Josie Mortimer, Jessica Kraft and Ludovica Fioravanti analyse the reinvention of the Barbie doll.
Since her conception in 1959, Barbie has ruled girl-world, and has long been considered the standard for beauty. Bottle blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes, and a weight-to-height ratio so small that if she were real she would not menstruate, Barbie has been a truly inspirational role model for children.
On January 28th, however, Mattel announced the Barbie of 2016: the diverse doll. Coming with 3 new body types (curvy, tall, and petite), 7 total skin tones, and 22 eye colours, Barbie finally enters the 21st century with a bang. Or does she?
Barbie has served to reinforce gender stereotypes and the feminine standard of beauty that women are still tied to today. Evelyn Mazzacco, senior vice president and global general manager of Barbie announced that Mattel “have a responsibility to girls and parents to reflect a broader view of beauty”, and that “these new dolls represent a line that is more reflective of the world girls see around them”.
Dropping the thigh gap, however, is not enough to prove Barbie is a good role model. Barbie has had a wide range of careers – elementary teacher in 1985, 1992, 1995, 2006 and 2010; astronaut in 1965, 1985 and 1994; a tour guide in Toy Story 2. Yet the doll still presents a limited array of options for young girls.
In 2014, Mattel withdrew a booklet that came with “Barbie: I Can be a Computer Engineer”. Sparking a sexism row, Computer Engineer Barbie planned a computer game, but cries out “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!” Barbie is female and feminine, therefore Barbie cannot be independent. ‘The Simpsons’ parodied this sexist attitude perfectly, with Lisa’s “Malibu Stacey” bleating “Don’t ask me – I’m just a girl!”.
Scouring barbie.com for these new toys, a neon pink background blazes, while an endless plane of homogeneous Barbies stares out from the screen.
Even with the release of a diverse new line of dolls, Barbie maintains the ridiculous 20th century consumerist obsession with strict limits for femininity and masculinity, reinforcing gender stereotypes that are becoming more outdated day-by-day.
This new range of Barbie dolls is not the feminist revolution that Mattel is pitching. In 2014, Mattel lost its title of the world’s biggest toy company to Lego. Companies like Lego and Playmobil, marketed for all genders, create toys that encourage creativity, construction and dynamic learning.
Barbie, advertised mainly for young girls, encourages children to play passively – combing hair and dressing the doll. Mattel fails to realise that women want to be more than pretty – independence and intelligence is not provided for through Barbie.
The idea that girls can be admired and loved at a UK size 12-14 is an improvement, but jumping on the bandwagon of the 21st century body image acceptance movement does not go far enough. Girls need to be informed that they can pursue whatever they want, no matter their size or ethnicity, and it is not only Mattel that is at fault with this.
Marvel’s toy line had no hints of Black Widow in their toy sets in early 2015. Children at the end of 2015 asked “Where’s Rey?” when the Star Wars figurines were released. The world needs strong, independent dolls, or Mattel’s sales will continue to fall and Barbie will become a relic of the 20th century.
As a child that grew up with a strong adoration of Barbie dolls, seeing that now, after eighteen years of them being in my life, diversity is finally being acknowledged makes me rather happy. During my childhood, I used to question the lack of diversity throughout the popular brand, rather disappointed with the generic appearance of dolls, seeking the dolls which seemed, at the time, unusual.
At every opportunity, I would seek the Barbie dolls of ethnic minorities, sad that they were a rarity in mainstream retail. However, now in 2016, it is refreshing to see dolls made to demonstrate all types of women, racially and physically.
Stereotypically, Barbie dolls are modelled to an idealistic and unrealistic body type. In my younger years, this body type was idolised. But the older I got, the quicker I realised that the extreme contrast between waist and curves was utterly unattainable, due to basic biological structures.
I do, however, believe that the risk of children developing issues with body image would be increased through this unfeasible expectation of femininity. An element of disappointment was instilled in me as a child, as I was forced to accept that I would never be in a position to recreate the plastic perfection of my prized Barbie dolls in reality.
Human bone structure was not in accordance of the physique of a Barbie doll, meaning that without reconstruction it’s truly unattainable. Being so far from reality truly is one of the largest issues with the old style model of Barbie dolls.
Now as a self-respecting, encouraging feminist, it is easy to recognise the childishness of my aspirations to a Barbie physique; but for a child this is harder. The ingrained notion that one’s value was due to an individual’s beauty was detrimental to feelings of self-worth. Particularly, when every display of perfection was the generic slim, tall and blonde Barbie figurine. Real women on the contrary, consist of lumps, bumps and aesthetic imperfections and, for real women to truly be represented, diversity is vital.
By introducing a diverse range to the children of today, I truly believe it will inherently encourage not only body confidence, but also allow children to no longer be included in a land of ethnic ignorance.
This inclusion of multi-ethnicities is revolutionary towards steps for equality and should be celebrated, even if it is only deemed a minor transition for a childhood brand. For the children who idolised Barbies for decades, and those still to come, this is a step that should’ve occurred many, many years ago.
Barbie always stated that little girls “could be anything they wanted to be”, yet it is clear due to the commercialism of the brand, that this was proved untrue for over fifty years. Finally, though the equal representation of women in the brand, they are really starting to live up to their brand ideologies.
Girls and women can be anything they want to be, not just the set definition of femininity.
Mattel, the toy manufacturing company of Barbie, has announced that a new range of dolls are to be launched. They will have different ethnicities, skin colours, body shapes, height, eye colours and hairstyles. A change in their classic type of dolls is a significant step because its purpose is to reflect “real” women.
Currently, the image of beauty that young girls would perceive from playing with Barbie is related to tall skinny bodies, light skin, blue eyes and blonde hair. However, beauty is not necessarily related to these characteristics or, at least, opinions on this topic are changing in recent years. Moreover, Barbie’s adaptation is powerful because young kids are easily influenced by the dolls they play with, as these can be the first examples of women they see.
To understand the significance of this change in Barbie products, history needs to be considered. Barbie dolls in the 90’s reflected the ideal of beauty that was then in place.
Luckily, nowadays this stereotype is continuously challenged and more open minded versions of women and beauty are conceived. But this image in people’s mind still comes from dolls like Barbie.
Indeed, toys can be considered as a product as well as a cause of their society. Shared views within groups of people will reflect the products manufactured and their characteristics, however products as toys will also shape a kid’s future beliefs.
In the Barbie case, the fact that shorter or curvier dolls will be produced reflects changing opinions about beauty. This will hopefully lead to more acceptance of their body in adolescence. Therefore, Barbie’s decision to adapt their dolls is significant because it will help destroy this stereotype previously rooted in the society.
Young girls, at the age of playing with dolls, are easily influenced by what they see and what they do. Therefore, they often unconsciously start seeing dolls as an example of the perfect body. This can be explained if we consider that most girls adolescence want to look alike.
In fact, that is the image of beauty they have in their minds. This is partly due to the fact that they grew up in the same period, with common toys, and therefore they assume the body image of those dolls is the ‘right’ one.
I remember having Barbie and Bratz dolls; both are manufactured with very skinny and long legs, something I wished I had when I was 14 or 15. As well, they both had nice long hair. This has always meant femininity and charm to me, until I realized that various hair lengths suit people differently and is all about understanding what is better for your body. Therefore, even though beautiful women do not necessarily look like Barbie dolls that is the image I had in my mind, and in my opinion that equalled beauty.
Although somebody can argue that dolls are not that important in influencing kids’ body image, I believe that dolls impacted the idea of the perfect body I had in my mind as a child.
Many of my friends had the same struggle before understanding that differences are what make everyone unique and beautiful. Certainly, the majority of girls have gone through hard times accepting their bodies because they were not like the ideal one they grew up with.
I think that dolls are a way in which the society influences us from a young age. Therefore, Barbie’s changes in the characteristics of the dolls they produce is a significant step forward to more acceptance and a greater challenge of the stereotype which gave troubles to past generations. It reflects a world that is changing and has the willingness to keep up with its pace.
Image: Flickr – Tracheotomy Bob