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Don't blame Barbie for the objectification of women

As Mattel seeks ways to revitalize its Barbie doll brand, it has stepped into the middle of two recent controversies, the most recent around its partnership with the Girl Scouts of the United States of America.

Two groups, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Center for a New American Dream, are critical of a partnership formed between the Girl Scouts and Mattel last year that includes a website, activities and a Barbie patch that Girl Scouts can earn. The issues stem from the corporate tie-in of Barbie with the Girl Scouts and apparently, from the perception of Barbie herself.



Carol Roth has her own doll, which comes with a leather-style briefcase purse (perfect, she says, for a laptop or tablet). The book she’s holding is Roth’s “The Entrepreneur Equation.”
Alain Tremblay | Integrity Toys
Carol Roth has her own doll, which comes with a leather-style briefcase purse (perfect, she says, for a laptop or tablet). The book she’s holding is Roth’s “The Entrepreneur Equation.”

"Holding Barbie, the quintessential fashion doll, up as a role model for Girl Scouts simultaneously sexualizes young girls, idealizes an impossible body type, and undermines the Girl Scouts' vital mission to build girls' courage, confidence and character," said Susan Linn, Director of The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

This is ludicrous. Playing with Barbie and other fashion dolls do no more to create body issues for young girls than girls playing "house" with baby dolls create an epidemic of teenage pregnancies. In fact, if you look at Mattel's fastest growing brand, Monster High, those dolls represent ghouls, vampires and other monsters. Children, even young ones, are more intelligent than people given them credit for. Nobody is taking these characters as anything but characters and children aren't having their self-esteem crushed because they can't grow fangs or don't have green and purple skin or otherworldly powers.

(Read more: It will take 75 years for women to match men in management)

Toys, like dolls, are meant to encourage creative play, which, in a world where children's creativity is more stifled by technology that it allows for little imagination, should be welcomed.

I know a lot about dolls. I played with dolls as a child (mostly Cher and her fabulous Bob Mackie costumes, since my mom didn't think Barbie was fashionable enough). I even have my own fashion doll/action figure fashioned in my likeness and my company has a joint venture with fashion doll manufacturer Integrity Toys that engages with adult collectors of fashion dolls (see photo above). I have interacted with generations of girls of all ages — and some boys, too — that play with dolls, and not one ever felt that Barbie or any other fashion doll was a real standard to be held up to.

While characters don't create self-esteem issues, real people do. Women of all ages are judged and valued based on their looks, first, a dangerous cultural obsession that creates an impression that instead of getting better with experience and age, a female has some sort of expiration date or tipping point whereby she becomes less worthy over time. Celebrities are "Photoshopped" to unrealistic perfection in magazines and models on the runway are stick thin. Barely dressed women are objectified in one of the fastest growing restaurant categories with locations called "Twin Peaks" and "Mugs and Jugs" that have locations throughout suburban America and even as professional cheerleaders at sporting events.

(Read more: Let's have dinner—but don't bring your wife, please)

America has a problem with its treatment of women, but don't blame Barbie.

Additionally, the commercial tie-in outrage is also somewhat out of place, as the Girl Scouts is an organization that has its young members sell cookies on its behalf without directly sharing in the profits. I have no problem with the latter, as I think it can be a learning experience about sales, just like I have no problem with Barbie creating a tie-in that includes a Barbie paper doll set where a girl can choose from a variety of career uniforms, from an astronaut to a pilot.

As for the Center for a New American Dream's criticism of the portrayal of the various careers Barbie and the girls can explore— "…a veterinarian in a frilly miniskirt, to a pink-suited U.S. president, to a race car driver in stilettos" — a practical pantsuit in neutrals doesn't really make the connection the same way a vibrantly-colored or thoroughly detailed uniform does. Furthermore, I am looking forward to the day that we have a pink-suited president (although I would suggest that the race-car driver not wear stilettos in the car for safety reasons).

(Read more: Disney ends funding to Boy Scouts over gay policy)

Over-sexualization and objectification is a real problem, but blaming Barbie and putting heat on the Girl Scouts terribly misses the mark. Let's keep the focus on teaching girls that they can do anything and its OK if they wear some fabulous frocks while doing so.

— By Carol Roth

Carol Roth is a "recovering" investment banker (corporate finance), entrepreneur/small-business owner, investor and author of "The Entrepreneur Equation." Follow her on Twitter @CarolJSRoth.

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