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Mattel Introduces 17 'Shero' Barbies To Celebrate International Women's Day


OK, I'm going to throw out a few names and let you guess why we're talking about them. Here we go. Frida Kahlo. Chloe Kim. NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson. Filmmaker Patty Jenkins. OK, if you're thinking what an impressive lineup of accomplished women, you would be right. You're on to something. I'm guessing you might not have been thinking about Barbie. Well, those four women and about a dozen others are part of a new line of Barbies that Mattel has rolled out to mark International Women's Day. The company says it's honoring female role models as a way to inspire girls. So can a Barbie - any Barbie - really be empowering?

Well, we're putting that question to Aisha Sultan, parenting columnist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Welcome.

AISHA SULTAN: Thank you so much.

KELLY: All right, so these new barbies, they are women in all different fields. We mentioned there's a snowboarder. There's a boxer. There's a journalist, which warmed my heart. They're dressed in all kinds of different outfits. But they still all look like a Barbie doll, right? I mean, they're all still completely unrealistic proportions on these women.

SULTAN: They absolutely are. And I'm a huge fan of every woman that they chose to make a Barbie of in this line. They're incredible role models. And I would be thrilled to have this as an option to give as a gift or for a child that I know. But here's the thing. They don't necessarily look like the women that they represent. They look like a glamorized, Barbie-ized (ph) version of that - for example, Frida Kahlo. I mean, Frida doesn't have her signature trademark unibrow...

KELLY: No unibrow.

SULTAN: ...Which was her way of speaking against conventional beauty standards of her time. It was a very powerful statement. So I feel like Mattel could have gone a little further and really made a huge statement with these dolls.

KELLY: These new dolls, we should mention, are part of the Shero collection, as Mattel calls them. And they do have a doll for the plus-size model Ashley Graham. They had Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who wears a hijab.

SULTAN: Yes. And I think that kind of representation - I mean, really all of it should be applauded. I would just love for them to take it a step further because that, to me, is when a corporation goes from its like, oh, let's be smart marketers and let's be smart product makers into let's really advocate for some kind of social change. You know, some kind of social improvement where women or little girls or little boys who play with these dolls can think, yes, I could be this or I could be that, or look at what this amazing person did. But I don't have to look like a perfect 10.

KELLY: When I was a little girl, I had kissing Barbie. There was actually a button on her back, and you pressed it and this poof of air came out. She made this smooching sound. And I loved her. And it was not because she was a role model or I thought I had to look like her, but because she was pretty and she was fun to play with.

SULTAN: Well, I had a Barbie that it was like Texan cowgirl Barbie because I was...

KELLY: Oh, that's a good one.

SULTAN: I grew up in Texas. And you pushed a little button on her back and she winked. And I loved her, too.

KELLY: (Laughter).

SULTAN: I did. I thought she was so glamorous.

KELLY: So does it matter that she maybe wasn't the role model? You haven't grown up, I assume, to be a Texas cowgirl.

SULTAN: No, I have not. Although, you know, you never know. There's still time.

KELLY: There's time (laughter).

SULTAN: But (laughter) - but I will say, though, that I think only seeing dolls and images in the media and glamorous women like that probably has impacted how I think I should look or the struggle to, like, always be losing five pounds and chronic dissatisfaction that women feel with their bodies. It's never just one thing. It's like the whole culture you grow up in. Now imagine how powerful it would have been had Barbie come out with a line of dolls that challenged that or pushed back on that even in the slightest bit. And we've seen Barbie as an astronaut, as a doctor. I mean, she has been progressive in her careers for a long time. So it would amazing to see her be progressive in the way she looks.

KELLY: Aisha Sultan, columnist and home and family editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, thanks so much.

SULTAN: Absolutely.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNICORN (SCORE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.