Confessions Of An Ex-Barbie Fan
Dear Barbie, I had fun playing with you as a kid but I am glad you are not my role model.
(This article was first published on 9 March 2018. It is being reposted from The Quint’s archives on 9 March 2020 on the anniversary of Barbie Doll’s debut).
Come International Women’s Day and suddenly the whole world around you breaks into celebration for the fact that you have two X chromosomes.
Inspiring videos and links carrying stories of how brand X has dedicated their product Y to women are not surprising. Interesting, maybe. But not surprising.
One such link (invariably shared Via WhatsApp) that I received this 8 March was:
I stared at the screen for a good minute and said out loud: Wow. What have they done to Barbie?
The 17 new Barbie dolls that stared at me weren’t like the Barbies that were safely showcased in my bedroom back home – the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Sit In Style Barbie, the Salon Surprise Barbie, the Movie Star Barbie, and Rock Star Barbie – to name a few. You can also count in Barbie’s baby sister Kelly.
Barbie & The 17 Role Models
Unless you are a 90s kid like me, who grew up adding a fresh Barbie doll model to her collection every birthday till the age of 12, you won’t understand the awe of finding out that one of your earliest playthings has changed to becoming more progressive, more inclusive.
Suddenly the hours you spent with the dolls start feeling like a guilty pleasure.
Was it still okay to associate with their earlier glittery, frilly, pink and purple avatars who were mostly special because they, er, looked pretty?
Couple that with a pang of jealousy towards kids these days who can talk proudly of their new Barbie model carved after famous aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart.
Other models of these new Barbies include iconic artist Frida Kahlo, US snowboarder Chloe Kim, and filmmaker Patty Jenkins.
Of course I didn't fail to notice how well-timed the launch was. After all, 9 March was also when Barbie was introduced to the world in 1959.
Barbie and Cinderella Syndrome
So, when did this new wave of progressive change hit American toy-making giant Mattel and how did it trickle down to Indian markets?
Turns out they had started pumping out their ‘inclusive’ Barbie models in the early 90s (even a Barbie wrapped in a saree).
So how come mostly the white-washed versions were picked up from the shelf when I was a kid? When my colleague who grew up in a different part of India shared that she remembered playing with the desi Barbie, I could only wonder – how come I never noticed this sari-clad Barbie 15 times a day during commercial breaks of my favourite cartoon shows, when I saw all the others?
I could blame the internalised racism and sexism that existed around me or I could blame the very specific marketing – from the movies, to the TV shows to the Barbie-inspired knock-off ‘back to school’ sets available at every nukkad in front of my school gates, invariably featuring the blonde-haired, blue-eyed version of the doll, even in a predominantly brown country.
The truth remains that defying gender norms wasn’t yet woke then, and I belonged to a generation who collectively suffered from Cinderella Syndrome, or –
Barbie & The ‘It’ Girls
You see, where I come from, Barbie wasn’t just a doll, she was also a status symbol. Owning one would open the door to a sort of exclusive club of ‘It’ girls in a class filled with teens.
Because these dolls don’t come cheap. Last I checked, the cheapest model I own now can cost up to about Rs 4,000. Good thing we bought them a good decade ago when everything was cheaper!
If you belong to middle-class India like I did, and go to a convent with students who regularly get dropped off in expensive four-wheelers, you only had a few things to feel relatable with. If you wished to keep any semblance of a social life, it was important to get along.
And that’s what Barbies did for me. Apart from being a playmate and fashion inspiration, Barbie was my pass into the elite club of ‘friends’.
Barbie & Her Perfect (Plastic) Body
There was a time I actually believed in the ‘perfect’ Barbie body – as epitomised by the latest model. When I think of that, it’s easy to remember the Aqua song...
By the time I reached puberty, however, I noted how none of the women I knew – my mother, my sister, my cousins – looked anything like my Barbies did.
That’s when I got over the unnatural body standards.
But I know many who didn’t. I am sure you have come across several viral stories of how some girl when through multiple surgeries to get that perfect Barbie body.
Which brings us to the question of the hour: Has Barbie truly succeeded in giving young girls the right kind of inspiration? I think not. Barbie still stands for all things stereotypically ‘girly’ and decorative. When I asked my 7-year-old niece, she said Barbie represents beauty and ‘cuteness’ for her.
But credit must be given where it is due. Over the years, Mattel has put active effort into toning down much of its sexist and racist image and promoting an idea of a more empowered woman among young girls.
The ‘Role Model’ collection being one of those efforts. That said, it’s still a little depressing that not one Indian woman made it to Barbie’s ‘role model’ list!
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