As Team Ethos, we rejoiced as one at the news that Mattel was launching its Barbie icons range, featuring 15 role models, in honour of International Women’s Day. And you’ve gotta say they did their homework. Globally representative, racially diverse and brilliantly skilled, it’s a polymath’s dream. Including Frida Kahlo, Amelia Earhart and NASA mathematician and physicist Katherine Johnson (who, incidentally, topped our studio Christmas tree last year) with Michelin-starred chef Hélène Darroze, boxer Nicola Adams, Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins, fencing champ Ibtihaj Muhammad and journalist and explorer Martyna Wojciechowska, amongst others, it ticks many a role model off my Christmas tree list.
It’s not Barbie’s first brush with feminism: there was 2015’s Imagine the Possibilities campaign, which saw a young girl lecture in biology; another coach a football team and a third treat pets in a surgery. Go back a bit further and Barbie became a presidential candidate – 20-odd years before Hillary Clinton emerged as the first female candidate nominated by a major US party.
The issue, I guess, is how we – agenda-driven, argumentative adults – receive the dolls. Not feminists per se, they’re a role models range, designed to ‘inspire more girls’, says Mattel. But then they’re dolls, so they can hardly self-identify, can they? The reality is that feminists come from all backgrounds and walks of life, so how d’you wrap that up in a mass-produced doll?
In fact, in the 58 years since she was created, Barbie’s had 150 careers – from Backfiring Barbie’s controversial computer engineer, to afore-mentioned presidential candidate.
And the reception has been typically mixed. Barbie’s biology-defying proportions – even for athletes like Adams – continue to upset the apple cart.
But isn’t that progress? I spoke to a computer games company last year who were really interested in how toys popularise new technology. The tech behind IBM’s Watson software was first used in the home as a toy dinosaur; Talking Barbie came out just as Amazon’s Alexa arrived. So normalising women as champions, film directors, boxers and chefs; as adventurers, pilots and physicists – in areas where women aren’t well represented, has got to be a good thing. In the UK, just 3.3% of aviation’s technical workforce is female; it’s only 12% in STEM subjects.
But it’s also chicken-and-egg. Does Barbie shape society, or society shape Barbie? Do we demand more varied models because we know more about a world of amazing, successful, inspiring women? Both, no doubt. But if kids grow up knowing that Barbie can be anything, surely that’s better than some of the gender-meh messages from my ‘80s childhood? Or even some of the other toy manufacturers, or retailers, out there now. If you’re giving a child a toy to play with, then their imagination fills in the rest. Leyla Piedayesh can be a knitwear designer, run a brilliant business AND have the astonishing adventures of a ten-year old’s marvellous mind.
Ignoring the whataboutery, does it matter? Is each step in the ‘right’ direction just grist to the mill that feeds us all? Even if it’s cynical, is that wholly bad?
In the spirit of never answering a question with a question, there’s work to be done. But I’m ordering a Nicola Adams doll for the studio…
Fiona Shaw is publisher of Ethos magazine and consultant editor of our sister paper, the Business Tribune