Why Mattel's Astrophysicist Barbie Is Really the Same Problems in New Clothes

The company's efforts to promote gender equality look hollow – as nothing more than a marketing ploy to capitalise on the cultural affinity for women's freedoms in our current moment.

Barbie is going to turn 60 this year. And after years of criticism, its maker Mattel seems to be investing in an image-makeover of sorts for the iconic, if infamous, doll.

The company has teamed up with National Geographic to release a line of dolls featuring Barbie in professions where women are under-represented. Cue Astrophysicist Barbie, Wildlife Conservationist Barbie, Entomologist Barbie, Wildlife Photojournalist Barbie and Polar Marine Biologist Barbie.

Astrophysicist Barbie wears a shirt with a generic space print all over, tight black pants and black heels. She comes with a telescope and seems to be clutching a map of the sky in promotional pictures.

However, the effort is already being criticised for its shallowness.

Also read: How Implicit Biases Hamper Women’s Participation in Science

As several commenters have pointed out in columns and on Twitter, Barbie’s unrealistic appearance, specifically her proportions and stereotypically white features – much derided over the years – are still a constant in these new avatars.

This is making people wonder how a doll with an unrealistic body is meant to serve as a role model for little girls who are already inundated with gendered messaging about their appearances and ambitions.

This is not a new critique of the doll. In 2009, the BBC attempted to figure out what Barbie’s proportions would look like on a real, life-sized human. The article cited several studies, one of which concluded that the probability of a real woman having Barbie’s body shape was one in 100,000.

Finally, together with its own measurements, the piece concluded that a woman would have to be seven feet tall for her to look like Barbie in real life. Others have wondered if a woman with breasts as large as Barbie’s would even be able to stand up straight and support her own weight.

If Mattel’s goal is to encourage young girls to consider – or validate their dreams of – pursuing careers in fields like astrophysics, then the doll may fail to elicit that response simply because it looks so unreal. And it still also emphasises a particular type of femininity.

For instance, as one columnist pointed out, Entomologist Barbie is seen with a butterfly, not a creepy-crawly bug. Her polished appearance gives no indication of the mud and insects that an entomologist would actually interact with in the course of her work.

Limited as it is, the newest line is still an improvement on previous attempts to expand Barbie’s concerns and universe. Past iterations of the doll have included a Barbie that was a “baby doctor” instead of a paediatrician and a “vet” Barbie that wore a satin dress.

At the end of the day, critics argue that the doll may be dressing more appropriately for the professions it aims to depict, but its aesthetic choices are still outdated and don’t set realistic expectations for the young children who play with Barbies.

By dressing the same Barbie in different clothes, Mattel isn’t really diversifying or expanding the set idea of who can and can’t be a wildlife photojournalist or astrophysicist. At best, it is opening the door a little bit wider to let those women who embody a very specific, racial, idealised (and unattainable) idea of beauty, not even professional skill, in.

This makes the company’s efforts to promote gender equality look hollow – as nothing more than a marketing ploy to capitalise on the cultural affinity for and women’s freedoms in our current moment.

Also read: Women Won’t Study STEM Just Because They Live in a More Gender-Equal Country

A doll, no matter what it is dressed in, is incapable of addressing the deep, underlying issues that have contributed to the gender imbalance in these fields. For instance, it would have taken the company little effort to donate a portion of the revenue from these dolls towards programmes that encourage girls, especially those from marginalised communities, to stay in STEM classes.

A lack of role models is not the only, or even the primary, impediment to women in the sciences. There are a lot of other factors that shape a child’s ability to find and pursue their dreams into reality. Girls are often hampered by gendered expectations of what women can and can’t do. And these ideas don’t just emanate from within themselves. They’re often introduced and reinforced by adults who have themselves consumed the socio-cultural ideas that kept Barbie around for nearly 60 years.

Then there are issues related to resources. Children need the freedom and access to the right education and tools to experiment and figure out what they are passionate about. Whether it is astrophysics or literature, a child needs a telescope, a visit to the planetarium or a book to get started. A doll, for better or worse, can’t replace that.