Last week on Instagram, I saw this photo of Mattel’s new Barbie billboard in Times Square:
I had no idea what to make of this photo when I first saw it. A week later, I’m still thinking about it. So I looked it up. It turns out, Barbie has a new career: entrepreneur. She’s got a twitter account, an Instagram feed, and has joined LinkedIn. Barbie's resume includes things like Arctic Rescuer, Ballet Teacher, Paleontologist, Candy Striper, and Engineer ("I'm kind of a nerd about bridges" is so much better than "Math class is tough!"). In her new role, Barbie even has a team of real female entrepreneurs – her “Chief Inspirational Officers" – backing her play. Not surprisingly, Barbie's new career has been met with the predictalble boos (or here and here).
I grew up in a non-Barbie household. I begged for Barbies. I wrote letters to Santa asking for Barbies. I was finally given one Barbie (Kissing Barbie if you can imagine) for Christmas and I loved her more than anything until my aunts promptly removed her head and used it to play basketball in the toilet.
I distinctly remember my mom’s response to my childhood suggestion that I might grow up to be a nurse or a secretary. “You can be a doctor, but not a nurse. You can be a lawyer, but not a secretary.” That all sounds rather harsh so let me point out that my mom does not have nor did she ever have problems with either nursing or secretarying as a profession. Her point (which I knew even as a young girl) was that I should pick a career based on what I wanted to do, not based on jobs that were considered “women’s work” at the time.
I did grow up to be a secretary. And then a lawyer. And then a mom. And now I’m a…well, I don’t really know. Now I have four girls who I want to go to the moon if that’s what they want to do. One wants to be a lawyer. One wants to travel the world. One is still thinking it over.
My youngest is still shooting arrows and pretending that she is “Matador” (aka “Merida” to the rest of the world). She plays soccer and tennis and professes to hate the color pink. She refuses to wear dresses but loves Disney princesses. At her princess makeover in Disneyland, she chose "rock star" princess which she accessorized with a sword. Despite my upbringing and my inherited distaste for Barbie, I see her gravitating to Barbies and telling me what toys are “girl toys” and which are for boys. She tells us that when she grows up, she’s going to be a mom. (“But first, I have to find someone to marry,” she said the other day.) It makes sense. It’s what she sees at home. But it is scary too. I hope she will be a mom. I hope all of my girls will be better moms than I am. But I also hope that they will have a career that fulfills them. Whether they find that as a mom or in addition to being a mom is irrelevant to me.
What about Barbie’s new hashtag? Best explained by Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code. “Girls should be unapologetic about wanting to learn.” (Quote via Wired Magazine.) Reshma, one of Barbie's CIO's, also points out that meeting girls where they are with respect to the toys they choose might encourage girls to imagine alternative options to traditional female career paths. That’s an idea I can get behind even if Entrepreneur Barbie’s outfit is a bit ridiculous, her proportions are completely out of whack, and no little girls I know have ever heard of LinkedIn. I’ll also take Entrepreneur Barbie over Kissing Barbie any day. Frankly, Barbie's new message is right in line with my mom's message to me some 35 years ago. But I'm still not sure that I'm on board with Barbie's approach.
So what do you think? I’m really not sure where I stand on this one and could use the debate. Please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts on Mattel’s new campaign, Barbie’s new career, or your experience with Barbie. I can’t wait to read all about it.