The response to Barbie’s ‘role model’ dolls on International Women’s Day has been perfect

International Women's Day Barbie dolls
Fréa Lockley

On 8 March, International Women’s Day (IWD) celebrates the achievements of women around the world. It is also a day to acknowledge that “nowhere in the world can women claim to have all the same rights and opportunities as men”, and to work towards positive change.

This year, US toy company Mattel joined the ‘celebration’ and introduced a new line of ‘role model’ Barbie dolls. But as many people have pointed out on social media, they’ve got this badly wrong. These dolls actually epitomise capitalism and negative gender stereotypes.

Empowering?

According to Mattel, the dolls are “empowering female role models”:

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On one hand, the women chosen for the dolls are genuinely inspiring role models. Mattel included the communist and revolutionary artist Frida Kahlo, Polish journalist and explorer Martyna Wojciechowska, and Katherine Johnson, one of the first Black women to work for NASA.

But there’s a big problem. For a start, the dolls seem to be standard looking Barbie dolls wearing new costumes. And, as many have pointed out, the problems don’t end there.

Women for sale

In 2017, Mattel (the world’s largest toy manufacturer) reported a 15% loss in profits. These ‘role model’ dolls cost nearly $30 in the US. And many have seen this as the company cashing in on IWD for profit:

As Trump’s presidency takes hold, a UN report has found rising levels of “inequality and extreme poverty” in the US. The report found that around 18%, or 13.3 million children, live in poverty: a “shockingly high number”.

But Mattel’s push for profits ignores these children. There’s been no indication, for example, that any profits will be used to help women and children:

As one commentator observed:

They’re taking our role models, our heroes, and using their likeness to take our money and perpetuate everything we’re trying to dismantle… An incredibly expensive doll who says that -all dreams are possible- seems pretty ironic when most girls can’t even realize their dreams of owning the fucking doll in the first place.

Real women?

Mattel did include UK boxing champion Nicola Adams, and fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, among the ‘sheroes’. But as Paralympic champion Hannah Cockroft pointed out:

And others were quick to point out problems with the Kahlo doll:

Kahlo was famous for celebrating the female form. In self-portraits, she exaggerated her unibrow and refused to conform to idealised standards of beauty:

In fact, if Kahlo were still alive, there’s a chance she’d prefer this look:

It’s perhaps more likely, though, that she’d not want to be turned into a Barbie at all:

Kahlo’s family, meanwhile, has insisted that Mattel did “not have the proper authorization” to use her image:

Our bodies

It gets worse. Although Mattel is claiming to ‘shine a light’ on incredible women, there’s actually nothing new about these dolls, beyond costumes. Mattel has done little to make the dolls look like the real women they represent:

#PressforProgress

In reality, these dolls seem to be little more than a cynical marketing ploy; the antithesis of the serious issues IWD seeks to address. As the campaign highlights:

The majority of the world’s 1.3 billion absolute poor are women. On average, women receive between 30 and 40 percent less pay than men earn for the same work. Women also continue to be victims of violence, with rape and domestic violence listed as significant causes of disability and death among women worldwide.

Given these facts, Mattel’s ‘role model’ Barbies are a pretty twisted interpretation of reality, and an insult to women around the world. This year, the theme of IWD is ‘Press for Progress’. But these dolls are a huge step backwards.

Get Involved!

– Support groups that help women in the UK and around the world: Sisters Uncut, Women’s Aid, Women on Wings, The Fawcett Society, Body Gossip.

– Boycott Barbie, and buy dolls from independent UK sellers. Treehouse Dolls is donating 10% of its profits on IWD, and Lottie Dolls “look like kids”.

Featured image via screengrab

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