Editor’s note: 19-year-old Julie Zeilinger is currently an undergraduate at Barnard College, Columbia University. The founder and editor of FBomb, which calls itself a feminist blog and community for teens and young adults who care about their rights and want to be heard, Zeilinger has been named one of the eight most influential bloggers under the age of 21 by Woman’s Day magazine, one of More Magazine’s “New Feminists You Need To Know,” one of The Times' “40 Bloggers Who Really Count,” and one of the Plain Dealer’s “Most Interesting People of 2011.” Her book about the next generation of feminism, "A Little F'd Up: Why Feminism Is Not A Dirty Word," will be published in May of 2012.
As a teenager, I have been asked to look up to an heiress whose greatest contribution to society was the catchphrase “that’s hot,” reality-TV stars who have somehow managed to turn elementary school vocabularies and a high tolerance for alcohol into millions of dollars, and countless starlets with dozens of DUIs under their tiny belts.
So when I heard that Barbie -- a figure I consider to be on par with those aforementioned “role models” -- is apparently running for president, I was, frankly, a little depressed. I’m just not sure which is worse: that, considering some of the recent potential presidential nominees, I honestly believe Barbie may be one of the more qualified candidates; or that a doll that embodies an antiquated and problematic idea of femininity is being held up as a model of women’s leadership.
Yes, on the surface, it may seem like Barbie’s presidential run is a progressive indicator of how far women have come. According to a press release, Barbie’s platform encourages girls to “B inspired,” “B informed” and “B involved” -- qualities that ring of feminist inspiration (despite some really cleverly omitted vowels in there). And on some level, I can recognize the good intentions behind this campaign, launched in partnership with the White House Project (a truly wonderful organization that I support and respect).
In order for young girls to strive for leadership positions, to aspire to be things like POTUS, women in those high-powered careers must be visible. Women’s leadership must be normalized; it must seem like a wholly realistic possibility in order for young girls to even believe it is something that they could hope to achieve. I understand why, on the surface, this organization would choose a popular toy to transform into a beacon of hope and inspiration for young women.
And yet, this isn’t just any toy -- it’s Barbie (albeit the “Barbie I Can Be …” model). Apparently, she’s on her way to the “Pink house,” she’s a “true fashionista on and off the campaign trail” and she’s running a “glam-paign.” Mattel cuts to the chase on its website, stating that “Barbie I Can Be … dolls and accessories let girls explore different roles and try on fabulous careers,” then goes on to describe in detail her presidential outfit.
Why do we feel that in order to get young girls interested in politics we have to frame it as a fashionable trend? Why do we still buy into this insultingly polarized image of femininity as pink-washed and superficial? Why do we feel that we have to attach something like political ambition to cute clothing and, furthermore, unattainable beauty standards. Presidential Barbie, far from being an inspiring emblem of female empowerment and ambition, only underscores how as a society we continue to undermine young women and confine them to a limiting definition of femininity hardly rooted in reality. We feel that they can’t be trusted with -- or wouldn’t be interested in -- the truth, that they could never be attracted to things like having power, being able to incite change or exercising their voice unless it’s packaged in pink and pearls.
Well, as a young woman myself, I have some news for Mattel, and for every corporation trying to capitalize on some superficial version of female empowerment -- and for society at large: Stop insulting young women by assuming that in order to spark their interest, issues like politics must be feminized or reduced to a fashion statement.
The point of including more women in politics and leadership positions in general is not based on some abstract idea of it being the “right” thing to do (though it is), but on the reality that excluding women from politics excludes half the population, and therefore eliminates the interests of a huge group and discredits the fresh and insightful ideas the group could contribute. Presidential Barbie only reinforces the idea that women should be included in politics based on some superficial ideas of representation rather than a true appreciation for what women bring to the table -- not quite the equality women’s rights activists have been fighting for all these years.
So, while I understand and support the idea behind popularizing and normalizing the idea of women in politics, maybe instead of doing so superficially and insultingly through Barbie, we could trust the intelligence and ambitions of young girls and present them with some real female role models. That’s right: I say we bring on the Hillary Clinton dolls, scaled to anatomically correct proportions, clad in a sensible pantsuit and complete with accessories: a plane (not for glamorous jet-setting to St. Barts to get a perfect tan, but for travel to negotiate with world leaders and win the hearts and minds of people all over the world) and a “Clinton 2016” bumper sticker. Now that’s a doll I’d buy for the young girls in my life.