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September 18, 2001

Even After Makeover, Barbie Remains Plastic


Long a target of feminists for her unrealistic body and frivolous lifestyle, Barbie is attempting to change her image. But so far, the journey from fashion model to role model has not been a successful one, says Virginia Kidd, a communication studies professor at California State University, Sacramento.

Kidd presented her findings "Barbie Gets a Social Conscience: Do You Buy It?" and "Barbie in the New Millennium: Still Shallow After All These Years" at a pair of academic conferences last spring and summer.

"They are trying to make Barbie more acceptable," Kidd says, pointing to ethnic Barbies, Barbies dressed for careers as a veterinarian or U.S. President, and a Barbie friend who is physically-challenged. Unfortunately, Kidd suggests, her greatest power is not what she stands for, but that she helps to divide the world.

"Barbie Pink is a trademark splashed across the earth proclaiming that a gender is a legitimate division. There are no boys in the Barbie world and Ken is an accessory," Kidd says.

"Barbie has become a way to isolate girls from the big picture, to train them to imagine themselves in a career, but not help them develop the skills they need to get there."

It's hard to overestimate Barbie's influence. Every second, 2.5 Barbie dolls are sold around the world. And, Kidd says, the message isn't being sent by just the Barbie doll, but by Mattel's Barbie.com website and its Barbie-brand personal computer.

"Barbie was recruited to bring little girls to the computer," she says. "But when they get there, they're designing clothes."

For example, the Barbie PC and the Hot Wheels PC came out about the same time, yet the Barbie computer had about half the educational software found on the Hot Wheels computer. And many of the games it included are narrowly fashion-focused, including Barbie Beauty Styler and Barbie Fashion Designer. Detective and pet doctor games have been added but Kidd wonders why the games can't be more educational.

Barbie.com doesn't fare much better, Kidd says. "For all its possibilities for introducing young females to the computer age, Barbie.com is overwhelmingly stereotypical," she says. The games include Princess Dress-Up and Shoe Hunt, a Concentration-like game where the user searches for matching shoes. "Certainly Mattel's goal is to sell, but surely they could sell science lesson packets and sticker map pieces as well as ball gowns and playclothes," she says.

Despite attempts by Barbie's makers to appear to support girl empowerment, the message remains muddy. Barbie's ridiculous body shape, the equivalent of a woman with 38-18-34 measurements, has been softened a bit, "But it's still such a narrow outlook," Kidd says. "She still sends the message that if you're not like her, you're not right."

"What's missing from Barbie's world is a meaning for life that can't be found at the mall and a vision of beauty other than Barbie. Whatever else she may represent, Barbie is a consumer," Kidd says.


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