Among the 8,000 phrases programmed into Hello Barbie’s speech, the word “fashion” appears more often than almost any other noun, at 51 times. Style is one of artificially intelligent Barbie’s favorite topics of discussion. She frequently interrupts conversations to direct them toward what she presumably deems more fashionable subjects instead.
“We’ve been talking a bit about school, why don’t we try on something else for size?” Barbie chuckles. “Let’s chat about fashion!”
In Hello Barbie’s lexicon, the words style, shop and even jewelry appear more frequently than both the words math and science. Pizza and fairies also get more mentions. For a woman that lists computer engineer, astronaut and teacher on her resume, this is a little disappointing.
For most of Barbie’s nearly six decades of existence, she has been held up as a symbol of how sexist gender ideals are marketed to young women: a high-heeled, hyper-sexualized stereotype, coated in cotton candy-pink and glitter.
Mattel has tried to course-correct in recent years. In November, the company ran its first ever Barbie ad starring a boy. Among Hello Barbie’s programming is a line extolling the virtues of Ada Lovelace, the 19th century woman widely considered to be the world’s first computer programmer, as well as Nobel Prize-winning chemist Marie Curie. But Mattel still makes missteps, as in a 2014 book about aspiring computer engineer Barbie, who, unable to figure out a computer problem herself, has to call in the boys to do the hard stuff.
The misstep with Hello Barbie? Babs’ style obsession. It’s a disturbing reenforcement of the deeply sexist idea that being feminine—that being a girl or a woman—necessitates a consuming interest in fashion and appearance. When my colleague Kashmir Hill told Barbie that she honestly just wasn’t that into fashion and asked to change the subject, Barbie simply ignored her plea and kept babbling on about style.
Hello Barbie is programmed with eight different phrases to strike up a conversation about style, while she’s programmed with just one for computers. Sure she is also programmed to say she loves math and science, but while math is “cool,” fashion, according to Barbie, is so much more. It’s “empowering” and creative and all about “the ability to transform yourself into anything you want to be.” Fashion, Hello Barbie explains, is part of what makes you, you. (Mattel did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
Hello Barbie certainly isn’t the first toy to consign young women to a world that’s sparkly and pink.
“There are still many companies niche-marketing to girls in ways that reinforce sexist assumptions about their interests in beauty or consumerism, so the low percentage of ‘tech’ talk words in comparison to ‘style’ talk words is not surprising,” Elizabeth Losh, a scholar of digital culture at U.C. San Diego told me via e-mail. Losh said that historically, talking toys have often been more sexist than toys that don’t talk. A group of artists and activists working under the name the Barbie Liberation Organization drove this point home in the 1990s, when they switched the voice boxes on hundreds of Barbies and G.I. Joes and then returned them to the shelves of stores.
Gender, too, has historically been problematic when it comes to A.I.
“If you go back to the dawn of the computer era and the first experiments with computer programs that could generate text and seemingly participate in conversations like a human being, you’ll see a lot of interesting assumptions about gender difference,” Losh said.
But the trouble with Hello Barbie’s passion for fashion isn’t just philosophical. Many girls really do want to be like Barbie, and Barbie exercises undue influences over their aspirations. In the first study that looked at how Barbie influences career choice, last year two psychologists found that girls who played with Barbie dolls—no matter what kind of “career” the doll was dressed for—imagined themselves in fewer occupations than boys. Meanwhile, girls who played with a Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly as many career options available to them as boys did.
“I find it disappointing that a doll that has already been noted as problematic for its narrow version of femininity and restriction of ideas about careers, even when costumed as a professional would be produced with even narrower and more restrictive ideas of femininity and play,” said Aurora Sherman, a University of Oregon psychologist and one of the study authors.
“One of the take-away messages I hoped to get across to parents based on the results of my study was to diversify the toy box,” she said. “If a child likes Barbie, don’t take it away, but add more variety to the child’s options for play, so that fashion dolls like Barbie are not the only options.”
In giving Barbie a brain in the cloud, the company sought to create a new kind of toy. But the new smart version of Barbie, it turns out, is making the same old dumb mistakes.