Today Mattel announced the news that the well known children’s doll, Barbie, has had a makeover, and following years of criticism over her ‘unrealistic’ body shape and less than diverse image, she will now be available in 33 different varieties. These varieties include 7 new skin tones, 22 eye colours, 24 hairstyles and, perhaps most critically, 3 new body shapes – tall, curvy and petite.
This post is a bit of a departure from my usual content, and I could rather foolishly be opening myself up to a barage of criticism with its content, but after a bit of friendly discussion on Facebook around the matter, I realised I had more thoughts on Barbie’s evolution than I’d anticipated.
So in order to be as upfront as possible, and in full expectation of criticism, I’m going to go ahead and put my, rather controversial, view in front of you straight away. Do with it what you will.
I’m not a fan of Barbie’s 2016 image.
There, I’ve said it. But before you get all ‘why you such a hater?’ crazy on me let me explain, because it’s not for the reasons you might think.
Firstly I’m all for diversity in children’s toys. Why shouldn’t Barbie be depicted as black, white, and Asian? Why can’t she have blonde hair one day, brunette the next and, as shown in her latest makeover, blue the day after that? And while I don’t believe eye colour to be quite as important, hey if its easy for them to offer 22 different eye colours then great! I understand the need for children of all races to have a doll that they can not only identify with but understand. And a blonde haired, white skinned, blue eyed Barbie might be too far a leap from many children’s norm. I certainly agree that in the past, this diversity, hasn’t been as readily available as it should have been and if Barbie can be the toy to help advance this then I’m backing her all the way.
Secondly I certainly don’t believe in gender stereotyping within kids toys, not in the slightest. I disagree with shops which lay out a sea of pink, glitter and pretty and label it the ‘girls’ section, while the blue, tough and practical toys are labelled under a ‘boys’ header. As a child I was just as interested in playing with my pirate ship Lego as I was with my Swan Lake Barbie. It’s fair to say that Barbie is in her essence a ‘girly’ toy. That’s not to say that boys can’t play with her, but her attraction lies in the act of dressing her up and creating stories around her. I personally believe she can be a feminine doll (to be played with by either gender) without having to represent any gender stereotypes. She can be dressed up as a doctor or an astronaut as often as she can be dressed up as a Princess and she can find herself saving lives, or flying a helicopter as easily as she can shopping or flouncing around in a swimming pool with her mates. I use these examples as they were all toys which formed part of my own Barbie play as a child.
And thirdly, perhaps most importantly, I don’t have an issue with Barbie’s body shape changing to reflect the modern day. Yes, you read that correctly – I don’t mind if her design changes to suit today’s market.
So what is your problem with Barbie’s latest evolution you may ask? If I don’t take issue with the fact that she’s becoming more diverse, less gender specific and, for want of a better word, curvier, then what do I take issue with?
Well it’s simple. My issue is that we have got to a stage where all of the above needs to be thrust upon children at an age where none of that should matter. Where we believe that the answer to making sure children do not start hating their differences too early is to ensure that the toys they play with are PC. And further still, that a global toy retailer like Mattel are more worried about representing ‘real life’ than they are about making a fun toy. That they feel they’ve satisfied all of their criticism and put a stop to everything from gender stereotypes, to racial diversity to body image with the addition of plumper doll with afro hair and dark skin.
My dislike of 2016 Barbie stems from the fact that I don’t believe ‘real life’ needs to be a factor in children’s playing, and by creating a range of dolls which they say better represent ‘real’ people, Mattel have ensured that it is.
Barbie’s target audience is described as girls between the ages of 3 and 12, and forgive me if I’m wrong but can we really agree that it’s healthy for a 3 year old to be considering whether she is tall, curvy or petite? At the time that I found myself playing with dolls, I didn’t know whether I was fat or thin, I wasn’t aware of why my legs were longer than my friends legs or what effect my height might have on the rest of my life. I didn’t care about any of those things and the shape of my Barbie doll didn’t make me consider them. Barbie to me was a doll, a toy. A toy who was fun to play with because I could dress her up in limitless outfits, swap outfits with my friends who also had Barbie’s and gather them all together to play out an unrealistic scenario which was concocted from my imagination. I loved both my black Barbie and my white Barbie, I enjoyed playing with their different types of hair equally and in my stories they were two different people with two different personalities but I never pitted them against each other. I never compared their differences or wondered why one didn’t have a bigger bum than the other. And I never once found myself wondering why I, or any of the females in my life, didn’t look like either of them. To me, Barbie was always a doll. I enjoyed her prettiness but I also enjoyed the fact that she could do anything I wanted her to, including doing the splits and lifting her leg up to her head as easily as she could sit down or walk. I wanted Barbie to be able to do all of the things that real people couldn’t do – like fly and jump unrealistic heights and sometimes even have super powers. I didn’t want real life.
Are we forgetting the fundamental element here – that Barbie is a toy? I understand the intentions behind creating dolls which can represent real people and the diversity of our society, I just wonder whether in doing so we are, not only removing the ability to imagine and create from child’s play, but in fact sowing the seed for more stereotyping. Are we not giving children enough credit by assuming that they are unable to tell the difference between a plastic doll and a real person? Can we reasonably say that girls grow up with a skewed view of body image purely because of the dolls they played with as a youngster? The issue, surely, is so much greater than that.
Children have their whole adulthood to deal with the pressures of real life, why not allow them the time when being a kid is just that without thrusting those pressures upon them before they are even a consideration? Surely by creating these ‘real’ dolls with real body shapes, we are igniting the idea of these body shapes and differences in children’s minds before it is necessary to do so. We are forcing children, and for the most part, young girls to be aware of their bodies at far too early an age. We are making them consider the differences between ‘tall Barbie’, ‘petite Barbie’ and ‘curvy Barbie’ (plus let’s not forget ‘original Barbie’ who still exists and doesn’t fit any of these categories) when their minds are at a stage when ‘Barbie’ is enough. We are asking them to decide which Barbie they identify with best, at a time when their bodies are changing and they may not yet be aware, or want to be aware, which camp they fall into. My good friend Danielle who blogs at Fashionista Barbie (and obviously has a keen interest in these new dolls) raises a few very good points. When buying a doll for a child do we now need to consider which doll suits them best? And if so how can we do this without further sparking prejudice and adding to their future body woes? Can I only buy a black child a black Barbie? Will buying a tall child ‘tall Barbie’ give her a complex about her height that might not otherwise have been there?
Then there are further issues to consider which go beyond being politically correct. Does this diversity (and by that I mean shape, skin, hair and eye colour) lead to more stereotyping overall? Will Mattel need to release different sizes of clothes for Barbie from now on? Will girls be faced with not only worrying about their own body size and clothing choices but now that of their doll too? Will only tall Barbie get to wear hot pants, while curvy Barbie finds herself in knee length dresses and petite Barbie in mini skirts? Will children’s play be limited by the fact that they can no longer exchange clothes in the same way? And will this lead to children comparing their dolls and pitting them against each other, one too fat for this dress, one too skinny for the other? Will children grow up thinking that their race, body size and hair type have an influence on the type of clothes they can wear and the things they can do? Because how many of us would put money on the fact that certain outfits and certain professions will only be available for certain dolls?
Suddenly Barbie is no longer just Barbie – the plastic doll that gets to wear different outfits and have different hairstyles and take to any scenario a child wants her to take to – she is now a someone who faces real life issues such as how to find clothes to fit her, what hairstyles suit her and what professions are available to her. Things that I believe children at that age shouldn’t have to consider.
For Mattel, these recent changes are stratospheric. According to the Time Magazine article, the creation of this new doll was kept so secret that the designers gave the project a code name – Project Dawn – so even their spouses wouldn’t click. Evolving Barbie in such a way is the biggest thing to happen to her in her 57 year history. The reasoning behind the changes, let’s not forget, is of course commercial despite what Mattel would have us believe – in the last few years, sales for Barbie have taken a nose dive by 20% and she has been overtaken by Frozen’s Elsa as the biggest selling doll in the world. But if the aforementioned statistic about Elsa is anything to go by, it perhaps tells us that girls care more about other factors than they do image. That they want a doll who depicts a strong, capable woman who can sing, and has a brain, and doesn’t need a man in her life to be happy. That yes, they like plaiting her long hair, dressing her up in a princess frock and imagining magical powers, but maybe don’t regard the size of her ass as that important?
Was it perhaps better that Barbie’s figure was so ridiculously unrealistic that it made no sense? Because then she is just a doll, who can become anyone, wear anything and go anywhere, rather than a real life depiction who girls feel they have to look like. I personally never grew up thinking that if I didn’t end up looking like a Barbie doll there was something wrong with me – I understood that a waist that small was impossible and that no normal humans could stretch their legs in that way. I can see how, had I been part of a different demographic, a fair skinned blonde Barbie with blue eyes might have been unusual to me, and I might have enjoyed playing with a doll of my own race, but for me the fun in this toy was always in the choosing of the outfits, styling of the hair and creating of the stories. The looks weren’t all that important and I definitely never chose a new Barbie based on her figure.
If we start going down this route where we feel the need to ensure real life is depicted in toys then how far do we take it? Do we need to give Barbie spots or greasy hair to make sure kids know that those things are ok too? Do we need to re-look at every toy figure and make sure they’re showing kids what real life is like? Does there need to be an additional Power Ranger, one which isn’t as fit or athletic as the rest, who lags behind a bit and gets out of breath? Or should Superman have a beer belly and less muscly arms? We could go on and on, but ultimately I don’t think we can punish children because they want to play with a doll that looks pretty, or they want their superhero’s to have muscles and be able to kick butt. The important factor is simply making them aware that these are toys, and those ideals are fantasy.
Maybe the work Mattel should be doing is to ensure Barbie offers a diverse range of options for girls – that while pretty and fashionable, she can also be clever and ambitious. Maybe there should be less of a fixation on the way she looks and more on what she can do or achieve. To make sure that children can play with a pretty, feminine doll who loves clothes and shoes but understand that this does not make her any less clever or able to achieve great things.
Upon sharing a link about Barbie’s 33 new looks on Facebook this morning and admitting I found the idea a little ridiculous, I was faced with a comment which read:
‘you are a glamorous fashion blogger. For non-white kids and kids with different body types I think it makes a big difference to act out their dreams with a doll that looks like someone they could aspire to be.’
While I don’t want to set up the pitchforks and attack the person who wrote the comment, as it came from someone I’d consider a friend and whose opinion I very much respect (and they did later admit their intention was not to suggest my career had anything to do with my opinion), I did have to carefully consider my response. I was both amused and flattered to be described as ‘glamourous’ and a ‘fashion blogger’ but I had to question whether my current job as a thirty year old woman who happens to write about fashion (amongst other things) on the internet had any bearing on my appreciation of pretty, white, blonde haired, skinny Barbie and her love of clothes as a youngster. I’d like to think I could have loved Barbie and her clothes just as much and still gone on to aspire to any career of my choosing. But perhaps it is true that my opinion is skewed as someone who fits the traditional ‘Barbie demographic’ as a white female who is interested in fashion. Either way, I genuinely hope that should I have children of my own, I will be able to allow them to play with dolls without them feeling like their aspirations are in any way limited to that of a pretty piece of plastic.
And perhaps that’s the key here. There are many factors which lead girls to have low body confidence and it is up to all women to work on changing that for the younger generations. It’s unrealistic for any of us to think that getting rid of a doll’s thigh gap puts an end to the problem. Parents can allow their children to be children and to play with silly toys while still teaching them to be confident in themselves, the way they look and their abilities.
I think there is a big difference between adapting Barbie to reflect the times and making her the poster girl for body confidence. Let’s be rational here, Barbie will never look like a real person… because she is a doll. Offering dolls of different skin tones with different faces which can represent our nation is one thing, trying to make a doll fit every young girls vision of themselves is something different altogether, and in my opinion an unrealistic and pointless exercise. No matter what physical attributes are applied to Barbie, she will always be an unrealistic portrayal of a real woman. She will always be beautiful, she will always be smiling and she will always be cartoon like, regardless of her skin colour, hair type or body shape. And for me that’s ok – because she is a children’s toy and was designed as a play thing which each child could adapt to suit their own imagination.
I’m not sure what the end answer is to be honest. Some of the changes made to Barbie’s modern look are great – namely the representation of different races, different hair colours (I would have loved a blue or red haired doll), and hair styles (I especially love the short quiff and the red curls), the fact that she can now wear flats as well as heels and that her face has been pared back to look more natural and less made up – and perhaps the adaptation of her figure to suit today’s culture can be seen as a natural progression. What I struggle with however is the need for such stereotypical body shapes (and their stereotypical names) to be part of children’s play and vocabulary. I can’t help but feel that Barbie could be diverse without having to be so blatantly focused on body image.
I’d love to hear your thoughts either way, drop me a comment and let me know what you think of the new Barbie?
(Image by Mattel/ Barbie.com)