RIP Barbie. The backlash has begun.


Barbie’s days are numbered. She’s had a good run; an industrious career spanning nearly 60 years since her inaugural outing in March 1959. She’s accomplished some considerable feats during this time, including various stints as a palaeontologist, astronaut, surgeon – even president. Barbie has her own jet license and she’s owned a zebra.

She’s been no stranger to controversy throughout the decades. She may not have been done for driving under the influence Lindsay Lohan style, complete with blurry mug shot, her usually perfect make-up smeared down her face, and no, she wasn’t caught shoplifting or dabbling in drugs. But there has been increasing concern over her weight.

Last week, a study set out to discover what Barbie would look like if she were a real woman. created an infographic, drawing comparisons between the proportions of a Barbie’s body with the body of the average American woman. The study concluded that Barbie’s ankles and wrists would be so skinny that she would have to crawl on all fours to walk, her neck would leave her incapable of lifting her head, and her stomach would only have room for half a liver and a few inches of intestine. The research formed part of a wider study that investigated “an epidemic of body hatred” among girls.

It’s hardly surprising news and it’s certainly not the first time that someone has considered the physical improbability of Barbie and whether or not she promotes an unhealthy body image for girls. Barbie’s measurements make her technically anorexic, and one study has pointed out that Barbie would lack enough body fat to menstruate.

Interestingly, the latest study coincides with a report by Forbes, which demonstrates Barbie’s retail statistics are just as unhealthy as her vitals. Whereas once Barbie was practically synonymous with the toy maker behind her – Mattel – due to her runaway retail success, global sales have declined by three per cent in the last year. In the US her fate is even more precarious; domestic sales have dropped a staggering 50 per cent since 2000.

Barbie now represents 20 per cent of Mattel’s $6.4 bn in revenues, whereas 10 years earlier, it was 30 per cent. It’s news that will no doubt have Barbies everywhere cowering in the toy cupboard, particularly as the article was entitled ‘Life after Barbie’. Gulp.

However, what’s most interesting about Barbie’s demise is what it might tell us about the changing face of girlhood; what girls want from their toys and what their parents are prepared to let them play with. Barbie has always had her naysayers and she’s understandably never been a friend of the feminists, with The Feminine Mystique author, Betty Friedan, once describing her as a “vacuous bimbo”. But it may now be the case that a more general Barbie backlash is underway; a general disenchantment with the dolls that is causing sales to fall.

So who are the new dolls on the block giving poor old Barbie a run for her money? Mattel is now putting its hopes in two new brands; American Girl and Monster High. American Girl is still very much a girly doll, with an emphasis on dressing-up. But her proportions appear to be far more girl-like as opposed to the mature, womanly image that Barbie projects. Forbes describes the dolls as “wholesome-storied dolls”.

Slightly less wholesome, but rather more intriguing, are the Monster High dolls. The brand is expected to sell more than $1 billion at retail this year, producing an estimated $550 million in revenues. The Monster dolls, with their brightly coloured hair and quirky flaws, seem to be miniature versions of the pop star Lady Gaga, who has a penchant for all things outlandish, alternative and eccentric.

The inspiration for the dolls came when Mattel’s creative executives undertook a field trip and interviewed some pre-teens about their most pressing concerns. “They begin to start thinking about what it’s like to be in middle school or in high school and some of the social things that are a little stressful,” the crew found. “They start to think about flaws: ‘Is my hair too curly or too long?’ Monsters are basically a personification of human flaws, right?”

Could it be that in a short space of time, girls have gone from wanting Barbie dolls with their impeccable veneer, glossy blonde mane and tiny waist, to dolls that are a celebration of human flaws? Perhaps not. A cursory glance at Monster High shows that even with their emphasis on individuality, the dolls are still just as skinny as Barbies, if not more so, with one doll called ‘Skelita Calaveras’.

So even if a Barbie backlash is underway, it may not necessarily be as a result of concerns over her body image. And as interesting as it is to speculate over changing trends in the world of dolls it would be foolhardy to blame them for insecurities over body image that girls may have.

By the time most girls have grown out of Barbie dolls, they fall into the far more insidious clutches of the fashion and beauty industries. These industries do more to perpetuate unrealistic and harmful body stereotypes than dolls ever would: just look at the recent story about agents from modelling agencies recruiting girls right outside of Swedish eating disorder centres, or the revelations by the former editor-in-chief of Australian Vogue, who described how models eat tissues to stave off hunger pains. Although it’s always useful to be reminded just how ridiculous Barbie’s weight is, let’s not pretend she’s the real problem here.