Breaking Boundaries and Closing the Dream Gap: Naomi Osaka, Yara Shahidi and More are New Barbie 'Sheroes'

Illustration for article titled Breaking Boundaries and Closing the Dream Gap: Naomi Osaka, Yara Shahidi and More are New Barbie 'Sheroes'
Photo: Mattel

As Women’s Equal Pay Day approaches on April 2, we’ll hear powerful research findings about the wage gap and other persistent disadvantages to women’s equality and earning power. But few are aware of the research that revealed the Dream Gap, which suggests girls can be affected by limiting self-beliefs at as young as five years old.


In recent years, Mattel’s Barbie brand has been working diligently to combat the Dream Gap, launching its own global initiatives to raise awareness of the issue—including research via collaboration with NYU to fund a two-year post-doctoral fellowship, products, content, events and social media campaigns. Last fall, the toy brand also launched the Dream Gap Project, now followed by the Dream Gap Project Fund, which will donate one dollar from every doll sold in the United States (up to $250,000) to organizations also devoted to closing the gap.


“Barbie is the original girl-empowerment brand,” a Mattel spokesperson told The Glow Up, via email. “For 60 years, Barbie has championed girls, inspired generations to believe through make believe and showed them that they have choices. But the playing field still isn’t equal. Research has shown that starting at age five, girls start doubting their potential... we knew we had to use our global platform to help close it.”

But because Barbie is synonymous with dolls, there’s the brand’s Role Model line. Also known as their “Sheroes,” the collection builds upon the legendary Barbie mystique by immortalizing influential and innovative women to help inspire young dreamers to believe anything is possible. Past Barbie Role Models have included filmmaker Ava Duvernay, gymnast Gabby Douglas, NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson and Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. For Barbie’s 60th year, champion tennis star Naomi Osaka, actress and activist Yara Shahidi, and British supermodel and activist Adwoa Aboah have all been honored with their own Barbies, as well.

The three icons of #blackgirlmagic join an international, age, size and ability-inclusive lineup, including singer-songwriter Kelsea Ballerini, cycling champion Kristina Vogel, NASA scientist Eleni Antoniadou, Chef Rosanna Marziale, pioneering journalist Ita Buttrose, artistic gymnast Dipa Karmakar, ice skater Tessa Virtue, Alpinist and author Karla Wheelock, entrepreneur Mariana Costa, TV personality Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, visual artist Chen Man, sports commentator Melodie Robinson, truck driver Iwona Blecharczyk, TV host Lyasan Utiasheva, surfer Maya Gabiera, and director Lisa Azuleos.

“My very own Barbie! It’s mad!! Seeing my own doll that has my skin colour, shaved head, freckles and my tattoo’s is beyond mad,” Aboah wrote in an Instagram post showing off her doll, which comes dressed in the outfit she wore to accept her Model of the Year honor at the 2017 British Fashion Awards. An alternate look promotes Aboah’s Gurls Talk nonprofit, which provides a safe, creative and expressive platform for young women to network with each other.

“I spent the majority of my childhood wishing for blonde hair, pining over Barbies light skin and blue eyes,” Aboah continued. “All those years ago and I didn’t feel like I was represented anywhere. But today with my big toothy grin I feel so very proud to have been awarded this Shero doll for all the hard work I have put into myself and @gurlstalk. All I hope is that some little girl out there sees this and realises that her wildest dreams are possible if she puts her mind to it. I hear you and see you, this doll is for you.”


As for Gen Z darling Shahidi, Mattel says it wasn’t the 18-year-old actress’s beauty, style or magnetic personality that pushed her into “Shero” territory (though we’re sure it didn’t hurt). It was her commitment to positive social change (her Barbie wears a t-shirt that says “Vote”) that made Shahidi an ideal role model.


“Through our role model program, Barbie honors women who break boundaries to inspire the next generation of girls. Yara is an activist for education for girls and founder of Yara’s Club, an initiative aimed at bringing girls together to discuss social issues and learn how to take action. Her commitment to being a positive role model is an inspiration to us as we celebrate this milestone moment for Barbie,” said Mattel.

As the reigning number one female tennis player in the world, Haitian-Japanese Osaka seems a shoe-in for a Shero spot this year, as well as representing the international inclusiveness and global inspiration of the Role Model collection.


“Naomi is quite literally breaking boundaries in sports, as she is currently ranked #1 in the Women’s Tennis Association rankings and became the first Japanese player in history to win a Grand Slam,” said Mattel. “She represents endless possibilities and shows fans that they can be anything.”

But while the world may recognize Osaka as a star, when she spoke with The Glow Up by phone while on a break from competing at the Indian Wells tournament on Monday, the 21-year-old was clearly humbled by the honor.


“I’ve been playing with Barbies since I was a kid,” she said. “It feels a little bit unreal that I’m able to have this opportunity.”

What’s very real is Osaka’s impact as a multiracial young woman at the top of her game. It’s an impact she told us she takes seriously, as her profile continues to rise.


“I think when I was younger, I used to try to brush away the responsibility,” Osaka admits. “But now, there’s been incidents [where] people come up to me and they start crying, and I realize how important it is to be a role model; especially for younger girls. I feel like I had so many role models growing up—it’s something I strive towards, and I think it’s a really good goal for younger kids. So, just for the parents to come up to me and congratulate me and say that their kids look up to me, I think that’s a really big honor, and I’m grateful that I have that responsibility.”


We’re grateful Barbie is recognizing some of our personal sheroes as their own. (Bonus points for all that gorgeous, naturally-textured hair—and Aboah’s shaved head!) Here’s hoping that in another 60 years, the Dream Gap will be a distant memory.

Maiysha Kai is managing editor of The Glow Up, host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast and Big Beauty Tuesdays, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. May I borrow some sugar?



I saw this and immediately remembered the Flo Jo Barbie I had as a kid. I just looked it up and I guess that particular doll wasn’t made by Barbie so they haven’t been doing this as long as I thought :(