Barbie's New Range Shows Why We Need To Stop Idolising Imaginary Women

The more women, statues, or symbols perpetuating the illusion of the perfect woman, the harder we work against ourselves.
Mattel

You know who has it all? Astrophysicist Barbie.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the doll beloved for her (unattainable) looks, Mattel is introducing us to the woman who has everything.

Astrophysicist Barbie has flawless skin and a PhD. She’s one of the few female leaders in her field and she clearly likes Pilates as much as she likes measuring the gravitational forces of the universe.

Yes, it’s that easy, she reassures you with a smile. (Did you know that in a study conducted at UC Berkeley, women who exercised “feminine charms” fared better in negotiations?)

As a woman whose mission is helping more women become leaders, creators and innovators, I’m on board with Barbie reflecting the myriad of exciting potential pathways for women in science and innovation. The more young women who fantasise about having successful careers in STEM, the better.

Like the many women I’m in awe of every day, I want to ask her, “How do you do it?”

Of course, her answer wouldn’t suffice. She’s imaginary.

Just like the inspiration for every female statue in Central Park: Alice in Wonderland, Mother Goose, and Juliet (with Romeo). Meanwhile, the 22 statues of real historical figures in the park are all men.

You see, it’s far easier to celebrate imaginary women because real women, unlike Barbie and Alice, are quite imperfect.

Yes, it’s progress that Barbie has moved on from her 1950s housewife days and that she can be anything she (or Mattel) wants (her) to be. The problem with Astrophysicist Barbie is that she seems to ignore the fact that to succeed in careers previously dominated by men, she will be up against the deeply held, often subconscious, beliefs we have about what women can and should do.

In fact, Barbie herself has served as one subtle but incredibly powerful cue about the expectations of women.

A study has shown that just five minutes playing with Barbie dampened young girls’ career aspirations. Even when they do maintain their ambition, women often know that they are being judged differently than men, which can cause them anxiety and impact performance.

In another study, female Stanford students who were told before a math test that women did not perform as well as men on the same test consistently performed worse than women who were told gender made no difference. Simply evoking a stereotype impacted performance.

Even when young girls make it past that early gauntlet of cues like Barbie, the internalised messages of what is expected of women can make them falter.

We’re in the middle of a feminist renaissance; but even those of us deep in the work of supporting women leaders have whiplash from directives.

Lean in, lean back, you can’t have it all. Ask for what you want, but don’t ask too much (or too assertively). Be humble, but don’t say you’re sorry… (women always do that). Be emotionally intelligent, but not emotional.

Look good, but not too good.

Our heads are spinning trying to remember all the rules, but even if we could, we would never get it quite right. As we’re spinning in circles of conflicting guidance, we’re scanning the room for women modelling great leadership, only to see them getting attacked by critics pointing out their flaws.

It’s no surprise to me that the common refrain we hear from brilliant, talented, successful women when we gather them together is: “I’m exhausted.”

And emotional exhaustion is the gateway phase to burnout; specifically for women.

First, we bumped into the glass ceiling, then we skidded to the edge of the glass cliff, and now we’re having our Truman Show moment. We’ve found out it’s a glass box and lovely Astrophysicist Barbie is showing how to rock it – a modern symbol of the absurdity of these standards.

We are still desperately clutching to norms of how women should behave, look, and perhaps most importantly, hold power. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets asked when she’s going to get married. Hillary Clinton gets asked to bake cookies.

As we continue to be reminded, we don’t have a lack of women in the workforce: women make up 52% of management and professional level jobs. We are running ourselves ragged trying to get it right while missing the fact that the energy spent on getting it all right will keep us busy and distracted from getting ahead. The result is that women make up less than 5% of the CEOs of S&P 500.

Let me say it loud and clear so all the young women out there can hear me: You don’t need to be everything to everyone. You don’t need to be Astrophysicist Barbie.

We need to bring honesty and complexity to the narrative of women in power. Hillary taking ownership of the “Nasty Woman” narrative, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, dancing in the halls of Congress. I defy your labels. I defy your expectations of how a woman should behave. I defy your shock and indignation.

The more women, statues, or symbols perpetuating the illusion of the perfect woman, the harder we work against ourselves.

Astrophysicist Barbie is not what success looks like. Women and minorities who are showing up as themselves, honest, real and unexpected are what success looks like. And that’s where Mattel does get it right - with their role model dolls who represent real women who are brave and brilliant: Yara Shahidi, Naomi Osaka, Mariana Costa Cheka.

With so many real role models, there’s no need for imaginary ones. Astrophysicist Barbie can stay in her box. Maybe then, real women won’t have to.