Can the ‘Inspiring Women’ Barbie doll series be the answer to gender justice?

Amelia Earhart (left), Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (centre), and mathematician Katherine Johnson, part of the ‘Inspiring Women’ Barbie doll line from Mattel. Photo: AP

Amelia Earhart (left), Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (centre), and mathematician Katherine Johnson, part of the ‘Inspiring Women’ Barbie doll line from Mattel. Photo: AP

New Delhi: Mattel, the manufacturer of the iconic Barbie doll, seems to have a canny finger on the pulse of the moment. Just as “inclusion rider” is rolling off the tongues of people across the world, thanks to Frances McDormand’s Oscar speech, and the chorus around the #MeToo movement grows on the internet, it has announced a new line of products that will elevate its own ‘wokeness’ in the eyes of its customers by several notches.

To mark International Women’s Day 2018, Mattel is launching a series of Barbie dolls inspired by historic women—some dead, others still alive—who shone through in diverse fields of expertise, though never got their dues, or not enough. From the late artist Frida Kahlo to the 99-year-old black mathematician Katherine Johnson, the selection covers a wide spectrum of professions. Apart from this series, which is to be sold commercially, Mattel will also add new figures to its ‘Shero’ line, most of which are not for sale. The latest names to feature in the latter include Patty Jenkins, director of Wonder Woman, and Australian wildlife conservationist, Bindi Irwin. There are only a couple of “role models” of Asian origin, dominated by the Chinese. Fans of the hugely popular Rebel Girls franchise, which has a broader mix of women in power, are likely to find Mattel’s list wanting.

But amid the whoops of delight that have arose at this development—there’s much to celebrate, indeed—here are some sobering reminders of Mattel’s track record, for it’s so easy now to become complicit with empty tokenism.

For a company founded in 1945, Mattel’s move towards diversification properly began as late as 2015, when the brand was fast losing its relevance in the US market and showing steep decline in sales. It hadn’t occurred to Mattel, until then, that the world had moved on since 1959, the year it launched Barbie, its most successful franchise. Lisa McKnight, senior vice-president of the company, told HuffPost in 2017 that the brand had to “change the conversation” to attract millennial parents as potential buyers for their children. “They want to not just buy, they want to buy-in,” she said. As a result, Barbie was reincarnated from a blonde, blue-eyed, size-zero Caucasian “beauty” into a variety of races, body types, ethnicities and professions. Latina, brunette, black, curvy, doctor, teacher, executive: Barbie became Everywoman. The strategy worked commercially. Sales of the doll rose by 7% in 2016.

Since then Barbie, and her male counterpart Ken, have gone through several avatars to counter the stereotype into which their original inventors had cast them. But damages done to generations of buyers, over decades, are too insidious to be magically reversed by good intentions. Just last month, Allison Kimmey, a writer and mother to a five-year-old, posted on Instagram about her daughter’s distaste of Curvy Barbie, a doll she had chucked into the bin. Kimmey, who is an outspoken advocate of body positivity, was shaken, but managed to convince the child to change her mind.

Kimmey’s encounter with her daughter is hardly unique and the toy industry is but a minor entity in the chain of blame for it. If the early marketing strategy of brands like Mattel set the standards for ideal beauty for children, real life has helped perpetuate these stigmas for years. The red flags are plenty and sprout everywhere we look. Reports have noted the disparity between prices of black and white Barbie dolls in retail in the US, for example, with the former routinely selling at a discount than the latter. In a bigger irony, Mattel, like many multinationals, have few women in top positions. Apart from Jill Barad’s tumultuous stint between 1997 and 2000, the 73-year-old business has only had one other woman CEO so far, Margo Georgiadis, who is currently serving her role. Lastly, the same media companies that are bursting with excitement over the arrival of the new set of Barbie dolls, as though they hold the answer to gender justice, are plagued by controversies over gender pay gap themselves. A case in point is the recent fiasco at the BBC last year, a dispute which hasn’t died down completely.

Barbie dolls, outside of the US market and especially in the subcontinent, are sold at premium prices that make these toys mostly affordable to elite, urban customers. In a country like India, which ranks 120 among 131 nations in terms of participation of women in the workforce, as a World Bank report said last year, young girls certainly need women as their role models, more than ever now, to aspire to roles from which women are traditionally barred. But the fight against patriarchy is long and hard, boosted by real-life examples from within families and communities, rather than the quick fix gift of a doll.


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