TIME Opinion

Disney’s Perfect Answer to Barbie Is Doc McStuffins

'Time for Your Checkup' Doc McStuffins Doll with Lambie Disney Junior

The African-American doctor doll leads the way in science toys for girls

Who would have thought that Disney, the company that made its name with a parade of Caucasian princesses whose waists are smaller than their eyes, would set the record for the best-selling toy line based on an African-American character — and that this particular doll also happens to be a girl who’s interested in science? But it’s true. Merchandise based on the Disney Junior TV character Dottie “Doc” McStuffins, a young girl who plays doctor with her stuffed animals, grossed around $500 million last year.

Doc McStuffins is a miracle not only because she’s one of the few popular black dolls on the market but because she also has inspired all sorts of young girls to don stethoscopes during playtime. In an era when toy stores are divided ever more strictly into blue aisles for boys and pink aisles for girls, most of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) toys have ended up in the blue aisle. Girls, on the other hand, are stuck with chemistry kits to create their own makeup.

This may have had an impact on girls’ desire to enter the STEM fields and on the number of female engineers in the U.S. A 2009 poll of children ages 8 to 17 by the American Society for Quality found that 24% of boys say they are interested in a career in engineering while only 5% of girls are. “Wanting to be a doctor or architect or cook, that really begins when you’re young and walking around with a stethoscope or playing with an Easy Bake oven,” says Richard Gottlieb, CEO of toy-industry consulting firm Global Toy Experts, told TIME in November. No STEM toys for girls means fewer grown-up female scientists.

As parents have begun to complain about the dearth of science toys for girls, old companies and startups alike have responded with varying degrees of success. Buoyed by a viral ad campaign, GoldieBlox, an engineering toy designed for young girls, flew off the toy shelves last Christmas. The building blocks and accompanying storybook starring a blonde girl named Goldie aimed to make engineering more appealing and accessible to girls raised on boy TV characters like Jimmy Neutron and Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory with off-the-charts IQs.

Meanwhile, Lego came out with a girls-only line of toys called Lego Friends after finding in 2011 that 90% of its consumers were boys and men. Seeing an untapped market, they created an entire universe called Heartlake, featuring teen girls who wear a lot of pink and work in pet salons. But thankfully one of the characters also has an invention workshop. The Danish manufacturer has also recently issued a line of female-scientist Legos in response to feminist complaints about Lego Friends.

And then there’s Barbie. Despite Mattel’s renewed efforts to tell girls they can “be anything” — dress her in an astronaut suit, business attire or a bikini — Barbie still has an impossible figure, feet designed for high heels only and platinum blonde hair. Girls think about looks, not occupation, when playing with Barbie. So it’s not all that surprising that studies have found that Doctor Barbie doesn’t make girls want to be doctors: girls ages 4 to 7 were more likely to identify ambitious occupations as “boys only” after playing with a Doctor Barbie doll for 10 minutes than they were after playing with Mrs. Potato Head for the same amount of time.

Which is why girls so desperately need toys like those from Doc McStuffins. The show features not only 7-year-old Dottie but also her doctor mom and her stay-at-home-dad and has been endorsed by organizations like the Artemis Medical Society, which supports physicians of color. Anecdotally, the No. 1 rated show among kids ages 2 to 5 is already having an effect: a recent New York Times article on the doll included interviews with little girls who are wearing lab coats to school.

It helps that Dottie isn’t just dressing up as a doctor — like Barbie — but is actually mimicking her mom and treating her toys. You can’t be what you can’t see, which is why Doc McStuffins’ (and Goldie Blox’s and the Lego Friends characters’) actions matter more than their outfits.

TIME Toys

Your Barbie Can Now Slay in a Suit of Medieval Armor

Dungeons and Dragons and Barbie?

Barbie has plenty of pantsuits and party dresses, but her closet is still missing the one outfit she never knew she needed: A suit of armor. And even better, it’s not pink. Designer Jim Rodda launched a Kickstarter in April to fund a 3D-printed design of a medieval armor suit that’s specifically made for Barbie.

Rodda, who isn’t affiliated with Mattel, wants to make Barbie powerful by outfitting her with intricate battle suits and weapons in his new “Faire Play” battle set. Rodda designs and sells the 3D blueprints, so customers can print the Barbie armor on their own 3D printers. Fans are given the option to buy three different types of outfits: A robe with swords and a Barbie medusa-faced shield; a highly adorned gold suit; and a silver suit of armor.

Rodda says the idea came to him when he was coming up with a birthday gift for his niece. “Back when I started this, my niece was obsessed with My Little Pony,” says Rodda. “So I wanted to make My Little Pony compatible glitter cannons.”

Rodda struggled to 3D print a spring for the cannons, so he turned to the next logical thing in the “little girl toy market:” Barbie. The “Faire Play” battle set is a result of the successful $6,000 Kickstarter campaign that closed with 290 backers. “They are the ones who have actually made this thing possible,” Rodda says.

Barbie may have shown her strength in 1965 when she went through astronaut training, Rodda points out, or her business chops with Entrepreneur Barbie, but he thinks the popular doll is stuck in the past.

“The fashion-obsessed part of Barbie’s personality pervades the collective consciousness,” says the designer. “I think Entrepreneur Barbie’s a step in the right direction, but ‘Babs’ is still carrying a lot of cultural baggage from the last 25 years. People are still bringing up 1992’s ‘Math class is tough!’ debacle, even though Mattel released Computer Engineer Barbie in 2010 and Mars Explorer Barbie in 2013.”

The designer hopes his “Faire Play” set will help young girls learn about 3D printing and foster their interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). “Maybe she grows up to be the one that invents the solution to climate change, or helps get humans to Mars,” Rodda says, “or becomes the nest Neil deGrasse Tyson and evangelizes a love of science for another generation.”

Collectors and 3D-printing enthusiasts alike stand among the ranks of customers eager to see the warrior Barbie, says Rodda. Even Rodda’s daughter, who was, “never a Barbie kid,” is helping design the armor suits.

“If there’s a lesson I’d like my daughter to learn from this phase in Barbie’s career,” says Rodda, “It’s that girls can grow up to do anything.”

Blueprints for the “Faire Play” battle set are available for $29.99 along with other 3D-printed fun..

TIME Culture

‘Entrepreneur’ Barbie Heads for Silicon Valley With Some Glam Accessories

Entrepreneur Barbie
Mattel's 2014 Career of the Year doll, Entrepreneur Barbie, released June 18 on Amazon. Jeff O'Brien—Mattel

Mattel debuts a new career for the blond bombshell with the help of some powerful businesswomen, like Girls Who Code's Reshma Saujani

Sheryl Sandberg may have a new spokeswoman: She loves pink, has endless accessories and would weigh 110 pounds at 5’9″ tall if she were a real person. She’s Entrepreneur Barbie and she’s ready to lean in.

Mattel released its 2014 Career of the Year Doll on Amazon this week. “Entering the entrepreneurial world, this independent professional is ready for the next big pitch,” Mattel’s description for the toy reads. “Barbie Entrepreneur doll wears a sophisticated dress in signature pink that features modern color blocking and a sleek silhouette. Her ‘smartphone,’ tablet and briefcase are always by her side. And luxe details, like a glam necklace, cool clutch and elegant hairstyle, are awesome extras for a smart, stylish career woman.”

The blonde beauty appears ready to take on Silicon Valley: She’s getting her very own LinkedIn page and a billboard in Times Square with the slogan, “If you can dream it you can be it,” as well as the hashtag #unapologetic. The whole campaign is part of a larger push to rebrand Barbie as an empowered woman. As Mattel spokeswoman Michelle Chidoni told TIME in February: “In essence, Barbie is always asked to apologize for what she looks like. And the message there is to be unapologetic.”

But in a field that’s traditionally dominated by men, where did Barbie find role models for her new mission? For that, she credits her ten “Chief Inspirational Officers,” which includes Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, a non-profit organization that seeks to empower young women by teaching them advanced computer skills sought after in today’s job market.

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” Saujani told Wired magazine. “Unfortunately we live in a culture where girls are bombarded with images of male coders and engineers that just don’t look like them…And then we wonder why girls don’t pursue careers in tech! We have to change popular culture and start showing more women, more cool, dynamic, creative women, in these roles.” And, apparently for Saujani, Entrepreneur Barbie wearing “a sophisticated dress in signature pink” can be that “dynamic” role model for young girls.

Mattel kicked off their sales of the doll Wednesday by using the hashtag #barbiechat on Twitter to start a conversation around career advice. “Alongside Barbie, female entrepreneurs are changing the world, surpassing their goals and showing girls they can be both capable and captivating,” Mattel announced on Wednesday.

While the toy maker boldly asserts that female entrepreneurs’ influence occurs “alongside Barbie,” some might argue the best career advice to young girls is to avoid playing with Barbies. According to a March study by Oregon State University, girls between the ages of 4 and 7 who played with Barbies were more likely to perceive themselves as having limited career options—regardless of whether the Barbie had a career herself.

“Playing with Barbie has an effect on girls’ ideas about their place in the world,” said OSU researcher Aurora M. Sherman. “It creates a limit on the sense of what’s possible for their future.”

These findings as well as the sexualized features of other female dolls has caused concern and even recently spurred the creation of other toys, such as I Am Elemental‘s line of female action figures. Although Barbie’s sales sank 14% last year, the 54-year-old iconic toy will not fade easily.

Perhaps Mattel’s profits can be bolstered by the business savvy of a certain “smart, stylish career woman” — accessories and all.

TIME beauty

Human Ken and Human Barbie: Destroying Our Girlhood Dreams One Interview at a Time

Justin Jedlica who lives in New York is a real life "Ken" from the other half of Barbie and Ken.
Justin Jedlica who lives in New York is a real life "Ken" from the other half of Barbie and Ken. Jae Donnelly—The Sun/NI Syndication/Redux

The 9-year-old Barbie obsessive in me just died a little.

Justin Jedlica, the so-called Human Ken doll who reportedly spent $150,000 on cosmetic surgery to look like Barbie’s plastic beau, is once again making it clear that he is no fan of Valeria Lukyanova, often referred to as “Human Barbie” because of her obsession with making herself look like the famous doll. In an interview with GQ, which recently ran a detailed (and weird) profile on the Ukrainian model, Human Ken recalls the moment he met Human Barbie.

And unfortunately for the inner Barbie-girl in us all, the two did not ride off in a hot pink convertible into the burnt orange Malibu sunset, giggling and canoodling while planning to purchase a three-story townhouse replete with photos of the two in silicone harmony. No, Human Ken was not impressed.

Though he calls Valeria a “cute girl,” he compares her to a drag queen and wonders why people care about her. (Author’s note: I’m trying to figure out why any of us care about either of them).

“I don’t really get her,” Jedlica told GQ. “I don’t get why people think she’s so interesting. She has extensions. She wears stage makeup. She’s an illusionist.”

Jedlica then went into detail about his plans for creating an “artistic muscle-augmentation-implant line” for all the little boys and girls out there who too dream of one day looking just as plastic. But hopefully, for the sake of humanity, those are few and far between.

 

 

TIME Barbie

Doctor Barbie Doesn’t Make Girls Want to Be Doctors

In this Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 file photo, a mock-up cover of Barbie on a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is displayed at the Mattel booth at the American International Toy Fair in New York.
In this Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 file photo, a mock-up cover of Barbie on a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is displayed at the Mattel booth at the American International Toy Fair in New York. Mark Lennihan — AP

Girls said they were less ambitious after 5 minutes of playing with Barbie

Researchers have determined that playing with a Doctor Barbie doesn’t make girls want to be a doctor, but no word yet on whether playing with Mrs. Potato Head makes girls want to be potatoes.

Despite Mattel’s PR push asserting that Barbie inspires girls to “be anything,” researchers at Oregon State University and University of California surveyed 37 girls and found that after just 5 minutes of playing with Barbie, the girls seemed far less ambitious than girls that had played with Mrs. Potato Head. The girls, aged 4-7, were shown photos of ten occupations and asked whether they could see themselves doing that job, or whether it was a job for a boy. The girls that had played with the Barbie said that far fewer occupations were available to them then were available to boys.

“Playing with the Barbie suppresses their ideas about their own possible futures, but their ideas about the boys didn’t change.” said Dr. Eileen Zurbriggen, a professor of psychology at University of California, Santa Cruz. She an her co-researcher, Dr. Aurora Sherman of Oregon State, found that when presented with 10 career options which ranged from restaurant worker to doctor, girls who played with the Barbie could envision themselves in 6.6 of the jobs, while girls who had played with the Potato Head saw themselves doing over 8 of the jobs.

The results stayed the same whether the girls played with a Doctor Barbie or a Fashion Barbie, which the researchers say implies that it’s something about the doll herself, not just the clothes she’s wearing. Zurbriggen said she thought this was because playing with the Barbie made girls think about their hair, clothes, and bodies, instead of their career options. This latest Barbie study is the first that’s directly measured the effect the doll has on girls’ career expectations, albeit with a very small sample size.

I’m sure Zurbriggen’s assessment is right– girls probably were thinking about their looks when they played with the Barbie. But is that because they know that whenever grownups talk about Barbie dolls, we’re really talking about something else?

MORE: The New Barbie: Meet the Doll With an Average Woman’s Proportions

Barbie’s gone from a fashion doll to a Rorschach test this year; she used to be just a toy, but now is a canvas for all our fears about young women. Her sales are down, she was blasted for being over-sexualized by appearing in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, and some critics are even calling for the Girl Scouts to dump their partnership with her. But let’s not forget that ultimately, she’s just a hunk of plastic. I’d like to see the same study done with boys and superhero figurines, and see whether boys’ career ambitions are affected by their toys.

TIME toys & games

Critics Want Girl Scouts to Give Barbie the Boot

In this Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 file photo, a mock-up cover of Barbie on a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is displayed at the Mattel booth at the American International Toy Fair in New York.
In this Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 file photo, a mock-up cover of Barbie on a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is displayed at the Mattel booth at the American International Toy Fair in New York. Mark Lennihan — AP

In the latest controversy surrounding the iconic doll, two advocacy groups have appealed to the Girl Scouts of the USA to drop its partnership with the company that makes Barbie, arguing that she conveys a negative message to young girls

Two advocacy groups appealed to Girl Scouts of the USA on Thursday to drop its partnership with the company that makes Barbie, arguing that the iconic doll sends a negative message to young girls.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Center for a New American Dream, organizations that fight corporate advertising tactics they see as detrimental, started a joint petition to pressure the Girl Scouts to sever ties with the toy maker Mattel.

“Beyond the thinness and the hyperconsumerism, there’s also the fact that Barbie is part of a culture that encourages girls from a very young age to define themselves through appearance and play-sexiness,” the Center for a New American Dream said on its website.

“Holding Barbie, the quintessential fashion doll, up as a role model for Girl Scouts simultaneously sexualizes young girls, idealizes an impossible body type, and undermines the Girl Scouts’ vital mission to build ‘girls of courage, confidence and character,” Susan Linn, a spokesperson for Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said, according to the Associated Press.

The Girl Scouts announced the partnership with Mattel last summer. It includes a website, a Barbie-themed activity book and a Barbie participation patch that reads “Be anything. Do everything.”

Barbie is no stranger to controversy, and the doll has been widely criticized for its unrealistic body proportions.

The Girl Scouts rejected the advocacy groups’ request, the AP reports. “We stand behind this partnership, as it helps us bring to over 2 million Girl Scouts the message that they can do anything,” the organization said in a statement.

TIME feminism

In Defense of Barbie: Why She Might Be the Most Feminist Doll Around

Barbie Announces a Surprise Bid for the 2004 Presidency
Barbie for President 2004 Business Wire / Getty Images

Barbie has a body-image problem, and her sales are down, but she has a lot more to offer than most fashion dolls

It may be time for Barbie to get a whole new wardrobe and some fun new accessories: Aging Jilted Barbie, complete with stained bathrobe, bottle of red wine and copy of Eat, Pray, Love.

That’s because Barbie is being pushed out in favor of younger, sluttier dolls with bigger heads. First it was Bratz with their outrageously puffed up lips, heavy makeup and feather boas, now it’s Monster High dolls, who dress like prostitutes and have the dimensions of lollipops. Sales for Barbie were down 13% over the holiday quarter, the steepest drop in recent memory. This time last year, sales had only dropped 4%.

Barbie has always gotten flak for her too thin, too made-up look; she’s basically an effigy for everything feminists hate. But at least Barbie looks like an adult woman, which is more than can be said for the Monster High dolls. They have enormous heads and spaghetti legs attached to a prepubescent body clad in fishnets and dominatrix boots. Barbie might be too thin for some people’s taste, but she doesn’t look like a baby hooker. I’d take an out-of-whack body image over sexualizing kids any day of the week.

Twist n Pulse Launch Dream Toys Event
Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images

It’s hard not to feel sorry for her. Ruthlessly attacked, snatched out of the hands of doting 6-year-olds by politically correct parents and usurped by fishnet-clad hussies with none of her dignity and professionalism, Barbie dutifully keeps paying the insurance on her Barbie Glam Convertible and the mortgage on her Malibu Dreamhouse. She picks up after the dog, the pony and the unicorn, every goddamn time. It’s a struggle for her to get out of bed every day, because if she were a real woman, she would have the BMI of a severe anorexic (at 5 ft. 9 in. and 110 lb.) and would have difficulty standing up on those tiny feet.

But now Barbie’s makers have decided to fight back and turn the conversation about her absurd proportions around. Last month, they launched a new campaign called #Unapologetic to push back at some of the haters. “In essence, Barbie is always asked to apologize for what she looks like,” Mattel spokeswoman Michelle Chidoni tells me. “And the message there is to be unapologetic.” The new ads that include a Times Square billboard and lots of social media (“Be YOU. Be Bold. Be #Unapologetic”) are clearly intended to beat body-image critics at their own game. Yes, Barbie is aiming to be the poster doll for female empowerment.

And that’s not as strange as it sounds. Barbie has worked every second of every day since she was invented in 1959, and she’s broken more glass ceilings than Sheryl Sandberg. Sure, she started off as a teen fashion model, but quickly worked her way up to fashion editor, then decided “what the hell” and went back to get her doctorate in astrophysics so that she could be an astronaut by 1965. In the 1970s she performed surgeries and won the 1975 Olympics (where she dominated every event, since no other athletes competed that year). And in the ’90s she ran for President, performed with the Rockettes and played for Dallas in the WNBA.

Like a lot of successful women, she finds that no matter how much she achieves people won’t stop talking about her looks. She’s also dogged by the criticism that her too perfect figure creates unrealistic body standards for girls. Last year, artist Nickolay Lamm made waves by creating “Normal Barbie,” a doll with the dimensions of the average 19-year-old, just to show the contrast. Barbie’s also been one of the main scapegoats of the movement against gendered toys in the “pink aisle,” with parents and kids agitating for more active toys for girls that aren’t all about fashion and beauty. Even conservatives use her name as a slur; Erick Erickson of RedState called Texas state senator Wendy DavisAbortion Barbie” after her 11-hour filibuster of an antiabortion bill.

There is research to show that Barbie’s inhuman dimensions do affect girls’ body image, but it seems simplistic to blame Barbie alone for something as complicated as the way girls think about their weight. For one thing, other research shows that young girls’ body image is more influenced by their mothers’ attitudes than anything else. So anyone who thinks banning Barbie dolls is going to suddenly result in healthy self-esteem is seriously delusional.

The great irony of the Barbie debate is that we spend so much time talking about how she looks and so little time talking about her careers — all 150 of them. She represents beauty and materialism, sure, but she also represents mutability, imagination and professional possibilities. If we took her work life half as seriously as we took her waist measurement, we could use Barbie as a way to talk to girls about the jobs they want, not the bodies they want. Barbie knows how to ask for a promotion, you can give her that.

GoldieBlox engineering toys for girls are a great alternative to the pink aisle, but there will always be some girls who just like dolls. And while most of those dolls have the same itsy-bitsy waists and freaky legs, none of them have Barbie’s résumé. Let’s not discard her just yet. Instead, let’s get her a scrunchie and a BlackBerry and get her back in the game.

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