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A Train Wreck of Clichés, Another Barbie for the Landfill

Updated: Sep 8, 2020

The hashtag is good.  The doll is what it is.  The engagement with entrepreneurship is what is tedious and disturbing.

The sentiment is on target. The hashtag is great. The doll is what it is. But the engagement with entrepreneurship is tedious. And the discarded Barbies everywhere don’t need a new friend.

I have been steeling myself to write about Entrepreneur Barbie for about six weeks. You can imagine how many people sent me links about the newest incarnation of our favorite fashion doll, given that I am the Seriously-Titled Entrepreneurship person at Oxford, as well as an unrepentant first generation Barbie fan.  Nevertheless, the whole promotion felt like a train wreck of clichés and I had a hard time forcing myself to look.

My heart sank just to read the first, all-too-predictable reports from Salon, Elle, the Wire, and so on.  At Salon, Sarah Gray turned the light on for all of us by pointing out that Barbie’s body is impossible to achieve. Wow, what an insight!  Gray thinks it’s great to have a doll encouraging girls to go into tech, but she thinks girls should not be limited to playing with dolls. Also, she wants us to know that real power women are better than dolls.  At Elle, Amy Lawrenson asked why Barbie always wears pink, when real power women wear other colors. (Note to Amy:  Barbie is a brand. Her color is pink.) Danielle Weider-Bronner at the Wire complimented Entrepreneur Barbie on her stylish clothes and up-to-date electronic accessories, but was ultimately disappointed because Barbie’s ambitions were too vague and “buzzword-y.” (Is this serious?  Criticizing a toy for not having a fleshed-out business plan?) Real power women have focused aspirations and never use buzzwords.  We all know that.

Nobody ever criticizes Raggedy Ann for telling little girls they must have red hair and floppy arms.

Nobody ever criticizes Raggedy Ann for telling little girls they must have red hair and floppy arms. And nobody ever worries that Transformers are unrealistic.  This whole critique has become a ridiculous waste of breath. It is also ultimately sexist because it presumes little girls are just, well, dumber than little boys.

OK, so just very quickly, for Amy, Danielle, and Sarah.  It’s a doll. Children of both sexes use toys as props for imaginative play. Normally, the toys are not required to be particularly realistic–spaceships, teddy bears, and superheroes come to mind–and, actually, children often project their imaginations on ordinary objects to transform them into something else anyway (broomsticks become horses, a spoon becomes an airplane, and so on).  Girls are not “limited” to dolls because they, like boys, can turn just about anything into a toy simply by an act of imaginative will. It’s what humans-in-training do.  This kind of imaginative work with concrete objects is also a “must have” skill for any future entrepreneur.

Dolls only dimly resemble real people, in most cases.  Dora the Explorer’s head is way too big for her body. Raggedy Ann has a red triangle for a nose. We do not worry that Gumby is unrealistic. It doesn’t matter. Representation of reality is not the point.

I suppose real people can stand in for dolls, if they are willing to play along (join the child in a game of dress-up, for instance), but power women, especially, have limited time for such activities.  Substituting real people for dolls (as Sarah Gray seems to suggest by telling us to “skip the doll”) is probably not very practical, however.

For instance, dolls have to undergo a serious amount of physical abuse, probably not appropriate for people. They are dragged around by the legs and left under the bed for days.  They are fed unidentifiable things found outdoors.  Any Barbie my daughters had endured the same progressive fate.  They undid her hair and undressed her.  They cut her hair completely off.  They drew on her naked body with ballpoint pens.  They threw her to the bottom of the closet.  Each new Barbie ended up face down in a mass grave of earlier Barbies, all of whom once had different careers (astronaut, doctor, President), but were ultimately indistinguishable from each other.

In 1959, you bought the Barbie and then collected the clothes.  See the illustrated panel?  You could buy all those clothes in individual packets, sans doll.

In 1959, you bought the Barbie and then collected the clothes. See the illustrated panel? You could buy all those clothes in individual packets, sans doll, all accessorized for use.

Which brings me to another point of ambivalence about this whole promotion.  Why do we need another Barbie at all?  The first generation Barbie doll was a prized possession.  You collected her clothes, which were reflective of a number of occasions or activities and packaged with tiny accessories designed to facilitate the imagined setting.  My favorite was  Solo in the Spotlight (very cool slinky dress, standup microphone, pink scarf for onstage prop).  Playing with Barbie was like a tiny version of dress-up or 3D paperdolls.  Your friends gathered, each brought their doll and whatever clothes they had, and, collectively, you spun a narrative.  It was classic toy-playing.

I am sure little girls do something similar with today’s Barbie, but they seem to need a whole new doll for every scenario.  The bodies keep stacking up.  I can’t imagine the things ever degrade.  Envision aliens discovering a massive landfill with nothing but discarded Barbies in it.  A Barbie is sold every three seconds. Think about it.

So, do we need an Entrepreneur Barbie?  No.  We don’t need any new Barbies, except perhaps Sustainable Barbie.

Give a kid  a collection of clothes and accessories and he or she can create a whole world out of it.  Same with dolls.  It is an important building block for creating innovative products and envisioning alternative futures.

Give a kid a collection of clothes and accessories and he or she can create a whole world out of it. Same with dolls. Playing with toys is an important building block for creating innovative products and envisioning alternative futures.

This new Barbie is also one more bit of evidence that the society has gone crazy chasing the entrepreneurship bandwagon. And, honestly, that was the part that really gave me the creeps, since all these other issues are such well-trodden ground.  The push toward entrepreneurship is, underneath, an orchestrated, last ditch effort to maintain growth.  Yes, we probably need to do that for a while so that people can have jobs. But rather than chasing growth blindly and overly glamorizing it, we need to slow down and seriously rethink our collective goals.  We need to use the imaginations we built in childhood to project all the possible paths where growth might ultimately lead and choose our way carefully.

I truly believe that entrepreneurship is an important means for women to improve their standing and gain autonomy. But much about the world of entrepreneurship in the current popular imagination is profoundly masculine. There the role models are not women at all, but white guys in ties.  In tech, the exemplars are often guys who are known for their misogyny. I agree we need more women in tech–not arguing that one–and so we need little girls to imagine themselves as scientists.  But I also think that science and business institutions need to be civilized before we are going to make much actual progress. Being demeaned, insulted, groped, or just generally grossed out–a reality that seems prevalent for women in the tech domain–is likely to override many pleasant hours playing with Legos.

My biggest concern, however, is the way all this rah-rah for entrepreneurs distracts us from the urgent need to reform the formal workplace, especially because of the coming care crisis. “Opting out” won’t work for everybody: women often start businesses thinking they will have more time for family and are severely disappointed.

Indeed, entrepreneurship doesn’t work for most people.  More than 90% of start-ups fail. If you’ve been humming the pop riff that failure is just a stop on the way to riches, use your childhood imagination for a moment to picture being dead broke and in debt, unable to provide for yourself, never mind your family.  Failure is not glamorous.  And most people don’t keep going.  Usually, they can’t.  They have to go back to work.

When failed entrepreneurs go back to work, they do so having lost years when they could have been building a career, a pension, seniority, savings.  They have to start over as if they were coming out of school all over again. That’s why you do, in fact, need to have a very focused and concrete idea about your business, a carefully vetted business plan, and a lot of passion for what you are doing. Starting a business is not a trip to Zara.  Tossing off the results and trying on something new, over and over again, is not something most people have the stomach to do. Entrepreneurship has consequences.

Budding entrepreneur or wannabe Barbie? You tell me.

When I go to these women’s entrepreneurship networking events, I am often dismayed by the young women clicking about in their too-high heels and short skirts (real would-be power women trying their damnedest to look like Barbie), talking about their ambitions in overblown, wall-to-wall MBA-speak (that is, being very “buzzword-y” and largely free from focus).  This is not to mention they interrupt each schmooze moment at least once to tweet on their up-to-date accessories.  Does this mean these women are not smart, not serious, and not successful–or that there aren’t focused business plans in their briefcases? No, it does not.

And, apparently, several successful young entrepreneurs consulted with Mattel on the design of Entrepreneur Barbie. Looks to me like the result is pretty realistic, as dolls go.

One last note about Barbie’s body.  Her shape came about as the result of a choice made by the female entrepreneur who invented her.  All the guys at Mattel, then a small, family-owned company, pooh-poohed Ruth Handler’s idea to make a 3D paper doll with real clothes.  They said they couldn’t make an adult doll!  Ruth found a prototype in a German doll that featured in “adult” cartoons and brought it back to show it could be done.  The engineers imitated the prototype. The rest is history.  Just like Apple.  Or any number of other stories about entrepreneurs that we admire. Indeed, the best story of Barbie’s origin is about the women–designers, producers, and so on–who made her.  See Fresh Lipstick, chapter 9.


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