Entrepreneur Barbie Busts Through The Plastic Ceiling

This week, Mattel, Inc. introduced “Entrepreneur Barbie.”  And as I gazed at the branded blonde one in her box, through the cellophane, arrayed in her tight, happening hot-pink dress, miniature statement necklace, and carrying a tiny plastic pink cell phone and tablet, I decided that she pretty much embodies the built-in contradictions in our culture that women continue to have to navigate, seemingly without end.

I guess E.B. is Mattel’s stab at “Lean-In Barbie,” based on the title of the best-selling book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. And why not a  “Start-Up Barbie”? Doesn’t that sound more contemporary? The doll could come with a hoodie, sweatpants, laptop, and a dead expression from staring into the screen late into the night.  (That might be hard to capture in plastic, though.)

And that’s the thing about Barbie. In the course of her 54 years, she’s been given 150 different occupations, friends, little sisters (even into her 40s) cars, dream houses, and a series of genitally abridged boyfriends named Ken. She elicits such strong reactions that at times she’s been the scourge of both feminists and “traditionalists” alike. In that time, for better or worse, she’s had more impact (both consciously and unconsciously) on the culture than perhaps any living female figure.

And with this latest update, Mattel is obviously going for some serious female empowerment cred. Thus, the brand has not only created the doll (available starting in July) but also partnered with eight actual female entrepreneurs -- aka, “Chief Inspiration Officers” -- from companies including Rent the Runway, One Kings Lane, and Girls Who Code, who will offer insights and responses to questions on the Web site. The online push will include a LinkedIn Profile (really?) and a social media campaign using the hashtag #unapologetic -- suggesting that for now, the sometime flake (“Math class is tough!” was a former quote attributed to the unliving doll) with the three-inch waist is going for unabashed excellence.

It’s interesting that #Unapologetic pops up at the same time as the latest Pantene commercial that asks "Why are women always apologizing?" In a series of relatable vignettes, the spot shows women saying “I’m sorry" when it’s completely unnecessary -- like to qualify the need to ask a question in a meeting, or to react to the guy who just brazenly invaded one’s armrest and personal space. While watching, I vigorously nodded my head, realizing that I do this all the time, like a nervous tic, without thinking. (Sorry.)  I liked the spot, although the second half, with direct action offered instead of apologies, was not half as strong.

But the idea obviously touched a universal nerve: The Pantene spot has so far earned more than 2 million views on YouTube.

Still, just as there are built-in contradictions and ironies in trying to present Barbie as all-business (which we’ll get to later), there are also complications and ironies with the Pantene spot.

First, isn’t it a touch ironic that having seen this, now we have something else to be sorry for: i.e., feeling sorry? And sometimes, saying “sorry” is less a matter of female weakness, and more just good manners. At the same time, I caught another Pantene commercial featuring Brazilian supermodel Giselle and her array of superhuman physical gifts, including her long, shiny hair.  In order to feel good about the first Pantene commercial, are we supposed to hold two opposing ideas in our heads at the same time? (The noggins perhaps covered with non-Giselle-like hair?) That we should stop apologizing, but never stop lusting for shiny hair?

So here’s the duality built into Barbie: she started life as German sex doll called “Bild Lilli.” (A great source of info is “Forever Barbie” by M.G. Lord.) Based on a comic-strip character who was a post-war gold-digger and high-priced escort, Lilli became a gag gift for German men. Ruth Handler, one of the founders of Mattel, along with her husband Elliot, found her in a Swiss shop. She’d always wanted to create a doll for girls that had a full-grown woman’s body. So she brought her Lilli back to southern California to get her redesigned and then manufactured in Japan.

And in a detail you just can’t make up, Handler had Mattel designer Jack Ryan (a genius who went on to create Hot Wheels toy cars, and before that designed Hawk missiles) redo the scarily proportioned doll. “We did our best to make her look less like a German streetwalker,” Ryan was quoted saying at the time, and made Barbie’s gaze straighter and her eyebrows less arched. (The missile designer kept the original torpedo breasts, though.) And when it came to selling her in 1959, through one of the first big TV blitzes ever, the agency, Carson/Roberts hired the Sigmund Freud of marketing at the time, Dr. Ernest Dichter, to come up with a strategy that would help threatened moms warm to her.  (The word “bimbo” had not yet been invented.) He suggested selling her as a teenage fashion model, to encourage a concern in little girls for “proper grooming and appearance.”

The rest is history.  I checked with a friend who has a five-year-old daughter with seven or eight Barbies -- and is a stay-at-home dad. He said although her mommy makes presentations all the time, “a situation such as making an important presentation wouldn't cross [his daughter’s] mind. She and her friends like dressing up the dolls and putting them in situations like beauty pageants or hanging out poolside.” He added that she might like the little phone that comes with Entrepreneur Barbie, but the outfit was probably “not sparkly enough” for his daughter’s taste.

The push and pull between generations is too complicated to go into here. But with obvious dualities and issues like these everywhere, we begin to see what a candidate like Hillary is contending with. 

Who is Mattel making the doll for?  Probably adult collectors.  By the time girls reach the age when they might want to interact with (or become) real, live entrepreneurs, they have long stopped playing with Barbies.

But Mattel has the lingo down. A print ad has Barbie saying, “You can’t be what you don’t see!” And in the press release, the brand even joked about breaking a “plastic ceiling.”

So let’s get out there, stop apologizing, and start breaking those plastic ceilings, women!  And try to get your hair right!

See what I mean?

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18 comments about "Entrepreneur Barbie Busts Through The Plastic Ceiling".
  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , June 25, 2014 at 7:57 p.m.
    Back in the late 60's and early 70's being plastic started to mean something else....phony.
  2. Ruth Thomas from Second helping , June 25, 2014 at 8:55 p.m.
    When my daughter was not even 3 and she was still struggling with saying her 4 lettered name, my husband taught her to respond to the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?". She would look up at the adult asking her and say, "an entrepreneur "... It was always a show stopper. It wasn't just a party trick, he really wanted her to work hard and not be just the pretty girl. So yes, I would buy her an EB if it was available all those years ago, because she loved Barbie,and it is a better message than the hooker glitter Barbie that she had.
  3. Edward Shain from EMS Associates , June 25, 2014 at 9:15 p.m.
    Sounds like sound marketing to me. Mattel doesn't need to be a pioneer, just in front enough of the coming wave so they're not left behind. Entrepreneur Barbie will have an impact. Just her existence means the word enters a child's vocabulary. Once there, it becomes a possibility, which is all that matters. If a girl sees business/entrepreneurship as something girl's/women do, she'll automatically change her definition of female limits, too (even though she may or may not take advantage). Once the girls have it in their heads, the boys will, too. It's always been, IMHO, the girls who needed to change more than the boys. The boys will go along because they'll have no choice. Hilary may have to contend with all these complexities, but that's going fast, too. As I said, Mattel is never *that* far ahead. If they see it, it's close enough to reach out and touch.
  4. Jo Duran from BOM , June 25, 2014 at 10:02 p.m.
    So, do we think Hillary is a Barbie? Is Barbie a verb, adjective or a noun? Conundrum.
  5. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com , June 25, 2014 at 10:26 p.m.
    @Jo-- Hillary is hardly a Barbie. But she does get scrutinized as though she should be--with her hair, paints suits, and accessories constantly found wanting. Hillary came of age with the second wave women's movement. She gave the graduation speech at Wellesley in 1969-- the first time that honor ever went to a student. And then Yale Law School, the Watergate hearings, etc. Everyone at Wellesley thought she'd be the first woman president, but then she entered into her complicated, co-dependent relationship with Bill and moved to Arkansas. Her Achilles Heel is bitterness over money. Going back to Whitewater and the stock trades, she was always trying to make a killing. She thinks as public servants, they should be rewarded. But her mistake in coming up with the "dead broke" bit is that it reminded everyone of all of Bill's bad behavior and legal woes.. She is a lot more bitter than she's conscious of and wants pay back!
  6. Nancie Martin from Tell My Story , June 25, 2014 at 11:21 p.m.
    Barbara, you may not know that my background includes four years at Mattel in the '90s, where, among other endeavors, I produced the first Barbie computer game, the million-selling 'Barbie Fashion Designer,' and launched Barbie.com. I still believe the one-time Mattel tag line that "girls can do anything." But you shouldn't misquote Barbie, as many people do. She did not say "Math is hard." She said "Math class is tough." And, for many people, especially those of us who are word-driven, it is.
  7. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com , June 25, 2014 at 11:46 p.m.
    Thanks for the correction, Nancie! I will change it.
  8. Claudia Reilly from none , June 25, 2014 at 11:54 p.m.
    What a fascinating piece. So funny and smart. I loved this line: "And why not a “Start-Up Barbie”? Doesn’t that sound more contemporary? The doll could come with a hoodie, sweatpants, laptop, and a dead expression from staring into the screen late into the night. (That might be hard to capture in plastic, though.)" I also agree that the second half of the Pantene commercial isn't as strong as the first. I wonder what it is that I didn't love about it. I suppose part of it is that there is something inside most of us that doesn't want to be apologetic but ALSO doesn't want to be the plastic, corporate boss. The idea of start up Barbie at least sounds HUMAN. Entrepreneur Barbie sounds so awful, like THE GIRL IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT WITH PINK ACCESSORIES. Perhaps that's the problem with Entrepreneur Barbie. We dream as children of changing the world, of stopping cancer, of ending pollution, of being an astronaut, a scientist, or even a film star or model or artist or singer...But do we really dream of scoring big in a corporation and being someone who works 18 hours a day in a corporation where the windows don't open who has 3 shifts of nannies? I am trying to think of what I would have thought of a an entrepreneur Barbie when I was seven. I guess if she came with a dream penthouse in New York I would have liked her. But I would not have understood who she was.
  9. Joanne Kroeger from Daily News , June 26, 2014 at 11:13 a.m.
    In assuaging the guilt of third wave feminists as they purchase a Barbie for their daughters, does this Barbie actually produce more guilt and pressure? So the newest gotta-have-it accessory for high-achieving, plastically-perfect girls is a one’s own company to go with those covetable pink status symbols.
  10. Betsy Busch from ODC , June 26, 2014 at 5:13 p.m.
    Wonderful piece, Barbara! Never played with dolls. Someone gave me a "Betsy Wetsy" back in the '40s. Must be mouldering in a landfill somewhere near Jimmy Hoffa or Judge Crater in it's original packaging by now! If I'd had a girl I'd probably have given her a tool kit and taught her how to put up shelves so she wouldn't have to depend on Mr. Right or Mr. Right-for-the-moment.
  11. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , June 26, 2014 at 8:30 p.m.
    I had a Betsy Wetsy in the 50's and a Tony doll (still have it in a closet but for unknown reasons, she has no clothes). I didn't play with dolls either. They didn't do anything.
  12. David Kleeman from PlayCollective , June 27, 2014 at 12:13 p.m.
    While it's true that many of the special edition Barbies are primarily geared toward the adult collector, Entrepreneur Barbie comes at a very interesting time, that I'm sure Mattel is seeing and incorporating across their toy lines, possibly even down to their youngest Fisher-Price brands. There is a lot of attention right now to helping kids - even quite young kids - think like coders (logical processes) and become makers (design and build). The logical follow-on, done especially well by groups like 8andUp (8andup.com) is to help young people think like entrepreneurs - what do people want? what do people need? what can I create to fulfill those wants and needs?
  13. Leslie Singer from SingerSalt , June 27, 2014 at 12:13 p.m.
    I played endlessly with Barbie (and Ken, Midge, little Skipper and Allan) growing up. I also grew up to be a working mom with the stay at home dad. When my son was 6 he drew a family picture that had his dad in a suit, tie and a briefcase. Go figure. Not sure Barbie has much impact no matter what they call her anymore than a toy gun creates, well, never mind. - I was relieved to find out in your post that a missile designer was responsible for those Barbie breasts. Makes sense now.
  14. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com , June 27, 2014 at 3:05 p.m.
    Thanks for the incisive comments, everyone. David-- I will look into 8 and up. And Leslie-- your story is familiar! Just like the 5-year old with the professional mom who puts Barbie in pink cars and poolside. And MG Lord's book on Barbie is loaded with incredible details about Ruth Handler, too. (She went on to invent a breast prosthesis for breast cancer survivors.) I do think that Barbie has had a tremendous effect aesthetically-- just look at all the Real Housewives.
  15. Sally Edelstein from Sally Edelstein Design , June 27, 2014 at 5:16 p.m.
    Talk about blonde ambition! This years Barbie may be breaking through plastic ceilings but to those of us who were the first generation of Barbie buddies, options presented to a real girl in the 1960s were less than thrilling. As a baby boomer girl we were told we were told that on one hand we were a special generation with wide open options. On the other the choices were predictably limited. To assist in our journey was a board game called "What Shall I Be? The Exciting Game of Career Girls" which debuted in 1966 offering career guidance in becoming a stewardess, a model, a nurse or a teacher. For a peek at the retro career options http://wp.me/p2qifI-1jV
  16. Dyann Espinosa from IntraStasis , June 27, 2014 at 5:22 p.m.
    When my son was two or so, I had a friend whose daughter was the same age. They would play together. He had a G.I. Joe doll and she had a Barbie doll (interesting aside, her father was/is a lawyer, a Communist and a politician). One day they had some Play Dough on the table and the girl took it and stuck Barbie and G.I. Joe together face to face. Just like Mommy and Daddy. My son had no clue.
  17. George Parker from Parker Consultants , June 27, 2014 at 6:08 p.m.
    @Barbara... As I wrote in "The Ubiquitous Persuaders," Dr. Dichter, (who never actually earned a Doctorate) advised Mattel to make Barbies tits bigger. It's the only one of his useless insights that has stuck to this day. Oh, and they are not "torpedo" breasts. They are referred to by aging "Mad Men" as Nurse Diesel Nose Cones... AKA "High Anxiety." MMM... Come to think of it... Barbie in a Nurse Diesel SS uniform with Ken tied up in the closet, would work on Wednesday's AdScam. I'll credit you, 'cos, as you know, I am a prince. Cheers/George
  18. Olive Oil from Olive Tree , June 30, 2014 at 8:36 a.m.
    It's interesting to see the onslaught of brands suddenly interested in liberating women. I just saw one from Verizon. I wonder if we'll see any for men's issues next?