A Barbie is sold every three seconds somewhere in the world. Or so the story goes. A fixture now in girls’ bedrooms for decades, the doll has also, almost since first coming on to the market, provoked criticism for its fanciful body shape. It had boobs.
Now, Mattel Inc has reworked the traditional long-legged, malnourished, big-busted, “grown-up” doll, to offer “a broader view of beauty” so that Barbie now comes in a variety of sizes: petite, tall and curvy (plus the original version) with 24 hairstyles.
Evelyn Mazzocco, senior vice-president and Barbie’s global general manager, said: “We are excited to be changing the face of the brand… these new dolls represent a line that is more reflective of the world girls see around them.” Ms Mazzocco, ironically, inadvertently and eloquently, precisely summed up the argument of the movement for the liberation of Barbie and a different set of options for little girls everywhere.
As the novelist John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing in 1972: “Men act, women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves.”
Body shapes and sizes matter, but that is to miss another vital point. What is to be done about Barbie’s face or, more accurately, faces? Her vacuous, open-eyed perfectionism was, is and always will be a bane to active, engaged, diverse and sometimes ugly as sin womanhood.
In her day, Barbie, to be fair, tried to become action woman. We’ve had Barbie the astronaut, the doctor and, in 2014, the computer engineer. Unfortunately, the latter career choice was short lived because while Barbie liked to draw pictures of robot puppies, she squeakily explained: “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!” Only big boys code.
One truth, however, cannot be avoided. More than a billion Barbies have been sold in 150 countries. Somebody likes her. So what harm can she really do? The probable answer is, all alone, very little. But since her “birth” in 1959, she has been the spearhead of a huge marketing exercise to reinforce lucrative gender stereotypes that has been conducted in every corner of the mass media. That onslaught is only now facing a real challenge, in part because more and more of the public are adopting a fluid stance on what we define as male and female. In that spirit, last week Mattel should perhaps have launched a “non-binary” Barbie, complete with unisex wardrobe and a set of tools.
But then in ‘59, as now, mammaries make money, and girls then liked Barbie because she was a grown-up who looked utterly unlike their own postwar mothers. Barbie was a “chick”. The consumerist obsession for defining exaggerated codes of masculinity and femininity that first became rampant in the 1950s had found its queen.
Between 1946 and 1951, 22 million children were born in the US. In 1960, 11.7 million girls were aged 12-18, the teenager had been discovered and she had money, or at least access to it. What she didn’t have was choice.
Barbie’s horizons have always been limited to preening, nurturing and fashion. In 2014, the results of a study of a group of girls ran counter to the Barbie slogan, “You can be anything”. In the study, girls who played with Barbie, irrespective of whether she was dressed as a fashion model or a doctor, imagined themselves in fewer occupations than boys.
In contrast, those who played with Mrs Potato Head, my kind of girl, reported nearly as many career options as boys. So, it didn’t matter whether Barbie was dressed as a model or a paediatrician, suggesting that the doll’s sexualised shape and appearance might trump whatever accessories are packaged with her.
The acute aura of pinkness that surrounds Barbie, whatever her girth or hue of complexion, is replicated across the segregated toy industry (think My Little Pony, Polly Pocket, Care Bears). Does it bear any relation to the recent survey that revealed that only 1% of parents with daughters see engineering as a future profession and that less than 10% of engineers in the UK are female?
It might well be true that nature triumphs over nurture. That, as Barbie used to say before she was censored, “maths is hard” and girls are “naturally” more disposed to touchy-feely, arty subjects. The point is that in Barbiedom, the alternatives aren’t available.
Girls’ toys are typically liable to lead to passivity – combing the hair of Barbie, for instance – not building, imagining or being creative with Lego or Meccano.” Giving Barbie, or for that matter, her punchier rival Bratz, a hard hat and a high-vis jacket isn’t going to do the trick.
The excellent campaign Let Toys Be Toys, which has persuaded a number of major retailers, including Boots and Toys R Us, to end the stereotyping of toys, has collated evidence of the pigeonholing of boys and girls. It creates twin ghettos in which a child who isn’t interested in girly activities has to have a special name – tomboy – while a boy who might like dressing up and dolls is deemed a worry.
The news, however, is not all bad. “Barbie syndrome”, in which women take their favourite Barbie to a cosmetic surgeon so that they can emulate the look is still an oddity. The belief that two-thirds of the adult population is regularly resculpturing its face and torso is a myth. In 2016, breast augmentations were 23% down to 8,619; possibly a deflating statistic for the still well-endowed new model Barbie.
More alarmingly, for Mattel, a few years ago researchers at the University of Bath unearthed a new ritual among tomorrow’s teenagers – they microwaved their Barbies. Seven- to 11-year-olds also decapitate and maim the dolls. “It’s as though disavowing Barbie is a rite of passage and a rejection of their past.
Barbie has had worse blows. In 2004, she and Ken decided they needed time apart. Two years later, they were together again, with Ken described as “hot”, wearing a tropical Hawaiian shirt. While Barbie may be described as “fit”, she has yet to be given a six-pack, presumably because femininity is still the main name of the game, despite the latest incarnations that have added a little weight.
So, in her sixth decade, as the world has changed around her, Barbara Millicent Roberts, to give her full name, from Willows, Wisconsin, has diversified a tad, but the message remains unaltered – cute features; passive perfection; beauty is all really matters.
Will Petite, Tall and Curvy halt Barbie’s decline in sales? Or will they, too, end up in the microwave? The Barbie Liberation Front reports that it is afire with hope.