I’m writing about Barbie today because I can’t bring myself to look directly at Donald Trump and the steaming, seething mound of bigots surrounding him. It’s like watching a slow motion train wreck wrapped in an earthquake and topped with a meteor that is actually on fire. We can’t look away, and if it goes as it would, it will be the end of us.
So let’s talk about Barbie!
Mattel recently announced that they will be releasing new Barbies in four different body styles, seven skin tones, 14 “face sculpts,” and a variety of hair and eye colors – making for a total of 33 new options. I can hear the hordes of loyal collectors reaching for their trusty credit cards now. This builds on progress from last year, when Mattel announced that Barbie’s ankles will be such that the dolls’ feet won’t be permanently molded into high heel-cramp position, presumably making it easier for impressionable young girls to understand that it is possible to be female without actually crippling yourself for the cause.
These updates are no doubt responding to years of criticism of the Barbie brand for promoting an impossible and unhealthy female ideal. It is truly lovely to see these changes. But I can’t help but think that the good people at Mattel missed an opportunity to be leaders in a brighter, more inclusive future. They could have turned towards realism and healthy body image sooner, and they surely could have taken it farther when they did it.
On the other hand, it’s not easy to turn a ship like Barbie. By offering varieties in shape, skin, hair and eye color, they’re reinventing an icon. Barbie grossed 1.01 billion in 2014, according to the Barbie Media website (in other news, there is a Barbie Media website), you don’t tinker with that kind of success lightly because it doesn’t always go well. Recall, if you will, New Coke and Crystal Pepsi, for examples. So I think this shift speaks to the inevitability of progress, something I have sorely needed in light of the seemingly endless attacks on reproductive freedom and equality for women we’ve been enduring recently.
Barbie means a lot of things to a lot of people. When I said I was writing this article, Tish Grier, another writer on this site, sent a long, lovely note about her lifelong relationship with the brand, saying that Barbie taught her about fashion and how to dress: “They can teach girls a whole lot more than they are given credit for.” Her body image didn’t suffer, and they inspired her creatively as she learned to make clothes for the dolls.
Dear friend Denise broke it down thusly: “Instead of asking what the toy can do, you ask what the kid can do with the toy… that’s why I think Barbie has been successful despite the unrealistic body shape: she’s always been about prompting girls to pretend, imagine, and role play.” In this way, the story of Barbie also has legs. That may be what has carried her agelessly through the decades.
These new shapes and colors will open up new markets, including my own home. While not likely to have a strong impact on Mattel’s bottom line, my family may represent an audience that Barbie hasn’t been reaching. Progressive parents who have been squeamish about buying sexually exaggerated models of womanhood for their girls.
I had Barbies as a child – by accident. My mother was against the image they projected – impossible plastic perfection – despite her more than 180 careers. Dilettante Barbie. One day mom caved when I begged for a ballerina doll we saw in a shop without first reading the imprint on her back, and the jig was up. Many dolls and accessories followed. When I grew up, grew surly, and set the dolls aside, my youngest brother adopted my abandoned Barbies, and stored the bodies in one drawer and the heads in another. “Maybe he’ll grow up to be an artist,” we hoped feverishly (he turned out just fine).
With a variety of phenotypes and this message of evolution, my own girls are now quite likely to have Barbies of their own. Barbie is confident. She has moxie. She’s been an astronaut, surgeon, a computer engineer, a firefighter (and a fashion model, and an aerobics instructor and a couple of different kinds of rock star). She now also may get a place in my home.
She’s been a presidential candidate six times. And why not? She’s better qualified than some.
Thea Joselow is a digital media writer, editor and social media director based in Bethesda, Maryland. She has worked for such illustrious institutions as National Public Radio, Smithsonian Magazine, and at a strategic communications firm in Washington, D.C., but please don’t hold that against them. Thea likes to think she has a good sense of humor. All opinions, omissions and offenses are entirely her own. She can be found on Twitter at @tjoselow.