I was more of a Bratz fan myself, but I had the occasional beheaded Barbie in my drawer with the other dolls. The Barbie dolls I remember playing with in the late 90s and early 2000s all looked the same: tall, blonde, skinny and occasionally missing a limb. From the dolls to the movies like Princess and the Pauper and Swan Lake, Barbie’s clothes, hair and character may have changed, but little else ever did. In fact, for a doll that was advertised to little girls to use their imagination, it’s ironic how Mattel Inc., Barbie’s manufacturers, took so long to imagine up a more diverse Barbie line.
But with ever-changing American beauty ideals, Barbie, a cultural symbol of femininity, was forced to change too.
With the impending death of Toys R’ Us, which Mattel sold 14 percent of its products to last year, and dropping stock prices, the American manufacturing company is fighting to keep its most famous product relevant. Company sales have been on the decline for years, especially since Disney sold its Princess rights to Hasbro and Frozen’s Elsa doll shoved Barbie off her plastic throne as the most popular girl’s toy. The coup cost Mattel $500 million. So how best to revive Barbie’s reign than to start advertising to girls that don’t look like, well, a Barbie doll?
In 2016, Mattel finally responded to concerns about unrealistic body standards, adding three new body types including “curvy,” “petite” and “tall”. The biggest change in the doll’s long history came, in part, as a result of several studies, including one published in the journal Developmental Psychology reported by Time Magazine, showing that “girls exposed to Barbie at a young age expressed greater concern with being thin, compared with those exposed to other dolls.”
But after barely overcoming one problem, up comes another. Because not only does Barbie not look like any real woman, she’s also kind of a ditz. In 1963, Mattel released Barbie dolls that were programmed to say “Math class is hard” and “Don’t eat,” fittingly sold with a diet book, teaching the future generation of women that it was more important to be pretty than it was to be smart (Times). In most recent news, Mattel started changing that, too.
Mattel released its Inspiring Women line last week just in time for International Women’s Day. This collection of 17 dolls is made up of “sheroes,” role models from all walks of life like Olympic Gymnast Gabby Douglas, Hidden Figures NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, conservationist Bindi Irwin and artist Frida Kahlo.
According to the Barbie website, “Barbie is committed to shining a light on empowering role models past and present in an effort to inspire more girls.” Mattel recently found that 81 percent of moms in the sample they surveyed were “worried about the type of role models to which their young daughters are exposed.” If the popularity of the Kardashians is anything to go by, I would say this is a justified reason to introduce a new product into the market targeting millennial moms.
From the many decisions corporations make to appease shareholders at the expense of its consumers, this Inspiring Women campaign is actually a mutually beneficial one. Many studies have shown that the binary surrounding toys are detrimental— one BBC article argues that “Boys toys tend to contain didactic information, with technical instructions and fitting things together with Lego and Meccano, whereas girls’ toys tend to be around imaginative and creative play, which develop different skills.” The Guardian reports that the Institution for Engineering and Technology found that “toys with a [STEM] focus were three times as likely to be targeted at boys than girls.” But can toys really affect career choice?
National Geographic magazine goes as far to suggest that the way children play affect not only the way they are socialized, but also the way their brains develop. Playing with toys like Legos develop spatial skills, which help you to decide, in a simple case, how big of a box you need to package a certain object. But they are also crucial for more complex fields of study: “An astronomer must visualize the structure of a solar system and the motions of the objects in it. An engineer visualizes the interactions of the parts of a machine” (Johns Hopkins).
So what does it mean when boys are learning spatial and problem-solving skills through toys like Legos while girls are busy playacting with Barbies and My Little Pony? I don’t think you need the scientific results of studies to see the consequences of childhood play on career choice— just look at the lack of female representation in any of the STEM majors.
That’s where I think Mattel actually did something right— by introducing inspirational women from a wide variety of career paths, from mathematics and physics to journalism to art, the new barbie doll line opens up a variety of career options for young girls. Yes, Barbie is still a gendered toy, but there isn’t much Matell can do to change that. At least, instead of aspiring to be busty and thin, girls can dream to work at NASA or be a movie director or a soccer player, and not be pigeon-holed into any one career path. Mattel is showing girls they can be anything they work for.
If Disney was applauded for Tiana, Elsa and Moana, then Mattel should be applauded for the steps they’re taking to diversify their products. The company has gotten backlash for the Frida Kahlo doll being too thin and missing her signature unibrow, and those minute details absolutely need to be taken into consideration for future products. But we should be applauding the fact that they finally made a Frida Kahlo doll; pursue progress, not perfection. Young girls should be inspired by her for what she did, not how she looks.
Looking back, I couldn’t tell you if my complete disinterest in STEM is because of the dolls I played with. But I do think having inspirational dolls, and learning about these trailblazing women at an early age, would have been helpful. Maybe I would’ve convinced my mom to put me in gymnastics classes and, who knows, it might’ve been me winning the Olympic gold medal instead of Gabby Douglas.
**The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Women in Business and its members.**