I never thought Barbie was for me – but Sarah Gilbert proved me wrong

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Let me start by saying that I am not an expert on the Barbie doll. Shock, I know. I didn’t have one as a child, though I think my sister probably did, and I don’t yet have any children of my own. You might quite reasonably point out, then, that I am unqualified – perhaps uniquely so – to write about the merits or otherwise of a new Barbie doll. But here we are. Bear with me.

Some context might be helpful. Professor Dame Sarah Gilbert may well have saved your life this year. She is the co-creator of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. The UK has ordered 100 million doses of this vaccine, so there is a good chance you will have had one or even two of those doses put in your arm and can cower no more, or just a little less, from Covid-19.

We should celebrate people like Professor Gilbert – and indeed we have. She has been made a dame, was awarded the Albert Medal by the Royal Society of Arts (previous recipients include Thomas Edison and Stephen Hawking) and given a standing ovation at Wimbledon. Now she has her own Barbie doll.

I have to say – and again, I’m no expert – that it doesn’t appear to resemble your standard Barbie. The doll is dressed in a black suit and white T-shirt, wears glasses and has red hair. If you squint hard enough, I suppose it could be Professor Gilbert, though it could also be Sarah Ferguson (not a professor). Either way, my sister’s Barbie didn’t look at all like this. Which is of course the point.

As Lisa McKnight, senior vice president and global head of Barbie and dolls at Mattel, explained: “Barbie recognises that all frontline workers have made tremendous sacrifices when confronting the pandemic and the challenges it heightened. To shine a light on their efforts, we are sharing their stories [...] to inspire the next generation to take after these heroes and give back.”

Professor Gilbert echoed these sentiments (after initially admitting that the tribute was “very strange”). “I am passionate about inspiring the next generation of girls into Stem [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] careers and hope that children who see my Barbie will realise how vital careers in science are to help the world around us,” she said. “My wish is that my doll will show children careers they may not be aware of, like a vaccinologist.”

It is hard to see this as anything other than tremendous progress. The sooner children are introduced to characters like Professor Gilbert (Mattel have also created dolls of, among others, Canadian physician Dr Chika Stacy Oriuwa and Brazilian biomedical researcher Dr Jaqueline Goes de Jesus), the better. It is, surely, about choice. Not every child will be interested. That’s fine. But those that are should be catered for and I suspect the original Barbie doll didn’t quite do that.

And perhaps this is where I come in. The fact that this Barbie doll of Professor Gilbert has hit the news and become a talking point – the fact that I am actually writing a column about it – is worth reflecting on. Conversations about children and the expectations placed on boys and girls through toys and clothes – astronauts for boys; princesses for girls – are usually reserved for parents. But shouldn’t we all be thinking about it? Shouldn’t we all care what the next generation is being taught? What opportunities to think are being provided or denied? It has ramifications for everyone. We need as many boys and girls as possible to take an interest in Stem subjects. The next Professor Sarah Gilbert is perhaps just a Professor Sarah Gilbert Barbie away from pursuing those dreams.

Undoubtedly, this bespectacled Barbie will inspire plenty of children to explore new ideas. But it has made me – and I hope you – think a bit as well. Not what I expected from Barbie on this Wednesday morning but something to be celebrated nevertheless.

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