A new Barbie "educational kit" from Thames & Kosmos was intended to expose girls to building, tinkering and thinking like an engineer by integrating science, technology, engineering and math into playtime. Instead, the famously blonde and fashionable doll appears to be doubling down on the lady arts.
Combining gender-tropes and really narrow ideas of what girls might be interested in, the toy manufacturer opted to continue Barbie's history of missteps and accessorize with pink household appliances and trendy clothing.
Because nothing spells success like fashion and laundry.
There is an art to educating a young girl on science without leaning toward prejudice. Sure, Barbie can build anything she wants—in any color of her choosing—if she sets her mind to it. But for some reason, this kit focuses on products that fall suspiciously on the female side of the gender divide—washing machines, revolving shoe racks and optical illusion origami dresses.
What the hell does that even mean?
Many believe that STEM dolls are an excellent way for girls to get exposed to science at an early age. In a recent toy industry report, BMO Capital Markets referred to STEM toys as one of five "new and emerging trends."
This Barbie kit though! It proposes several specific projects and experiments, only two of which are completely genderless: the hammock and a greenhouse. (Maybe Barbie should grow a dozen tiny roses so Ken can give them back to her on Valentine's Day when he wines, dines and continues to bolster stereotypes for her.)
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Despite leaving feminists shaking their heads, the toy does a good job at encouraging kids to consider functionality and design when constructing new material. Through progressive discovery, and the aid of sprockets, gears, axles, rods, pins and a parent, those engaging with STEM Barbie are almost guaranteed to gain some sort of insight into torque and movement.
Of course, Barbie is fully capable of holding her own when it comes to men and science. (After she got over her insecurities during her time, a few years ago, as a computer programmer.)
She is intelligent enough to recognize that her feminine past is the only thing keeping her in high heels and a mini-skirt, and she wears them with sensible grace. But how does this synthetic awareness translate to young girls? Is playing with gender-warped toys really that big of a deal?
Some argue that the best way to empower girls is to overcome sexism, and maybe that starts at a very young age in the privacy of one's own home. From flawless skin and a banging hairstyle down to perfectly shaped, cellulite-free legs, young girls have idolized Barbie for decades. Would girls feel the same if Barbie were 30 pounds heavier, wearing an orange vest and ill-fitting jeans while standing outside of a construction site?
Perhaps one day we will have our answer, but not today. Too many loads of tiny crop tops and micro-minis to wash in Barbie's hot pink front-loader.
Photograph: Thames & Kosmos