Barbie Doesn’t Earn Feminist Empowerment Badge for Becoming A Girl Scout

Mattel has an elaborate bullpen of “I Can Be” Barbie dolls dressed for careers as various as “Pet Vet” to “Fashion Designer” and, thanks to a new partnership between Mattel and Girl Scouts USA, Barbie has a new image, a new Girl Scout doll and a new tagline: “Barbie: Be Anything. Do Everything.” The partnership includes the creation of a new “For Girls” wing of the Girl Scouts USA website that offers an interactive quiz to teach viewers about what kinds of accessories go with what kinds of careers, and a Barbie career activity booklet that shows pictures of real women firefighters, teachers, and marine biologists. So has the age of progressive Barbie truly arrived?

As you might have guessed, the career dolls and interactive website still promote a very narrow sense of what it means to be a woman in the workplace providing only 20 options of career and focusing, of course, on what one would wear to this given career. In short, it’s not about what kind of life and opportunities a given career offers, it’s how cute you look in the costume of that career. In the site’s interactive quiz you are allowed to choose one of only three avatars with the same outfit to represent yourself in the career game — Barbie (long blond hair, fair skin), Teresa (long light brown hair, olive skin) and Nikki (long black hair, slightly darker skin.) In direct contrast to the rest of the Girl Scouts site, and even the Barbie “I Can Be” booklet, which shows some masculine-of-center women and non-thin women and women of color at their actual jobs doing actual work, this Barbie quiz allows viewers to choose between only three types of girlness, which are all wearing the same body and the same white-shirt, tight jean capris, pink wedge sandals. In short, actually only one type.

But here’s the thing: the Barbie brand will probably exist until the end of the world and be a little f*cked up, but it’s Girl Scouts USA that’s the disappointment here. This new partnership with Barbie, and the creation of the “For Girls” section of the Girl Scouts site makes a clear connection between girlness and a narrow, appearance-centered, superficial approach to career. This kind of Barbied-up world view is “for girls,” this new site says, thus girls are for it.

This kind of one type fits all approach to girlness and using the word “girl” to mean a second class or appearance-focused approach to life isn’t new, but it’s all the more troubling because it’s happening at the same time as other major brands take real strides to break it down. The Always #Like a Girl campaign has received lots of snaps in this department, for its video exploring why we use “like a girl” as an insult to describe the way female bodies do physical tasks like run, throw, and punch.

By creating this “For Girls” section of their site and featuring the Barbie products, the Girl Scouts have made a dramatic shift in their branding and in the language they use to describe their girls, which up until now has been pretty conscious of making the “girl” in Girl Scouts mean a lot of different things. In 2012, a trans girl joined a Colorado troop despite widespread opposition and the Girl Scouts promotes outdoor adventure as well as leadership skills and social change work. According to a 2012 national study of fourth through eighth grade Girl Scouts, “When girls get outdoors on a monthly basis in Girl Scouts, doing even casual outdoor activities, they are much more likely to agree that they’ve learned to recognize their strengths, to do something they thought they couldn’t do, and to gain skills that will help them do better in school.”

As we know, the language we use to make connections between people and concepts matters, and the Girl Scouts have taken a big leap backwards in the conversation about how to make the word “girl” inclusive and strong and how to separate toys from assumptions about who should play with those toys if they want to be “like a girl.”

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Emma Copley Eisenberg is a writer of fiction, creative nonfiction, and journalism. She is finishing an MFA from the University of Virginia, where she serves as the nonfiction editor of Meridian. Her prose has appeared in Gulf Coast, The Rumpus, Cutbank, Philadelphia Weekly, Five Chapters, TruthOut, Terrain, Wonderful West Virginia and elsewhere, and she was the winter 2013 nonfiction winner of Narrative's 30Below contest. She believes the most exciting art is urgent art, and explores questions of transformation, gender, and queerness in her work. She has traveled cross-country living and writing out of a Toyota Tacoma pickup, and served as an AmeriCorps VISTA in southeastern West Virginia where she taught creative and academic writing to young women. She is currently at work on a collection of linked short fiction about queer ladies in Philadelphia and an interdisciplinary language project creating new queer taxonomies.

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14 Comments

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    Seeing that Barbie and the Girl Scouts had joined forces was kind of a nightmare for me. I’m a leader with Girl Guides in the UK and it always gave me an outlet as a child for doing ‘boy’ things like camping and building fires. Barbie was my nemesis because everyone wanted me to play with her but she didn’t even have any cool moving parts (if I have a humanoid toy I at least expect it to have working elbows). It’s like they are trying to reach out to the tomboys and making a pathetic job of it.

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    I’m a young leader in the UK and obviously I don’t know how different girl scouts is to guiding, but guiding is doing well in regard to not completely conforming to typical gender roles, and helping girls have a safe place where they can do all sorts of activities. On the whole guiding is a positive thing for girls.

    Also can I just say.. sylvanian families are better than barbies for so many reasons.

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    I’m also a Guide Leader in the UK (there’s a lot of us!) and I’m always encouraging my girls to be themselves and not conform to stereotypes. Guiding is fantastic for encouraging this, and seeing the US Guides take this step back makes me a little sad. But I also wonder if the US Guides are getting something out of this in terms of funding. Not that it makes it acceptable, but it does make you wonder.

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      They are indeed getting funding. I agree with you– it absolutely doesn’t make it acceptable. Girl Scouts (and WAGGGS worldwide) is uniquely positioned to provide good role models for girls. This partnership abuses that position, and in my opinion is an unfortunate turn in the organization.

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    It’s too bad about the Barbie/Girl Scouts collaboration, unless (perhaps) it sparks some girls to join awesome feminist girl scout troops who wouldn’t have otherwise. We can hope.

    But my favorite part of this is in the bio, “She has traveled cross-country living and writing out of a Toyota Tacoma pickup,” because I did that too! And it makes me miss my truck like crazy, may it RIP.

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      Barbie’s are very popular. I definitely think it get far more young girls interested in girl scouts. Also, girl scouts have been criticized a lot for being too liberal. This is great outreach to a wider range of families.

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    Oh man. As a tomboy who loved Scouts and loved camping and was a Sixer in Cubs and then Patrol Leader in Scouts here in Australia, this bums me out.

    I loved Scouts because it was a perfect opportunity to delve into “boyish” activities and also just do fucking cool things like camp and make rafts and learn how to make fires and shelters and other survival skills. I loved that and it brings back very fond memories. At a time when I perhaps didn’t understand totally or feel weirdly guilty or misplaced yet about what I was ‘meant’ to be interested in as a girl, I relished these ‘boyish’ activities and I believe benefited a lot from being treated like it was okay for me to be interested in the same things that the boys were, because I was.

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    I took the interactive quiz, and I have to say it’s very narrow. The object is to select what someone might use in their career. For example, the game describes an architect and the options from which to choose include some books, a computer, some rolled up papers, and a microphone. I selected a computer because you can use computer programs to draw up plans, but the correct option was the rolled up paper. This quiz could be improved by having all the options be aspects of the career, such as a veterinarian could have medical supplies, books, dog treats, and an animal to symbolize the supplies needed to carry out the duties of being a vet and the schooling it takes to be a vet. This would give children the opportunity to consider different aspects of what it takes to participate in a career.

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      It’s a tiny bit comforting to see that a camp director is upset about this. GS camp (at least the one I went to) is the best and queerest place ever and has wayyy more potential for impact on girls’ lives than the GSUSA website.

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    Girl Scouts USA did more for my development as a well-rounded person and ultimately as a queer woman than basically anything else I spent my time doing as a child. It breaks my heart to see their shift towards referring to scouts as “customers” and giving Mattel a prominent place on their site.

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    This makes me sad to read. My daughter is going into kindergarten in the fall and I was thinking of signing her up for Daisy Girl Scouts. She’s interested in camping and nature and the outdoors, and I am not very outdoorsy myself, so I thought she might get some of those experiences through scouting. I’ll still probably look into it, but will be sure to find out beforehand how much of the Barbie activities the troop leader plans to do.

    I was doing some quick Googling and found a petition by the organization Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood if anyone is interested in signing:

    http://org.salsalabs.com/o/621/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=15223

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    I feel like this entire comment threat is members of WAGGGS crying about this whole thing. I’m a junior leader for girl Guides in Australia, and even seeing things like this in other countries makes me quite disappointed. It’s even more surprising to me after the partnership that Girl Scouts America made with feminist poster child Sheryl Sandberg’s organisation Lean In.

    Like everyone else has mentioned, Scouts/Guides is a wonderful way to enhance self-confidence and learn new skills that ensure young women can become young leaders. As a Rainbow and Brownie in the UK, and Guides and Senior Guides in Australia, the organisation has opened so many doors for me that it’s absolutely phenomenal. As a young queer girl, I was able to be in the company of so many older queer women leaders who were brilliant role models for me. It’s so highly regarded as an organisation, which makes things so much more difficult when things like this come up.

    In my district a couple years back we had pullovers that read “Girl Guides: We do more than sell cookies”, and they had stick figures rock climbing and putting up tents and doing all these cool activities on the back. I think about those jumpers a lot when things come up like this – because we do waaaaay more than just sell cookies, but at the moment it looks like the other stuff we’re doing is just perpetuating stereotypes.

    Just… this is so disappointing. I want to write a joke in here or tell an anecdote, but I don’t think I want to. This shit is serious.

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