Time has done a feature story on Mattel’s attempt to model a bit more diversity in their ever-popular Barbie dolls with something Mattel is calling “Project Dawn”. Full text with accompanying pictures can be found here.
The article notes that this surge of interest in recreating Barbie only came when moms started voting with their dollars; driven by a slide in profitability, Mattel has been forced to take action rather than lead the charge in championing diversity.
This is not news – they’ve been behind the times for years. The COO, Richard Dickson has been quoted as saying that Barbie is an empowered woman, citing surgeon and businesswoman versions (I don’t remember those, do you?) and that detractors “should be our biggest supporters”. When a male COO argues against feedback from women he’s trying to reach it speaks to a deeper belief that women “should accept what we say” rather than actually listening to customers who are providing honest feedback on an outdated product. With continuing missteps such as the ‘Math is hard’ speaking Barbie and the fact that her entire creation was based on a gag gift of a prostitute doll with outrageous proportions, this quote says it all: “As much as Mattel has tried to market her as a feminist, Barbie’s famous figure has always overshadowed her business outfits. At her core, she’s just a body, not a character…”
For me, this was the scariest statement in the entire article. More than anything, I think this speaks to a larger problem with the objectification of women. This popular doll, no matter how they work to shift her representation is still seen as a ‘body’. We have a problem seeing women as more than that on a number of levels. Try Googling “objectification of women” sometime for a serious downer on how backward we still are when it comes to marketing. With more and more conversations occurring in the business world about creating a more inclusive and diverse workforce and leveraging the profitability that flows from balanced representation, I wonder how long it will take for our advertisers and toy manufacturers to catch up. I appreciate that Mattel is trying, but with their ‘petite’ ‘curvy’ and ‘tall’ versions still being fairly thin with largely Eurocentric features, regardless of the skin tone and hair colour, what they are really saying is “Diversity is the latest buzzword; how can we make a step in that direction without abandoning our ‘pretty doll’ roots?”. In effect, it looks like lip service to me. It’s not nothing, but it could go further.
Now is the time for Mattel to leap ahead, to really go for the diversity model. They’ve got a great opportunity to tell a different story to our young girls and to be at the vanguard of body positivity instead of stuck in the past, stuck in Barbie as a body and stuck in an outdated vision of an empowered woman.
Let’s change the larger conversation by changing the representation, not only in toys, but in our advertising and in our news too. Let’s get real.