By Margretta Sowah
For most, Barbie has always been a sign of the times – important events, socially speaking. I remember when Barbie was an Olympic gymnast. I would twist and twine her body to match [insert athlete circa 1995]. Barbie was a symbol of hope. A big call? Sure. But let’s not forget, for a Blondie, Barbie is a formidable opponent.
Some tricks aren’t for kids…
I think what most people love about Barbie is her spirit and energy. Barbie is the eternal child; with a twinkle in her eye and glitter through her hair. With children’s toys and accessories being a huge money maker – 18.11 Billion US dollars as of 2014, having a public figure like a Barbie (being an idealistic prototype and sign of the times) allowed for easier relatability and optimism. At the tender age of adolescence we are looking to our peers for similarity. What makes Barbie’s marketing and branding so exciting is the play factor – the ability to be amusing and entertaining by channelling characters through real people and real situations.
This, of course, is not without negative implications. According to History.com; Barbie’s appearance was modelled after a German comic strip character, originally marketed as a racy gag gift for adult men in tobacco shops. Mattel bought the rights to Lilli and made their own version, naming her ‘Barbara’ after the Mattel’s daughter. Barbie filled a niche in the market, allowing little girls to imagine themselves in the future – one where women could be anything they wanted. I think it’s easy to forget living in the luxuries of the 21st century how encouraging it is to know there are no ethical or legal restrictions for women in the workforce. Models are a prime example – I wrote a piece about the Plus Size model Tess Holiday and her #EffYourBeautyStandards campaign. You should check it out. More than a few decades ago there would be an uproar if women wore scantily clad fabric and strutted down a long platform; let alone a children’s doll that stood at eleven feet with flowing blonde hair and the body of an exotic dancer. #SorryNotSorry
Women have always been a huge driving force in the economy. According to the Harvard Business Review; “Globally, [women] control about $20 trillion in annual consumer spending, and that figure could climb as high as $28 trillion in the next five years.” Can you imagine a trillion dollars? At this point I can’t even imagine twenty dollars, let alone a trillion. It goes without saying the various stereotypes associated with the proactive female shopper – we think she is frivolous. A bit shallow. Perhaps even calculating? Barbie was the first mass-produced toy doll in the United States with adult features. That was 1959. Now the prerequisite for a doll (excluding baby/toddler/fairies or mythical creatures) is to have ‘full figures’. It’s easy to believe commercialism starts at a young age with advertisements geared towards not only children of a particular age, but hopeful mothers wanting the best for their child. We are all a part of the consumerism treadmill.
Barbie, if looked at in a different context, can be seen as a symbol of ‘Wall Street’ and capitalism; even though her message is clearly a positive one. It’s a bit like Victoria’s Secret. The premise of VS is to cater for women who want to feel fabulous and sexy at any age and size… but there are obvious subliminal messaging geared towards this ‘picture perfect’ lifestyle and body. Neither Barbie nor Victoria’s Secret have damaging influences on the industry but issues do stem from how they promote their products.
Gender neutral = gender equality?
In Moschino’s Spring 2015 Ready-to-Wear collection, Barbie came to life in a ‘Life in Plastic, it’s Printastic’ way. Jeremy Scott’s homage to the iconic children’s doll sparked controversy throughout the industry. Was it a piss on fashion? Is Barbie not seen as fashion? – there have been over 70 designers who have made clothes for Barbie – Why is the ‘fun and free’ lifestyle of Barbie shunned by the decadence of fashion is not? Did it have anything to do with Ken’s new haircut? What about the children!
As a part of the promotional campaigns for Moschino Barbie (a registered Barbie made especially for Moschino) a video surfaced on their facebook page with a young boy in Grease-esque hair (Grease Lighting, I mean) that would make even Frenchy jealous, letting us know that this was the most Moschino Barbie ever! Soon after a slew of articles published throughout the internet, all agreeing what a constructive move Mattel showed by having a young boy in a Barbie ad; even though Moschino is NOT a toy manufacturer, but rather a very established fashion powerhouse that sells to both men, women and children.
We are moving towards a gender-neutral mentality; with the rise of the Transgender/Gay and Lesbian community in the public eye, there has been a push in the market for non-gender-specific products starting from kids toys. Is this a good move or is this another box to add? It is, however, a definite testament to Mattel (with the world’s most iconic doll) to keep with its vision for the brand and for Barbie. In a world where trillions of dollars can be lost with one wrong slogan, Barbie has been able to maintain her integrity (yes there was/is controversy over Barbie’s unrealistic measurements, opening the door for scrutiny of impression) in a world where pink is seen as an unintelligent colour (when worn), according to a study done by buytshirtsonline.
Idealism at its best
So what can be said about Barbie? She is seen as a go-getter, an independent and intelligent women. Her life is filled with her gorgeous boyfriend of many years, Ken; her many friends of other cultures – from African to Hispanic, Asian to Icelandic. She is able to cross borders, languages, ages and even sexuality. This is where MATTEL succeeded with Barbie; its blonde breadwinner in a pink Beetle Volkswagen. Now if that isn’t tooting your own horn…