Mattel and Barbie are no strangers to criticism. The blonde icon has been called a bad influence in the past thanks to her unrealistic proportions and sometimes even her materialism. But 2014 has kicked off with a wave of new Barbie-focused controversies, and a real backlash against the doll could be in the making. Millennials range in age from 10 to 32 (born 1982-2004), which means they are part of both the target market of Barbie users and increasingly the demographic of parents who need to approve and buy them. So far this year, Barbie and her maker Mattel have had some bumps in the road in communicating to both ends of the Millennial spectrum.
February 2014: Lead Designer Defends Unrealistic Proportions
During a trip to Mattel’s design studio for Barbie, Fast Company took the opportunity to ask Barbie’s VP of Design her thoughts on the doll’s perplexing proportions. Her response: “Barbie’s body was never designed to be realistic.” The doll was originally optimized for function and fashion, letting girls easily dress and undress her with clothes in proportions that make sense instead (since after all, it’s the clothes that make the woman). While she argued that young girls “view the world completely differently than grown-ups” and are influenced by the women in their lives as opposed to their dolls, Fast Company referenced research that shows skinny dolls may actually “damage girls’ body image.”
February 2014: Barbie in Sports Illustrated
Mattel made an unexpected choice to celebrate Barbie’s 50th anniversary by flaunting her swimsuit bod in a full photo spread in Sports Illustrated. The campaign was splashed with the slogan #Unapologetic, atypical for the historically classy doll, and showed Barbie in a modern version of the black-and-white swimsuit that solidified her fame generations ago. Pairing the doll with the magazine most controversial for its swimsuit editions had many in an uproar, especially on social media. Though young girls are not SI’s audience, many felt that associating Barbie with skinny models exemplified her as “an icon of idealized femininity”—aka the unattainable. Mattel’s attempt to show Barbie as a legendary figure of empowerment failed with the focus on her bikini body instead of various career moves over the years.
February 2014: Barbie’s #Unapologetic Op-Ed
The same day that Barbie’s Sports Illustrated spread became news, the brand posted an op-ed on their Barbie Collector website, declaring Barbie #Unapologetic for the move, saying, “Today, truly anything is possible for a girl. Let us place no limitations on her dreams, and that includes being girly if she likes… “Barbie® dolls” aren’t the problem. Models choosing to pose in a bikini aren’t the problem. The assumption that women of any age should only be part of who they are in order to succeed is the problem.” Responses to the stance were not positive. Though a message of empowerment could resonate with Millennials, pairing that message with the objectification they have been taught so regularly is not beneficial to women might not have been wise.
March 2014: The Barbie Girl Scout Patch Controversy
In 2013, a partnership between the Girl Scouts of the USA and Barbie was announced, including a “Be Anything, Do Anything” patch that is emblazoned with the Barbie logo. While the message behind the patch was undoubtedly a positive one, the partnership itself has been getting some negative reactions. This month, two consumer groups publicly objected to the tie-in, igniting a controversy and debate about commercialization of childhood and the appropriateness of Barbie as a role model. The group cited Barbie’s “highly sexualized” appearance with Sports Illustrated as an example of “how inappropriate the brand is for young girls.” The hashtag #BetterThanBarbie began appearing on Twitter asking the Girl Scouts to be #BetterThanBarbie and end the partnership.
While Barbie certainly isn’t going anywhere, she is likely going to be a tougher sell to Millennial parents. Already, Barbie has been looking like a less attractive option on the toy store shelf: in January, Mattel announced that sales of the doll over the holiday quarter dropped 13% and dropped 6% overall in 2013, all while sales of the company’s other “girl brands” surged 25%.
This month, a Barbie alternative began to make headlines. Eschewing modern toy companies altogether, artist Nickolay Lamm decided to take measurements into his own hands and create a doll true to young women’s body proportions. The result is Lammily, a modern and more realistic Barbie based on the body of an average 19-year-old female. Hoping to promote the mindset that “average is beautiful,” he decided to fund the venture with Crowdtilt and received a massively positive response for Lammily, dubbed the “normal Barbie,” influencing widespread media coverage and a funding peak of 421%, totaling in almost $400,000. Future plans for the Lammily doll include offering different body types and ethnicities in order to relate even further to young girls, and Lamm finds that the project will be worth every effort “if there’s even a 10% chance that those dolls affect [body image].” Though “average” looking options like Lammily have failed in the past, there is clearly an interest in showing body diversity in toys.
Plenty of Millennials are nostalgic enough that they will still buy the dolls for their own kids. But this is also a generation that grew up with a heightened awareness of the problematic nature of gendered toys. They have grown up in a time when criticism of toys like Barbie, and how her unrealistic proportions can affect young girls, have been the loudest and most consistent. For some, this upbringing will hold them back from buying Barbie–especially if the brand’s controversies continue.