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Barbie has a new look. Time to celebrate?

Barbie's rebrand is about capitalism far more than feminism. 

By Laurie Penny

So, Barbie has curves now. Sort of. In an effort to revive their flagging brand, Mattel, makers of the iconic doll fashioned after a German sex aid in the 1950s, have released a limited run of four new body shapes: skeletal, tall and skeletal, short and skeletal, and ever so slightly less skeletal. This grudging nod to the zeitgeist, at least a decade too late, has been lavishly covered across the international press – including on the cover of Time magazine. You’d think the last rubicon of women’s liberation was Barbie’s thigh gap.

Small reforms, of course, can be useful signposts to broader change. If nothing else, the new line is a clear signal that commercial manufacturers have started to pay minimal attention to gender equality- just like television and film companies, and for the same reason. A reputation for sexism now hurts a firm’s bottom line. Mattel’s spokespeople have been explicit that this is the reason for their rebrand- Barbie wasn’t working for Millennial mothers. 

The drive for more options for girls is steamrolling through popular culture. Barbie really can’t do a lot more than smile, look pretty and bend at the waist – she can’t even stand on her own two feet, which are permanently moulded to fit into tiny stilettos, meaning she needs to be propped up or held. Barbie’s profits had been falling for years, and she was losing out to Lego Friends, which lets little girls actually build things, and figurines of Disney’s Princess Elsa – heroine of the most feminist kids’ film to hit the mainstream in living memory. Something had to be done.

Next to Elsa, let alone fully-jointed, realistically proportioned dolls like the Lammily range, Mattel’s new range still looks dated. The new Barbies come in various shades of gorgeous, but they all have perfect skin, perfect hair, perfect outfits and the same creepy rictus grin, like members of some terrible high-fashion death cult, dosed up to the unblinking plastic eyeballs on faux-feminist platitudes and diet drugs. I wouldn’t want them on my bedroom shelf. They look like they’re about to go for your neck.

A Barbie doll with a slightly reduced waist to hip ratio is not the feminist cultural revolution it’s being sold as- sold being the operative word, the millimetres of plastic flesh measured precisely in pounds and dollars. This is because a feminist cultural revolution would involve, at minimum, a massive restructuring of what society believes women are, what they do and what they deserve. Let me give you a hint: it’s more than the right to stand very still, smiling and looking pretty, with thighs that happen to meet in the middle.

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It’s not that there’s no value in challenging beauty standards. On the contrary. The perception, for example, that whiteness equates to beauty which equates to social value has long been a vector for the oppression of women of colour around the world. It’s rather telling that the press coverage of the new Barbie range makes far more of the four different body types available than the seven different skin tones, and the fact that one has what appears to be a natural Afro.

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The weaponisation of beauty by queer and feminist subcultures is an important trend. There’s a world of difference, though, between bloggers from the fat-positivity movement redefining beauty standards and toy companies telling us we ought to be grateful that after six decades they’ve finally produced a doll that doesn’t look like she’s about to die of starvation. But redefining beauty can only go so far. 

The bigger lesson, the one some little girls to their graves not knowing, is that beauty is not mandatory. Some of us will never be beautiful, and none of us will be beautiful forever, at least not by society’s standards, and that’s okay. Beauty is not the only or most important measure of a person’s worth if she is female.

The cult of thinness is a particular assault on the mental and physical health of women and girls. Beauty, though, as Naomi Wolf observed in ‘The Beauty Myth,’ is always about “prescribing behaviour and not appearance.” It’s why we train little girls in shame and self-repression just when we should be letting their imaginations run riot. It’s about teaching little girls to control their bodies, and thereby their destinies. And that’s what makes Barbie a relic – not just her unattainable proportions or the way she smiles all the time  despite having no genitals, no nipples, and no room in her torso to fit internal organs. Barbie is a relic because girls and their parents are no longer quite so interested in that sort of doll. They don’t want to buy it, and they don’t want to be it, because it’s boring. They’re far more interested in Mattel’s other line, Monster high, where the dolls come with blue and green skin, fangs, fins, horns and tentacles. I may or may not have ordered the zombie-unicorn doll, purely for research purposes. 

What toy manufacturers, along with almost every other industry that markets to women and girls has not understood is that women want more than to be told we’re pretty. We want power. We want respect. We want control over our bodies and ownership over our desires. We want to be valued as human beings, whatever we look like, whatever we do for a living. We want the same basic rights to autonomy and agency that men have always enjoyed. And that’s just for starters.

There is nothing particularly revolutionary about suggesting different models for sexual objectification. Beauty standards have shifted over the centuries, as a quick walk around any national gallery will remind you, but the duty to be beautiful at all costs is the real obstacle to women’s health and wellbeing. The idea that girls can be be beautiful at a gargantuan size eight is small, positive reform – but the real change will come when they realise they don’t need to be. Girls do not owe the world a pretty face and a plastic smile, and they won’t be fobbed off with yesterday’s toys.