The Hypocrisy of Barbie—and Her Maker at Mattel

Barbie might not be shrinking, but there’s a good chance her lead designer at Mattel is feeling a little smaller. Kimberly Culmone has become a magnet for critics worldwide since defending the doll’s wacky proportions in a recent story in Fast Company. Culmone told the magazine that “Barbie was never designed to be realistic,” saying the toy’s curvy form is essentially designed to be a hanger for all those groovy clothes.

Culmone is right, and she’s wrong. What she and the reporter don’t seem to grasp—or fail to mention—is the shift in Barbie’s body over the past 55 years. Maybe her bust does rise and fall with each season’s fashion (presumably prompting a flat chest back when Twiggy ruled), but the biggest body alterations have come through public pressure. In fact, Mattel made Barbie’s body distinctly more lifelike in 1998: The toy company flattened her feet, thickened her waist, and turned her once-mountainous breasts into a form more reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands.

The new Barbie was a tacit acknowledgement that shape matters. At the time, Mattel spokesman Sean Fitzgerald said the shift reflected the views of Barbie’s target market of girls aged 3 to 11. As he put it: “They wanted Barbie to be cooler … more reflective of themselves.” Among other things, the doll would now be able to stand on her own two feet.

And now? While Kate Moss continues to walk the runway, the popularity of Victoria’s Secret and swimsuit models like Kate Upton have made the skinny-curvy paradox popular again.

So where does that leave Barbie, a doll that was modeled on a postwar erotic toy called Bild Lilli sold in bars and tobacco shops? Struggling to be relevant, with mixed results. Teen Talk Barbie—also known as “math class is tough” Barbie—failed. But the perfect plastic woman can now choose from business suits, lab coats, and spacesuits, and Mattel has bent over backward—one feat Barbie can claim to do—to present a mix of faces, cultures, and empowerment messages over the years.

If Barbie were no more than that of a human clothes hanger for the gear that Culmone’s crew dreams up, then Mattel wouldn’t make her its face in sponsoring women’s groups, the “I Can Be” marketing campaign to promote women’s careers, and even a Girl Scouts Barbie patch.

Mattel could have taken the “it’s just a doll” route with Barbie. No one makes life-size versions of Dora the Explorer to discover her head would fill the back seat. Mattel has positioned Barbie as a role model, only to discover that girls (and their mothers) are moving on. Worldwide, Barbie sales fell 13 percent in the fourth quarter. The growth in Disney’s Princess toys suggests little girls still like dressing up. But maybe tossing clothes on a busty blonde woman seems kind of boring compared with, say, an American Girl who brings to life a chapter of U.S. history.

Culmone may be right that “girls view the world completely differently than grown-ups do.” Which is perhaps why a girl zombie in high heels may trump a supermodel dressed up for space. Monster girls sound more fun, creative, and free from the body pressures a girl feels on earth.

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