An Evolution In Plastic

Thursday, my various social media feeds were lit up with grown adults excited about barbie dolls. What were they excited about? They were excited about diversity! Barbie is becoming more diverse!

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this is Blanche’s excited face

Well, sort of.

I can hear everyone calling me a naysayer and a Negative-Nancy even as I type this up. I’ve just got a bad attitude. I just expect everyone to be perfect. No progress is ever good enough for me. Sure, these new barbies are not without their flaws, but surely I can appreciate how much better this is? Barbie now has (stops to check the numbers) “4 body types, 7 skin tones, 22 eye colors, and 24 hair styles.” So why am I being a grump about this?

***

As I see more and more glowing write-ups all over the internet, I have to wonder, how many of them have actually taken the time to look at what the actual Barbie website has to say about the new dolls. Sure, up at the top it proudly announces “The Evolution of Barbie” but right below that, in smaller print, it says what we really need to know. “The New 2016 Fashionistas Line” is what the subheading says, and to me, it says a lot.

And then, if you will, scroll down even farther with me.

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image from barbie.com

Notice anything?

That’s right. Those exciting new body shapes and skin tones that make Barbie more realistic? They’re only available in the one line. Sure sure, mattel says, you can be a “curvy girl!” But a curvy girl who is president? or even a curvy girl who is a game developer? Outrageous! Not going to happen!

In fact, I combed the website, and there is no indication anywhere that Mattel has any plans whatsoever to use these new body shapes in any other lines ever. This is a single isolated product line, which was created to appease millennial parents (like me!) because Barbie is so strongly associated with negative and unrealistic body image that they’re losing money over it (again). Parents are debating whether or not this is a scam to sell more Barbie clothes (because hey, now you’ll have multiple sizes!) but I don’t see any evidence whatsoever that they plan to make additional clothing in the new sizes at all.

What would have actually made a difference, what might have actually inspired some actual change and inclusivity, would be if Mattel had chosen to release several new characters, a la Skipper. Like Skipper and Ken, a new character could appear in multiple product lines, have her own outfits, and she too could have the opportunity to be a doctor, or an architect, or whatever.

Instead, what we have is a completely isolated product line. Far from telling girls that they can be anything, it reinforces the idea that only a select few of us have those kinds of options. Everyone else — the curvy, petite, and um, tall? among us — have to settle. We can’t be game developers, but we can, apparently, be “fashionistas.” Just, you know, fashionistas with a grand total of 1-3 outfits. Oh, er, um, ok…

***

I want to take a closer look at the curvy dolls, though. As a fat woman, this is my area of interest. And let’s face it, just like in real life, it is the curvy dolls that have the least options. If you are a child, playing make believe with your dolls, you do what works. Sure, you don’t really have enough clothes for your petite and tall dolls, but you might be able to make do. The petite doll can probably wear some of the classic doll’s outfits, they’ll just be loose. The tall doll can probably get into most of the tops, and even some skirts and dresses, just not the pants. But the curvy doll? The curvy doll is screwed. And when you loose the 1-3 outfits that came with your curvy doll, and can’t get any more, she’s going to end up naked at the bottom of the toy box.

The other thing is, those curvy dolls? Well let’s look at something.

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Ok, yes, she’s definitely a little wider than the classic doll, particularly in the hips. Her calves may also be a bit wider. But she still sports an impressive thigh gap, has a cinched waist, and is suitably hourglass. Of course, the argument is going to be made that Barbie is naturally going to show the most attractive version of each of these different body types… but it is depressing and disheartening that the most attractive version of the doll whose sole virtue is being larger just happens to be the thinnest possible doll that could still be considered curvy. She still has twiggy arms.

Fat children are going to play with this doll. And you know what they’re not going to get from that experience?

“Oh wow, this girl is fat just like me but see she can still be beautiful and do impressive and interesting things!”

No. Instead they’ll get…

“Even the fat Barbie is skinnier than me, so I must be really really fat. Also I lost all of her shirts again. Shit.”

***

A few words on race. I’ve focused, in this post, primarily on the various body shapes. This isn’t an accident. As a white woman, I don’t feel qualified to discuss the implications of greater diversity for children of color. My hunch is that, having dolls with, for example, hair that is not smooth and straight, is a Good Thing. Though again, it would be a far better thing if it was applied outside of this one line. If anyone knows of any POC talking about this, please let me know in the comments and I will link to their analysis here.

***

A final thought. The quote that’s going around, in every article about this from the Time cover story to the smallest blog, the question that supposedly led to these “changes” is “If you could design Barbie today, how would you make her a reflection of the times?”

It’s not a bad question to pose to the people who literally do design Barbies today, in fact it’s probably the first question they should be asked every day upon arriving at work. But I find the answer troubling. More body types and more ethnicities is not a reflection of the times, there have always been women of different skin tones and sizes. Mattel is trying to lump a teeny tiny bit of size acceptance and racial variety in with cute “modern” outfits. And it implies that they have zero cultural culpability for the role they have played in normalizing thinness, whiteness, and blondness. When they try to make this about changing times, they imply that it was fine in 1959, or 1971, or even 1999, to idealize this one type of woman, and literally pretend that the others did not exist.

And when we say that these new dolls reflect the diverse world girls today live in (I can’t find the exact quote right now but I’ve read at least two articles claiming something like that) we’re still centering the experiences of thin, white, able-bodied girls. And that’s the whole fucking problem.

 

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