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Barbie’s Back…

… And she’s gonna be… inspirational?

Mattel is strongly hoping this is the case, as we approach the holiday season. The iconic doll has been fraught with female body image controversy for decades. Now, poor Barbie’s got money problems, too, as Mattel reports the lowest sales ever on record. The doll-world, like so much of our lives, is now filled with endless choice where a sole Queen once reigned.

So, the company launches a new campaign and releases this video, called “Imagine the Possibilities:”

And it makes me very uncomfortable…

…that Mattel is playing (preying?) on the empowerment movement.

… that the doll hasn’t evolved with the times for a very long time and now, in one fell (commercial) swoop, Mattel believes she can just sashay into the ‘modern’ world.

… that the softie in me got goosebumps watching the ad… just before the realist in me got very very uncomfortable.

How brazen of Mattel try to co-opt the gender equality for girls movement. Plan Canada’s “Because I am a Girl” campaign, Free the Children’s WeDay events, once-in-a-lifetime humanitarians like Malala, even the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign, have all been working hard to bring women to the forefront and to give us recognition as equal citizens in all respects, globally. Sure, Mattel has its obligatory corporate social responsibility programs, but this is so much bigger than supporting ‘play in children’s lives’.

I will credit Mattel in one respect: dolls can stimulate imagination. When I played Barbies with my childhood friends, we’d come up with all sorts of imaginative scenarios in the way of ‘adventures’ for our dolls. Like the ad suggests, the doll truly was a catalyst for our imaginations; our storytime and play merged and we socialized through our Barbies. My favourite times were when my neighbour would come over, gripping the four corners of a blanket together, swept up with a few dozen dolls from her home, and re-spread her bounty at our house. We (my sister and I), were the children of immigrants. Our parents did their best to contribute to a happy childhood for us while still firmly instilling the value of ‘living within one’s means’– each of us had 2-3 Barbies and were always excited to mix it up with our friend’s selection. The more the better we believed, as our stories could become more elaborate with lots of supporting characters…

I am digressing and losing myself in memories now. But an interesting thing would happen during this playtime with friends. At the start, we’d lay out all of our dolls and then ‘rock, paper, scissors’ to see who would go first and get to ‘pick’ her Barbie. In essence, through our playtime, we were learning about diplomacy and establishing processes, among other life skills….

So, do support the imagination that comes from playing with dolls? Yes. And, though I am recalling this through the decidedly nostalgic lens of adulthood, in my memory, my friends and I in no way ‘coveted’ the beauty ideals of these dolls or tried to duplicate them. I feel as though we knew that they were toys and not representative of us (maybe they affected in some deep rooted way what we’d want to grow up to look like?). As I recall, we treated them as imaginary women who could assume any and all of the creative personas our minds would whip up, appearance rarely factoring into our character creations. Which is interesting, given what

Perhaps my true concern here is that I don’t support the convenient timing of Barbie’s shift in direction. Maybe it’s ‘transparent’ of Mattel to publicly admit that dropping sales has forced the company to evolve. But, appealing to moms’ nostalgia, as if older generations of women should feel a responsibility to keep the Barbie legacy alive. Feels a bit manipulative to me: ‘Oh how sad to see a part of our childhoods fade away’? How authentic is it that the ‘Barbie girl’ (as per the video) has suddenly developed to possess ambitious career goals, just in time for the holiday shopping blitz?

It’s an aesthetically beautiful video and I am openly a supporter of working with children to tell stories- their innate innocence and curiosity about the world triggers something in us adults- seeing things through the eyes of a child encourages us to pull away layers of life experience (often filled with judgement and suffering and hardship) and just ‘see’ or ‘feel’ and ‘believe’. In fact, everything about the execution of this video is wonderful, right down to its seemingly real lines of dialogue, out of the mouths of babes.

The trouble is that it all just feels so inauthentic.

Here’s how I would have approached ‘Barbie 2.0’, if I may:

Perhaps this reinvention could begin with a tongue-in-cheek video, tentatively titled: “I’m Sorry. Love, Barbie.” In it, Barbie, who may or may not look a bit like Taylor Swift, confesses that she never realized she was going to have an impact on so many girls’ lives and the responsibility she should have had to be a better role model for her fan base.

Perhaps, a series of funny videos would follow that feature animated doll confessionals: apologizing to the generations of women who subconsciously still aspire to a “Barbie Life” and to land a “Ken” as a core goal… done in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge-tone of course.

Perhaps even a charity or broad community/social initiative would emerge, giving money to organizations that support girls (as well as boys), to reach for their dreams. Give us real-life girls, young and old, as “Barbie ambassadors” to show us how diverse and inclusive Barbie TRULY is. Let us celebrate these women and hear their stories…. Show how the Mattel organization is NOT just about the bottom line. Share the stories of independent, confident and unique women via Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

Then, if you roll out a video like the above, along with the launch of a new collection of Barbies (now with more realistic proportions- ok, this is not the case, but a gal can dream, right?), I won’t feel so manipulated and disappointed.

As a media producer who sometimes works in brand integration, I can comfortably say that there’s a way to make content that caters to various groups’ agendas. I’ll admit that, often, it’s a minuscule space where various parties’ common interests intersect. But this is why creative producers are so critical to the media production process: they can find engaging ways of bringing a meaningful (albeit sponsored) story to life, without creating something that is basically a commercial in broadcast-editorial’s clothing!

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