Like many Americans, I have long dreamed of a better world, one in which I would no longer be oppressed by inanimate plastic fashion dolls. On January 28, the Mattel toy company finally delivered. Barbie, that perennially foxy but quietly sinister supermodel-shaped plaything, will make us all feel better by gaining a few extra pounds.
Launched amid great fanfare and a Time cover story — “Now can we stop talking about my body?” — the new and improved Barbie has added three “realistic” body-shape options (“petite,” “tall,” and “curvy”), 24 different hair styles, 30 different hair colors, 22 eye colors, 14 face shapes, and seven additional skin tones.
The goal, as one Mattel executive announced to the world, was to “represent a line that is more reflective of the world girls see around them — the variety in body type, skin tones, and style allows girls to find a doll that speaks to them.”
This is all fine and good, really. Who but the most cold-hearted of souls could shake their fist at a more diverse collection of still unbelievably unrealistic dolls with perfectly symmetrical faces? The bulk of Barbie’s updates, in fact — hair, eyes, and skin — were largely met with a fond and appreciative nod. But it was Barbie’s increased caloric-storage capacity that truly rocked the world, inspiring wall-to-wall news coverage, widespread wringing of hands, and about 700 of the most absurd and hilarious think pieces one might ever hope to read.
“When I look into the still vacuous eyes of the new ‘fat’ Barbie,” wrote Mona Awad at Time,
I see that Barbie can’t escape herself either, regardless of changes made to her height, waist, hips and skin tone. . . . Barbie cannot transcend what she is composed of — not molded plastic, but rather the anxieties, desires, and dreams of her makers, which invite a kind of impossible happily-ever-after narrative, narrow and eerily dreamy and irresistible at the same time.
Ah, yes, how true. Except the added pounds, tragically, are not real; they are plastic and illusory. I’ll take this moment to remind us all that we are talking about a children’s doll originally based on an inappropriate German bachelor-party gift; a doll that, until recent years, would have toppled over like one of those Potemkin Chinese skyscrapers if she had been magically transformed into a real live human being, because her feet were perennially frozen into a freaky, sky-high tiptoe.
Oh, and as for Time’s innocent question — “Now can we stop talking about my body?” — the answer is a clear, decided no. At Bustle, a website “by and for women,” one anxiety-ridden author applauded a tweet calling for a “trans Barbie,” then added:
where is fat Barbie? Where is pear-shaped Barbie? Where is blind Barbie? Where is disabled Barbie? I’m not asking for an “ugly” Barbie — although that would be interesting — but for Mattel to find beauty in different bodies outside of a slim, cisgendered, able-bodied standard of beauty.
Well, just give them time. Barbie, at least according to its spokespeople, was responding to perceived visions of subtle oppression, largely due to the perpetuation of impossible beauty standards. “We were seeing that Millennials are driven by social justice and attracted to brands with purpose and values,” Tania Missad, Mattel’s director of global brand insights, told the U.K.’s Telegraph, “and they didn’t see Barbie in this category.”
This is all very high-minded, and also hilarious, given that Barbie’s rebranding panic attack was likely inspired at least in part by the rising success of a competitor: Queen Elsa, from the movie Frozen, a beloved Disney character–turned–doll who has knocked Barbie off her pedestal in recent years. Elsa, it should be noted, is not exactly a social-justice warrior, but rather a slender, buxom, blonde hermit in a slinky dress who accidentally freezes her victims in between mental breakdowns. Incidentally, Lego, another top Barbie competitor, has upped sales by making mini-figures and other products that are more stereotypically “girly” — endless pinkness, build-your-own beauty shops, and stifling trips to floral-hued, brick-based malls.
Other dolls, such as American Girl and Madame Alexander, have thrived by offering more “realistic,” less sexy body types. As a friend of mine with three little girls wryly noted, “Mattel is a little late to the body-positivity party.” Indeed. But when it comes to Barbie, isn’t that the whole point? Isn’t Barbie supposed to be sexy (in 2003, after all, she was banned by Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice), over-the-top, and unrealistic?
I played with Barbies as a kid, and also Legos — back when they were proudly unisex — as well as Star Wars action figures, multiracial Cabbage Patch Kids, and, at one rather weird point, a creepy, old-fashioned, flap-jawed ventriloquist doll named Dexter. None of these playthings troubled me by being “unrealistic” or “unrepresentative,” just as none of my brother’s muscled G.I. Joe or Superman toys sent him into a grade-school shame spiral. This was probably because they were toys.
Do girls look at Barbie and decide to starve themselves? Given that we have a national obesity epidemic rather than a crazed Amazonian supermodel epidemic, I’d lean towards no. A 2009 study from Rutgers University titled “Barbie at 50: Maligned but Benign?” argued that “neither age of acquisition [n]or number of Barbies owned had a significant impact on self-evaluations of appearance or on dieting behavior. The strongest predictor of dieting behavior was the wom[a]n’s recollection of how much physical appearance was valued by her family of origin members.”
Further, when we dig deeper, it seems that no one has a problem with toys’ being “unrealistic.” Feminists adore the unreal when it’s carrying their preferred narrative. Take the latest Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. Its heroine, Rey, is a tough-as-nails fighter who can take down six stormtroopers in approximately three seconds without breaking a sweat. She also appears to have the body-mass index of a twelve-year-old. I like Rey as much as you do, but I’m sorry, this is not realistic (and I know that Rey secretly harbors the Force, which probably gives her superhuman strength, but the Force, alas, is also not real).
In the end, what can we make of the new, slightly heftier Barbie, a doll that still, despite its seismic changes, likely falls into the top 1 percent of the attractiveness bracket? “I think that this is bigger than Barbie’s shape,” Kelli Harding, assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, told the New York Times, “because this really gets at gender inequality in the United States as well.”
Really? From my view, the great American Barbie brouhaha implies that girls are fragile flowers, constantly on the verge of a breakdown. You certainly don’t see this angst surrounding boys. Perhaps, in the end, we’re left with a failure of imagination — or, on a more basic level, an urge to tackle small things, such as toys, that are easy to control.
Sometimes a doll is just a doll. Unfortunately, and somewhat amusingly, many of our friends on the left simply cannot let this be.
– Heather Wilhelm is a columnist with RealClearPolitics and a senior contributor to the Federalist.