by: Valerie Cimarossa, UAT Vice President of Marketing & Technology
Last summer Mattel released a new line of scientist Barbies co-designed with National Geographic and ecologist Nalini Nadkarni. The line includes Barbies featuring scientific careers such as a marine biologist, astrophysicist, photojournalist, conservationist and entomologist. This isn’t Barbie’s first STEM career. In past years Barbie has worked as a computer engineer, a Mars explorer, an architect, a game developer and most recently a robotics engineer. But what impact on our young people, with career aspirations as big as their imaginations, does this really have?
Opinions are mixed. Mattel, with good reason, has long been disparaged for the hyper-sexualized doll with distorted, unobtainable proportions. But this has not diminished Barbie’s presence in the lives of young people. A few years ago, Mattel made its first attempt at making Barbie easier to identify with by releasing dolls with a variety of more realistic body shapes, but in most instances she was still just a trendy lady in a miniskirt. With the release of STEM career Barbies, Mattel is making strides towards presenting Barbie as a role model that teaches young people that you can be more than a housewife with a pink convertible. However, residual feelings from the days of Barbie’s 16-inch waist, leave Mattel open to criticism of every component of the STEM Barbies designs.
Honestly, they deserve some of it. Scientist Barbie sports an above-the-knee lab coat over her mini dress. That seems…less than safe. I typed this on a pink laptop so I won’t rag on them for Computer Engineer Barbie’s accessory, but Mars Explorer Barbie’s pink space suit? Unlikely and unnecessary, though understandably an essential element of Barbie’s signature look. (Still, doubtful that one of our female rocket scientists would be sporting that.) I’m most bothered that Computer Engineer, Robotics Engineer and Game Developer Barbies, the stereotypically “nerdy” STEM careers, are wearing glasses and are dressed in boxier casual clothing. Entrepreneur and Film Director Barbies have no glasses and are dressed in much more svelte, fashionable clothing. Perpetuating the stereotype of tech “nerds” being less physically attractive and caring less how they appear professionally is a big miss.
But none of that matters. What matters is that 15 years ago, when Nalini Nadkarni first made the suggestion, Mattel wasn’t interested in a scientist Barbie line. What matters is now they are, and they seem to be keeping up with STEM careers as they evolve. The STEM Barbies are a far cry from the tragedy that was the 2010 book Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer (seriously, if slamming your head against a wall sounds fun, check out Buzzfeed’s page-by-page breakdown of the book instead; the effects will feel the same).
Once you’ve recovered from that, and the fact that it was released a mere ten years ago, a space suit with metallic pink bands seems much less of an offense, no? Regardless of how you feel about Barbie, her life choices and her accessories, it is undeniably crucial that such a prominent figure in the lives of young people is exposing them to ideas of different STEM careers in their formative years. While Barbie may seem trite, she’s here, Mattel is doing it, and we need all the help we can get. Cyber security Barbie next?