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).
I 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.
But 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?