The New Barbie: Can a change on the outside make a change on the inside?

Jan 29, 2016

I didn’t play with dolls much growing up. Even as a kid I was more likely to be gathering friends in my garage to act in my latest directorial creation than inventing storylines with plastic, motionless dolls. But, I’ve grown up to be someone deeply curious about the ways in which creativity is developed, especially for kids, and especially for girls, and especially when that creativity intersects with media. So the news that Mattel has just released three new body types for Barbie made me wonder. Can a change on the outside make a change on the inside? Will Barbie’s new outside encourage different ways of creative play for girls and how they think about themselves on the inside?

Several years ago, I wrote a masters thesis about the influence of TV characters on young girls choices of their real life friends. I was particularly interested in their choices about race and ethnicity. Remember Raven from Disney’s That’s So Raven? Raven was a favorite TV character among young girls at the time and she was African-American. Would that open up the possibility that white girls would be more open to making friends with African-American girls in real life? Did it matter that Raven’s best friend, Chelsea, was white? I interviewed over one hundred girls of varying races and ethnicities and gently questioned them about the characters they watched on TV and the friends they had at home. “Do they look like you?” “How do they look like you?” “How do they look different from you?” Over and over the girls showed me that they were most attracted to characters and real life friends who looked like themselves. Sure, “looks like me” was often defined by the girls as having the same skin color. But, it was also about hair color, hairstyle, eye color, body shape and height. (Whether Mom had friends that looked like her or different from her was also a prominent predictor.)

I later experienced this same desire for personal connectedness when I worked with a group of girls in the development of the online game site My Pop Studio (with Renee Hobbs and the Media Education Lab). Games on the site are designed to teach media literacy skills to girls. At the start of a game titled Pop Star Producer, girls are asked to create a Pop Star Avatar. They choose skin color, hair color, hairstyle and an outfit, and eventually create a song for their Pop Star to sing. For a year I worked with a group of girls as advisors on every facet of the game and their direction was clear; give us choices so we can make the pop star look like us.

These experiences aren’t surprising. Girls (6-10 years) are in a developmental phase where identity formation is a major focus. These are ages where girls begin to develop strong friendships, explore personal interests, and begin their formal education. During these years girls (and boys) begin comparing themselves to others and considering how they fit in or if they fit in at all.

And it’s around this same time that Barbie often enters their lives.

Many researchers have explored the need for children to see themselves reflected in media as part of developing a healthy view of themselves in the world. It’s part of a child’s earliest opportunities to develop self-confidence. Seeing ourselves reflected in any aspect of life that is recognized by others as “important” tells us that we are important too. An omission of that reflection sends the opposite signal.

So I give “props” to Mattel for providing millions of girls greater opportunities to see themselves reflected in this massively popular toy. Yes, this matters. Barbie has three new body types: petite, tall, curvy. Wait…does that mean there are now four types to choose from? And if so, what’s the “original” body type called? Please tell me it’s not actually called “original” or “normal”, because that’s a mighty strong message as well. Barbie now comes in a variety of skin colors and hair textures too. I know the issues of personal identity formation and positive role model development for girls won’t be solved simply with a new look for Barbie. But when a toy company or a media company shifts it’s efforts after recognizing public outcry (even if that public outcry is reflected mainly in lower sales) I take that as a positive action. The most recent Barbie commercial “imagine the possibilities” is another indication of attempts to shift Barbie from being seen as just another pretty face.

Now if I could just get my friends back in the garage…