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This summer a hot new film is dominating the headlines; simply named Barbie, it is directed and co-written by Greta Gerwig. Despite much controversy (the classic Aqua song has not been used in the film!) many predictions (this summer’s fashions will be full Barbiecore!) and many, many memes, you may be forgiven if all this has passed you by as someone more interested in mathematics than plastic dolls. But who is to say they are mutually exclusive? In fact, the history of Barbie and mathematics is an interesting one.
Since her launch in 1959, Barbie has been the centre of many a controversy, some explicitly mathematical. Perhaps the most famous of these was in 1992, when “Teen Talk Barbie” was released, a version of the doll with a voice box that allowed her to “speak” four phrases. Each doll had a recording reportedly randomly selected from 270 possibilities, including “Will we ever have enough clothes?", “You’re my best friend” and “Math class is tough.”1 This last phrase sparked critiques from organisations such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and the American Association of University Women, causing Mattel (the company that makes Barbie) to apologize and withdraw the phrase from circulation.2 The “Math class is tough!” meme lives on, giving rise to popular discourse and even (misquoted) research paper titles, such as “‘Math is hard!’ (BarbieTM, 1994): Responses of Threat vs. Challenge-Mediated Arousal to Stereotypes Alleging Intellectual Inferiority” (Ben-Zeev et al., 2010).3
Later controversies have centred on Barbie’s proportions. According to analysis by an eating disorder organisation, taken from Body Wars (Maine, 2000), “at 5’9” tall and weighing 110 lbs, if Barbie was a real woman, she’d have to walk on all fours due to her proportions.”4 In 2016 Mattel released a new “Curvy Barbie”, as well as a “Petite” and “Tall” version, with the following proportions:
All UK dress sizes.
You might notice that the original Barbie’s height here is given as 5 ft 6 in., whereas previous estimates have put her at 5 ft 9 in.; this is due to a lack of clarity as to the exact ratio with which to scale Barbie’s dimensions. “Mattel says it doesn't have a scale that would give Barbie's full-size dimensions. But there is ‘playscale’ – a ratio of 1:6 that governs the size of many toys. If you accept that as a ratio for Barbie then you can multiply all her dimensions by six to find the real-world size.”5 By this scaling, Curvy Barbie is designed around the following dimensions:
Image contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.
Finally, we turn to perhaps the most interesting issue surrounding Barbie and mathematics – despite having had a myriad of different careers with a plethora of fabulous outfits and accessories to match, it would appear that there is to date no mathematician Barbie, nor even a mathematics teacher version (although in 2018 they released a Katherine Johnson doll as part of the “Inspiring Women” series).6 Below is an infographic showing all the career-related Barbies that have been released since her inception in 1959. When I say that not yet having a mathematician Barbie is a serious omission, I mean this within the context of Barbie having already enjoyed careers as a spaghetti chef, a tooth fairy, a Canadian Mountie, an entomologist, a sign language teacher, a pet photographer and a chicken farmer.
Data sourced from Wikipedia7
What do you notice? What patterns might emerge if we sift through this data? Can you see, for example, any connection to the years when there was an Olympics (sports, in red), or a US Presidential election (political, in light orange)?
It appeared to me that still not having a mathematician Barbie was a significant omission (the cast list for the upcoming film lists Emma Mackey as “Physicist Barbie” – why should the physicists have all the fun?). So I turned, as I often do these days, to AI tools to support my thinking.8 If Mattel were to consult me on designing a new mathematician Barbie, what might I suggest and why? I knew a few things, to begin with – that there were definite pitfalls to avoid. For example, Mattel attracted controversy in their design choices around “Computer Engineer Barbie” (released in 2010), complete with pink laptop, glasses, heart-shaped USB stick, and wedges, which women in the industry criticised for unrealistic wardrobe choices (although they did note that the binary on the laptop read “barbiebarbiebarbie” in ASCII).9 The accompanying book, I Can Be a Computer Engineer, which came out in 2013, was especially criticised for a storyline in which a bumbling Barbie needed the help of men to do her job, and was retracted along with an apology.10 So the first images that came up following the prompt “mathematician female fashion doll colourful female doing mathematics realistic” were immediately rejected as being too stereotypical, predictable, and promoting a view of mathematicians that a diverse range of women might not necessarily identify with:
An assortment of stereotypical mathematician Barbies (images created by DALL-E)
After experimenting with many prompts, I came up with nine draft designs, and they look like this:
Images created using DALL-E
Which would you like to see, and why? Do you have other ideas about mathematician Barbie? You can comment below or tweet us @CambridgeMaths.