Tomorrow is International Day of the Girl and Mattel is marking this special occasion by trying to sell us some Barbies. Or some dreams. Or some feminism. Or some empowerment. Or all of the above at once. Welcome to the latest installment of Barbie’s desperate campaign to try to stay relevant—and cast itself as not just inoffensive but inspiring—in the 21st century.
The company has released a new video, “The Dream Gap,” in which a diverse cast of adorable little girls talk about the “gap that comes between girls and their full potential.” Some statistics are rattled off in lispy kid-voices: “We are three times less likely to be given a science-related toy” and “Our parents are twice as likely to google, ‘Is my son gifted?’ than ‘Is my daughter gifted?’” Meanwhile, some tear-jerky piano music plays in the background. At the end, the girls hold up signs reading, in pink, “CLOSE THE DREAM GAP.”
The campaign’s accompanying website explains that Barbie is... “the original girl empowerment brand”!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I don’t have enough exclamations for this shit.
The website goes on to explain, “Research shows that children pick up on cultural stereotypes at a very young age that suggest women aren’t as smart as men.” It does not bother to mention that Barbie once released a doll that said, “Math class is tough” and “Let’s plan our dream wedding” and “Want to go shopping?” Nor does it footnote research on how the idealization of thin bodies—a charge Barbie cannot escape simply by introducing some “curvy” dolls—impacts girls’ self-esteem.
In recent years, Barbie has tried really hard to remake its image, introducing seven new skin tones and a couple new body types, including “petite” and “tall” dolls, as well as the aforementioned “curvy” model. This year for International Women’s Day, the company released its “Inspiring Women” series, including dolls modeled after Frida Kahlo and Amelia Earhart. The Kahlo doll was thoroughly tidied up to exclude the artist’s famous unibrow and prominent nose, and the doll modeled after Olympic boxer Nicola Adams featured toothpick-like arms that look like they might snap from throwing a punch.
As part of the Dream Gap campaign, Barbie says it is funding research into said phenomenon—which maybe sounds nice on the surface, but they are really just funding their own marketing approach. More stats on the “dream gap,” more ways to sell empowerment to little girls via dolls that, in most ways, look very much like they always have.
A section of the Dream Gap campaign page reads, “Purposeful play helps her believe,” and underneath there’s a little button that says “SHOP NOW.” Click and you’re served a page of “Career Dolls” that includes such empowering products as Barbie® Ultimate Kitchen, a $49.99 set featuring a lithe blonde chef wearing a pink apron in a pink-accented kitchen. In fairness, there are many other professions on display—Barbie® Robotics Engineer Doll, Barbie® Made To Move™ Soccer Player, and Barbie® Scientist Career Doll With Microscope. There’s even a “curvy” doll clad in athleisure who can do yoga (cool job). Also, they’re not all white which I guess counts as progress.
This is Mattel’s new gambit for relevancy. As the spot says, via the girls, “We need to see brilliant women being brilliant, and to see how they got to where they are, to imagine ourselves doing what they do.” Barbie is proposing that it is an essential part of the “seeing” and “imagining.” But really, it’s just another pink-accented study in the commodification of feminism.