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Joan Vennochi

Mixed messages from President Barbie

By Joan Vennochi
February 25, 2010

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BARBIE, THE iconic doll with a big chest and stiletto heels, is now teamed up with The White House Project, a national organization that hopes to one day see a woman president.

It is a confusing ticket.

Marie Wilson, founder and president of The White House Project, said she worked with Mattel, Inc., the doll’s manufacturer, back in 2000 to develop a “President Barbie.’’ This year, Mattel named Wilson one of the “10 women to watch in 2010.’’ Wilson, in turn, is promoting President Barbie, along with Barbie’s two latest career incarnations: news anchor and computer engineer.

At the same time, Wilson blogged recently that Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice presidential candidate, needs “an ‘extreme makeover’ in political knowledge and experience to restore confidence in her beyond the conservative base.’’ Added Wilson, “It won’t do to be a Fox pundit or Tea Party heroine to lead a country in an era as complex as we live in now. If punditry alone is enough to get you elected president, then our democracy is in more of a disarray than I care to believe.’’

Try reconciling that with Wilson’s embrace of a doll with big hair - and an historically slutty wardrobe - as a role model for little girls.

Barbie, the TV anchor, is more cable news babe than mature broadcast journalist. Barbie, the computer engineer, has hot pink glasses and a hot pink laptop, accessories that Mattel said were chosen by the Society of Women Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering.

President Barbie drapes her hot body in a sensible blue suit, instead of a skimpy bathing suit or sexy evening gown. She comes in different ethnic models, with a bill of rights and a political platform. At age 51 (the doll was launched in 1959), she has no wrinkles or flab.

I am not a Barbie hater. I bought plenty of them when my now-teenage daughter was younger.

But who is President Barbie supposed to inspire girls to be?

The next Hillary Clinton, who is anything but Barbie-like? Or, the next Palin, who was criticized by Wilson as vacuous and then urged to use her identity as a mother “to call for a new focus on the need for a comprehensive child care policy’’?

If President Barbie does inspire girls to think about running for office, a serious mother-daughter conversation should follow about the challenges that lie ahead: Yes, dear, you can be anything you want to be, but be prepared for ugliness on the campaign trail.

Clinton and Palin both generated tough, gender-specific scrutiny, relating to looks, marriage and motherhood. So did Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, during her recent losing campaign to fill the Senate seat left vacant by the death of Edward M. Kennedy.

Republican Scott Brown beat Coakley, despite his much commented-on nude centerfold from law school days. Could candidate Barbie win election, given all the revealing outfits from her past ?

Wilson recently blamed Coakley’s loss on her much-publicized comment that former Red Sox hero Curt Schilling was a New York Yankees fan. “That is why what we at The White House Project teach our trainees who aspire to run for political office is this: culture matters,’’ blogged Wilson for the Huffington Post. That sounds a lot like buying into the cultural status quo that keeps women out of high office. Asked about the mixed messages sent by President Barbie, Wilson said, via email, that “You have to start where girls are . . . and believe me, this doll is where girls are.’’

Asked to square Barbie’s fantasy image with reality, she replied that “Girls are interested in passion and purpose...A doll who wants to save the planet is interesting. A computer engineer who may teach girls how technology can make change makes a contribution.,’’

Wilson said Palin received some sexist coverage, but “also colluded.’’ As for the message from Clinton and Coakley, she said, “Of course there are still barriers to women’s leadership in higher office . . . But each of these losses had very distinct issues that while gender was present, were related to time, place and politics.’’

It’s more complicated than a marketing scheme for President Barbie.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.

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