Over the last few years, Mattel, the company behind Barbie, have had somewhat of a “wokeover”. Departing from the appearance-focused, white-skinned, blond-haired, stick-thin mould that has long been associated with Barbie, the company has clearly been trying hard to become more inclusive. Rosie Pinder discusses the latest step in this process; six new dolls honouring female STEM heroes, including Professor Sarah Gilbert, the woman behind the Astra-Zeneca COVID-19 vaccine.
Views on the new collection are mixed, with Gilbert herself admitting she found the gesture “very strange”. So, is this just a performative motion designed to salvage Barbie’s image? And can being turned into a Barbie even be considered a compliment?
It would certainly be naïve to not recognise that Mattel’s motivation must partly be driven by profit. Given the high-profile nature of anything related to COVID-19 at the moment, this doll, and the others in the collection, is the perfect publicity move. Nevertheless, whatever the driving factors, raising the prominence of women in STEM can surely only be a good thing.
Prof. Sarah Gilbert co-created the COVID-19 vaccine — and Mattel is honoring her global impact by creating a Barbie that looks just like her pic.twitter.com/8hogABij5c— NowThis (@nowthisnews) August 5, 2021
The Astra-Zeneca vaccine is one of four approved for use in the UK, currently available to adults over the age of 30 (but with alternatives offered to all those under 40). With over 100 million doses ordered in total, most produced in the UK, it is a huge factor in the speed of the UK’s vaccine rollout. Regardless of your personal views on the Astra-Zeneca vaccine itself, which has come under increased scrutiny for the potential risks of blood clots in younger people, Professor Sarah Gilbert is an incredibly important figure in the UK’s response to COVID-19. This prominence is a fantastic advocation for the work women do within STEM.
As quoted in The Guardian, Gilbert hopes “that children who see my Barbie will realise how vital careers in science are to help the world around us”. Certainly, broadening the scope of role models Barbie deem appropriate for their dolls is a great step forward for the brand.
The fact that Barbie developed a model of a successful, professional woman is significant in itself. The doll is dressed in a black trouser suit and white shirt and wears glasses. This couldn’t be further from what many still see as the classic Barbie ‘look’ of ultra-femininity and almost sexualised stylishness.
the reception to this new Barbie collection is complex
This new direction for Barbie, then, should to some extent be celebrated. Yet, it is important to consider whether turning Gilbert into a doll, regardless of its outfit, is an appropriate form of praise. It seems unlikely that a male STEM hero would be happy to be depicted in the form of a Ken doll. And for many, Barbie still embodies a damaging and unattainable female ideal: a silent plaything with a perfect body.
Evidently, as Gilbert’s own response shows, the reception to this new Barbie collection is complex. Boosting the profile of women in STEM is undoubtedly a worthy goal, but it remains unclear whether Barbie is the right means to achieve this.
In-article video courtesy of @nowthisnews via twitter.com. No changes were made to this video.
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