Barbie: Is She Redeemed?

Yes, we’re a bit behind the curve–the curvy Barbie curve, that is. More than a month ago, Mattel came out with a new, more diverse line of Barbie dolls that included different skin tones and different body types (petite, tall, curvy).

Barbie diversityI grew up with the Malibu Barbie doll, with her camper and her Ken and her younger friends Skipper and Francie. As we all know, Barbie, Skipper, and Francie were all skinny, long-legged white women (or girls — I think Skipper was a girl). Not much diversity there, but I loved them all anyway even if I didn’t look anything like them and never would.

The new more diverse line is meant to have broader appeal. Mattel uses the language of “choice” when explaining the rationale:

 “Barbie has always given girls choices – from her 180 careers, to inspirational roles, to her countless fashions and accessories. We are excited to literally be changing the face of the brand – these new dolls represent a line that is more reflective of the world girls see around them – the variety in body type, skin tones and style allows girls to find a doll that speaks to them.”

But as Tracy de Boer says in her article, “What to Make of Barbie’s New Bod”:

toys are more divided by gender now than they were prior to the 1990’s. For instance, blue toolboxes, trucks, and building sets for boys, pink kitchen sets, dolls, and everything princess for girls. What’s more, some toy makers, like Lego, now release building sets catered specifically to girls (in more “feminine colours”) that are meant to create things like grocery stores or dollhouses—which seem to reinforce gender stereotypes. (Lego pirate ships for boys, Lego grocery stores for girls.)

This raises the question of whether we should be updated Barbie or phasing her out altogether.  Is diversity a good thing if it helps to reinforce the gendered division of toys?  Or do we go the harm reduction route here and accept that Barbie isn’t going anywhere, so let’s make her more diverse?

Besides that, there are also those cynical folks who point out that it’s nothing but a marketing ploy designed to garner attention and sell more dolls. Well, yes. Barbie sals have dropped. And making money is what toy companies are in the business of doing. If they do it in a way that helps to change attitudes, then perhaps that’s a good thing.

Tracy de Boer says she’s waiting for the “Dad Bod” Ken to come out. And that’s not likely to happen any time soon. But what about old Barbie? If we’re going for diversity, why do we stop at age and body type?  I find those pictures out on the internet of aging Barbie are kind of gripping, if at the same time sad because obviously no kid is going to want to play with a middle-aged Barbie doll.

Barbie OLD malibu-barbie-older-300x196But why not?  Older women, who are arguably more interesting in lots of ways because of their life experiences, are simply not considered appealing and marketable? The new Barbie may show that kids might be open to diversity, to choosing a doll that “speaks to” them, as the spokesperson said. But the cult of youth still dominates.

There’s also been some backlash, people arguing that the new body diversity in Barbie’s foists “adult hang-ups” on kids.

These critics are suggesting that the kids who play with Barbies are too young to care about body image. But are they? I think a lot of kids are already exposed to adult conceptions of what the ideal body is. If a more diverse line of Barbies can help counteract some of that, even in some small way, maybe that’s a good thing. And there are some studies that do show that kids who play with Barbies care more about being thin when they get older:

Mattel has also long claimed that Barbie has no influence on girls’ body image, pointing to whisper-thin models and even moms as the source of the dissatisfaction that too many young girls feel about their bodies. A handful of studies, however, suggest that Barbie does have at least some influence on what girls see as the ideal body. The most compelling, a 2006 study published in the journal Developmental Psychology, found that girls exposed to Barbie at a young age expressed greater concern with being thin, compared with those exposed to other dolls.

So is Barbie redeemed? Well, I think the point about harm reduction stands here. Maybe the very idea of the Barbie doll reinforces gendered divisions in play and plants the seed of a thin body ideal into the minds of the children who play with her.

But at least having some skin tone diversity and body diversity can help to promote a more realistic picture of social reality. That’s if they choose them. Arguably no kid has ever had a Barbie body (nor has any adult, right? The proportions are all wonky), so it’s not completely clear whether today’s kids will feel drawn to Barbies with bodies more like theirs.

On the skin tone issue, that may be a different story. When I was a kid, I longed to see brownness represented in the books I read, the dolls I played with, and yes, the Barbies I knitted little sweaters for.

Which is one reason why this t-shirt speaks to me so much I have two of them:


What do you think of the new Barbie?



5 thoughts on “Barbie: Is She Redeemed?

  1. I grew up playing with Barbies as well, and loved to make stories about my Barbies. I did a lot of imaginative play with other toys as well including Legos and Little Pet Shop. I guess I don’t have a problem with Barbie or dolls in general as I think kids can play a lot of different ways with different toys – and I remember playing with Barbies with one of my male friends as a child, and telling stories about them or pretending they were going on adventures or whatever. But it would be nice to see Barbies not marketed as girls’ toys and instead just toys for children.

    But you bring up a lot of great points as well – dad bod for Ken, middle-aged Barbie or grandma and grandpa barbies, etc. to bring in even more diversity and appeal to a broader range of children. I guess my opinion is that the different body styles etc. is a good move in the right direction – but I hope they don’t stop there!

  2. I was once in a short film a friend made about “things lesbians used to do with their barbies.” Apparently some girls turned them into guns. I myself have two barbie gender memories. When I was about 6 or 7, I had a “real” barbie (one of the first words I learned to read was “accessories”, because her little case had a drawer for her shoes and purses). My friend Julie had a fake barbie who was molded but sort of hollow. I was irked that we didn’t have a Ken, so I took her FakeBarbie and squished in her boobs so I could turn her into a boy. I remember putting her boobs under the leg of a chair and jumping on it hard. I got in trouble from her mom.

    After that I actually got a Ken. Two of them, in fact — preppy molded basic Ken and a Ken called mod-hair Ken with long hair and a removable moustache. (It was 1973). I would use the kens to impregnate my barbies by whacking them together, then I would throw the kens behind the couch and the barbies would live collectively together, helping each other give birth and raise the babies.

    I think my queerkid imagination allowed me to project my desired reality onto barbie rather than the other way around.

    1. These are great Barbie stories. It makes me think that a great book idea would be an edited collection of Barbie narratives and “counter narratives.” Thanks for these.

  3. I was vaguely envious of other little girls who had a Barbie doll. My parents couldn’t even afford another doll toy beyond this plastic blonde haired doll that was 3x bigger. We didn’t have enough toys, we were very poor (in Canada). 6 children.

    Only when I was a teenager I realized it was limiting to have just a blonde doll when I had younger siblings and looked after them.

    Dolls will never go away because kids like to role play and role playing in itself is not terrible. It’s the range of activities a child imagines in their play with the doll.

    It’s ok..the present improvements on Barbie choices.

    NOW…..if only some bike manufacturers and apparel firm not assume that pink, purple and sky blue were colour choices in cycling jackets for women.

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