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Barbie reborn

Eleanor Zhang discusses the upcoming Barbie movie and the company’s efforts to promote positive body image and diversity.

CW: Body image

When I learnt that a new Barbie film is coming out in 2023, my first reaction was excitement. The batch of watchable Barbie films produced by Mattel trickled out more than twenty years ago, and the name Greta Gerwig never fails to ramp up expectations. Despite this, I’m not entirely convinced that choosing Margot Robbie to play the plastic doll would, as promised, give the production “a lot of exciting ways to attack” the Barbie stereotypes. 

At six or seven, even slightly older, the Barbie industry to some girls in my generation could only be described as a religion. There was something liturgical about huddling together and rewatching the franchise films over and over, accompanied by re-enactments of the stories that were treated like gospels; there was the Barbie magazine that preached to us what to wear, how to care for your hair and, essentially, how to be a ‘real girl’. Our shared love for Barbie led to activities social as well as personal: while there would be exchanges of costume pieces at playdates after school, brushing your doll’s hair was something you’d want to do in private, in bed with your night lamp on, to form a deeper connection with the miniature mannequin. 

Barbie to girls that age was truly omnipotent: she was a brilliant painter, a talented singer, a skilled ballet dancer, a good student, an elegant ice skater, and so much more. She could be a mermaid one day and have wings the next, and a year later she’d be forming a trio of musketeers with her best friends Nikki and Teresa. Her journey was whimsical but real enough to encourage children to follow her example. Because of her status as a role model, if not an idol, she lent many of us the will power to go to one more dance class, or spend an extra hour practicing our instruments. Parents would soon pick up on our adoration and make use of it, pushing us to wear this skirt or attend that performance, because “look, Barbie does it”, and there was nothing some of us wouldn’t do to keep it up with her.

Now an adult and aware of Barbie’s supposed crippling toxicity, I still find it very hard to deny the happiness it once brought me. It was hard to deny the social life I had because of the dolls I owned, and even harder when Barbie’s stories did bring good things to my world view. Things about friendship and love, and how a girl could fight villains and save the day with the right skills and company. Nostalgia complicates the belated realisation that the Barbie from my generation was, in fact, not made for everyone, myself excluded from its image of muliebral perfection. The majority of Barbies back then were generically blonde, and among the very few brunettes, all of them were white. There was also zero variation in the dolls’ figures, only the “original” skinniness, a body proportion later proven to be scientifically unrealistic to achieve. My later memory of Barbie comprised two instances that made me feel self-conscious about the distance between me and a beauty standard incorporated by my playmate of many years. One was of a curvy girl denied by the group of friends the chance to role-play Barbie; the other was of a white acquaintance introducing their blonde and white daughter matter-of-factly: “she never has a bad time at school, because all her classmates think she looks more like Barbie than themselves do.” 

Admittedly, the Barbies that girls play with today are not the same as their predecessors designed after a bachelorette party gift, the German blonde white doll named Lilli. With sales taking a tailspin all the way from 2012 to 2017, Mattel introduced three more body types in addition to the original slender frame, along with different skin colours and hair. The box of Barbies I was recently shown by a 13-year-old didn’t all remind you of Uma Thurman in her twenties, and the owner in question also liked the fact that they now don’t all look the same, some even looked “chubby”. But a recent browse on Mattel’s website made me very skeptical about the company’s claimed effort in promoting positive body image and diversity, a change of strategy that apparently brought about a 23% rise in sales in the quarter after the design overhaul. Out of the 18 dolls from the Fashionistas series, the only Barbie range that currently features alternative types, 12 of them have the original body shape. And while the remaining four are branded as “curvy”, they still look on the slim side, an impression corroborated by researches that put them on a UK size 6/8, with a BMI index of 0.38, meaning that the curvy dolls are still far slimmer than the average 16-24-year-old woman in the UK. As for racial representation — true, there are additions of skin tones, eye colours, hair colours and textures, the claimed “wide variety” only allows me to find exactly two dolls on the website who could potentially look like myself, a woman of East Asian descent. Ironically, it would not be wrong to cast someone looking like Margot Robbie to play Barbie in 2021, for dolls looking like her, Caucasian and thin, still take up an unproportionally large space on Mattel’s item list. 

More than 62 years after its invention, Barbie’s influence on children’s perception of beauty is still a relevant topic. But we should also bear in mind that beauty standards are not only conveyed through dolls. A 2019 study that examined young girls’ reactions to Barbie’s new looks concluded that girls’ comparison of themselves with their dolls is also conditioned by their exposure to other social stimuli, such as peers and media.
Questioning a Barbie film adaptation’s choice of actress is therefore not about a doll’s stance on inclusivity and diversity, but our society’s stance on these issues. A society where blond white people are still over most of our grocery’s packaging, and less than half of models in Fall 2021 are people of colour. This is why I feel, as I’m disputing a blonde white actress’ eligibility to play a doll, that it’s all a bit pointless, with a cinema just starting to welcome protagonists who aren’t straight white and male. At least, with a female lead, the Barbie film won’t be a complete step backwards, as long as we’re still reaching for the day when all of us can be in the spotlight.

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