Who controls the meaning of Barbie?

I feel lucky to have come of age when I did, avoiding the perils of social media and sexting. But as rife as these things are today, there’s also an increased awareness to the damage advertising and the media can do to young minds. We’re much more aware of things like Photoshopping and that pretty well all images we see in magazines and on billboards aren’t real, and there’s more diverse body types and skin colours on TV, such as Mindy Kaling, Rachel Bloom of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and the Orange is the New Black cast. Sure, Instagram models and Gossip Girl amplify consumer-driven perfection, but those who don’t subscribe to this mould can take representation into their own hands, switching their smartphone to camera mode and speaking to millions of people on YouTube, Vine and Snapchat.

But that’s also the beauty of the time we live in: people and companies and their ideologies are forced to change to stay in the game. And that’s exactly what Mattel is attempting to do with their new range of Barbies.

In January three new dolls with differing body shapes from the prototype (that if possessed by a real woman would force her to walk on all fours) debuted, featuring tall, petite and curvy body shapes, darker skin tones and alternative hair colours and textures from the silky blonde we’re used to.

In response to Barbie’s new look, though, commentators were quick to wonder whether it was too late for generations of women (and let’s not forget the harm stereotypes of how women should look can affect men’s perception of and relationship it us) who’d already been indoctrinated by Barbie. Eliana Dockterman, writing for Time magazine (behind a paywall), observed that children playing with the the curvy-shaped doll called it “fat” while a 2005 study revealed that girls aged 7 to 11 inflicted on their Barbies “decapitation, burning, breaking and even microwaving” as a “cool” and “legitimate” method of play. This shows we need to do a lot more to reverse damaging notions of body image than just creating a few more versions of the same, conventionally beautiful standard in what is a transparently capitalist grab to stay in the children’s toy game.

On the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow lamented the advent of these apparently revolutionary changes to Barbie. Friedman negated the need for tall Barbie as she would already be tall if her measurements were converted IRL, while Sow wondered where the truly radical fat Barbie was. As unrealistic as original Barbie is, are these three new body types creating just as warped expectations of what women look like? How many overweight women have fat distributed in all the right places à la curvy Barbie? And the tall and petite Barbie are really just stretched out and shrunken versions, respectively, of the original.

For those who see potential beyond the trademarked blonde perfection and her contemporary friends, Barbie has been a catalyst for reinvention and revolution long before Mattel sanctioned it. A 2012 Facebook campaign called for a bald Barbie to help kids with leukemia embrace their hair loss. A health professor at George Washington University thought a Center for Disease Control & Prevention Barbie would help combat anti-vaccine rhetoric from the likes of glamorous campaigners such as Jenny McCarthy. And as seen in the above tweet, an orthopedic surgeon fitted Barbie with a prosthetic leg to match its owner while British toy brand Makies have a line of dolls with disabilities, again spawned by a social media campaign, including dolls with hearings aids and white canes.

Yes, Barbie is unrealistically beautiful and thin and leads a charmed life, but she also acts as a blank canvas for young girls (and boys) to project their ideals onto, making outfits for her, cutting her hair, exploring sexuality and, the abovementioned rebellion against the rigid femininity standards Barbie represents and adheres to. Alternatively, Barbie may remain exactly as Mattel intended her to be: an immaculate representation of femininity.

I do think a little too much emphasis is conveniently placed on Barbie as the culprit of all that ails women. For all the children who play with Barbie as she was intended, myself included, there are just as many who use her to craft alternative versions of femininity. While these new Barbies (and, indeed, Makies and Bald Barbie) are a step in a more inclusive direction, Mattel does not always control the way Barbie is perceived and, more importantly, played with.

Image: Sheila Tostes

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ScarlettHarrisScarlett Harris is a freelance writer and blogger at The Scarlett Woman where she muses about femin- and other -isms. You can follow her on Twitter at @ScarlettEHarris.

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