    My question here is whether things are being taken too much at face value.  I think the relevant resource is developmental psychology.  I don't think that there is a danger that we will be seeing a large glut of career babysitters from this generation of girls.  Possibly including the babysitter encourages those with nurturing tendencies to become nurses or pediatricians or social workers or counselors; quite possibly not. 

    Possibly Mattel has researched this; and possibly they are indifferent and only maximizing their short term profits.  Or maybe it is a compromise between the two.  If the market for Barbies was high school seniors I would worry more about this.  But how the interests of a young girl would evolve between now and the time that they are making career decisions is an empirical matter that is not necessarily as straightforward as is being suggested here.

    More generally, if the goal here is constructive psychological development, then Barbie might not be your first choice.  My vague recollection here is that the wildly successful, but decidedly less beautiful, Cabbage Patch dolls were developed in consultation with psychologists, and their success was attributed to the young girls' desire to be loved when feeling ugly and insecure.  Not all of us are going to grow up to be the next Bond girls like Andrea.  Certainly psychological security is something we want for our children.  But is this the long-term contribution of Cabbage Patch dolls?  Possibly.

    I also remember reading in this column research findings presented that parenting styles don't have an impact in how children turn out as adults.  (Am I misrepresenting this?)  Against this background, the impact of Barbie "I-can-be" professions on our children's life prospects seems pretty speculative.

    I am probably a broken record here, but strong empirically-grounded theory is the best basis for sorting this all out.  Short of that maybe the present rumblings are the best we have to go on.
    Barbie has had over 80 different careers (which includes an astronaut, president, and different kinds of soldiers). including things like brides, babysitters, and moms makes a larger range for those kids who don't want to be scientists. when I was younger all I wanted to be was a mom (like my mom). Barbies don't really describe the only capabilities of women.

    This article is ridiculous. If you were 7yrs old, would you know what a bloody paleontologist was? Probably not. You know simple things like baby sitters as you have one and you probably look up to them. Nice idea to get Microbiologist Barbie, but if it were on the shelf it wouldn't sell unless it were to hundreds of female grad students who would all have them sat on top of their computer monitors. Ridiculous. Andrea you had Barbies and you've turned out a scientist not a pizza chef.

    Sadly, the Science Cheerleaders were un-invited to our recent open house at a major NASA center for the reasons you mentioned. It pains me to think pure cattiness might have been the culprit, but the decision was made by female scientists. Score zero for tearing down stereotypes.

    @anonymous at 22:28 who said "If you were 7yrs old, would you know what a bloody paleontologist was? Probably not."

    Like most kids, my 5-year-old daughter loves dinosaurs, so of course she knows what a paleontologist is. She's happy to tell anyone who asks that she wants to be a fairy-princess-ballerina-paleontologist when she grows up. She would melt with happiness for a paleontologist barbie.