People are often surprised to learn that I have fond memories of playing with Barbie dolls as a child.
This disbelief could be interpreted in a number of different ways, each a bit more biting and backhanded than the last (you don’t seem feminine enough to have been interested in dolls; to look at you, I’d never guess you played with a doll that was so connected with fashion).
Most likely, though, it’s a puzzling discrepancy that draws folks up short: I care a great deal about diversity and representation in popular culture, yet in that regard, Barbie has often earned a failing grade.
To give but two of the numerous examples, in 1992, Teen Talk Barbie became notorious over one of the phrases she spoke being a lament that “Math class is tough!” Meanwhile, in the 2010 Barbie book I Can Be A Computer Engineer, Barbie had a pink laptop and didn’t even know how to code, instead relying on “Steve and Brian” to do the engineering while she just “created design ideas.”
Beyond that, there’s the ongoing complaint that as an ostensible full-formed human female (as opposed to a doll like Raggedy Ann, which is more an abstraction of a female body), Barbie’s physical dimensions are physically impossible, and said to promote an unrealistic body image to impressionable young girls.
I care a great deal about these negative depictions as well. I dislike that Mattel, the makers of Barbie, have made such sexist decisions over the years.
And yet, my positive memories of the iconic doll remain firmly in place. I played with Barbies incessantly, especially between ages 8 and 10, and credit that play with helping make me the fiction writer I am today.
I can recall those days like yesterday. My Barbie collection was extensive; enough dolls and accessories to fill a small suitcase.
My friends would come over and we would first plan (i.e. outline) and then use the dolls to play out various storylines, most of which would extend over multiple play sessions like so many episodes of a soap opera.
Through such play, I discovered the importance of conflict in a story, for I was always wanted to come up with new and better ways that things could go wrong.
I loved coming up with names and backstories for each character, and figuring out how their past experiences influenced their present situation.
I also learned about story structure – specifically, what comprised the story climax, for that was the part I never actually wanted to reach, knowing the story would end soon thereafter.
(Technically, I guess I also learned about overwriting a story, but I’ve working hard to unlearn that particular lesson.)
More so than a hindrance to self-esteem, I remember Barbie serving as a tool for creative play. This isn’t to say I never disliked my appearance as a child – I definitely remember regretting my blackness, my frizzy hair, my sturdy physique.
Yet rather than causing my dissatisfaction in and of itself, I consider Barbie to have been just another manifestation of an already pervasive societal principle. By the time I was old enough to make up complex stories with dolls, I’d already reached a level of understanding that looking different from the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, slender female ideal withheld certain opportunities from me.
Looking back, though, it would have been nice if I’d owned more than one black Barbie.
A darker shade of sale
Mattel’s latest initiative involves introducing some long-awaited diversity to its traditionally white, super-skinny dolls. Specifically, Barbies will soon be available in three different body shapes – petite, tall, and curvy – seven different skin tones, 22 different eye colours, and 24 different hairstyles.
Not everyone is pleased with this new venture. Complaints have included that fact that the dolls still have unrealistic proportions, even the “curvy” variety, which is also an unnecessarily sexualized way of describing the average woman’s body.
The fact that all the introductory images of the new Barbies show them in dresses and skirts has also drawn criticism. This is seen as proof that the dolls are still reinforcing a preoccupation with physical appearance rather than skills and intellect.
As well, the fact of that of seven new skin tones, four of them are a version of white has suggested to some that the new dolls aren’t much more diverse than previous, at least in terms of race.
The most interesting criticism I’ve come across, however, is of the fact that the change was fueled by a decline in Mattel’s market share.
Since 2012, Mattel’s sales have decreased more than 20%, due in large part to the success of rival company Hasbro, who manufactures all the Disney princess dolls, most notably, Elsa of the hit movie Frozen.
To quote an article in The Atlantic:
The changes in Barbie’s body may have arisen out of the company’s desire to do good; mostly, though, they arose from its need to do well. This was that oldest and most American of things: cultural change by way of capitalism.
In a similar vein, The Guardian states:
The buying public has been diverse in size and stature for decades, and Mattel playing catch-up seems more like a sales strategy than a genuine attempt to represent their customers…. Let’s call this what it is: a last-ditch effort by a company that recognizes the only way to stay alive and ultimately thrive is to – gasp – diversify.
But is all of this truly a bad thing? Does the reason for the change even truly matter?
A green comparison
When I was a teenager, I experienced a number of frustrating occasions where my actions in some matter were deemed wrongly motivated.
This is to say, my desire to either avoid getting in trouble, to prevent others from thinking ill of me, or to otherwise live up to the expectations of those with authority over me was considered of greater importance than the fact that I did, ultimately, do the right thing.
(As if image management and the avoidance of penalties aren’t legitimate motivations that most adults practice every other day.)
While I understand the desire to capture the hearts and minds of others in some matters – especially those pertaining to social justice – it’s important to recognize that for some people, it may never actually happen.
Some people may never advance any further than behaving correctly to escape social stigma.
If nothing else, changing attitudes can take a very long time. As such, we need to be okay with receiving whatever concessions we can get in the interim. Wanting something, but only the right way, is often a recipe for getting a whole lot of nothing.
Oftentimes, we just need to accept the sour grapes and worry about making fine wine later.
I’m reminded of an undergraduate class I took on conservation biology. We had just finished discussing what’s known as ecosystem services – that is, all the functions the natural world performs in order to keep us alive (e.g. providing oxygen and drinking water, pollination, waste decomposition, medicinal resources, energy, soil formation – the list goes on).
Next, the professor explained how environmental economists had actually quantified all these services. In 1997, they calculated the price it would cost for humans to reproduce what nature does for free: an average of $33 trillion US a year.
We were then posed a question: is it important for people to adopt environmentally-friendly practices because it’s the right thing to do for the Earth, our beautiful, live-sustaining home? Or is doing so merely to prevent having to spend those trillions good enough?
The first situation is referred to as intrinsic valuation – the valuing and appreciating of something for its own inherent worth. The second is called instrumental valuation – a sense of value that can be measured and reckoned against other possible outcomes.
Our conclusion? It doesn’t matter either way why people adopt better practices; the fact of them doing so is the part that matters most.
For if it came down to either instrumental valuation or no valuation, would we really want to just carry on with the status quo?
Strength in numbers
I feel the same way about the new Barbie dolls – that to now have some of the diverse representation people clamoured for for years is more important than it coming about for capitalist reasons.
(How realistic was it to expect otherwise in any case, unless Mattel was planning to completely alter its shareholder mandate and business model?)
But that right there shows how the situation isn’t nearly as bleak as some might believe. It reveals the power behind the position that diversity matters, where diversity can take on market forces and prevail.
It shows that being vocal about what you want and voting with your dollar really can help create change. In this particular case, the powers-that-be have already been hit where it hurts most, i.e. their bottom line.
Right now, the right thing for the wrong reason is good enough. It’s moved us that much closer to the end we want.
And who knows? With greater exposure to diversity – to all the intrinsic values that make the world a better place – perhaps Mattel – perhaps everyone not yet convinced – will in time come around to the intrinsic side on their own.
Did you play with Barbies as a child? What do you think about Mattel’s new offerings? Let me know in the comments.