As a girl, playing Barbies with my sister was a favorite activity—dressing them, undressing them, popping off their heads, snickering at our father cursing loudly as he walked barefoot in the basement across a sea of sharp, skinny naked limbs and equally sharp, pointy naked breasts. We had dozens of Barbies, almost all of them smooth peach plastic and blond-haired, enormous bosoms perched atop teeny waists, toes perpetually en pointe. The only woman I had ever seen who looked like Barbie was Vanna White on Wheel of Fortune—another silent blonde floating on the balls of her feet.
But the Barbie of my childhood just got an extreme makeover. The top-heavy blond version is now flanked by a diverse cast of friends also named Barbie. There’s a short one, a tall one and one whose curves aren’t only on her chest. There’s a wider palette of skin tones, and an assortment of hairstyles and textures. Market pressures, perhaps bending to societal ones, have forced Mattel to finally make Barbie look a little more like American women. It’s a feminist victory, especially for parents who want to allow their kids the creative fun of playing with dolls but don’t want to send the message that looking like Barbie is something to which girls should aspire. For girls, the world has been changing for the better, and Barbie is trying to catch up. In her defense, it’s hard to move fast in heels.
One pointy-toed step forward, though, is hardly a giant leap for womankind. Barbie is a literally objectified woman, not a superhero or an action figure but a plastic lady notable because she’s pretty. And she remains a quintessential “girls’ toy,” Patient Zero in the pinkification pandemic that has infected toy stores for two generations and now prominently segregates “girls’ toys” (Dolls, Arts & Crafts and Bath, Beauty & Accessories on ToysRUs.com, for example) from “boys’ toys” (Action Figures, Video Games, Bikes & Ride-ons).
New Barbie is one data point in an improving landscape for girls: Target made strides by desegregating its toy aisles, and as far as Disney princesses go, Frozen’s Elsa is pretty progressive. But even as the toy industry loses market share to screens, girl-centric movies may not be as girl-friendly as they appear: according to a new study, the females in Frozen get only 41% of the speaking time in their own story.
When girls are trapped in the pink box—or minimized in dialogue—their interests are reined in, their physical and psychological development stymied. Yet girls are fed a steady diet of princesses, makeup and homemaking (Toys “R” Us suggests the Just Like Home Dyson Ball vacuum cleaner as a “toy” for girls ages 5 to 7).
There’s nothing wrong with caring or cleaning; there is something wrong with the overwhelming message that caring and cleaning are aspirational things for girls, often to the exclusion of exploration and invention. Boys, too, are getting that same memo: caring for a baby or the home is girly and, by extension, undesirable.
The new Barbie may reflect a feminist culture shift, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking more diversity means Mattel has the best interests of your daughter at heart. The company was losing sales; it realizes that branding something as empowering is a great marketing tool; and it is likely to profit from the fact that four different Barbie bodies means four times the sets of clothing and accessories.
Barbie today may be more realistic looking than at any other point in her 57 years. But her changes are superficial, and Mattel is still very much thinking inside the pink box.
Filipovic is a lawyer and writer