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More than a doll? Lessons learnt (and un-learnt) from Barbie

Posted in Life & Love, and Uncategorized

Barbie Sports IllustratedCoffee and the New York Times, possibly together, are two of my life’s greatest pleasures – even when I rant at the Times or at the stupidity of  Western civilization that comes up with idiotic ideas like having Barbie modeling  in the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated. This stroke of marketing genius must have caused some controversy I wasn’t aware of (need to open a Twitter account); what other reason could there be for Mattel to take out a full-page open letter ad in the NYT, defending their choice?

“[…] the Swimsuit issue is out, and there’s bound to be a conversation or two about the women in it. Ask yourself, isn’t it time we teach girls to celebrate who they are? Isn’t there room for capable and captivating? It’s time to stop boxing in potential. Be free to launch a career in a swimsuit, lead a company while gorgeous, or wear pink to an interview at MIT. The reality of today is that girls can go anywhere and be anything. They should celebrate who they are and never have to apologize for it.”

Since when is Barbie the spokesperson of beautiful women who go on to launch careers at MIT? Could she even be? Is Barbie still relevant? And how so?

I feel no shame in admitting I played with Barbie until 14. Somehow, I could hold thoughts about boys and toys in the same space, while I morphed from an awkward teen into a woman. Barbie was a bit of a status symbol, a toy one had to have, rather than an ideal to emulate. At the time, there were no ethnic Barbies, at least not in Italy, so mine were all of the blonde, long-legged and perky breasts variety. As I never had blonde envy, I didn’t resent Barbie’s perfect features. But Barbie did come with perennial boyfriend, never to be husband, Ken and a less interesting younger sister, Skipper, who supported an idea of independence and self-realization. My Barbie family lived in a pink three-story house that, if I remember correctly, even had an elevator. They drove some Dune Buggy sort of car and had extensive wardrobes.

Barbie House
Barbie in her very pink bedroom – notice the single bed

If Barbie exerted any influence over me at all, it was in the clothing department: having lots of outfits seemed to be fun. That I spent hours playing with my best friend, dressing and undressing the dolls, and inventing stories to do with their imaginary lives, is probably a testament to our creativity. I doubt Barbie taught me any valuable lessons on how to be a young woman. If anything, she represented an idealized version of an American youth I was not part of.

But what is Barbie trying to achieve by posing for Sports Illustrated? Is this recession proof doll trying to gain in hipness? Or is it just another marketing ploy? The latter is more likely because the former has failed miserably.

Barbie vs real woman
Barbie’s body vs real woman’s

The swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated is unabashedly about sex. As a woman, I support any other female using her body as she pleases, be it being photographed naked, semi-naked or performing sex acts, provided none of it is done under duress. Using one’s physical attributes for financial gain is a personal choice I wouldn’t get on a soapbox to criticize.

But to proclaim, like Mattel does, “to ask ourselves whether isn’t it time to teach girls to celebrate who they are”, is a bit disingenuous. Barbie dolls are presumably aimed at females between the ages of six and twelve or thereabout, and Sports Illustrated is a magazine aimed at men gawking at beautiful women, scantily dressed.

Sure, models and barbies can go on “to break barriers, establish empires, build brands, branch out into careers as varied as authors, entrepreneurs and philanthropists” (in Mattel’s words) but should we really encourage young girls to take the route of Sports Illustrated? A route, by the way, probably achieved by less than one percent of Barbie toting girls.

In any case, childhood is the only time, for some briefer than others, when we are afforded some innocence. Something Mattel recognizes by having a fully grown-up doll devoid of nipples or an anatomically correct vagina. Playing with Barbie never included imaging a sex life with genital-free Ken. Why is Mattel pushing her there?

Images found in the public domain and courtesy of Sports Illustrated and Amazon

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19 Comments

  1. alan
    alan

    hysterical…..amd on point

    February 26, 2014
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  2. It was just a marketing stunt to bring Barbie in the front again, she did not have a very good year.

    February 26, 2014
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    • Thanks for the inside view. I really thought Barbie was a permanent best seller!

      February 26, 2014
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  3. silvia
    silvia

    Can’t believe you’re talking about that!!!
    Had it not been for you I ‘d have had a Barbieless childhood ‘ cause my parents were even more strict when it came to playing with Barbies, they thought it wasn’t pedagogically correct. But I suspect they simply believed it was too expensive and considered my begging for having her, fully equipped, a bit whimsical.
    And per the rest Mattel are you nuts???

    February 25, 2014
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    • I think we need to pose the question to Antonia and Giorgio at the next available opportunity! Anyway I have the fondest memories of those long afternoons spent with you and Barbie.

      February 26, 2014
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  4. Very well said, girl! A pure marketing ploy is all I see. Never mind wearing pink to MIT, remove two ribs, bind your feet, pump your breasts and trot off to your interview! In UK they launched a competitor called Sindy. I had one of those. She was brunette and with a much more averagely pretty face and more anatomically correct proportions. For a while she outsold Barbie in the UK. Then the powers that be tried to make her compete with Barbie, changing her features and proportions and the failure was immediate. The doll-buying public in the UK did not want Sindy to resemble Barbie and her popularity declined fast.

    February 25, 2014
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    • I always love to learn new things. Had never heard of Sindy before, which now I feel obliged to track down. And a big cheer for British little girls for standing their ground.

      February 26, 2014
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  5. I was never much of a ‘doll’ person when a small girl, but at about 10 I fell for Barbie and thought she was wonderful. Never had the house, horse or other stuff, just plain vanilla Barbie with a few outfits. I particularly loved the little shoes!!
    One thing though, thinking back, maybe a whole generation (or two) of young women think that the Barbie body/look is the one to aim for…just look at the pictures of women who are adulated by the media, artificially enhanced boobs, faces, hair etc.

    February 25, 2014
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    • I would like to think that little girls are not conned by dolls. What they see on tv or online, though, is a different matter.

      February 26, 2014
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  6. Very interesting. What s annoying in the press thing is that it goes in the direction od misguided perception. We tell girls they can do whatever they want to yet we corner them in a pink- barbied world. It s the same debate as for the pink Lego. My guess is that we live a phase of transition and that the marketing kings out there share our difficulties in grabbing the essence of what s really going on in terms of female perception. That confusely said, I did receive Barbie’s townhouse with the elevator and all for Xmas when I was 5 and is still in my memories as my favorite toy ever. But I threw away Barbies not long after, I guess around 8 or 9. My anti consumism mother refused to provide me with a proper Barbie wardrobe and I hated having to dress her the same all the time. So no more dolls:)

    February 25, 2014
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    • So it did have an elevator! Memory is not failing me after all. I haven’t been in a toy store in the longest time but, judging from a short video I saw a few weeks ago, that male/female clearly demarcated marketing is not a thing of the past.

      February 26, 2014
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  7. Why would anyone at MIT care if a woman wore pink to an interview? Whoever wrote that press release has watched Legally Blonde a few too many times.

    February 25, 2014
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    • I know…it struck me as so odd and out of place.

      February 26, 2014
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  8. It’s called “Attention Grabbing.” I feel qualified to comment -having this morning sent a letter to a NZ publication decrying our government’s refusal to let Odd Future perform here at the behest of womens’ lobby called Stop Demand which works to reduce male demand that drives the sexual exploitation of women and children worldwide – but I won’t be looking for Sports Illustrated. The closest I came was when Boopsie was modelling dental floss bikinis for them in a 1980’s Doonesbury series.

    February 25, 2014
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    • I need to brush up on New Zealand’s happenings. This one sounds quite interesting. I am firm believer in letters to the editor

      February 26, 2014
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