Barbie + Britney ( – Beyoncé) = Science!

EU ad - Science - It's a Girl Thing

H, by Givenchy

Campaign: Science: It’s a Girl Thing!
Client: European Commission

By Naomi Hamer

What’s going on at the European Commission? Barely three months since the EC was forced to recall an EU ad portraying non-member countries as a horde of exotic foreigners threatening a white woman who seemed to represent “pure” Europe, they’re in trouble again for a new campaign with the apparently laudable goal of encouraging young women to study science. They kicked it off with a short promotional video, Science: It’s a Girl Thing! The video has inspired horrified responses, including an apology to Marie Curie in The Atlantic and a music video by female scientists to the tune of Billy Joel. The EC quickly realized the ad was an epic fail and, once again, pulled it.

Among its multiple problems, the most tragic flaw of the EC video is its underlying traditional – and sexist – assumption that young female viewers would not be inspired to study science solely because it might be exciting to investigate challenging questions about how the universe works. Rather, the video reflects the assumption that, because science is traditionally defined as a masculine realm, young female viewers need to be lured in through dressing science up in the most stereotypical representations of young femininity: makeup, heels, the colour pink, young girls giggling playfully in fashionable sunglasses.

As if this perception of the target audience wasn’t insulting enough, the producers of the video also chose to use the most banal, overused stylistic conventions of ads and music videos aimed at young women, particularly in the 80s and 90s. The result is an embarrassingly dated ad, reminiscent of the “We girls can do everything … like Barbie” commercial (circa 1985), right down to the exclamation point.

And if the tagline is all Barbie, the style is almost eerily similar to Britney’s 1999 video (You Drive Me) Crazy. You remember it: the one where Adrian Grenier and Melissa Joan Hart make celebrity cameos, cooking up drinks in the lab of what looks like an industrial dance club.

While the EC video may arguably challenge some old-school stereotypes (the boring, middle-aged male scientist or the introverted, unfashionable female scientist), in order to break down these supposed “misconceptions”, it heavily reinforces every possible stereotype of what might constitute “a girl thing”. Some of the most cringe-worthy thefts from Barbie and Britney include:

1) a soundtrack like a karaoke-pop-rave-muzak remix of any Britney song
2) a vaguely industrial and futuristic fantasy setting that appears to be located in an “alternative realm” with brightly coloured backdrops and strobe lighting
3) the curvaceous silhouettes of three women in high heels strutting towards the viewer, then posing as if standing at the end of a catwalk
4) a clean-cut, attractive male scientist in a lab coat who looks up from his microscope and puts on his glasses to see the young women in his fantasy lab (also a convention of softcore porn)
5) closeup, glossy shots of tactile items and processes – steam/smoke pumping from test tubes; various chemical substances; a splash of liquid on a black backdrop; explosion of colourful, textured makeup; synthetic balls bouncing
6) adolescent girls posing with accessories: sunglasses, funky hats, etc.
7) the sounds of young women laughing as they drop DNA models on the ground playfully
8) an upbeat, repetitively articulated tagline that reflects popular feminism, splashed across the screen in a pink typeface as though written with lipstick
10) and, of course, auto-tune

How could the EC consultants be so out of touch as to draw upon stylistic conventions already overused by the 1990s to target an audience of tween and teen females in 2012? Sunglasses? Pink? Girls leaning against each other and giggling? The Olsen twins would be declaring this video “lame” in unison. Tween girls are one of the most frequently targeted consumer groups, and because of this often the most savvy consumers and viewers. The EC could have at least ripped off Beyonce’s (Rule the World) Girls, from 2011, or Vanessa Hudgens’s Never Underestimate a Girl (2006). Although those two videos exemplify other problems with mainstream representations of girl power, at least they illustrate more current attempts to represent strong, active, independent, warrior-like or punk-rock young females (albeit often contradictory, oversexualised, problematically racialised, and/or commercialised versions of feminist role models).

But the EC’s video doesn’t even try to engage with any of these more recent contemporary representations of the tween girl. It’s more like a Mattel ad for “career Barbies”, where “career” is essentially equated to customised fashion and accessory choices, from Rocket Science Barbie to Architect Barbie. It is shocking to observe that even compared to a 1985 Barbie ad, the EC video fails to represent the realities, passions or exciting elements of scientific careers to young people – regardless of their sex.

What’s worse, the EC knows this. Other elements of the campaign on its site highlight the research and lives of diverse, passionate, real-life female scientists. Even a short profile of any of them would have been a better choice for the launch video. For goodness sake, Rocket Science Barbie (released in 1965!), with her spacesuit and rocket science tools, presents a more realistic depiction of what a scientist might actually do in her job. When the EC lags behind behind 1960s Barbie in its progressive representations of girl power – well, Houston, we have a problem.

Naomi Hamer is Assistant Professor at The Centre for Research on Young People’s Texts and Cultures, University of Winnipeg. @naomihamertime


  1. Laura wrote:

    The ad reminds me *so much* of commercials for either facial creams that Scientifically Destroy Aging or shampoos that Volumize With Science. It makes me think that the women in the ad must be working at the the Mitchell and Webb Garnier Labora-twa skit:

  2. Chris wrote:

    Bad Science has a great chapter on those creams. “In reality, hydrogen peroxide is simply a corrosive chemical that gives you a light chemical burn at low strengths. This might explain that fresh, glowing feeling.”

  3. Chris wrote:

    Love the Garnier Labora-twa skit, too.