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Ed. Magazine

Barbie’s Teachable Moments

Can the doll and movie help young people find common ground? It’s complicated.
Barbie illustration by Jason Schneider
Illustration: Jason Schneider

I know Barbie. I played with Barbie, mostly her home accessories and pools, when I was little. But, while I’ve long written about the intersection of “girl world” and mass media, I’ve never written about her. I’ve written about No Doubt’s "I’m Just a Girl" and American Girl dolls, Seventeen and Mean Girls. Barbie was too easy, too cliché of a topic to spend time on. Unattainable body concepts — nothing else to dive into there. 

When it comes to Barbie’s recent film-driven resurgence, I’d like to think that my work in media and background in gender studies would have given me some immunity to the hype. But the trailers, steady stream of pre-release articles, and Barbie products seemingly everywhere, had my attention. I considered buying a Barbie-branded pool floatie (I don’t have a pool) and Barbie logo pajamas (I don’t need those). When the film came out this summer, I saw it twice. 

I have so far resisted buying Barbie stuff I don’t need. As an educator and parenting expert, however, I can’t deny that Barbie is a smart take on a topic that was previously exhausted. It invites us to examine some of the most pressing cultural issues of our time and welcomes us to deepen our conversations, especially with the young people in our lives. 

When it comes to reaching adolescents, mass media is a powerful tool, a jumping off point to address sensitive and complex topics, without getting too personal. Barbie touches on critical themes including gender and power dynamics, body image, self-advocacy, violence against women, boundary-setting, diversity, and inclusion. We can talk about our opinions, values, and takeaways related to what we’ve seen. (Barbie, specifically, has the added benefit of being intergenerationally relevant.) We can ask our kids and students about their impressions, gently encouraging them to think critically about messaging they are being served. We can highlight some of the lessons we most hope they learn. We can also help them understand where we stand on different issues, providing insight into how we might respond if they were ever to come with us with a related concern or challenge. An added bonus to this approach? You don’t even have to like Barbie to have impactful conversations about the film. 

When so much public debate is plagued by rage, zero-sum thinking, and cancel culture, Barbie also provides us a roadmap for how to address controversial topics and navigate heated scenarios. Mattel drove production of the film. They knew they had some questions to answer about whether Barbie has been a net positive or negative for our culture, and in particular, women. With Greta Gerwig’s self-deprecating take on its company and iconic doll, Mattel owned its missteps, marketing mishaps, and place in a largely male corporate world that has been accused of sabotaging, manipulating, and capitalizing on women. Examining its past while highlighting Barbie’s present strengths — kindness, creativity, body positivity, and commitment to diversity (a key pillar of Mattel’s corporate strategy in recent years, ahead of many other manufacturers) — Mattel doubled down on its core values. The company did all of this with glitter and levity, as if to say, “We’ve messed up, sometimes dramatically. We’ve been part of the problem. We know you may find us unlikeable … but we’re trying.” 

Broader cultural discourse encourages us and our kids to take sides — often in ways that haven’t been positive for our communities or our country. Barbie shows us how something can be both celebrated and critiqued, how we can address many (not all) serious themes with humor, creativity, and kindness, even if we have different perspectives. Barbie isn’t perfect. She’s not for everyone, but maybe can she show us how to find some common ground. We can all use more of that. 

Kimberly Wolf, Ed.M.'09, is the author of Talk with Her: A Dad's Essential Guide to Raising Healthy, Confident, and Capable Daughters. Learn more. 


Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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