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The revolution will not be brought to you by Mattel

Women’s empowerment is not for sale

February 7, 2016 2:00AM ET

Last week, Mattel unveiled curvy, petite, and tall versions of its classic Barbie doll with different skin colors and eye shapes. The new dolls were released in hopes of revitalizing traditional Barbie’s uniform look (white, blonde and thin) and anemic sales, and, despite not doing anything particularly new, they got a lot of press.

Over the last two decades a kind of limited enlightenment has crept into marketing efforts aimed at women and girls. The Body Shop launched the zaftig Ruby doll in 1997 as part of its “Love your body” campaign, which was prompted by that company’s plummeting US sales. Dove, a Unilever brand, launched its Campaign for Real Beauty in 2004. According to Dove, that campaign “started a global conversation about the need for a wider definition of beauty.” (Starting in the late 1990s, Dove’s beauty bar was described in ads as being “for the beauty that’s already there.”) In December 2015, the editor-in-chief of Women’s Health banished the phrase “bikini body” from the magazine’s cover.

Reading about the new curvy Barbie, I couldn’t help wondering why she is still thought of as the toy for girls. Why not encourage girls to play with a wider range of toys—including dolls, if they want to, but also chemistry sets and tools and building blocks? Even Legos—perfectly gender-neutral, in theory— have in recent years courted controversy due to silly, sexist marketing campaigns (in the early 90s, around age 9, I wrote a letter to the Lego company protesting their rollout of pink Legos for girls).

Marketing executives claim that women have more and better choices today than ever before, and that’s probably true. Many brands in the United States have caught up with social and cultural trends in the last twenty years. They have realized that “diversity and inclusion” and “women's empowerment” are not just corporate buzzwords; they are real concepts that can be mined to move product. Just listen to these companies’ language.

From Dove: “[Our] brand is rooted in listening to women.” (Swoon! Tell us more!) From Mattel: “Girls everywhere now have infinitely more ways to play out their stories and spark their imaginations through Barbie.”

Few would object to the stated messages of these campaigns and marketing strategies: bodies come in different sizes; real beauty is within; a woman’s body is “bikini-ready” when she puts a bikini on it. And they certainly expand consumer choices. But are they actually transforming the world for women and girls?

I spoke to one mother of a teenage girl who described Mattel’s new campaign as “a baby step in the right direction” but “not nearly enough.” She said she knows from her own experience and from her daughter that “girls will find ANY reason to be down on their faces and bodies, so the more variety we can put into dolls, the better!” It’s a fair point. As a recovering teenage girl myself, I remember how harsh I was about what I perceived as my many physical flaws, and how easily I transmitted that anxiety to my younger female cousins.

Why rely on a Barbie doll to smash white supremacy and free your daughter’s mind?

But is making Barbie “curvy” enough to fix that? Alliah Livingstone, founder and principal of Lemonade Stand Limited, a marketing consultancy, is skeptical. “This will get (and has gotten) Barbie a spurt of new press, but if they wanted to make a real statement, they could just make a universal change to her dimensions so that they are more aligned with a normally-proportioned human being ... I’m Black, short and a little curvy — which one would I pick, for instance? As a mother of a daughter, I honestly kind of just shrug at the effort.”

More broadly, though, Livingstone is pleased “that the universe of toys has expanded and society is now more open to blurring the gendered lines of play.”

I don’t blame parents for being cautiously optimistic that Barbie now comes in more “flavors” than she used to. Socially conscious parents don’t have a lot of mass-market options, and it’s impossible to completely inoculate kids growing up in a wealthy, consumerist society from the toxic effects of advertising or the craving it instills for certain products.

Talib Kweli wrote the following lyrics about his daughter in his and Jean Grae’s “Black Girl Pain”:

“My pretty black princess...bought her a black Barbie/ I keep her mind free; she ain’t no black zombie.”

The song is a tribute to black women that advocates for raising black girls to believe they are beautiful and worthy of respect. But I’ve always found those words, while touchingly earnest, distinctly un-revolutionary: why rely on a Barbie doll to smash white supremacy and free your daughter’s mind?

When each year brings a cynical new marketing ploy framed as “women’s empowerment,” it’s hard to retain any patience for empowering-girls-through-dolls-and-makeup. Women and girls need rights and dignity, not better marketing, and besides, these efforts plainly don’t work: there is no evidence that eating disorders, which have been linked to unrealistic standards of thinness in the media, are on the decline or that women feel better about their bodies than they did 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

An unlikely ideological ally recently emerged in the form of TV star Kirstie Alley, who, on the subject of Barbie's new sizes, tweeted as follows: “I’m glad I was raised in the ’50s when a doll was an object, not a role model.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. I have no serious objection to Barbie, curvy or original. I even had one growing up, and I don’t remember feeling particularly bad that I didn’t look like it (though it’s possible, on an unconscious level, I did).

That’s why I'm not convinced that girls need a wider variety of dolls to play with, so much as they need a wider variety of toys and activities in general and a deeper grounding in media literacy and resistance to advertising. It’s nice that marketers now want to sell products to women, too — and that some effort is being made to create toys that are less damaging to girls. But women’s empowerment isn’t for sale.   

Raina Lipsitz writes about feminism, politics and pop culture. Her work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, Kirkus Reviews, McSweeney’s, Nerve.com, Ploughshares, Salon.com and xoJane, among others. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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