Friday, February 15, 2019

About That New "Entomologist Barbie"

A few weeks ago, Mattel and the National Geographic Society announced that they were joining forces, with one noteworthy result: the introduction of "Entomologist Barbie." My initial reaction to this was an eye-roll, but judging by the reactions of most of my respected scientist colleagues, I have come to appreciate this a little more. That is not to say I no longer have reservations.

© Mattel

Lately I view almost every new item in the marketplace with skepticism because I have come to believe that "product" is seldom the answer to anything. Problems are often created for the purpose of invention. The problem that this new doll is addressing is a very real one, but the product does not solve it. The issue is the lack of women in positions of leadership in the sciences.

Traditionally, Barbie has reflected a very narrow range of career choices for women, narrower ethnic diversity, and a uniformly slender, arguably underweight, industry standard for fashion models. Mattel has gradually begun to recognize that they can have a greater market share in the toy industry by keeping up with progressive attitudes and values. Forgive my cynicism that they care about much else. At least I am less blunt than the writer of this article in The Guardian.

Perhaps the National Geographic Society partnership is having a more positive influence on the toy-maker? That would be wonderful. I was pleasantly surprised that in a cursory search of explorers, as associates of Nat Geo are called, there is a respectable balance of women and men, and recognition of global diversity among scientists and scholars. There are young people and elder statesmen. This spectrum of curious and dedicated folk is exactly what it should be, or closely approaches it.

You want a flesh-and-blood role model for your girls? Ok, I can offer some, like Dr. May Berenbaum of the National Academy of Sciences. How about Kristie Reddick and Jessica Honaker, the "Bug Chicks?" There's "Bug Gwen" who writes for Wired. Dr. Stephanie Dole is the "Beetle Lady" who makes her living doing presentations to children in California. Oh, I cannot forget Joanie Mars and Nancy Miorelli from Ask an Entomologist. I could go on and on with only the esteemed women scientists I know personally. Most of them are shockingly accessible to you, the public, online and in person.

All of these real-life women have had to struggle to earn the same respect granted their male counterparts. Science is still very sexist, though steadily improving, we would hope. Unfortunately, Barbie has no power to further that cause, putting more women scientists into positions of power and authority, influencing policy that is long overdue for redirection so as to be more humane, more responsive to the issues of our time.

Meanwhile, National Geographic might entertain more substantive partners from this point forward. Maybe team up with BioQuip Products so aspiring young entomologists, girls or boys, can get their very own magnifiers, insect nets, and other equipment that their professional scientist heroes use. Here is a wild idea: Idea Wild is a non-profit that puts badly-needed equipment in the hands of scientists in third world nations so that they can conduct necessary research to conserve and protect the wildlife of their homelands. They are in their twenty-fifth year of service to our conservationists abroad. They could use a higher profile and more funding.

So, before you spring for the beautiful, blonde, bug-collecting Barbie, consider whether you might make more of an impact in advancing the careers of young female scientists, including entomologists, in other ways. More plastic playthings are not going to do that. Dolls are unfortunately disposable, our youth are not. Oh, and as a colleague recently pointed out in an online whisper, Entomologist Barbie doesn't even have the right kind of microscope.


  1. I know some parents don't buy Barbies or other dolls, but the percentage that do is huge. Barbie is a roll model whether we like it or not. Scientific toys are great, but they serve different purposes. Dolls and action figures are roll playing toys. Science toys are for discovery. Kids need both and maybe this toy will show them that being interested in insects isn't just for boys. That may encourage their parents to buy science based toys so they can investigate insects closer. You can't say magnifying glasses, nets, and viewing boxes aimed at children aren't also disposable plastic just like a doll. I had science toys growing up. I played with G.I. Joe far more. I had little interest in insects or spiders until after high school when I got a camera with good macro capabilities.

    1. I played with G.I. Joe, also, but I also got outdoors a lot.

  2. Agreed! Children need to examine real bugs, not a Barbie pretending to examine bugs.

    And, really, it’s a new millennium. Mattel, ditch the pink. It’s a sexist trap.

  3. "Entomologist Barbie doesn't even have the right kind of microscope".

    Obviously, she's really Acarologist Barbie. It's just easier to tell people what she does this way.

  4. From Jen Thompson on Facebook:

    "I can see the immense value that a toy such as this would have on bug-loving children, especially girls. I have not once said to my 5 year old daughter or her 10 year old brother that anything at all is "for girls" or "for boys." I do the complete opposite actually. My 10 year old gets it, but my 5 year old has come home with the notion that "only girls can like/do ____" or "____ is for boys." I feel like I have to practically undo the utter brainwashing done by her peers (and very likely her teachers; we do live in a very small town in Texas) every other day. I have, her brother has, and everyone in her family has, "given her permission" to do whatever she wants. Heck, and I'm a single mom and microbiologist in for a promotion to hopefully run part of the TX DSHS public health lab who never finished her bachelor's. You would think I would have more influence on her, but I don't. Not yet anyway. So I don't know, I think an entomologist Barbie is a good idea, especially for young girls. It does "give permission," in a way, for young girls to see a woman as a scientist, even if just a toy, that they may not have the chance to do otherwise. Me however, I bought my kids the butterfly nets and binoculars and magnifying glasses and jr science kits and chemistry sets, and take them out exploring as often as I can, and pass up on the Barbies entirely. But science is something I know how to do, and do, daily. For a parent that doesn't, I think the Barbie is perhaps a starting point, even if she needs to gain 20 lbs (that's a whole 'nother can 'o beans)."

  5. From Sandra Hunt-von Arb on Facebook:

    "You're missing an important point. Having toys that give you "permission" or even the idea to think you, as a girl, can be an entemologist (or other sciences) is an important cog in the wheel that moves us towards equality in the sciences. Yes, we need more women in managerial or lead scientist positions, but we need to work on this issue from all sides."

  6. From Natalie Hernandez on Facebook:

    " I agree with you that we’re a long way off from making the sciences equal, I am constantly fighting to be taken seriously despite having over a decade of experience and proving myself over and over and over again. But I would have loved to have this Barbie when I was a kid. I would have loved if she were brunette and a little tan like me too. As others have mentioned, the power of make believe is immense, and I always felt a little out of the norm with how much I liked animals, especially insects. I still feel a little out of the norm, especially when people tell me they’re really surprised when I say I’m an entomologist, because I’m definitely not what they picture when they think of entomologists. I did have the opportunity to foster acceptance with a lot of kids when I was part of Insect Ambassadors at UW-Madison, and even had a woman contact me when I was the coordinator of the program because her niece was being made fun of for liking spiders. She wanted to bring her by and have a female entomologist show her the collection. The girl started the tour hunched over, folded in on herself, awkward and unsure. First thing I did was show her the tarantulas, gave her a shed skin I’d preserved in a case. Her face lit up immediately, she stood up straighter, came out of her shell, and non stop talked about spiders and all the cool things they do. She asked if I ever had people tease me, and I told her of course people tease me, they don’t understand the “creepy crawlies” the way we do but I don’t care because I love being an entomologist and no one will ever take that away from me. I hope more little girls will see this and decide they want to be entomologists, and never let anyone take that away from them either."

  7. From Christopher Ward on Facebook:

    "I remember as a kid, how i didn't get why other kids weren't fascinated with the jar of scorpions or the mantid fly, I brought to school or found on found on the play ground. Ignorant of what a biblical "pariah" was. This is a nice reach to bridge that early instilling of insect fear and perhaps gender inclusion, to a field rife with fear and male dominance?"

  8. From Lulu Lee on Facebook:

    "The world of pretend is powerful for children and dolls are a huge part of that. To have such a doll provokes interest & validates interest. A child has no clue about managerial positions or the paucity of women in those positions. What they do know is if something is reflective of them."

  9. From Tracey Lynn Amos Leigh on Facebook:

    " Personally, I think there is too much thinking involved with what possible message a toy is sending and to who.
    I think it’s great, wish I’d had one growing up..
    This is from a woman, who as a child , stole my sisters ballerina Barbie in anger ( I knew it was her favorite) and with markers, hid in a closet and turned her into hooker Barbie.
    Just let the kids play and let’s not believe there is always some hidden meaning or possibly bad vibe while our kids play with what is simply a cool toy."

  10. From Kaya Woodall on Facebook:

    " I don’t really get the criticism here. Is the existence of this doll going to end gender inequality in the field? Obviously no. But Barbie has historically been a barometer for what roles are considered acceptable for women in western/American society. Given that representation is one of the biggest hurdles currently preventing women and their peers from feeling like women “belong” in certain fields, the fact that entomology is now explicitly represented in this mainstream catalog of permissible femininity seems decisively good."

  11. From Sasha Ripley on Facebook:

    " These kinds of toys just didn’t exist when I was a kid and I’ve struggled hard through school and in life in general. I presented at my first conference only to have other industry leaders and scientists speak to me in the most condescending manner imaginable. It doesn’t help that I got a late start on my degree and it makes matters worse to not only look a decade younger than I am, but to present as a (heavily tattooed, weird-haired) woman.

    I hated Barbie as a kid - I only wanted to play with animal toys. I don’t love Barbie now, just because the toys available have been pretty limited in their career play choices. But my daughter, being a child who just turned 7, loves Barbie and dolls in general. That being said, I flipped out when I saw: Paleontologist Barbie, dressed for the field, complete with brush and plastic fossil discovery; Beekeeper Barbie in her suit with her hives; Robotics Engineer Barbie with her laptop and robot; and now all of these amazing Biologist and Ecologist Barbies from Nat Geo. I cried when I saw Entomologist Barbie. My daughter thinks I am so cool for studying insects and spiders, and tells anyone any chance she gets. When she plays with this doll, she’s going to be imagining me doing my work, and in turn can imagine herself doing this work, and that makes me feel amazing."

  12. Ha! So many opinions on these matters. Much of the changes in the toy industry are driven not by what kids want but what parents want for their kids. Well, that is my opinion.
    Anyway, if there was an entomologist Ken doll, I would consider buying one.


Blog author currently unable to reply to reader comments, nor comment himself. Working to resolve this.