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Modern Barbie: Aspiring to Character, Not Appearance


February 2, 2016

By Ruth Bernstein

With the announcement that Barbie is getting a new look, consumers all over the country are applauding the effort to provide children with toys that promote healthy body image—and at the minimum, reflect the women that they look up to regardless of race or size. Barbie is transforming to connect with the cultural values of Millennials and Gen Z, who want to use their purchase power in a meaningful way. But in a world where body shape and size comes to the forefront of all too many conversations, does the very nature of Barbie’s value being intertwined with her appearance point to an inherent flaw in the brand?

The update in body shapes (petite, curvy and tall) does bring Barbie more squarely into the modern era, where female bodies are accepted for their diversity of shape. You have only to look to the Kardashians and Lena Dunham to see the progressing values in culture. Millennial moms are much more keyed in to what the brands they purchase both convey to their children and say about them as moms. So it’s not surprising that they hesitate to pick up a Barbie. Does she represent what they secretly want to look like? Chances are, probably not, which makes them unlikely to purchase. Women want to see reflections of females in culture who are strong, real, relatable—And they want to convey those same values to their children.

There’s a tricky tension between Barbie as a relatable figure and Barbie as an aspirational figure, but Mattel seems to have navigated the balance effectively. In a quest to create dolls that reflect current culture, Mattel has also embraced the progress that media and entertainment have made in terms of body positivity. After all, if Barbie is supposed to be your best friend, it makes sense that she should look like the people you know and see around you. She should have every hair color, and outfits for when she wants to be girlie and when she wants to be a tomboy. But at the same time, she has to maintain some level of aspiration—which she does with her shiny hair and bright eyes and cute outfits—to make her a compelling play-thing—the one you want to be your best friend. It’s a smart move to respond to girls, specifically Gen Z, in this way because more than any other generation they are multi-cultural, and crave realness. For them the future is unlimited, and Barbie’s shift to inclusiveness supports the idea that everyone’s future is unlimited.

The more concerning issue seems to be that Barbie does not represent any deeper values. She has had every job under the sun, can play every sport, takes vacations all over the world and can pull off any style. So who is she really? Unlike Elsa (who beats her in sales) she does not have one solid backstory. She has so many back stories, the only thing consistent about her is the way she looks. So here we are again, talking about her body, because there is nothing else to say. And that worries me. With nothing of value added to Barbie in this redesign, all that’s left to scrutinize is her new shape. (Are three shapes enough? Should she be curvier? Will the clothes fit more than one type?) Ultimately, that conversation does not move the larger cultural conversation forward. It’s not surprising that the girls they tested the dolls with in focus groups used words like “fat” and “chubby” because what else were they given to react to, other than her new body?

While Barbie’s new look is certainly a step in the right direction, what would have been truly groundbreaking would be to give Barbie some real substance—not just a little extra padding. To move the conversation from pondering and evaluating the shape of her body (the scourge of all women) to who she is, what she values, and how she is changing the world with more than her shape. The Barbie TV series, where she has a voice, would be a nice place to start. Overall, I commend Mattel for recognizing the need to be a more responsible brand in the conversation around standards of beauty, but instead of just changing the song, lets change the station entirely and make this conversation not just about looks, but more about character.