Saturday, April 10, 2010

Barbie Rules

Long before Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, Annie Oakley was breaking the rawhide ceiling in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. In performances around the country and in Europe, she showed the guys how it was done, shootin' and ropin' and ridin' better than any of them. While not a feminist per se, "Little Sure Shot" also pressed for women to have opportunities and skills, teaching thousands to shoot as a form of exercise as well as for their own protection. She even promoted women as part of the armed forces, offering the government the services of "a company of 50 lady sharpshooters" should the U.S. go to war with Spain.

Oakley's efforts built on those of pioneers like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton towards achieving not only the vote for women, but an end to gender discrimination. Of course, while significant strides have been made, few would argue that it's all in the past. After all, it was just last year that the president signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, named for a former employee of Goodyear who was paid 15 to 40% less than her male counterparts.

Still, progress has been made, and that has meant role models. From Amelia Earhart to Condoleeza Rice, from Marie Curie to Margaret Thatcher, girls have any number of accomplished women to look up to in a nearly endless assortment of professions. In that light, one individual stands out if for no other reason than the sheer myriad of careers she has tackled successfully: Barbie.

Launched in 1959, Barbie has been the dean of the doll world for over 50 years. She's withstood the onslaught from Cabbage Patch Kids, American Girls and Bratz to anchor herself firmly in popular culture. You can argue about her figure, her focus on clothes and even her taste in men, but that doesn't change the bottom line: it's been estimated that over 90% of American girls aged 3 to 11 own Barbie dolls.

That's one of the reasons that Mattel, the keeper of the Barbie mystique, has more recently viewed her as more than just a plaything. Over time they've changed her from just a good time girl looking forward to a party with Skipper, Midge, Ken and Tommy, to a serious career woman with an occupation such as Astronaut, requiring her to don a custom made flight suit for her 39-19-33 figure.

In fact, recent years have seen a whole plethora of special editions that highlight just some of the opportunities open to women. Barbie has been a paleontologist, stewardess, veterinarian, chef, pet stylist, business executive, Sea World trainer, diplomat and paratrooper, to name just a few. She's even run afoul of the law: Christian Louboutin, working with Mattel, released Cat Burglar Barbie, where her skin-hugging black bodysuit is complimented by miniature versions of the designer's knee high boots.

More recently, the company let the public vote on what her 125th career would be. After more than a half million votes were cast, two winners were actually declared: turns out that young ladies see her in a different light than the public at large. And so the Girls' Winner was News Anchor Barbie, while the overall popular vote was won by Computer Engineer Barbie. Interestingly, no mention was made of other demographic selections, though one might guess that among guys the winner might have been Victoria's Secret Barbie.

Perhaps more influential is her support of high profile causes. Along with such corporate heavyweights as American Express, Best Buy and Ernst and Young, Barbie (note that it's not her corporate parent, but the doll herself) is a sponsor of "The White House Project." Under the tag line of "Add Women, CHANGE Everything," the group seeks to promote women in both public and private leadership roles. I can't wait for the photo op with the CEO's of those corporations and Ambassador Barbie at the head of the table.

Still, as a way of helping promote careers for young girls, this all seems like its moving in the right direction. As a male, however, I am troubled by one thing. As the lead sponsor for "Take our Daughters and Sons to Work Day," Barbie is "inspiring a future generation of girls by helping bring them into the workplace and sharing experiences and stories from inspirational women leaders." However, for little boys, there is no equivalent. So on that day at the workplace, young men will learn the true way of the world: if you want to succeed, you best listen to Barbie.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't quite get the appeal of "See's Candy Cashier Barbie." His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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