Barbie Ad Goes Full Girl Power, Faces Backlash Anyway

The clip connects playing with the doll to career aspirations, but critics say she still presents a limited definition of being a woman.
Oct 23, 2015·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

A professor, a veterinarian, a tour guide, a jet-setting business executive, or a soccer coach yelling that players need to get their “knees up, like a unicorn.” If young girls pretend-play having those careers with their dolls, maybe they’ll start to see themselves in those roles in real life.

That seems to be the idea at the heart of “Imagining the Possibilities,” a new YouTube–exclusive ad for Barbie. The clip shows five young girls in real-life scenarios, such as standing before students in a college lecture hall and discussing the human brain. Hidden cameras capture the reactions of the unsuspecting adults who are around, according to the clip’s YouTube description.

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The ad might remind some viewers of the original intent of Barbie creator Ruth Handler, who wrote in her autobiography: “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”

However, according to critics, in Barbie’s world those choices don’t often include being racially and ethnically diverse—or having a body with measurements larger than 39-21-33. Those proportions are only attainable for one in 100,000 ladies who are five feet six inches tall, as The New York Times pointed out more than a decade ago.

“Don’t get me wrong, imaginative play is great—and I recall doing a lot of pretending with my own Barbie dolls,” wrote columnist Jessica Valenti for The Guardian on Monday. “But imaginations are limited when girls are given only a narrowly defined idea of what being a woman looks like. And in Barbie’s case: it looks like ‘impossible.’ ”

Valenti’s sentiments were echoed in a post on Youth Ki Awaaz, a popular online youth journalism platform in India.

We may change the way girls play with Barbie, but we can’t change all that the Barbie doll stands for until and unless we revise the way she looks in the first place,” wrote Ankita Mukhopadhyay on Wednesday.

Mattel, the manufacturer of Barbie, did not respond to TakePart’s request for comment.

Although Barbie has had 150 careers since she first hit store shelves in 1959, sales of the doll have slumped over the past three years. Young girls are snapping up Disney’s popular Elsa figurine from the film Frozen. Bratz dolls—which have also garnered their share of criticism—have chipped away at Barbie’s sales dominance too.

RELATED: Bratz Remixed: Hypersexualized Dolls Turn Into Inspiring Female Role Models

With the majority of kids in the United States projected to be children of color by 2020, parents also seem to want more diverse dolls. In Nigeria, sales of a brown-skinned Queen of Africa doll now outstrip sales of Barbie. In May, one U.S. mom launched a petition demanding the creation of a black CEO Barbie. But despite Barbie’s recent efforts to diversify with dolls modeled after director Ava DuVernay and actor Zendaya, global sales plunged another 14 percent in the third quarter of 2015.

Despite the backlash against it, though, the clip seems to be garnering some new fans for the brand.

“Wow.... That made me change my mind on Barbie. A little girl is imagining she is the doll and can be anything with a career in life. The little girl isn’t looking at the size of the doll. Nope, she just needs her equipment to do her dream job. Cute, very cute,” wrote Facebook user Cassandra Henderson on the Barbie Facebook page.