When I transferred from Shanghai to Munich within the multinational I used to work for, the whole office had been briefed with an email about my CV and a picture before my arrival. One of the colleagues seemed to have a problem with me even before I arrived. He replied back to the whole email list of more than 50 people: “Great, Barbie is going to join us.” As this colleague preferred to gossip about me behind my back and never approached me directly, I only found out about this email much later. I burst out in hysterical laughter. Firstly, I’m not blonde. Secondly, obviously he could not find anything else to criticise. Thirdly, he did not know that I actually saw that as a compliment.
A friend of mine knew about my plans of founding a start-up. One day in spring 2014, I received an email with the subject line: “This is a sign.” It was a press release by Mattel announcing that Barbie would become start-up founder in 2014.
The colleague in question tried to discredit me by calling me Barbie. But if he had known my opinion on that doll, he would have realized that I see it as a big compliment. Because Barbie – just like her female inventor Ruth handler – is badass. Ruth rocked a male-dominated toy industry in the late 1950s. Despite all the obstacles for women in the workforce in the 1950s, she not only built her own business empire but also managed to have an impact on thousands of young girls until today.
Ruth wanted to give her own daughter Barbara an alternative to the traditional dolls – the ones who very early influence girls into the direction of the “roles they were born in” as mothers and caretakers of the family. Ruth observed that Barbara preferred to play with paper dolls who looked like grown-up women and could change their outfits. She identified the need for young girls to let their creativity and fantasy influence how they play. She wanted to them to be able to express themselves in more ways than just playing the wife and mother.
Barbie has always been a major focus of criticism. With Barbie’s 60th birthday this year, it has recently spiked again. Barbie is too blonde, too white, too sexual, too thin, too unrealistic and anti-feminist. In recent years, Mattel’s revenues struggled for several reasons. There is a broader range of dolls and toys in general. Digital products have become fierce competition. And some mothers do not let their daughters play with the doll. In my opinion, for all the wrong reasons. If they fear that their daughters would not become feminists because of playing with Barbie dolls, they should just look at me – I’m the living proof for a feminist with an extensive Barbie history and passion.
I never liked playing with “traditional” dolls – the ones you have to bathe, put to sleep and basically take care about like a mother. I had two of those more traditional dolls which could be seen as competitors to Barbie. But they were not the ones where I had to change their diapers. They actually looked like small grown-ups too and had cute outfits.
Up until my teenage years, I was very shy. I did not like to meet new kids, I felt uncomfortable and I absolutely hated activities like summer camps or group classes. Maybe being picked on because of my weight was one reason. And being shy actually just made me an even easier target.
Barbie let me escape into a different world. My weight did not matter when I played. I could be a doctor, a businesswoman, a great friend. And I am the personified argument against all the Barbie critics who say that young girls aspire to look like Barbie. Even though I was a bit chubby, I never wanted to have Barbie’s proportions. I actually never thought about that. Barbie was a doll and not real. And let’s be honest, in times where sexualization of female bodies is all over the media landscape and even more accessible through social media, is Barbie really a danger? Or is she just taken as an easy excuse? If parents, and especially mothers, have a healthy relationship not only with their daughters but also with themselves, young girls will not even question that Barbie could be more than just a doll. Of course, there will always be some who misunderstand the concept or think Barbie only stands for a certain beauty ideal. But I guess they are probably the same ones who make their children pose for their Instagram accounts or send them to beauty pageants. I am sure there is no scientific evidence that Barbie was then the major driver for a distorted view on women…
I actually played with Barbie dolls until I was 13. If you think I was a social retard, wait for this: When I was 12, I even was on TV with my Barbie collection – I had more than 120 Barbies and also several collectors dolls. This was when I officially committed social suicide. 😀 So at least this secret is officially out. Today, I laugh about it.
Playing with Barbie dolls did not make me believe in a conservative family construct. I would even say it contributed to the opposite. Barbie always had a job, a cool house, friends – Ken was just one of the things. Barbie could afford all the stuff she wanted because she had a career. When you look into Barbie’s history, she was an austronat, a presidential candidate, a physicist, a formula one driver. If I ever have a daughter, I would love her to work towards all these goals. And when me and my girlfriends played with the dolls, Ken was actually rarely in the picture. It was about exploring the world, experimenting with outfits, spend time with friends and become who we wanted to be. And we all become who we wanted to be later – whatever the goal was scientists, lawyers, businesswomen, teachers, mothers.
On my last day in summer 2014, I said good-bye to my colleagues. I started my own business. I went over to my “best mate”. He still had no idea I knew about his Barbie-comments. I shook his hand and said: “Good-bye, Barbie is going to start her own business.” I left him with his mouth open. And the Entrepreneur Barbie still sits on my desks – the brunette version, of course!