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Barbie Goes Chic to Geek

News & Features | March 7, 2010

Without question, Barbie is a cultural icon. Her perfectly pointed feet and impossibly shiny hair have been barometers for girls to measure themselves against since 1959. She comes complete with a dream-house, a pink convertible, and a teeny-weeny bikini for her vacations in the tropics. Now, trying to usher their doll out of the standards of the previous generation, Mattel Toystore is trying to appeal to the Gen-X, millennial set of consumers with Barbie’s newest career: computer science engineer.

It was only a decade ago that you could buy a Barbie with a button on her back that, when pressed, would elicit an excited giggle about her date with Ken on Saturday or a complaint about  the fact that she had nothing to wear. One phrase, which caught the ears of feminist groups and women’s activists, complained, “Math class is tough!”

Rebecca Plante

And what eight-year-old girl wouldn’t love Barbie’s newest addition to her already over-stuffed resume (think fitness instructor, fashion model, ballerina, and dolphin trainer)? Computer Engineer Barbie comes complete with a wireless PDA device, a laptop, a pair of bulky glasses, and a shirt with binary code on it. The accessories are all hot pink but were chosen with input from the Society of Women Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering.

Now every little girl who has always dreamed of programming in C++, solving complicated differential equations, and maybe even one day having Tufts Professor Lee Minardi for Engineering 1 can finally buy a doll that speaks to them.

But there are still flaws. Comp-Sci Barbie isn’t exactly the most progressive of engineers. Her binary-coded shirt is written in an irrelevant language, and her computer looks like a glorified purse.

Rebecca Plante

“Barbie’s intelligence is immediately cast in doubt; she’s not a cutting edge engineer,” says Ronna Johnson, lecturer for the Department of Women’s Studies at Tufts.

However, Barbie’s new career aspirations are here to stay, trying to stay current with what some sociologists are calling the “Obama-Generation.” As being politically conscious and a pseudo-activist are becoming more and more‘ hip,’ companies are changing their products to fit into consumer demand. Mattel, wanting to shed its image of celebrating vanity, wealth, and vapid excess, has given Barbie a brain; it only took 50 years.

This isn’t the end of Barbie’s intellectual awakening either. Mattel has plans for follow-up dolls with possible career titles like architect, journalist and environmentalist. And maybe this is just temporary—the quick-fix marketing device aimed at moms who drive Priuses, listen to NPR, and believe in third-wave feminism for their little girls; or maybe this change is more concrete.

But just because Barbie is suddenly getting a brain doesn’t mean the parts of her that have made her such an ideal are going anywhere any time soon. Her waist is still too small to achieve in the human world without removing a rib. Her feet are still permanently in tiptoe position, maybe a size 4 or 5, maybe smaller. Her hair is still platinum blonde. Eyeliner is still tattooed around her doe-ish blue eyes. Whereas the doll used to only have to be beautiful to captivate the hearts of its prepubescent followers, now she has to be beautiful and smart.

Professor Johnson challenged the concept that Barbie can  suddenly become smart. “The idea on one level is to intervene in girls’ education and make them feel as if it is something they can do. But it isn’t made unfeminine because they are still in Barbie bodies. This is just sugar coating sexism.”

Truth be told, consumer giants that have serious impact on youth culture (Mattel, Nickelodeon, MTV, Xbox, etc) are never going to completely give up on the concept of superficiality as a marketing device. And in a certain sense, the “Brainy Barbie” is just another tool used to objectify the type of women girls are supposed to emulate and teach them that homogenization is still standard practice in academic careers. The default is always the long blond mane, the body with the curves, and the accessories.

The next question is whether or not a Barbie with (relative) substance will sell. According to Nora Lin, the President of the Society of Women Engineers, this is a definitive “yes.”

“All the girls who imagine their futures through Barbie will learn that engineers, like girls, are free to explore infinite possibilities, limited only by their imagination,” she said in a publicity statement provided by Mattel.

But according to Professor Johnson, this does not mean any kind of radical sea change is going to enact itself in terms of Barbie’s overarching image. “We’re not empowering Barbie,” she says. “We’re just giving her a laptop and glasses. Barbie is on the fantasy level. Except she isn’t a girl’s fantasy, but a boy’s fantasy.”

Most people agree that change is not going to come through simple cosmetics. Giving Barbie glasses and high-tech accessories does not mean girls are going to give up their dreams of being fashion models and pop divas, but maybe this is the beginning of a new wave of socially conscious toys. No matter how superficial that consciousness is, at least it is present. At the end of the day, little girls are going to still aspire to look like a Barbie (in the general sense) because it’s innate in our social sphere—girls have zero defense against it.

Potentially, Mattel is revising our idea of femininity. The pink lips and doe-eyes are still there but now, Barbie is coding and calculating in the background. Girls can  still hang on to that old hope for the dream house, with the two-car garage and the pink kitchen, but the girls who like math and ask for TI-89’s for Christmas can rock high heels too. They can be beauties with brains.