Photo of Barbie Doll

Barbie, A Leader?

Emily IhrkeLeadership Lab, Leadership Programs, Pedagogy Of Leadership®, Student Leadership

by Emily Tymus Ihrke, Executive Editor, gcLi Leadership Blog; Ethical Leadership Program Director and Teacher, University School of Milwaukee in Milwaukee, WI


Is Barbie a leader? 

Yes. In Greta Gerwig’s movie version she is.

And in my childhood she was.

From the start, let’s be perfectly clear: 

Barbie isn’t perfect–not the movie, not the idea, and certainly not the dolls–, but leaders do not need to be perfect. 

One of gcLi’s beliefs is that “Good leaders create a context that motivates others to move beyond their perceived boundaries.”

Barbie has done that.

For some of us, and for some of our children, Barbie has allowed us to dream. She has allowed us to imagine lives and lifestyles different from our own. 

In that way, Barbie has given us the same opportunity that Director Greta Gerwig gives Barbie: possibilities… and a richer interior life.

Barbie is, I daresay, aspirational. For 64 years, she has offered an invitation for “kids to imagine iterations of girlhood and womanhood beyond traditional domestic roles.” As her creator Ruth Handler said, “Barbie has always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”

Since her arrival in 1959, Barbie has been an independent woman, different from other dolls. She’s owned her own home since 1962–something remarkable, given that the Equal Credit Opportunity Act wasn’t passed until 1974, making such an asset unavailable to most American women–, and Barbie has been living in that house alone since then. (As the Gerwig film makes evident, it’s Barbie’s house, and she doesn’t have any roommates, much to Ken’s disappointment.)

Barbie is neither a wife nor mother. Her primary role is pilot of her own passenger jet. Or photojournalist driving her own (pink!) camper down the highway on her way to her next exciting assignment. Barbie is also a paleontologist. And she traveled to space four years before an actual man walked on the moon.

Barbie has had over 250 careers.

They range from firefighter to doctor to WNBA player. As Sonja Anderson explains in When Barbie Broke the Glass Ceiling, in many ways, such as when Barbie became U.S. President, an MLB player, or a Thunderbird in the Air Force, Barbies have not only been ahead of their time, but have also impacted real girls and women of their time to dream, pursue, and make real change in the world.

Of course, Barbie is also flawed. She’s made plenty of mistakes. In the actual world and in the Gerwig movie.

Leaders have flaws. Leaders make mistakes.

But Barbie persists. 

When I asked my 11-year-old daughter earlier this week whether she thinks Barbie is a leader, her response was “Absolutely. No matter what, Barbie keeps going. She does the right thing, even when it’s hard, and she doesn’t put other people down.” She then went on to describe several examples from episodes of Barbie Life in the Dreamhouse as well as the recent movie. (To be honest, for the BLitD ones, I didn’t quite follow. Her case was clear, though.) Barbie makes course corrections. She’s adaptive.POV picture of woman walking on the beach barefoot looking at her feet

It isn’t easy to change, yet Barbie does.

(*Spoiler alert*)

Part of what makes the Greta Gerwig Barbie an especially great one is that she is willing to become truly vulnerable. When she leaves Barbie Land, she quickly realizes how complicated it is to not just be human but also to be a woman.

It’s messy. Some might say impossible*.

In the end, though, it’s what Barbie chooses. She chooses to be real. To be flesh and flawed, instead of plastic and perfect. Gerwig’s Barbie chooses a path unlike that of the other dolls. (So did Ruth Handler’s. Barbie has always taken a different path, even though it is a challenging one consisting of independence and risk.) 

Barbie chooses a life distant from the one she knew. She chooses feet that touch the ground. Birkenstocks instead of heels. Relationships that are sometimes difficult but actually legitimate. Conversations that are tough. Eyes that sometimes cry, and a heart that sometimes aches.

Barbie chooses humanity.

You can call it whatever you like.

I’m calling it leadership.

*From Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, the America Ferrera monologue in its entirety (character of Gloria to Barbie):

It is literally *impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.

You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. 

You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman, but also always be looking out for other people. You have to answer for men’s bad behavior, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining. 

You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sisterhood. But always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged. So find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful. You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out in fact that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.

I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don’t even know.

From Read the stirring monologue about womanhood America Ferrera delivers in ‘Barbie’ (LA Times)

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A three-time graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Emily Tymus Ihrke is an award-winning teacher. She’s taught in public and independent schools, in upper schools and middle schools, in English classrooms, school libraries, and the learning center. Emily has been a coach, mentor, department chair, and dean, and she is the founding director of University School of Milwaukee’s PK12 Ethical Leadership Program. Growing up, she played with Barbies.