The iconic doll has been controversial for nearly 60 years. There’s a reason for that.
Last week, Barbie’s new looks caused an uproar as society struggles to catch up to Mattel’s marketing plan. Just a few months ago, women cheered the brand’s Imagine The Possibilities ad, which portrayed young girls in their future careers. The iconic doll, known for her impossibly slim proportions, platinum blonde hair and large breasts is now available slightly larger, or slightly taller, or slightly shorter, and in a few different skin colors. It appears that Mattel would like to market all of these beauties as “Barbie” but already we are qualifying them. We’re talking about “Curvy Barbie” or “Petite Barbie” or “Black Barbie.” While #Barbie trended on Twitter, awash in congratulatory tweets, many of the older generation are, in fact, wringing their hands at the new options available, telling Mattel they’re losing long-time customers to appease millennial moms. Others are stating that the new looks haven’t gone nearly far enough. “Fat Barbie” is modelled on a size 10, for instance, and only makes up a quarter of the new fleet.
But none of that matters. All this talk and hemming and hawing, all this child experimentation, where we witness little girls calling the doll fat when adults aren’t in the room, but shyly using hand gestures or spelling out the word when asked directly to describe her to adults—none of it matters. Because Mattel’s new dolls aren’t for us, and Mattel’s new dolls aren’t for our children.
Mattel’s new dolls are for the children of tomorrow. This makeover of the nearly 60-year-old childhood staple rankles our current society because our baseline starts at original Barbie—and only original Barbie. We will always associate her with impossible body standards. We will always explain her with the caveat that a doll is not supposed to be representative of realistic culture. We will do this because this is what we grew up with, and this was how we were told to deal with it as society became more welcoming (though still not welcoming enough) to different body types, skin colors and fashions.
It is not the first time toy companies have moved to include a more representative model for our youth. In fact, Barbie’s makeover has much to do with her battle with the Bratz dolls–multi-ethnic, more cartoonish, edgier versions of the fully realized female doll. When Mattel couldn’t beat the brand legally, they had to redouble their efforts in their own stock and models. Two years ago, Lego overtook Mattel as the largest toy company, in part because they launched the Legos Friends line—a line specifically marketed to girls. Mattel’s choice not to separate its line of toys for specific populations of girls is what makes these Barbies so very important.
Unlike Bratz, which are still newcomers and must carve their own space next to Barbie, and unlike Lego Friends which purposely separated their consumers, the new squad of Barbies are all named Barbie, and they’re all put out by toy-giant, Mattel. This makes a difference because while today we will all call slightly-curvy Barbie “Fat Barbie”, the little girls who will be born into the next generation will know her simply as Barbie. Like the original Barbie, and all the other Barbies that are now going to be marketed. This rings true for toy giant, Lego, as well, with its introduction of its first disabled Lego person. They’ve introduced him into Lego society as it stands, which exists as the uncontested normal in its brand category, and they haven’t separated him out to explain away his differences. He, too, will become part of the new normal.
Tomorrow’s little girls will not have been brought up in a world where Barbie looked just one way. They won’t have memories of feminist fights over Barbie’s image. They won’t remember that talk their mom gave them that one time when they went toy shopping about how every body is beautiful and Barbie was just a toy and what did she know anyway?
The little girls of tomorrow, instead, will be brought up in a world where many different types of Barbies inhabit the shelves and are the new normal. They will only know a world in which Barbie is more inclusive, and that will be their starting point, which means avenue for greater, better change in the future.
So, while Mattel’s attempt at actual body positivity look paltry, in this way, it is actually paradigm-changing. Up until this point, all activism attempt in the doll industry were leaps from the base set by Barbie in 1959. Many dolls have made much larger jumps than Mattel, but they were all tied by an elastic band back to our original normal. Mattel’s new lineup is moving that normal.
They are responding to culture’s call, as expressed in dollars, of course. Mattel the corporation had to change because the stock was losing money, but the stock was losing money because the people of today are demanding better representation of different body types for the people of tomorrow.
It’s one small step for a doll, and one giant leap for dollkind.
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