A Barbie Patch? Seriously, Girl Scouts?
New Dream has partnered with the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood in asking the Girl Scouts to end their current partnership with Barbie. Read the thoughts below from New Dream staff member and Girl Scout leader Edna Rienzi, and then sign the petition!
You would be hard pressed to find anyone who loves the Girl Scouts as much as I do. To this day, I feel a special fondness for Wednesdays because that was the day my troop met when I was in grade school. Although we didn’t gather at the local community center until late afternoon, I proudly wore my uniform to school with my fellow troop members... and that was the era of the brown beanie and orange bowtie!
For me, Girl Scouts was a safe place. A place where I felt comfortable asking questions. A place where it was okay to be curious and enthusiastic about learning. A place where it was okay to forego being “cool,” and to instead be earnest and interested. I remember my mom teaching our troop about Puerto Rico for Thinking Day, and being so proud of my heritage. I can still remember the feeling of making soap by hand. I remember the thrill of selling cookies for the first time, and realizing that I could actually earn money for my troop to use for fun activities and trips. Being a Girl Scout was an empowering experience, and it no doubt shaped my view that girls really can be anything that they want to be.
I am now the mother of three girls and a Girl Scout leader myself, and I still love this organization. I take my responsibility as a troop leader very seriously. I view each meeting, activity, and trip as an opportunity to expose the girls to the wonderful opportunities that exist for them in this world. We’ve stayed overnight in a 19th-century mill, where the girls learned about the physics behind simple machines. We’ve planted a garden, and had the fun of eating freshly picked tomatoes, green beans, and basil. At one meeting, the girls created “zoom vehicles,” using straws, string, paper clips, and tape to design cars that moved on their own. I can’t tell you how proud I was when the first few girls made their cars work, and the entire troop shrieked and cheered for them.
We’ve made cards for U.S. service members, donated food to homeless shelters, and sewed blankets for animal shelters. We’ve giggled and laughed, and also worked through times when the girls haven’t always treated each other well. Much like my own troop growing up, my daughter’s troop is one where the girls learn that kindness matters most. That learning is cool. That it’s okay to make mistakes and look silly. And that girls can be anything they want to be.
So given my high regard for the Girl Scouts, I was particularly disappointed when I discovered a new resource on their website a couple of weeks ago. A Barbie patch? Since when has there been a Barbie patch for Girl Scouts?
Apparently, since August 2013. That month, Cathy Cline from Mattel announced: “Together with the Girl Scouts, we hope to inspire young leaders and help girls explore all their career possibilities. For over 50 years, Barbie has encouraged girls to dream and explore a world without limits. This partnership allows us to reach girls with an empowering message and provide them with a new platform to discover and dream.” Anna Maria Chávez, CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA, added that: “We are tying the fun girls have playing with Barbie to an opportunity to gain insight into the careers of today and tomorrow…. Like the Girl Scouts, Barbie is an American icon, and together, we are teaching girls that their future is wide open with possibilities, and that they can accomplish anything they set their sights on in their career.”
There are so many things disturbing about this partnership that it’s hard to know where to begin. First, let’s focus on Barbie as a role model. Since the launching of Barbie dolls in 1959, there has been much controversy regarding the influence that Barbie has had on girls and society overall. Some link Barbie’s unrealistic body size to eating disorders and body image issues among young girls. (In fact, studies show that if a person had Barbie’s dimensions, she would have room for only half a liver and a few inches of intestine. Her feet would be size three and her ankles so tiny that she would have to walk on all fours. Her neck wouldn’t even be able to hold up her head!)
Others have defended Barbie as a “driven role model that girls should follow not because she is thin, but because she is an intelligent feminist that shows girls that they can be whoever they want to be, and does not adhere to the patriarchy… and she does it all in designer high heels.” Still others are indifferent: in my informal survey of friends and family, the most common reaction regarding Barbie as role model has been, “My parents let me play with Barbies, and I’m fine.”
I’m not a big fan of that response for two reasons. First, let’s compare it to, “My parents didn’t always make me wear my seatbelt, and I’m still here.” Is that really a good enough reason to not make your kids wear seatbelts? Second, are we really fine? I don’t personally know any American woman who doesn’t have a host of insecurities regarding her body, whether she vocalizes them or not.
That being said, it’s obviously oversimplifying to blame Barbie alone for the increase in eating disorders and body image issues among young girls. But studies do indicate that Barbie may have a negative impact on body image and food intake. In 2006, two British psychology professors found that girls exposed to Barbie doll images had “lower self-esteem and a greater desire for a thinner body shape than in the other exposed conditions.” Another study in the Netherlands tested the effects of playing with thin dolls on body image and food intake in 6- to 10-year-old girls. Although no differences were found in body image variables, the girls who played with the average-sized doll ate significantly more food than the girls in other exposure conditions. Maybe it’s not fair to blame Barbie for all of our food and body issues, but it’s also not fair to exonerate her completely.
It’s not just her ridiculous body measurements that are bothersome—it’s also her endless supply of clothes, shoes, accessories, and houses. Encyclopedia Britannica describes Barbie as a “symbol of consumer capitalism,” but I would go further to describe her as the symbol of hyperconsumerism. Just check out her fridge with a built-in frozen yogurt maker.
Moreover, as Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, observes: “[W]hen we were children (or at least when I was) Barbie was a doll. Basta. She was not a lifestyle. There were no Barbie toothbrushes, Barbie tricycles, Barbie scooters…. Do you really want your child to be subject to that kind of training: that her role in life is to advertise and consume licensed products to the hilt?”
Beyond the thinness and the hyperconsumerism, there’s also the fact that Barbie is part of a culture that encourages girls from a very young age to define themselves through appearance and play-sexiness. Mattel’s latest move with Barbie should have been enough to make the Girl Scouts end their partnership immediately. Barbie is now one of Sports Illustrated’s 2014 Swimsuit Models.
You read that right. On magazine stands today, you can see Barbie posing in SI’s infamous swimsuit issue. Mattel defends this choice by having Barbie “state”: “I, for one, am honored to join the legendary swimsuit models. The word ‘model,’ like the word ‘Barbie,’ is often dismissed as a poseable plaything with nothing to say. And yet, those featured are women who have broken barriers, established empires, built brands, branched out into careers…. Let us place no limitations on her dreams, and that includes being girly if she likes.… Let her grow up not judged by how she dresses, even if it’s in heels; not dismissed for how she looks, even if she’s pretty. Pink isn’t the problem.”
Pink is obviously not the problem here. My house, at times, is an explosion of pink. The problem is that, in our culture, there is extreme pressure on girls to define themselves based on their appearance. Do we really need more swimsuit models for our girls to emulate? I don’t think we’re lacking in that department. In fact, the Girl Scouts themselves released a study examining interest and engagement in the subjects and fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and concluded that girls ages 8 report–18 are and aspire to STEM careers, but “need more interested exposure and adult in support to carry this interest into the future.” Despite these findings, the Girl Scouts went ahead and partnered with a company that released a Teen Talk Barbie not that long ago that said “math class is tough.” Barbie may be #unapologetic about her influence on young girls, but the Girl Scouts should be better than that.
Regardless of who is wrong and who is right about Barbie’s appropriateness as a role model for young girls, the Girl Scouts should have acknowledged that there are legitimate concerns surrounding the doll. Moreover, they should have been respectful of the fact that many parents involved with the organization do not allow their daughters to play with Barbies. Showcasing Barbie on the “For Girls” section illustrates thoughtlessness at best and disregard at worst when it comes to these members of the Girl Scout organization.
I would have been similarly disappointed if the Girl Scouts had introduced a Dora patch or a SpongeBob patch (although those characters seem much less damaging to a young girl than Barbie). By promoting a toy—any toy—in its resources and on its website, the Girl Scouts is yet another organization targeting our children through irresponsible marketing. It is product placement at its worst, because it is unexpected and in many ways insidious.
Until last August, the Girl Scouts had been a relatively commercial-free oasis. Because their website was ad-free, I never hesitated to let my girls explore the different games and resources they offer. It was one of the (very few) websites that I trusted my daughters on without my supervision. But currently, the first thing you see when you click on the “For Girls” section is a huge picture of Barbie. Our girls are already being bombarded by marketers’ pitches at stores, at home, and even at school.
I strongly urge the Girl Scouts to discontinue this partnership, and to maintain the organization as one of the few commercial-free experiences in a young girl’s world.
Click here to sign our petition, in partnership with Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and tell GSUSA that young girls are #BetterthanBarbie!
(Lead Photo: GSUSA's "I Can Be..." Logo)
Edna Rienzi is Program Coordinator for New Dream's Beyond Consumerism Program and a Girl Scout leader.