‘Barbie’ and the Women’s World Cup: Cheering for Women in Spikes

Girls have the chance to watch their favorite toy take on sexism in Barbieland, knowing their favorite soccer stars already have in real life.

The USWNT before a training session on July 20, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Brad Smith / USSF / Getty Images for USSF)

Anyone else notice how Barbie the movie opened the same week as the Women’s World Cup? Could be a coincidence—or a calculated decision by the women-dominated Barbie team, including feminist filmmaker Greta Gerwig. Why not launch a film that makes a statement about the patriarchy while the U.S. Women’s National Team competes for the first time since settling their equal pay lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation? We’re having a moment when fans of the big screen and the soccer pitch can both cheer for women wearing spikes. 

We know the USWNT as the most successful international soccer team with four World Cup titles, and for their persistence, determination, and fight for equal pay and equal opportunity. They have challenged the status quo and tallied a win in the long-standing fight against sexism, stereotypes, representation and sexual harassment.

Barbie has dominated not only the toy industry for the last six decades but also infiltrated our culture and influenced childhood play with some good, and cringeworthy, decisions. (I’m remembering Skipper’s growing breasts with a quick rotation of her arm.) Barbie was created in 1959 by Ruth Handler to empower young girls with social roles of the times and Mattel marketed the fashion doll to mothers as a tool to make each girl a ‘poised little lady.’

The Barbie movie premiere in Bangkok, Thailand, on July 19, 2023. (Matt Hunt / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Barbie—whether you consider her a feminist icon or bimbo—made her mark. What is arguably more influential now on the social roles of women is her participation in sports, which is why I launched a sports doll in 2009. Today’s girls are strong, smart, athletic and adventurous. Female athletes, like the stars on the USWNT, are their role models. While Ruth Handler wanted girls to imagine what girls could become, I want girls to also see themselves as they are—and according to Project Play, about a third of girls age 6 to 12 play a sport on a regular basis.

When I sold out of 500 tennis dolls at the 2008 U.S. Open, I thought I was onto something. In time I had a soccer doll (my highest seller), runner, swimmer, gymnastics, and seven other plush dolls, built in specification to a real girl’s body (sorry, Barbie), dressed to play other popular sports.

And yet, a sports doll brand wasn’t the success I expected. I heard from reluctant toy buyers, “Girls only like fashion dolls,” and “Girls who play sports don’t play with dolls.” But what really stood between me and the consumer was a culture that perpetuates gender roles and sexism.

Make no mistake, gender inequality begins the moment a child can hold a toy or book or watch a screen. Gender stereotypes in childhood are more destructive than our culture perceives. These early experiences affect not just a child’s development and life choices, but the composition of the workforce, even our country’s economic strength.

I’m thrilled the new Barbie movie addresses gender inequality and celebrates the multitudes of what it means to be female (yes, they can wear pink and be feminist; yes they can like fashion and play sports). Girls have the chance to watch their favorite toy take on sexism in Barbieland, knowing their favorite soccer stars already have in real life.

Meanwhile I remain confident and persistent on my mission to shake up the toy industry. Girls play sports—and so should their dolls.

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Jodi Bondi Norgaard is an entrepreneur, author, keynote speaker, feminist advocate, and an expert in creating change and breaking gender stereotypes. She is the founder of Dream Big Toy Company and the creator of the award-winning Go! Go! Sports Girls line of dolls, books, and apps for girls, encouraging healthy and active play over beauty and body image. Her book,  More Than A Doll: How Creating A New Brand of Sports Dolls Turned into a Fight to End Gender Stereotypes , will be released Jan. 2025.