Barbie began her life as, essentially, a glorified sex toy. She—it’s fair, given her influence over her gender and her culture, to refer to her as “she”—is modeled on a mid-century German doll and comic-book figure named Lilli. Sassy and buxom, Lilli was euphemistically prostitute-like, fond of breezy phrases like “I could do without balding old men, but my budget couldn’t!” and, “The sunrise is so beautiful that I always stay late at the nightclub to see it!” Her doll—cartoonishly curvaceous, in the traditional manner of women-designed-by-men—was, in the mid-20th century, often given out as a joke at bachelor parties and similar gatherings. A funny thing ended up happening with those jokey, sex-infused pieces of plastic, though: Kids began to play with them. Girls, in particular. They liked dressing Lilli up. They liked grooming her hair. They liked imagining that, one day, they would be—they would look—like her.
It’s that impulse of small humans—to treat dolls as vehicles not just of amusement, but of aspiration—that makes today’s news such a big deal. Barbie, the doll that the Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler modeled after Lilli and introduced at the World’s Fair in 1959, will now come in a variety of shapes and shades. (And also: a variety of hairstyles, and eye colors, and “face sculpts.”) The doll will still be fairly cartoonish—this is Barbie, after all—but, from today, she can be bought in sizes “petite” and “tall” and “curvy.” (The terms, Time notes—the English euphemisms, as well as their translations into other languages—were extensively debated by Mattel marketing executives.) She can also, just as importantly, be bought in seven different skin tones.
Which is to say that Barbie—that singular figure who has always carried pretensions toward broader cultural representation—is becoming, finally, more diverse. She is, in her highly limited way, trying to do a better job of representing the people who play with her. And a better job, at the same time, of affecting who those people will become.
That is, in its small way, big news. And good news! But the best news of all might just be the specific reasons Mattel has offered for the changes. To transform Barbie’s body—to expand its offerings to include shapes and shades that more closely resemble the storied “Average American Woman”—was, after all, a large logistical challenge for the company. It required Mattel to create whole new sets of clothes to accommodate the dolls’ body shapes. It required, even, the creation of new shoes that would accommodate wider feet.
Mattel did not make those changes, necessarily, because it wanted to be a moral leader, Time’s Eliana Dockterman notes. It did so instead as part of a cynical business calculation—the kind of cynical business calculation any good company is expected to make on behalf of itself and its shareholders. The changes in Barbie’s body may have arisen out of the company’s desire to do good; mostly, though, they arose from its need to do well. This was that oldest and most American of things: cultural change by way of capitalism.
It went like this: Mattel’s sales of its Barbie dolls have, recently, been plummeting. (They dropped 20 percent between 2012 and 2014, Dockterman reports, and continued their slide last year.) This is in part because Disney recently awarded its Princess business to Hasbro, taking that merchandise away from Mattel during The Age of Elsa. Also, though, the dive has to do with shifts taking place in the culture at large. Via broad demographic changes, and also via the various serendipities of celebrity, Hollywood and the media have been expanding their sense of the “ideal” feminine form. Waifs may still be prominent on catwalks and red carpets, but so are curvaceous women like Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian and Christina Hendricks and Amy Schumer. White women may be prominent in advertising and television and movies, but so, increasingly, are women like Lupita N’yongo and Gina Rodriguez and Maggie Q. Under their influence, and under the influence of a culture that so often equates progress with prestige, “traditional” beauty ideals have become boring beauty ideals.
In that sense, Barbie—as a cultural symbol, and as a commercial product—had to change. Ruth Handler may have designed the doll, in the 1950s, to be a progressive alternative to the baby doll, thereby expanding girls’ vision of what their roles might be; what she also designed, however, was an impossible standard that would endure for generations. Barbie represented, from the outset, the freight of femininity. She represented the awkward disconnect between cultural expectation and physical reality. (That waist! Those hips! Those perma-heeled feet!)
And as the women’s movement arose—as feminism dissolved, quickly, into the culture at large—Barbie came to symbolize a tension between empowerment and subjugation. She came to be seen, by many commentators but also by many parents, as not only quaintly antiquated, but also potentially damaging. And no company, of course, wants the purchase of their toys to become a matter of moral anxiety to their customers. Evelyn Mazzocco, Time notes, who heads the Barbie brand for Mattel, keeps a board behind her desk dotted with customer criticisms of the traditional Barbie doll. It includes phrases like “not diverse,” “materialistic,” and “out of touch.”
So the varied-shaped and varied-shaded new Barbies are part of Mattel’s attempt to make things right—with history, yes, but also with their shareholders. That the company may be able to do both at once is both revealing and encouraging. It would be churlish to compare a plastic doll to the broader discussions taking place across the culture right now—conversations about diversity, and representation, and inclusion. Barbie is not a culture. Barbie is not a system. Barbie is not a series of decisions, tiny on their own yet determinative taken together, about who gets to participate, and be seen, and be heard.
In a very small way, though, Barbie is all of those things. Toys, after all—the objects we invite into children’s lives to entertain them and also to shape them—reflect society’s highest aspirations for itself. They’re the way we teach the littlest humans what will be expected of them, and hoped for them, when they get bigger: bravery (G.I. Joe), curiosity (Dora the Explorer), creativity (Legos), empathy (Elsa), beauty (Barbie). They’re myths, in the form of objects. They’re lessons. They’re proxies. They’re the reason that toymakers, recently, have gone out of their way to send the “right” messages, both to kids and the adults who are buying things on their behalf.
Mattel’s expansion of Barbie’s look, in that sense, represents the basic, hopeful idea that diversity is valuable not just for diversity’s sake (or, as Anna Holmes recently put it, as a kind of grudging obligation). Diversity is—much more pragmatically, much more transformatively—good business. If consumers can see themselves in their dolls, Mattel has calculated, they will be more likely to purchase those dolls. The company is taking a note from the American Girl dolls, which long ago realized that diversity is good business. And it is suggesting a path for Hollywood, and for the rest of us—one that allows “doing well” and “doing good” to complement, rather than conflict with, each other. Mattel is doing what capitalism, at its best, will do: transforming cynical self-interest into cultural progress.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.