Real Life Barbie Dolls

Have you come across the T shirts with the encouraging words

I’m too PRETTY to do MATH

blazoned across them in cute pink lettering? No, nor had I until they were brought to my attention by a member of the London Mathematical Society. The LMS is not happy about these products, and I can’t say I blame them. But how do you do anything effectively about them? Such as get them withdrawn from sale?

Maybe the LMS can learn something from the tale of the Barbie doll and her involvement with maths (this is the UK, so I won’t call it math!). About 20 years ago the manufacturers of Barbie, Mattel, produced a doll which said

Math class is tough.

There was quite a lot of fuss in the US. The Barbie Liberation Organisation doctored dolls (and also the ‘boy’s toy’ GI Joe) swapping their phrases around and returning the altered dolls to the toy store shelves. The shops then resold them to children who had to invent scenarios for Barbies who yelled “Vengeance is mine!” and G.I. Joes who daydreamed “Let’s plan our dream wedding!”. “Call your local TV news” stickers on the back ensured that the media would have genuine recipients to interview as soon as the news broke. By 1992 the dolls had the offending phrase about math removed from their vocabulary, as written up by the business press.

Fast forward to 2010 and we have Computer Engineer Barbie on the market as versatile and eternally youthful Barbie’s 126th career option. Her accessories, still tastefully pink, were apparently chosen (as Mattel points out) with the help of the Society of Women Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering. Her figure is as woman-defyingly impossible as ever, and her footware makes no concession to the practicalities of most workplaces, but I guess this is progress of sorts.

But we won’t get girls thinking about computing or engineering as a career, as long as pre-teens are bombarded with messages saying that maths does not happily coexist with their femininity. That if they do maths they are by definition not ‘pretty’ – so their future lives will, by implication, be devoid of boyfriends and happiness. What can be done to stop these products (not just T-shirts, but also socks and mobile phone covers apparently, as a quick bit of googling showed up) being available? Can some people-power, as was brought to bear on Mattel, stop DavidandGoliath marketing these offensive objects? The company’s byline may say that

our apparel is stupid

but I think most pre-teens’ sense of irony will not be developed enough to appreciate the message that is being touted should not be taken literally. I am heartened to see that Mumsnet are in on the act of writing letters of complaint and my guess is they are a pretty formidable campaigning tool. But if anyone has bright ideas about what the LMS might care to do, or how to kickstart a bit of direct action of their own, Gwynneth Stallard is the Chair of the LMS Women in Mathematics Committee.

The offending Tshirt on sale from DavidandGoliath

Not completely unrelated, I have just come across a recent analysis of advertisements for boys’ and girl’s toys, which highlights just what subliminal – or perhaps not-so-subliminal – messages are being directed at both children and their parents through the medium of ads. Word clouds for the two sexes presents a very visual way of seeing what messages the children will be receiving. Guess what, the top two words for boys are ‘battle’ and ‘power’, whereas for girls it’s ‘love’ and ‘magic’! You’d never believe the two sexes lived in the same world, experiencing the same challenges given such massive differences in what is thought appropriate to put the emphasis on.  But if girls are expected to thrive on magic rather than power, and use that to get them to the top, I’m afraid equality is a long way off and we won’t be seeing a steep rise in girls pursuing maths and science careers.

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25 Responses to Real Life Barbie Dolls

  1. Ursula Martin says:

    A line-up of the Council of said learned society in the aforesaid T-shirts might make a fine and humorous photo-op…..

  2. I think there’s a huge grey area between clearly ironic motifs (e.g. “speak slowly, I’m blonde”) and slogans that just reinforce stereotypes. Given the other motifs in David and Goliath’s T-shirt collection (e.g., “Mel Gibson Fan Club”), I’m more inclined to interpret the slogan as ironic, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see computer science, maths, and physics students in these shirts.

  3. chall says:

    It’s that thing that makes me cringe…. that irony/sarcasm might not be as obvious to pre-teens/teens/in general. Especially since it is one of those “truths” that some people actually still talk about (read “to worry your pretty little head with big questions”).

    I guess it is one of the things I’d hope to be a stereotypical joke, alas I fear that we are not really there yet…. at least not when I think about lots of things I overhear in the world and that are stated by people.

  4. Steve Caplan says:

    Athene,

    Thank you for championing this issue; what an awful way to try to perpetuate inequality.
    I wonder how the women who work for Mattel toys feel about their role in this?

    On the practical side, the only way I see to effectively combat this is through wise and patient parenting (of daughters and sons). Strong and supportive parents can overcome all of the gender unfairness derived from children’s toys and more. Because the environment is virtually flooded with such “inequality traps” for girls, parents need a lot of patience and encouragement to tide their daughters over the stage where they don’t yet understand what is going on–but when they do catch on (at age 7,8 or so), they become so much more confident and resilient. This is speaking from experience.

    I worry, though, about society as a whole.

  5. Flood the market with alternatives? ‘I am pretty and I do maths’, ‘I am pretty and one day I’ll be Prime Minister’?

  6. cromercrox says:

    Printing your own T-shirts is easy enough. After not being able to find one with one of my favourite slogans, I logged on to zazzle.com and ordered one that says

    STOP PLATE TECTONICS NOW

    and also made one with a design by Gee Minor featuring a depressed Dalek who says

    I’m fed up of exterminating. I want to be a celebrity chef

    Once you’ve designed a T-shirt, you can offer the design for sale.

    But srsly, a lot of it is down to teaching. When Gee Minima was at her last primary school, helping her with her maths homework – the tears, the tantrums, the flouncing off, and that was just me. But she changed schools, is much happier, and when she came up to me and said ‘I LOVE maths!’ and asked me to set her algebra problems, my only response was ‘who are you, and what have you done with Gee Minima?’

  7. @stephenemoss says:

    I showed the picture of the T-shirt to my daughter (16) who immediately took it to be a joke, but I suppose the concern in your blog is how it might be perceived by pre-teens. If younger shoppers take the message at face value then there is a problem, but is there any evidence that this is the case? If so, I suspect there is little that can be done other than trying to educate the T-shirt manufacturers.

    PS: My daughter takes her GCSEs in a couple of months, including Ad-Maths, and has chosen maths at A level.

  8. Helen says:

    I’m so glad this worries other people. Like the other commentators I agree there’s a fine line between what’s funny and what is actually damaging. My other major concerned are the promotion of fashion and make-up to girls from an increasingly early age, it not only pigeon holes them but perhaps shortens the time they’re able to be children and use the curiosity that come with that.

  9. Any self-respecting 16 year old girl would surely not be waiting for their mum to buy their T shirts (though possibly still to pay for the ones they choose), @stephenemoss. The worry is the younger child for whom the T shirt is purchased by some family member. I suspect even the 7 and 8 year olds Steve talks about will be likely to take such a message as face value unless it is spelt out very carefully and explicitly. Furthermore, a parent who buys such a shirt may anyhow believe it because ‘they were bad at math at school’ (and perhaps want to believe they’re pretty despite advancing years).

    When I went to look at the producers’ website I couldn’t see any sign these shirts were sold for adults – for whom the irony might be appropriate. So I was left uncertain any irony was intended. After all, the Barbie story I relate shows not the slightest sign of having been intended tongue-in-cheek, but because (one assumes) Mattel thought it would sell dolls.As an adult I’m as capable as the next person at laughing at myself; for instance when sent a badge saying ‘not just a dumb blonde’ as congratulations on being elected to the Royal Society I find it amusing. However, I’m not convinced young children will do anything other than absorb a negative message implicitly if dressed in this t shirt.

  10. @stephenemoss says:

    Athene – you’re absolutely right. It’s been a while since my daughter would accept any parental ‘interference’ in choosing her clothes. Maybe some of your other blog readers have pre-teen daughters (and sons) who could be asked what they make of the T-shirt pictured. Hardly a scientific study I know, but children can respond in quite unexpected ways.

  11. ricardipus says:

    While I completely agree with your post, I think you’re under-estimating the capacity for irony that the average (or even exceptional) pre-teen has. In my (to be sure, limited) experience, they *live* on irony, and sarcasm.

  12. Cherish says:

    I guess I agree with the notion of flooding the market with alternatives: “I’m pretty, therefore I do math.” Or something along those lines.

  13. Beth says:

    The slogan is also on a mobile phone sock stocked by Littlewoods. I have emailed them to complain.

  14. ricardipus says:

    “I guess I agree with the notion of flooding the market with alternatives: “I’m pretty, therefore I do math.” Or something along those lines.”

    @Cherish – unfortunately, this doesn’t work either as it suggests that being pretty is a prerequisite to doing math, or that it’s ironically unsuspected that someone pretty could do math. Or that being pretty is important. Being dogmatic about these things is a minefield.

  15. Cromercrox says:

    I showed the T shirt slogan to Crox Minima (10) who just shrugged. I have yet to show it to Crox Minor (13). As a parent, what I find more disturbing than this, in clothes for girls is how sexualised they’ve become. Mrs Crox reports the existence os swimsuits for very small girls, that have padded bra cups fer chrissakes. How yuk is that? Such attire seems to be popular among the Lower Orders who appear to breed more profusely than Nice People. There’s a good reason for that, firmly rooted in natural selection, in which there is selective pressure on those who live in insecure, difficult or violent surroundings to trade early reproduction against life expectancy. The Lower Orders tend not to live as long as Nice People, so, well, perhaps I should stop digging.

  16. G Scott says:

    I think that it isn’t so much that no one will see the irony in this one t-shirt but that it is the accumulation of such messages that is the problem.

  17. Steve Caplan says:

    Athene,

    I talked my daughter this evening about your blog, and her opinion is that T-shirt is not funny in any manner. Not a sarcastic joke, nor as any kind of witty attempt to poke fun at existing stereotypes. And believe me, she has a healthy sense of humor (see her comic “Parental science geeks, beware” and a soon-to-be blogged upcoming sequel).

    She is currently in a middle school, in seventh grade, along with 400 other children. Based on an exam that she took before beginning in the school, she was one of 7% of the kids chosen to take the highest level for math (maths). I asked her how many girls there are in this group, and it’s roughly two-thirds boys and one third girls. In my view the only way to explain this is that the environment, as you have been actively describing in your blogs, is subtly or not so subtly discouraging young girls from being enthusiastic about math and science.

    As indicated earlier, in a perfect world we could combat this and it would disappear. But is this is not going to happen–at least at the rate that we would like to see it occur (with beauty pageants and physical attributes still wildly popular in western culture), again I think that the only real way to give girls the opportunities and confidence that they deserve must come from their parents and closest environments. Unfortunately, I realize that in many cases this too may not work very well.

  18. I know Gwynneth at the LMS has been following the comments with interest. I didn’t put my own original suggestion on here to see what else was prompted, but it was similar to many of the ideas of taking photos of people who (pretty or not) were good at math(s). My first choice fell on Brian Cox (and then ideally getting an interview with him in it talking about how maths is wonderful to one of the mass circulation papers), but I had other suggestions too. However, a parent of a young girl told me this approach would just have the effect of encouraging people to buy the shirts, and I can see that could be the outcome. The only effective action I can see would be mass direct action against DavidandGoliath (and Littlewoods who stock the goods in the UK I believe) to remove the shirts, as worked for the Barbie story I discuss. I’m not sure readers of this blog quite amount to a ‘mass’, but that is where something like Mumsnet may be more useful. Any readers who also subscribe to that organisation may like to push in that direction.

    As Steve says it is just a tiny part of the overall discouraging environment that probably starts soon after birth ‘telling’ girls that maths, science and engineering are for the boys. No one has commented on the wordle about the toys’ advertisements, which is symptomatic too of what is going on out there in the ‘real world’, but I found that horrifying. Cromercrox, I had thought of including my views on the early years sexualisation that is going on, but felt it was such a large story (about which I have no expertise) I would give it a miss, but it is undoubtedly part of the same problem.

  19. /desperately trying to delete mental image of Brian Cox wearing the pink ‘I’m too pretty to do math” T-shirt…

    • Erika Cule says:

      D’oh! I have been trying to do the same since I read this post. Thanks, Jenny :-P

    • cromercrox says:

      Almost two years ago Crox Minima and I supported Mrs Crox and Crox Minor as they ran in a local Race For Life event (http://occamstypewriter.org/cromercrox/2009/05/03/race-for-life/) – I wanted to buy a commemorative T-shirt to show my support. So, I bought one. I was rather too snug for my magnificently Olympian frame, and I was somewhat restricted in colour choice – you could have any colour you liked provided it was shocking pink. Now, those who know me would know that I’d have no qualms whatsoever about wearing such a garment, but Crox Minima (then aged 9) was so absolutely consumed with embarrassment that her Dad would want to wear a pink T-shirt that she threatened to disown me if I did. So I didn’t.

  20. Cromercrox says:

    I’ve now tried the ‘too pretty to do math’ slogan on both my daughters, and their opinion was that it was ‘comical’, on the basis of which statistically significant sample I’d say you were making too much of this.

  21. Hmm, based on your reply not sure paleontologists have got to grips with statistics! Additionally I don’t think that was a ‘fair test’ since I doubt your attitude towards maths and probably parenting are representative of the average member of the population. The parents who think the T shirt appropriate may well not be the ones who go on to encourage their sweet (or otherwise) daughters to think about maths at A level. I may of course be misjudging those who buy the shirts….

  22. cromercrox says:

    Discovering that would be your next task. You need to hang out at ASDA or Primark any Saturday afternoon. Rather you than me.

  23. Nick Hood says:

    I love the opportunity for a bit of mischief.

    How about a photo of a pretty young woman wearing the offending slogan on a t-shirt? She should be heavily pregnant. With a cigarette. And a bottle of bucky. Maybe a brat at her feet.

    Then post it on Facebook.

    I’ll get me coat.