This week, after 55 years and 150 career changes, Barbie was given a miniature iPad and became an entrepreneur, complete with fictional LinkedIn profile. The latest incarnation of Mattel's iconic doll caused controversy - starting with her pink body-con dress (office appropriate?) and ending with her lack of props (is a tablet computer really all it takes to be successful?) In my mind, eschewing the biggest question of all: What happened to Ken?
While the critics debate whether a career chameleon is a good role model for young girls, not least one who has moonlighted as a rap music star and a pet-sitter, little has been said of Barbie's plastic companion, Ken. While Barbie's latest incarnation is supposed to encourage young girls to aspire to own their own businesses and reflect a generation of start-ups, Mattel has missed the opportunity to really challenge stereotypes, encourage social debate - and to strip the stigma from the idea of a male partner playing a domestic role.
Although the doll's makers point out that as a successful woman, Barbie has run for President and been portrayed as a space traveller in advance of the first moon landing, the character of Ken is given the following introduction on the brand's website: "While Barbie is known for travelling the world and for her glamorous adventures, I've been quietly leading a very active Ken-tastic life of my own." That's ok then. "Over the past five decades, I've tried on many hats- businessman, Olympian, pilot, and most recently, actor." What happened to helping out at home?
Of course, gender stereotypes are not made or broken by the uniform given to a doll, but I can't help thinking that Mattel's step to encourage young girls to realise that there is a world of opportunity open to them beyond that of a 1950s housewife would be more successful if we stopped talking about what Barbie is doing in her career and what she is wearing while doing it and started looking at how she is making it happen.
Admittedly, as part of the new launch Mattel has partnered existing businesswomen to give advice to those aspiring to follow in their footsteps, but this doesn't go far enough. Everyone trying to maintain some sort of work/life balance knows that professional performance is affected by how organised, settled, stable - and happy, we are able to be at home. Yes, that does involve equal involvement in domestic life and recognition in both directions that a male partner may prefer to take the nest-builder role and come with a few more accessories than a pair of Hawaiian surfing shorts.
We need to go further in teaching young girls to aim high and expect more for themselves. Not least, when they are shown the supposed relationship ideal of their favourite two plastic figurines. What does a successful partnership involve according to the fictional autobiography of Ken? "After a series of grand gestures that included everything from personalized cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery to billboards professing my love, Barbie finally said yes! We are once again a happy couple." Worrying stuff.Suggest a correction