Barbie at the Barricades

Barbie at the Barricades, Social messaging in blockbuster pink

by Greg Cunningham

Social messaging in blockbuster pink

My first Barbie experience was in college working at my local suburban McDonald’s during winter and summer breaks.  One summer featured a Happy Meal promotion where customers could choose either a Barbie (about half the normal retail size) or a Hot Wheels car toy.  There were eight different versions of Barbie as varied as the retail selection at the time.

One evening, a woman purchased a Barbie Happy Meal in the drive-thru.  Shortly after receiving her order and pulling away from the window, she stormed back into the restaurant waving the doll in the air and demanding “IS THIS SOME SORT OF JOKE?”  The Barbie available that week, the one she was waving in the air, was Black. Our suburb had few residents who resembled that doll.   

Watching the new Barbie movie recently, I discovered that the premise of the movie is the infiltration of the real world into “Barbie World. ”  I was reminded of that woman fuming at the counter demanding a “normal” Barbie.  Her real world had been invaded by an alien Barbie World she didn’t recognize.

I never knew how many Barbies there were until seeing the movie.  A quick search on the Mattel website shows over 500 different types of Barbies. They include every possible occupation from CEO to pizza chef.  There’s an electrician Barbie, a farmer Barbie, even an animal rescuer Barbie.  Recent additions include a lesbian Barbie, a trans Barbie, and of course Barbies from the movie. (In no universe, real or imagined, does Mattel forgo such a marketing opportunity.) My view of Barbie for most of my teenage and adult life was exactly as the movie character Sasha describes when they first meet: “You’ve been making women feel bad about themselves since you were invented. You set the feminist movement back 50 years.”  To be fair, the movie does poke fun at the many different facets of the Barbie brand with lines like, “I would never wear high heels if my feet were flat.”

One of the more enjoyable themes is the questioning of the wisdom behind the discontinued Barbies and accessories, like Midge, the pregnant friend; Ken’s friend Alan whom “all of Ken’s clothing fit”; Skipper, whose body literally expanded (rather awkwardly) when her arms were moved; and Video Girl Barbie, who had a television screen embedded in her back. Talk about diversity! And inclusion!  A quick search online proved they were all for sale at some point, though sometimes only for a very abbreviated  shelf life. The fact that the movie creates such satirical moments and even makes fun of itself is a message worth noting.  The movie makers didn’t take this all too seriously, and the audience shouldn’t either.

But it conjures up a serious question about how educators can relate to young girls in the classroom and promote the concept that anyone can grow up to be anything.  The Barbie brand and its merch may be intended to inspire and empower girls but teaching them about real life women and their achievements might be a better option. My colleague Joan Reissman wrote exactly that in her recent blog post Breaking Barriers: Women Musicians Who Made a Difference.

Female role models provide tangible examples for girls in the tangible classroom. Studies have confirmed that the more young girls see females in leadership positions, or in typically male-dominated careers, the more likely they are to follow in their footsteps.  One study determined that female students are more likely to pursue majors and careers in STEM when taught by a female instructor.

Many of the studies feature suggestions to encourage more women to begin careers in the male-.  dominated STEM fields. But not all young females need to be pushed toward those options.  As asserted by Dr. Margie Warrell in Forbes magazine, “We need a diversity of role models, with different styles, stories, personalities and perspectives.” She continues, “If you are a woman reading this, I encourage you to be the role model you wish you’d had when you were starting out.  If you’re asked to be a mentor, say yes.  If you’re asked to be interviewed, say yes.  If you’re asked to be on a panel, say yes (and invite another woman to join you!).  Your story may well inspire a young woman to take a leap of faith in herself that she never would otherwise.”

However, it is not just women who need role models.  A bit like the subplot in the Barbie movie, men would also benefit from seeing more women in these roles.  Since male-dominated fields self-perpetuate further male dominance, discouraging women from seeking entry, the more that males can see women as leaders in successful positions in a variety of vocations, the more open everyone will be to full gender equality.

That day at McDonalds, I called our store manager to deal with the woman demanding a “normal” Barbie.  Rather than argue, she offered a different version of Barbie or a Hot Wheels car.  “What would my daughter want with a Hot Wheels car?” the woman snapped as she snatched the new doll and slammed the original down on the counter.  It wasn’t enough to get a Barbie that satisfied her racial preference. Her gender stereotype would not allow her even to consider the option of her daughter playing with a car. 

I sometimes wonder if we should have challenged that customer’s conviction that Black Barbie was not “normal.” I wonder if we missed an opportunity to educate her and try to expand her gender stereotypes. She probably would have rejected both arguments, but letting such prejudices go unchallenged merely allows them room to proliferate. 

Had we seized the teachable moment, it could have been the birth of a new McDonald’s social responsibility marketing slogan:  Do you want fries with this lesson?


Greg Cunningham is a JFYNetWorks Learning Specialist and an occasional patron of McDonald’s for sentimental reasons. 

Other posts authored by Greg can be found here.

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