Barbie, as many will recall, was the epitome of beauty for many women who grew up with her. Her small frame and unrealistic proportions have since been criticized for a few years now. Barbie was known for her blonde hair, blue eyes and pale skin as well as her feet which were grotesquely and permanently perched on their tippy-toes. In this day and age, Barbie has become synonymous with unrealistic beauty standards and has basically become the symbol of outdated gender roles.
And so Mattel decided to do a radical overhaul of the whole Barbie brand, which was kept severely under wraps and only referred to as “Project Dawn” by the company. The new dolls will have twenty-four hairstyles (including afro and curly hair), seven different skin tones and three new body types. This, according to Mattel, will depict a “broader view of beauty.” The goal is not only to make Barbie more diverse so that she can reflect the customer base she is serving, but also be more empowering than she has ever been before. It is quite the undertaking.
However, Mattel isn’t doing this purely from the goodness of their hearts. The company suffered a 14% global drop in Barbie sales and was on a downward trajectory for eight consecutive quarters. In 2001, Barbie faced hefty competition from her competitors, the Bratz, a set of dolls that were edgier, more self-assured and far more ethnically diverse than her. Then, in 2013, came the Elsa doll which was topping the wish list of every girl. Finally, Barbie was snubbed by the age of the “millennial moms,” who were more socially aware and had developed negative views of the doll. This seemed to be the final nail in the pink, plastic coffin that Barbie would be buried in.
So Mattel settled on a massive, secret overhaul of the Barbie brand, a brand they spent decades forging. On the surface, it may seem like a victory for women, but is it really getting to the root of the issue? After all, Barbie is still an inaction figure, existing simply because she is pretty. With doll types like “Barbie Fashionistas,” Barbie is still only focused on exterior values. It is also still complicit in a toy market which seeks to cleanly divide “girls’ toys” from “boys’ toys” to better take advantage of customers without acknowledging the complexities behind children and gender. As Eliana Dockterman said in an interview with BBC, “Barbie doesn’t have a specific character or personality in the same way that Elsa from Frozen or Minnie Mouse or any other character might. At her essence, she is basically a body.”
And is it really enough to have seven skin tones and call the new line reflective of all children? Do children only come in petite, average and curvy sizes? Labelling dolls to begin with seems to be part of the problem. Mattel is in danger of misdefining diversity. By adding a few variations to the original, nothing more than the equivalent of adding a few “diverse” friends to the cast, Mattel is still excluding a lot of marginalized groups. This is exactly what the “Hijarbie” emphasizes, a Barbie doll dressed to wear a hijab by 24-year-old student Haneefah Adam as showcased on her Instagram account. The thirty-three new looks will leave out many more still, further disenfranchising certain marginalized groups.
But if you’re Tania Missad, the director of global brand insight at Mattel, you might just brush these criticisms off because “Barbie is a lightning rod for conversation, and of course there will be backlash.”