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Mathematical Treasure: Teen Talk Barbie

Sidney J. Kolpas (Delaware County Community College)

In 1992, the toy company Mattel released a variation on its iconic Barbie doll called “Teen Talk Barbie.” The manufacturer created a library of 270 phrases and programmed each toy’s voice box with a random selection of four phrases. While most of the statements were about typical activities for teenagers and one announced, “I’m studying to be a doctor,” the inclusion of “Math class is tough” provoked an uproar from mathematicians, educators, and the general public. Decades of efforts to reduce bias in the mathematical sciences and to encourage girls and young women to undertake careers in mathematics seemed to be undermined by the stereotype reinforced by this fixture of popular culture. Thus, teachers wrote letters to the editor, academics wrote editorials, and a group of New York City performance artists calling themselves the “Barbie Liberation Organization” even purchased Teen Talk Barbies and G.I. Joe dolls, exchanged the toys’ voice boxes, and placed the dolls back on store shelves to be re-sold to the public. Within three months, Mattel removed the phrase from its library and offered to exchange dolls with anyone who had purchased a Barbie that said the phrase.

Even though only 1.5% of the 350,000 Teen Talk Barbies produced said the controversial phrase, I was able to purchase one on eBay and record its four sayings:

Collecting this Barbie led me to reflect on stereotypes about gender roles, such as “math is for boys and not for girls,” that are often transmitted through media and compare these instances of bias to the experiences of my own household. Throughout my middle school and high school mathematics classes in the early 1960s, all the students were male, as were the teachers. In pursuing my BA in Mathematics, a few female students were in my math classes. For my graduate classes toward an MS in Mathematics and EdD in Mathematics Curriculum and Instruction in the 1970s, there were a few women mathematics professors, including Dr. Lorraine Foster, the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics at Caltech; her personalized license plate said “Hypatia”. There were also a few women pursuing graduate degrees in Mathematics.

My wife was a mathematics major in high school. As a senior in 1969, she was signed up to take Math Analysis. She arrived late to that class on the first day. Upon entering the class, she noticed that the entire class was male, including the teacher. The teacher looked at her and said, “You must be in the wrong class; Homemaking is down the hall.” Needless to say, my wife completed the class, and went on to earn an MS in Mathematics. We raised two daughters together. Both my wife and I shared our love of mathematics with them and helped them with their mathematics courses. Our older daughter earned a PhD in Mathematics, and our younger daughter completed a mathematics minor.

Researchers and educators such as Malgorzata Dubiel and David W. Stinson have continued to use Teen Talk Barbie as a jumping-off point for analyzing what mathematics is and how to support women entering mathematical careers. Articles in Convergence that explore the history of women in mathematics include: “Helping Ada Lovelace with her Homework: Classroom Exercises from a Victorian Calculus Course,” by Adrian Rice; “Mabel Sykes: A Life Untold and an Architectural Geometry Book Rediscovered,” by Maureen T. Carroll and Elyn Rykken; “An Explication of the Antilogism in Christine Ladd-Franklin's "Algebra of Logic”,” by Julia M. Parker; and “The Ladies' Diary: A True Mathematical Treasure,” by Frank J. Swetz. One overview of women in mathematics with reference links is offered by Maryville University.


Associated Press. 1992, October 21. Company News: Mattel Says It Erred; Teen Talk Barbie Turns Silent on Math. The New York Times, D4.

Dubiel, Malgorzata. 2007, November. Math Is Hard. For the Learning of Mathematics 27(3): 22-23.

McCarty, Marguerite. 1993, January. Reader Reflections: Teen Talk Barbie. The Mathematics Teacher 86(1): 4.

Schroeder, Ken. 1992, December. In Brief . . . The Education Digest 58(4): 72.

Stinson, David W. 2016, 7 March. How Many Different Barbies? How< Many Different Girls? How Many Different Girls in Mathematics? [email protected] State University.

About the Author

This article was the final submission by frequent Convergence contributor Sid Kolpas (1947–2022). His teaching career spanned over 40 years at Luther Burbank Junior High and Burroughs High School in Burbank, CA; Glendale Community College; and Delaware County Community College. He published over 100 articles and several books on mathematics history and education. In the last years of his life, he dealt with esophageal cancer, Parsonage-Turner Syndrome, and Parkinson’s disease, but he remained in contact with former students throughout his illnesses. His full obituary is available from Joseph Levine & Sons.

Index to Mathematical Treasures

Sidney J. Kolpas (Delaware County Community College), "Mathematical Treasure: Teen Talk Barbie," Convergence (June 2022)