Mattel has announced a new range of ‘realistic’ Barbies. Customers will now be able to choose from three body types, seven skin tones, and twenty-four hair shades. While the collection may have limited direct social implications, and is undoubtedly a ploy to regain lost traction in the toy market, the latest additions do sport the badge of realism and diversity. This has to be seen as a step in the right direction.
As an icon and the most realistic doll out there, the plastic figure has a heavy responsibility, serving as a role model to millions of young children across the globe. So far she has failed in her duties. Adults criticise and blame her for embedding all sorts of insecurities, while their children play innocently. All the while they are unknowingly yet another generation to be conditioned to think that being anything other than a white, blonde, blue-eyed, tall ‘woman’ with a pinched waist, thigh gap and perfect boobs, is no good.
It’s in Barbie’s very nature to evolve: she was after all modeled on a German hooker doll, ‘Lilli’. The creator, Ruth Handler has been known to say that “every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of her future”. Funnily enough, mothers haven’t tended to be so keen on their children dreaming of their future involving being paid for sex.
But so far, by way of social awareness, the company’s modifications of Barbie lie merely in her clothing: astronaut Barbie in the 60s, disco Barbie in the 80s. Never before have they dared such radical progression as to allow her to eat. Never before have they accepted that children of different races might like to play with a toy that lets them dream about their own personal future.
What Mattel has done is not revolutionary. Barbie isn’t the first in a line of brands, like Dove, to respond to growing resistance to society’s obsession with the visual utopia that is presented to women. Consumer demand has called for a reality check. Producers have been, albeit slowly, responding. It’s simple economics, not groundbreaking morality.
But the change is still significant. Even if it is the smallest of steps towards social equality. Even if it is to keep up with competitors. Even if people only buy the already existing, outdated Barbie. It’s important because toys are important cultural symbols: they reflect what we as a society deem appropriate for our children to identify with. Dolls help to shape our children’s – aka society’s future’s – view of beauty. For the individual, ‘realistic’ Barbie will hopefully go some way to show children that their own looks are iconic. Broadly speaking, children playing with dolls that are of a different colour, or body shape, or are ginger, instills acceptance, even a love of diversity.
Beauty ideals are not a fixed, but they are pretty entrenched in our culture. Dove may make already insecure adult women feel better about their ‘flaws’, but to really change our perception of what is beautiful, to really create a society which unanimously celebrates diversity, we must look to the impressionable souls of the future generation.
The designers of Barbie’s endeavours most probably boil down entirely to a need to respond to increasing competition. But so what? Their response to consumer demand is a mark of how our culture of prejudice is waning; so much that an item that has been an icon for 57 years requires dramatic revamping to avoid fading out of the market. For that reason I could not be happier with this new line of Barbies.