A number of people have asked me what I think about the new Barbies. (For anyone living under a rock or absorbed with more weighty issues like selecting the next leader of the free world, Mattel has introduced a range of Barbie dolls with different body types, as well as a variety of skin tones and hair textures.)
I don’t doubt that Mattel will maximize the PR value of this move. Barbie is on the cover of Time, she inspired a sketch on Saturday Night Live, and she’s all over digital media. You can’t miss her.
These new dolls address and may quiet – momentarily – critics who take issue with Barbie’s look: her body proportions (especially), her blonde hair, her skin tone, her blue eyes. For many, many years, Mattel resisted any changes to the iconic blonde’s look.
So what drove the change? Is it wise?
If Barbie – or any brand – goes against its equity built over many years, the strength of the brand is diminished. A brand that tries to stand for everything stands for nothing. If Tiffany sold cheap costume jewelry alongside their sparkling diamonds, their blue box would be less special. Once gone, brand equity is tough to regain. Ask Volkswagen.
So is this a philosophical “seeing the light” or a desperate move to boost shrinking Barbie sales?
Kid vs. Adult Concerns
Most of the past criticism came from adults worried about imposing unrealistic beauty images on girls. (By contrast, according to the Time article, girls in research called the new “curvy” Barbie “fat” so girls may be more honest – or less tolerant of body diversity – than adults.)
I find it interesting that the same people who call Barbie “skinny” and object to her look would be appalled if anyone called her (or them) “fat.” They are probably like the perfect strangers who have said to me with disgust, “You’re so skinny!” (Yes, I am blessed with good genetics, but I am also cursed with high cholesterol so I eat carefully and work out 3-5 times every week.) Commenting on someone’s weight is as dumb as obsessing over a doll’s looks.
A Little Perspective
The original Barbie was modeled on a German adult novelty toy, and that explains her unrealistic proportions. (Huge chests and tiny waists resting on skinny little long legs just don’t happen very often in nature.)
Toys and Trends
Toys follow societal trends. Toys do not change society; that’s not their role.
Most importantly, toys are best when they encourage imagination and learning. Just as kids play with Superman figures without expectations that they will be able to fly, and boys play with Michael Jordan and Yao Ming and Kobe Bryant action figures without the expectation that they will grow to be six and a half or seven feet tall and play in the NBA, girls can play with Barbie and imagine what it would be like to live that very glamorous, idealized, (unrealistic) life.
At a time when many kids are overweight or obese and suffer from related chronic conditions, let’s have a constructive discussion about healthy eating, exercise, and healthy body image (preferably before the healthcare system that we all pay for is overwhelmed.)
And don’t stop the conversation there.
Imagine Your Possibilities
The best role for toys, and Barbie is no exception, is to encourage kids’ imaginations. Toys can open a valuable discussion with kids, encouraging them to find their special gifts and use those gifts to their fullest, whether they are physical traits or intelligence or other special talents.
Instead of wringing our hands over a piece of plastic, let’s open a discussion with kids and help them to be healthier and happier people.
Barbie needs to regain her popularity and boost sagging sales, but I doubt that this change is the answer. If forced to bet, I would guess that these new Barbies will quietly fade away over the next few years as most little girls gravitate to the original, iconic look. For now, the publicity is priceless. My ultimate hope is that the body critics will be silenced by the sales results. Numbers (like scales) don’t lie.