Treetop Barbie: Ecological girl power?

Treetop Barbie working

Barbie was launched in 1959 by the US Mattel toy company and over the years the doll has accumulated a boyfriend (Ken) and many accessories. Barbie dolls have been a controversial figure, as an embodied example of the media-propagated version of the ideal female figure, tall, blonde and white, with an exaggeratedly thin waist and disproportionally large breasts. This led to what has been termed “Barbie syndrome” among pre-teen and teenage girls, namely the desire to have Barbie’s “unattainable body proportions” (Lind, 2008), leading in some cases to eating disorders such as anorexia or even plastic surgery. Ukrainian model Valeria Lukyanova, the “living Barbie doll,” is an example of such fetishism.

The Barbie doll series has also been criticized for its lack of diversity and stereotyping of women as “dumb blondes”. Over the years, Mattel has responded to such criticism with the introduction of black and Hispanic dolls, as well as Barbies engaged in a variety of professions. On the other hand, in 2014 Mattel published Barbie: I can be a computer engineer. As I reported at the time in a blog post:

 In the opening pages we see Barbie working on developing a game: “I’m designing a game that shows kids how computers work,” explains Barbie. “You can make a robot puppy do cute tricks by matching up colored blocks!”

That sounds great, but when Barbie’s sister asks to play the game, here is Barbie’s response: “I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”

That’s right, Barbie of course can’t actually write the code – she needs boys to do that. As a blog post from Pamela Ribon details, things get worse from there. It turns out that Barbie has infected her own and her sister’s computers with a computer virus and that she has little clue what to do, or other basics of how to work with computers.

So is Treetop Barbie in a similar mode? The idea is that Barbie is an engaged ecologist, working as a forest canopy researcher, just like her creator, Nalini Nadkarni. Nadkarni is a biology professor at the University of Utah and is well-known for her work unraveling the secrets of rain forest ecologies by climbing trees and investigating the nature of “canopy soils” (a type of soil that forms on the tree trunks and branches) and “aerial roots” (above-ground roots growing from branches and trunks). In working in the field, Nadkarni saw few other women. To encourage girls to consider ecology as a profession, she and her lab colleagues came up with the idea of Treetop Barbie. Mattel was not interested in the concept, so Nadkarni carried out the project on her own, buying used Barbies, dressing/equipping them as canopy researchers, and selling them at cost. After the project started to attract attention (New York Times), Mattel tried to shut her down over brand infringement, but eventually relented, and, given the publicity and marketing benefits, decided to partner with National Geographic to roll out this year a a series of Barbies focused on exploration and science, with Nadkarni as an advisor.

Nadkarni realizes that using Barbies is controversial, as she admitted in a recent NPR interview:

My sense is yes she’s a plastic doll. Yes she’s configured in all the ways that we should not be thinking of how women should be shaped. But the fact that now there are these explorer Barbies that are being role models for little girls so that they can literally see themselves as a nature photographer, or an astrophysicist, or an entomologist or you know a tree climber… It’s never perfect. But I think it’s a step forward.

Nalini Nadkarni at work

Interestingly, Nadkarni herself is far from being a Barbie type. Her skin and hair are brown, her father is from India. From videos of her working in the rain forest, it is clear she is rugged, daring, and independent, not characteristics one associates with the doll. The initial idea of Treetop Barbie was made in fun, but then she and her colleagues decided it could be an effective way to get young girls thinking that being a scientist or researcher might be a doable future career. The transition from appearance-obsessed glamor girl to working ecologist is laid out in an “interview” with Treetop Barbie published in the Seattle Times. Nadkarni gives voice to the doll and mentions the importance of tying back your hair when climbing trees, including her habit of using a “very attractive red bow”. After all, Treetop Barbie/Nadkarni remarks, “There’s no reason why scientists have to look messy or unattractive.”

Lind, Amy (2008). Battleground: Women, Gender, and Sexuality. Greenwood Publishing Group.

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