When I first became involved in student politics at the age of 22, my sister bought me “Presidential Candidate Barbie” as a joke Christmas present. It wasn’t clear from the packaging which political party Barbie came from but she certainly had a smart, tight-fitting suit, nice heels and shiny brown hair. Candidate Barbie first ran for President in 1992 and again in 2000 (losing both times one assumes as there is no President Barbie), making her a kind of Ralph Nader of the toy kingdom. She ran on a well-thought out, almost leftish, policy platform that included opportunities for girls, educational excellence and animal rights.
As compelling as Presidential Candidate Barbie sounds, I packed her away by the following Christmas. Her blank, consistently cheery stare freaked me out. And she looked nothing like any women politician I had ever met, let alone like me.
Toy manufacturers Mattel recognised some time ago that Barbie needed to find feminism and branch out beyond baking and cavorting with Ken to appeal to a new generation of girls born and raised in the eras of The Superwoman and Girlpower. And so Barbie has had a multitude of careers - 80 in total - to cater to educated young girls growing up with an innate sense of what sociologist Valerie Walkerdine terms “endless possibility”.
But is plastic doll feminism as empowering as it might seem?
The Onion has recently run a piece lampooning this very issue. As with almost everything The Onion does, it’s funny because it could very well be true.
The story tells of a group of activists criticising Mattel for their release of “CEO Barbie”, on the basis that it encourages young girls to set impractical career goals. The fictional Frederick Lang of the Changes Institute, an equally fictional children's advocacy organisation, argues that CEO Barbie perpetrates:
… the myth that if a woman works hard and sticks to her guns, she can rise to the top. Our young girls need to learn to accept their career futures, not be set up with ridiculously unattainable images.
Mother, activist, and office manager Connie Bergen, 36, is also irritated when her 5-year-old daughter is given CEO Barbie as a birthday gift. Bergen questions how attainable a CEO position is for the vast majority of women, even those who are highly educated, due to the persistent structural discrimination against women in the work force. In Bergen’s view it would be easier if daughters were raised “with dolls like Glass Ceiling American Girl, Service Sector Bratz, or Maria The White House Maid”.
There is no CEO Barbie - but Barbie has been a medic in Desert Storm, an astronaut and a paleontologist. If Barbie can be in a position of authority in the armed forces, then why not a CEO of a Fortune 500 company? It’s not much of a stretch in the anything-is-possible Barbie world.
The legacy of Girlpower (of which “Various Careers Barbie” is a definite manifestation) is no doubt a mixed one. Girls have benefited greatly from increased opportunities in education and from a culture that has presented them with images of female strength, endurance, smarts and independence. However many of these confident and capable women are soon to face a workplace which is less than forgiving to women who have family responsibilities.
Australia and the US remain the OECD holdouts in relation to maternity leave (now that’s an axis of evil I can believe in). Of all the young women I interviewed in my research on Generation Y, most believed in their capacity to excel in their careers as long as they remained child-free. Having witnessed their mothers’ struggles with balancing work and family commitments, many of this generation know that Barbie’s success - or indeed that of Condoleezza Rice - comes at a price.
Fun fact about Barbie? Her middle name is Millicent. The only other Millicent I can think of is the famous suffragette Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Both may have aspired to political office in the past, but the success of their less fortunate sisters in the present is far from secure.
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