Are Diverse Barbies Really Progress?

I played with Barbies a lot as a little girl. I remember looking at the nude body of one plastic, blonde doll and marveling at her wrinkle-free knees, being baffled by her hard breasts, and wishing my waist could be as narrow as hers. I was only seven years old.

In late January, Mattel released a line of new, diverse Barbie dolls. These dolls now come in three body-types — “curvy,” “tall,” and “petite,” although the original model, complete with large bust and tiny waist, is still available — seven skin tones, twenty-two eye colors, and fourteen “face-sculpts.” Altogether, there are now thirty-three versions of Barbie.

It didn't take long for the media to react to and pose explanations for this significant change. Writer Megan Garber, for instance, interpreted Mattel’s decision as a primarily financial one, as sales of barbies have plummeted the past four years. Creating a product that aligns with the ideals of generations of women increasingly raised with feminist values boosts the company’s visibility and credibility, she argued, and this phenomenon can therefore be interpreted as a rare instance in which capitalist intentions have actually contributed to changing American culture for the better.

But how truly significant or systemic is this change? As Garber reminds readers, Barbies were initially given out at bachelor parties as jokes in the 1950s and her original body shape was undeniably based on a male-defined, impossible sexual ideal. Jill Filipovic noted that these gendered implications are still evident even among the diverse Barbies, which she argues still exist in “the pink box” — both in terms of literal packaging as well as the cultural reinforcement of traditional gender roles that stem from distinguishing the dolls as "girls' toys." Barbie, Filipovic argues, is still an object valued primarily for her appearance, even if her appearance allows for a more modern, inclusive understanding of beauty.

What's more, while a child's ability to better identify with their Barbie seems ideal, the reality of facilitating this connections poses complications, considering that children usually don't directly select their own Barbies. For example, as Kelly Faircloth provocatively pointed out in a Jezebel piece, receiving a curvy Barbie as a self-proclaimed “chubby child” would have felt ostracizing and devastating. It's also worth considering whether a white family gifting a brown doll to a girl of color on her birthday could come across as patronizing.

Diverse Barbies may theoretically boost girls’ self-esteem, but the true power of these new dolls may be less about personal empowerment than broader normalization of diversity. Individual girls and families may react differently to the dolls themselves, but the fact that they exist will hopefully shape the understanding of normative beauty in this country. Diverse Barbies may not revolutionize gendered beauty standards alone, and may hardly be a perfect first step, but it's an undeniably important first step all the same.

More articles by Category: Body image and body standards, Economy, Feminism, Media
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Saskia G
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