Mattel’s first hijabi Barbie comes with way too much baggage to challenge stereotypes

The doll based on Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad perpetuates the same problematic and unattainable ideals of the Barbie brand.

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Mattel has unveiled its latest Barbie, a hijab-wearing fencer modelled on the American Olympic medallist, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The doll is the latest in the toy manufacturer’s “Sheroes” collection, which celebrates women with inspiring stories and creates Barbies in their likeness.

Muhammad was thrust into the limelight last year as the first hijabi American Olympian, who brought home a bronze medal in the team sabre. But while the recognition is well-deserved, the platform is completely inappropriate. 

Mattel has long been criticised for its dolls with impossible proportions, and the unachievable expectations to which they expose girls from a young age. In recent years they have bent over backwards (which might explain why Barbie is so flexible) to rejuvenate the doll's reputation, with the release of a muscular Wonder Woman figurine and a likeness of plus-size model Ashley Graham .Yet there is no escaping Mattel’s conflicting messages: astronaut-themed Mars Explorer Barbie would be better off in space – her bodily proportions mean she would be physically unable to stand up on Earth.

The company also came under fire in 2014 for attempting to buy its way into female empowerment spaces in a $2m deal with the US Girl Scouts. In 1992, a Barbie was recalled for repeating the phrase “math class is hard” at the pull of a string, and in 2014 the I Can Be a Computer Engineer Barbie book featured an incompetent woman who had to rely on male classmates for help.

These are just a few of the many examples of the portrayal of Barbie as air-headed, superficial and not as competent as a boy, which is completely at odds with Muhammad’s achievements, power and status as a role model.

The unhealthy image persists. If traditional Barbie were a real woman, she would have a 16in waist and room for only half a liver and a few inches of intestine, according to a 2013 body analysis by Rehabs.com. Mattel has not ceased production of these impossible ideals, so the introduction of alternatives – Olympic fencer or not – is, at best, tokenism, and at worst, the hypocritical exploitation of a body-friendly market trend.

In some ways the fencing hijabi Barbie – which will go on sale in 2018 – itself perpetuates the same problematic and unattainable ideals of the Barbie brand by reducing the hijab to a piece of plastic. After all, if this Barbie were truly representative of the Muslim woman, she would come with an irritating Ken doll who interrupts her mid-sentence to ask, “Do you shower in that?” and “Aren’t you hot in it?” He might then follow her in his SUV just to inform her that she’s in America now.

There’s a toy that would make me hold my head up high – which, incidentally, a human-sized Barbie would be unable to do.

The doll was unveiled at Glamour’s Women of the Year summit, where the magazine's outgoing editor-in-chief Cindi Leive said that Muhammad “has challenged every stereotype – which to me is the definition of a modern American woman”.

And yet this Muslim-woman-breaks-stereotype is a tired and patronising narrative. I’ve yet to meet a British or American Muslim of my generation that fulfills this stereotype, one that appears to assume we are weak, defenceless and in need of a white man to free us from the prisons on our heads. If that’s the extent of your understanding of Muslim women then you’re going to need more than a fencing doll to fix your perception.

Leive also described Muhammad as "an inspiration to countless girls who never saw themselves represented, and by honoring her story, we hope this doll reminds them that they can be and do anything”.

Yes, Barbie dolls tell girls that they can be and do anything, so long as they are tall and thin and have child-sized feet for the rest of their lives. Because although this Barbie will offer Muslim girls the chance to play with a doll with a hijab, with darker features and muscular calves, its proportions remain unrealistic, with miniscule ankles, wrists and feet. How would Barbie Ibtihaj Muhammad have won a bronze medal at the Olympic Games with miniature hands and feet?

Muhammad announced the release of the figurine on her Facebook page, saying she was “proud to know that little girls everywhere can now play with a Barbie who chooses to wear hijab! This is a childhood dream come true."

The Olympian’s blazed trail deserves to be recognised. But Mattel's figurine comes with so much manipulative and exploitative baggage that this supposedly empowering Barbie is struggling to live up to the hype.