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Last week Sunday, I saw a little white girl playing with a black raggedy doll in church, it was her doll and she was very fond of it. It didn’t seem unusual to her or her parents, she is all of one and a half, but for a time it stuck with me because I’ve never seen this before, its normally the other way round. It got me thinking even more about the new Barbie dolls, “fashionista” line. Growing up Barbie was my go to doll, I had near enough every single Barbie made, even the controversial pregnant Barbie with baby and baby daddy Ken. Which also prompted that dreaded question parents love to hate to be asked. Deedee doll, remember her, she was Barbie’s black friend and I had her in my stead too, along with a bunch of cabbage patch kids. Fast forward decades later, as an aunt to five nieces and a godmother to one goddaughter, I have never bought a Barbie doll for any one of them. Dolls don’t rack up the christmas present list like it used to back in my day, its all iPad, and iPhone and make up etc. Back then there wasn’t any talk of the absence of black Barbie because there were substitutes, but none had the staying power Barbie did.
But, as I said, times have changed, our thinking is broader, and over the years the stigmatic aesthetic of Barbie’s beauty has been called into question and called out. The audience is wiser and more diverse, and as a result Barbie has stalled and sales plummeted. Thanks in no small part to the many Disney characters and technology, Barbie is stuck in a time warp that little girls just don’t have don’t have time for. The internet has blown the conversation wide open and what was once controversial is the topic on the playground, the wiser we became the more redundant Barbie was, and quite frankly, ridiculous in her picture perfect world. Her conversations are never smart, her perfect outlook reminds us that she is mostly to be seen and not heard, and she never ages. Diversity? What diversity.
We didn’t know it back then, but Barbie was a danger to our psyche, her looks, often seen as the “perfect” body type were unreal, yet her standards were the ones we aspired to because we knew no better, there wasn’t any real competition. Deedee faded into obscurity, cabbage patch kids became childish past a certain age, so Barbie was all we had, the leggy buxom blonde with teeny waistline, and perfect thigh gap. Does curvy Barbie had a thigh gap?
In its effort to first and foremost address its bottomline, Mattel, Barbie’s parent company revealed a set of other Barbies “Fashionistas” ranging in size and skin tone; tall, petite, curvy etc. and a variety of hair texture. Let’s call a spade a spade, its not mere coincidence that after plummeting sales of about 20% between 2012 and 2014, according to an article in TIME, without an end in sight, Mattel thought to do something other than what it has been doing the past half a century and some odd. The fashionista line has 33 new dolls in 7 different skin tones, and 24 hair textures. Yep. Barbie is serious about growing up and getting paid it seems- if this works it will strengthen her bottomline.
Its a step, a baby step not a leap, but we’ll take it if it means little girls, all little girls, will see themselves reflected in one of the world’s most iconic figures as one and the same, as equal not other. The battle is not over for Barbs however, this is a whole new stage of competition she is wading into. If she wants to win the war she has to do away with her labels; tall, petite, curvy, original etc. I have never been a fan of labels because it pigeonholes a person in mind and ability. This is a world vastly unfamiliar to her, the arena is filled with voices other than hers, telling young girls they can do more and be more, talking about #blackgirlmagic, Latinas shattering the hollywood glass ceiling, fuller figured women annihilating this archaic sense of beauty, and an exceptional roaster of women to aspire to. All good for us, but Barbie for Barbie and her business. There might still be an audience for her, but the true test lies in how long she can hold their attention. Today’s audience has evolved quicker than Barbie can and she might find her perfect stilettoed step out of sync with our stomping boots but if she wants to stay alive, she has to come harder, but be warned; it won’t be easy. She is not trying to be black Barbie dressed in Bvlgari trying to leave in somebody’s Ferrari… sorry I had to, but she has to be the driver in her own Bentley. Chauffeur driven is good to.
It is hard, I would admit, for a doll who was created to be the perfect woman; primped and pampered, and was handed the world only on her pretty, not achievements, for over fifty years to dance to a different rhythm. She is not saving the world, rather she is constantly the damsel in distress in need of saving by Ken or some other male figure. Her dialogue remains as stilted as the plastic she embodies, meaning her interests remains just as basic. The problem doesn’t just lie with Barbie however, leader of the pack that she is, Hollywood and its double standard against women, putting them a step behind their male counterparts, paying them less, and closing ranks in the all boys club at the top. Women have had to push their way through, make louder noises for their voices to be heard, and it still is not enough.
Its unfair the the critique should stop with her, but the plastic doll is the one who got caught with her hand in the cookie jar too many times.