Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Rhetoric in Barbie's "I Can Be . . ." Campaign

Margot Magowan had a post at Reel Girl about the new Architect Barbie. In that post, she talked about the dearth of female architects (just 17% join the largest professional organization) and the need for stronger female architect role models. She even ended on a hopeful tone that Barbie might help close that gap. But then she attended a panel where female architects scoffed at Architect Barbie and suggests that little girls who aspire to become architects should be given building blocks, not dolls.

Their criticism brings to question a few things. First of all, what's the point of toys? Should toys hone particular skill sets based on natural inclinations? Should all toys be interactive and inventive? Should toys be gendered? Are they designed to impart messages and lessons that will carry forward into adulthood? Are they just fillers for idle time? Should we give our children toys based on our own interests and hobbies? Should we offer an equal array of toys and let our children choose? If so, what different sections make up that array?

Regardless of the (possibly endless) answers to those questions, it's clear that toy marketers have specific goals in mind for their toys (besides making money, which is--of course--a given). Architect Barbie is part of a larger Barbie campaign. A campaign that is very sophisticated and multi-faceted.

I first saw it when I stumbled upon this commercial:

Now, there are some things I really like about this commercial. First of all, it's hard not to get behind a "you can be anything you dream" message. It's part of the fabric of the American ethos, an inspirational call for individualism and determination. What's not to love? Secondly, I like the diversity in the cast both in terms of race and in style (several of the girls are wearing very "girly" clothing--like tutus and bright pink hues, but others are wearing plain polos and denim overalls (though, admittedly, still a lot of pink--but it is Barbie). The little girls each tell us their dreams--to go to the moon, dance with the royal ballet, nurse a puppy back to health, open a bakery, and teach the next generation. Curious, I went to the website promoted in the video, where I found a second commercial:

This commercial takes on the same theme (and the same tagline: "When I grow up I can be anything . . . and that's everything). We even have another little girl dressed in a pink ballet outfit dancing with her Barbie to start us off. The rest of the characters, however, are adults reminiscing on their dreams and how they got where they are. We see a piano player, pilot, painter, soccer player, singer, elementary teacher, firefighter, and veterinarian.

The second video shows more typically-male roles than the first one did (of the little girls, only the one who wanted to go to the moon breaks out of a nurturing or otherwise feminized role (dancer, nurse, baker, teacher). The second video includes a pilot, soccer player, and firefighter--all male-dominated fields. The second video also includes racial diversity and does a great job of showing the common theme of hope and dreams in all women.

I was a little dazzled by my reception of these commercials. They're edited well, send a good message, and seem pretty rhetorically sound. I'm not a Barbie fan, but maybe, just maybe, there's something to Barbie and her "125 careers and counting." Could she be promoting positive career aspirations in a new generation of women?

I kept looking around the website which includes live messages from girls (or, I guess, anyone who wants to send a message and pretend to be a little girl) explaining their dreams and reasons for those dreams.

There are some hopeful ones:
"I dream of becoming a Chemical Engineer because I love playing with chemicals."
"I dream of becoming a Baby Doctor because wow."
"I dream of becoming a Website Designer because I LOVE websites."
I don't want to be negative, but I can't help but notice that a lot of these messages fall into very stereotypical goals:
"I dream of becoming an Actor because I was in a play of cinderella!!!!:)"
"I dream of becoming a fashion designer because I love it!"
And there are many little girls who apparently dream of becoming Barbie herself:
 "I dream of becoming a barbie because I love dolls."
"I dream of becoming a barbie because she has inspired me to follow my dreams."
"I dream of becoming a barbie because I love barbie dolls."
So, while I want to be behind this campaign, I'm thinking back to the architects who say that playing with blocks is the best way to promote the skills needed to be an architect.

At the end of the day, all of Barbie's careers (of which there is a Wikipedia list) don't really focus on the skills needed for any of those careers. The focus for Barbie is in the accessories--the halter dress and platform heels for the babysitter, the pink blazer and black pumps for the news anchor. And while, yes, the women in the second commercial are definitely breaking the mold and setting themselves up as excellent role models in male-dominated fields, they did it without the help of Barbie. A look at the Barbies from the I Can Be . . . collection sold on Mattel's website is telling. Almost all of the roles are in female-dominated careers (babysitters, ballerinas, and teachers abound!) While there is a "doctor" there is also a "baby doctor" and "kid doctor," perhaps mirroring the fact that female doctors are much more likely to go into pediatrics or obstetrics/gynecology.

Look, I get it. I'm sure that these dolls available on the Mattel website are the ones that sell best, and I'm not knocking the company for trying to do what companies do--make a profit. I'm not even saying that there shouldn't be role models for little girls who want to be ballerinas or life guards. (Though, I am disturbed that the racial diversity they display in the commercials is nowhere to be seen in the dolls themselves. There are two different dolls--the typical white-skinned, blonde-haired Barbie and another Barbie who is a brunette with a slightly darker (but still very light) complexion). However, I feel like I need to judge this campaign on its own claims, and those claims are that it helps little girls who dream to become "anything" and that's "everything."

I like the message, but I'm not convinced that the toy actually carries it through. If little girls want to be computer engineers, they might be better served not by playing with a little plastic pink laptop, but actual computers. If they want to be race car drivers, they might be better served working on hand-eye coordination and reflex time than bouncing around Barbie in her skin-tight pink and blue jumpsuit.


  1. Hi there, I found your post through Feministe.

    I love this conversation you got going here. Makes me a little sad that I'm never going to have a daughter to have a big Barbie talk with. Maybe I'll get lucky and one of my sons will want to play with Barbie, but I doubt I'll have to have the, "Barbie is not real, and not a role model, and you don't need to try to be like her," convo with a son.

    Back in my day in the 80s, I played with Barbie, but I don't recall her having any careers. There was Valentine's Barbie, Pretty in Pink Barbie, and something else that involved a lot of high heels that never stayed on her impossibly pointy feet. And my SIL also played with Barbies. We both grew up to be awesome feminists - but I hesitate to use anecdotal evidence to argue with the theory that Barbie can perpetuate female stereotypes.

    So, if I did have a daughter, would I let her play with Barbie? If she really wanted one, sure, but we'd have a big talk about it, and I'd make sure she was also surrounded by less gender stereotypical toys that supported her strengths and her dreams. (Future WMLB baseball player...future President...future Supreme Court Justice... just some of the dreams I had for my now never-to-exist daughter.)

    On that note I do feel like it's easy to make a strawman (strawoman?) out of Barbie and blame her for the perpetuation of gender roles. Parents, peers, and the media also play into what I think is a complex and very complicated social problem we have with our girls.

    That said, Barbie is still part of the problem, and I have to agree with your point here: one outfit does not a "career Barbie" make. Still, even "kid doctor" Barbie is better than the sole medial option of "nurse Barbie," and the choices now are, as I said, still much richer and more diverse than they were in my day. Baby steps? Tippy-toe Barbie-sized steps?

  2. "On that note I do feel like it's easy to make a strawman (strawoman?) out of Barbie and blame her for the perpetuation of gender roles. Parents, peers, and the media also play into what I think is a complex and very complicated social problem we have with our girls."

    I completely agree with this. It's too easy to pick out any one piece of the problem and let it stand in as the whole problem (and I think this is true even with more egregiously stereotypical toys, like Bratz dolls). I also think that there's nothing wrong with little girls playing with dolls and that it doesn't have to be Barbie's responsibility to be a role model. There are plenty of other toys we don't ask to carry that kind of weight, that we don't judge in that way. And maybe this marketing campaign is just an attempt to answer pressure from consumers that have already placed Barbie in that role. However, I do feel like if the campaign is going to set itself up as the answer to gender-inequality in careers, then that's part of the criteria we need to use to judge it.