Once, every little girl was told to be like Barbie. Now Barbie has to be like every little girl
Let's not pretend that it's the height of progressiveness to boldly proclaim that GIRLS ARE PEOPLE TOO - but the new and radically different Barbie adverts are a step in the right direction
So, which Barbie do you hate?
(You'll forgive the assumption. I've just never met anyone who didn't. Parents hate Barbie. Feminists hate Barbie. Teachers hate Barbie. If my experiences are any indication, little brothers hate Barbie to the point of decapitation.)
I don't mean which specific style of doll. Do you hate the Barbie doll, or the Barbie brand?
Barbie the doll hasn't changed much over the last six decades. The actual, physical toy has always been the same plastic representation of a creepy alien with flowing blonde hair and a suspiciously toothy smile. Sometimes she comes with extra dresses, sometimes she comes with a diet book accessory, but the toy is the toy.
But Barbie the brand? Well, that's generally been a mad dash to catch up with societal trends two decades after they happen, with astoundingly bone-headed results. Take the Barbie book “I Can Be A Computer Engineer” in which Barbie's male friends do the coding for her (Mattel pulled it in 2014 after widespread outrage.) Barbie the doll is a legitimate subject of serious and measured debate. Barbie the brand is a beautiful three ring circus of flaming, flailing failure.
At least it used to be.
Up until now, the doll and the brand seemed to be about the same amount of decades behind the times. This status quo was pleasing. Here we were, bobbing along in our happy feminist barrel, pointing out things like pay gaps and presidential primaries, when Mattel came Kermit-flailing back onto the scene screaming to hang on to our Twitters and nail down our Tumblrs, because they got it right this time!
And by god, they just might have. The new Barbie ad is downright progressive, as far as these things go. (Although I am wildly confused on one point. If these are the daydreams of girls playing with their Barbies and imagining themselves being authority figures, why are all the adults laughing at them? Is this a hideously incongruous hidden camera gimmick or a disturbingly honest portrayal of life for professional women in the upper echelons? Chew on that.)
In the very first Barbie ad, a gentle-voiced siren cooed that every girl should be like Barbie. In the very latest ad, the claim is that Barbie should be like every girl.
It's a sudden and massive schism between the doll and the brand. People who focus on Barbie the brand rightfully point out that this seems to be the very first time the brand is trying to be descriptive of real young girls, instead of prescriptive, and that seems to be true, and it's wonderful. And people who focus on Barbie the doll are pointing out that the toy itself is still a Gigeresque nightmare of body issues, that at this rate of progress we'll have a fat Barbie by roughly the heat death of the universe, and they're perfectly right too.
So is the brand finally making progress toward maybe thinking about catching up with modern society? Maybe. I mean, let's not pretend that it's the height of progressiveness to boldly proclaim that GIRLS ARE PEOPLE TOO. And I'm cautious. I've been hurt before. The day Hasbro killed Optimus was the day I lost faith in the wider social benevolence of corporate entities. The cynic in me knows for a fact that someone (most likely Richard Dickson, branding expert) took notice of this whole new wave of feminism and got an idea for an advert. The optimist in me dares to wonder whether the intent matters if the results are there.
We'll see how things develop. Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, the next Barbie ad will have an honest to goodness boy playing with a doll.
Now that's progressive.