When empowerment starts with a Barbie


Paula Panettieri

Paula Panettieri

The other day, while I was walking through the aisles of a store, I ended up in the stationery section and could not help but to notice the new Barbie school diary. It was pink, of course, and the most famous blondie with blue eyes was smiling there on the cover, but something was different. Barbie was wearing glasses, holding a pencil, and sitting close to a pile of books with a globe on top. Also, in the air above her some objects were floating, as if they were things she was thinking about: a notebook, some stars, a light bulb that clearly symbolized a new idea, a rocket, an atom, a pencil and a marker. And then I saw the newest slogan of Barbie, right there on the top right corner in capital letters: FUTURE LEADER.

Barbie: a model for kids

This took me back to my childhood for a minute. I have never been a huge fan of Barbie, mostly because my parents were very sceptical about her and I could never really see myself in this doll: having dark hair, dark eyes and olive skin, I would prefer other dolls that were more similar to me as a kid. Nevertheless, despite other less known brands of dolls, I did own a Barbie. I remember it was a gift from my grandmother and it was the office edition, somewhen in the 1990s. To some extent, Office Barbie had a purpose and as a kid I found it more interesting than other editions, but it was unclear to me in what consisted her job and why she had to have her face on the computer and on the calendar on her desk. Anyhow, she was just a character in the stories I imagined playing with my other dolls, rather than someone to look up to. Fast forward to 2020, you can imagine what a great surprise this diary was. Barbie is pictured as a future leader, as a role model that would not limit little girls to aspire to be in a certain way, but to realize the vast spectrum of possibilities that this modern, globalized world offers: Barbie is now telling girls and women that they can become a leader in whatever they decide to do, and this is how women empowerment and gender equality start. Such discovery made me do some research.

Barbie Office

This particular year, Mattel has been working on a new collection of Barbie with three main priorities: sport, science and gender neutrality[1]. Indeed, Mattel was struggling with sales before 2014 and this forced the company to revolutionize their product and their brand. Barbie was being perceived as out of touch and parents, just like mine used to feel, were turning up their noses on the influence this doll could have on their daughters. What followed was a prioritization of culture creation to be associated with the brand Mattel and, particularly, Barbie: she has never been only a toy, and this meant that it was time to expand the values she promoted. In order to create culture, Richard Dickson, President and Chief Operating Officer, and the team of Mattel have opted for starting from scratch with their leadership style. As a matter of fact, brainstorming and welcoming new ideas translated into a more empathetic leadership that would lead Mattel to be prepared to face risks and, above all, to celebrate failures on the way to this major problem-solving. This internal revolution of the company has definitively reflected on the subsequent production: Barbie has expanded the concept of role model and, once again, she is adapting to what society needs.

The development of Barbie

Barbie has managed to challenge the world of toys since her appearance back in 1959, when little girls could only play with baby and toddler dolls. She became the image of someone girls would look up to, like a projection of their own dreams, but it is undeniable that she has also been the protagonist of several controversies[2]: the most well-known being her influence on girls’ relationship with their bodies. A 2006 study[3] published on the Developmental Psychology journal revealed how girls exposed to Barbie dolls between the age of 5 and 8 were more likely to suffer from lower body esteem and body dissatisfaction given the non-compliance with a thin body. Eventually, in 2016, Barbie Fashionistas launched three new body types: tall, curvy and petite[4]. However, according to a 2019 research[5], a wider choice of dolls has not been able to change the preconceived notion of weight bias attached to it: most girls still prefer to play with the classic thin Barbie. The road to self-acceptance and self-love in society is still long, but there is a clear attempt.

Personally taken photograph of the new Barbie school diary 2020

While checking the official website[6], I run into the collection of Barbie President and Vice President dolls[7], originally released in 1992. In fact, only in 2012 Caucasian presidential candidate Barbie was joined by African American, Asian and Hispanic Barbie, and it was in 2016 that the idea of an all-female ticket was realized[8]. This year, such an homage to the United States Presidential election of November 3, 2020 in collaboration with She Should Run[9] praises two of the upmost leadership roles with slogans such as “you can be a leader” or “girls lead!”, but it does not stop there: some videos, tools and games guide both children and parents on how to talk about leadership and how dreams of leadership are played out through this doll. There is even the support of Campaign Team collection: campaign fundraiser, campaign manager, candidate and voter. Simultaneously, 2020 is coming to an end with a promising step forward in terms of women empowerment and inclusion in the new US presidential mandate. Indeed, besides the choice of Kamala D. Harris as running mate, the economics and communications teams of President-elect Joe Biden will not only be mostly formed by women, but these women will also be of different ethnicities [10]. This makes the idea of an all-female ticket launched by Barbie not so far from eventually becoming a reality.

From the Astronaut one in 1965 to CEO Barbie and the “We Girls Can Do Anything” campaign in 1985, Barbie has been making her way into the hearts of billions of children. Although she has been labelled as a role model for girls since her origins, she has been fighting gender roles and stereotypes for over 60 years now, and she has broken the walls of the “Barbie world”. My generation had the luck to witness her most impactful evolution, and holding that diary in my hands gave me hope for a new generation that will think outside the box from a very young age when it comes to their future. Picturing a doll aspiring to be a leader leads a child to picture themselves to be a leader as well, and not to merely play with a “Barbie girl in a Barbie world” anymore.

Paula Panettieri


[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/shaheenajanjuhajivrajeurope/2020/03/03/innovation-and-diversity-the-powerful-combination-behind-barbies-new-line-up/#36a3f2e24b37

[2] https://www.rd.com/list/barbie-doll-controversies/

[3] Dittmar, H., Halliwell, E. & Ive, S. (2006). Does Barbie make girls want to be thin? The effect of experimental exposure to images of dolls on the body image of 5- to 8-year-old girls. Developmental Psychology. Mar;42(2):283-92.

[4] https://www.elle.com/culture/art-design/news/a33593/barbie-fashionista-new-body-types/

[5] Harriger, J. A., Schaefer, L. M., Thompson, J. K. & Cao, L. (2019). You can buy a child a curvy Barbie doll, but you can’t make her like it: Young girls’ beliefs about Barbie dolls with diverse shapes and sizes. Body Image. Sep; 30:107-113.

[6] https://barbie.mattel.com/shop

[7] https://barbie.mattel.com/en-us/about/president-and-vice-president.html

[8] https://www.rd.com/list/what-barbie-looked-like-decade-you-were-born/

[9] https://www.sheshouldrun.org/what-we-do/

[10] The Washington Post


Recent articles

You may also be interested in


Never Miss A Story

Get our Weekly recap with the latest news, articles and resources.
Cookie policy
We use our own and third party cookies to allow us to understand how the site is used and to support our marketing campaigns.

Hot daily news right into your inbox.