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We Are All Barbie

Vivia Chen

February 17, 2014

Barbie-sports-illustratedReady to get in touch with your inner Barbie?

After all, she is the original career girl. Since her debut in 1959, Barbie has had about 150 careers. She's been a nurse, doctor, fire fighter, stewardess (much friskier sounding than "flight attendant"—no?), and, of course, lawyer. So maybe it's plain sexism that people keep picking on her about her looks.

She's just turned 55—and this gal is finally fighting back! After being labeled for decades as the B-a-a-d Role Model for little girls, Barbie is telling the world where to stick it.

In fact, Barbie is gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated's famous swimsuit issue this year, and she's "unapologetic" about her (market) place in the world. Mattel's press release, which reminds us she's worth $3 billion, says:

As a legend herself, and under criticism about her body and how she looks, posing in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit gives Barbie and her fellow legends an opportunity to own who they are, celebrate what they have done, and be #unapologetic.

And guess what? Some women are rallying behind Barbie. Charlotte Alter reminds us in Time that "Barbie has worked every second of every day since she was invented in 1959," and has probably "broken more glass ceilings than Sheryl Sandberg." Besides representing "beauty and materialism," writes Alter, Barbie "also represents mutability, imagination and professional possibilities." What's more, "Barbie knows how to ask for a promotion."

Of course, this new Barbie is also reviving lots of negative commentary. In the Mommyish blog, the title of a recent post sums up the prevailing criticism: "The Sport’s Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Will Feature Barbie, So Your Daughter Can Feel Bad Too." And Amanda Marcotte writes in Slate:

Mattel is pre-emptively telling mothers, feminists, and feminists who are mothers to screw off if they think Barbie sends troubling body-image messages to young girls.

Harsh words, but we've been here before. Let's take a pause and remind ourselves of the obvious: We're talking about a plastic doll that's about 12 inches tall. So get a grip.

Maybe I'm in denial, but I don't think my self-image has suffered because I once played with a Barbie. (Don't worry, I have loads of insecurities; bearing no resemblance to Barbie just isn't one of them.)

Still, are we ready for Barbie, the feminist icon? It's so kooky and perverse that I find it appealing. I suppose she has lived all our fantasy careers. She's dabbled in so many diverse endeavors—from pom-pom girl to brain surgeon—that she should be reincarnated as the Hindu goddess Kali with 10 arms dipping into life's possibilities (only if Barbie's arms weren't so stiff!).

Plus, aren't you impressed that Barbie never let Ken eclipse her personally or professionally? In fact, Ken has always been her foil—a handy piece of arm candy when she needed an escort. She might have stepped down the aisle with Ken a few times (wedding dress styles do change, you know), but she never morphed into a boring housewife. Nor did Barbie turn into some scary mommy, wiping spit off her chic outfits.

And didn't she live fabulously? If I recall correctly, she owned a dream house, a beach cottage, a ski chalet—which, as far as I know, she owned all by herself, without help from Ken or some Sugar Daddy.

So maybe Barbie was ahead of her time. Which only proves that if you make yourself a nuisance long enough, sooner or later you'll get respect.

Hang in there, gals!

 E-mail: vchen@alm.com     Twitter: https://twitter.com/lawcareerist






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I was with you right up until the "boring mommy" and "scary housewife" bits... where the heck did that come from? There were versions of Barbie with babies, and also with vacuums and cleaning stuff. The whole point was that she could do anything, and everything, that she wanted, and do it fabulously (there were no frumpy lawyers or blood-spattered surgeons, either). And to the previous commenter, I actually did long for, and finally get, the astronaut Barbie because she was an astronaut, although the outfit was cool too :-).

I agree whole-heartedly. I played with Barbie, Skipper, Midge, PJ, etc. for years as a girl and it did nothing except grow my imagination and enjoyment of being a woman. In the end, beauty, like intelligence, is a form of power. Both are unfairly distributed, but should not, and cannot, really, be ignored. Rather, they should be understood so that they can be used to both the benefit of the holder and society.

If it weren't Barbie it would be something else. Mattel gets the cover of Sports Illustrated to sell their product. Daddies will be out buying Barbies by the armloads. We didn't buy Barbie because she was an astronaut. We bought her for the clothes. We are products of the media machine. Long live the feminists for pointing it out.

Spot on! (...btw...the run this morning, in acknowledgement of the "Sports Illustrated" swimsuit edition arriving on shelves yesterday, means the swimsuit countdown has begun. Must stay active and fir from work to play...

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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