SEE HER, BE HER: Reimagining Barbie as a feminist icon
I have always considered Barbie to be about as anti-feminist as you can get, I mean she looks like one of Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends and her rich life as a career woman seemed laughable -- want to be an astronaut? No need to study astrophysics – just put on a pink mylar space suit and off you go! Full disclosure, my daughter has a drawer full of Barbies in various states of undress and sometimes I do feel a little bit guilty about this (and sometimes I just get on the floor and play with them).
So I was pretty blown away when I saw the latest Barbie ad which places young girls acting like professionals in very grown up contexts. One little girl delivers a lecture on the brain to a room full of university students, another is a veterinarian examining real animals and my absolute favorite is a wheelie bag toting, phone talking while walking ‘business woman’ who is overheard saying ‘I had the most fantastic day in the office. You’ll never believe what happened…’ The big reveal happens at the end when you realize that in fact these scenarios are imagined by a little girl at play – with her Barbie, of course. It’s a great moment and turns decades of Barbie bashing on its head by suggesting that Barbie, in her multitude of uniforms and matching ensembles actually enables little girls to imagine the possibilities of what the future might hold for them. Well played, Mattel.
By coincidence, days after I discovered the ad, I had the opportunity to hear Senta Slingerland, currently Director of Brand Strategy at The Lions Festivals, speak about the Cannes Lion ‘See It, Be It’ program. Put simply, this is a grown up version of the Barbie commercial – or, one might argue the advertisement is a plastic microcosm of Senta’s program, as the initiative predates the ad by at least a year. ‘See It, Be It’ aims to give female creatives the network, ambition and inspiration to continue and progress in creative industries and, crucially, at a career moment-in-time that typically sees them leave the industry. There is a dire need for this type of activity since globally only 3% of creative directors are women, despite the fact that women hold 85% of the purchasing power. Shocking, right? No wonder 91% of women think that advertisers don’t understand them.
What I love about ‘See It, Be It’ is that it is both internal and external facing at the same time. By inspiring creators to stay and rise in the workforce, the result will be creative that more fairly and accurately represents women in advertisements and beyond. While Senta’s specific initiative touches a select number of individuals– I believe that all of us can adopt ‘See It, Be It’ as a guiding principle. Women leaders, whether creatives or not, should seek opportunities to share their stories and experiences. The more women that we see, hear and learn from – the more we’ll collectively recognize that there is no obvious prototype for female leadership and nor should there be. Let’s put that outdated image of the helmet haired, shoulder pad wearing female executive to rest once and for all. Let’s also make sure that girls gain the confidence to define success on their own terms -- you can be a molecular biologist and a mother or a statistician and super stylish at the same time.
Barbie, I may have been too quick to judge you and your tiny, pink stilettos – perhaps all this time you were a misunderstood plastic harbinger of possibility. Maybe your message to little girls is that imagining future opportunities should be as easy as slipping into a new outfit. Maybe, just maybe, behind those vacuous eyes and placid, pouty smile you knew all along that if we can see it, we can be it…