I Met a Real-Life Barbie Doll (And She's a Famous Scientist)

Mattel is basing their new dolls on inspiring women. Is that good for girls?

Posted Mar 31, 2019

It was all a little hush-hush when I met Dr. Sara Iverson, a colleague of mine at Dalhousie University, a few months ago. We were at a meeting to acknowledge some of the leading scientists in the country. Though she was being honored as a stellar marine biologist specializing in the Arctic, she told me with a little embarrassment that she was also now the model for a new Barbie doll.

It seems that Mattel, the maker of Barbies, has a new marketing strategy with a social consciousness: Develop dolls that are based on inspiring women. But don’t just build the dolls. Mattel has also been inviting girls to meet these remarkable women and be mentored by them. In Iverson’s case, that meant taking girls with her on one of her scientific expeditions into the high Arctic, where her research, in close partnership with Inuit communities, has been unlocking the secrets of the ocean by using “bioprobes,” top predators whose diets and habits can indicate subtle changes in the marine world.

I’ve since learned that there are more than 60 such Barbies being named in Canada and the United States. It is an interesting way of providing new role models for girls (and boys, too). Even more interesting for Mattel, the previous look of the dolls (their unrealistic dimensions) has been changing too. And the dolls now come with a list of scholarly credentials (and an array of skin tones and implied ethnicities) which remind us that inside those plastic heads with comb-ready hair are historically important thoughts worthy of a Nobel prize.

So far, much of the publicity has been positive. People who would never have purchased a Barbie for their children are now looking at these dolls as a reasonably good option as a toy.

I’m going to side with Mattel on this and applaud them for making an effort to be more inclusive and inspiring. On the whole, anything that encourages young women to go into the STEM subjects would seem to be worthwhile, and if the dolls reach an audience that might otherwise not be engaged, then all the better.

The question is, though, does a campaign like this work? That will take some time to discover, but for now at least, I much preferred meeting Iverson than having the very weird experience in Japan of encountering a young woman who looked physically like a Barbie doll (she had quite literally been shaped to resemble the traditional version of the doll in every way). Maybe a new inspiring campaign will change our perceptions of young women and help girls see themselves in a wider range of professional roles. Or maybe it will just reinforce a conventional definition of beauty. I guess time will tell. For now, though, it seems like a small step in the right direction, reminding us that what’s under the skin is far more important to success than outward appearance alone. And that, I think, is something that men need to hear just as much as women.