The Trouble with Barbie, and Enter: Barbie 2.0

Lammily1You may have heard, there is a new Barbie on the block. Or rather, an “average” fashion doll called Lammily. As Fair Play colleague Lacey wrote us recently, “um, Lammily —  Lacey + Emily?!!”

Genius. Someone must have read both of our (gender-related developmental psychology) work and invented the doll we’ve been dreaming about. We’ve been scooped! …kidding, mostly.

Nickolay Lamm invented Lammily, a fashion doll who is supposed to be a more realistic body type than Barbie. She carries the tag line “average is beautiful.”

Let me stop you right there. That has about as much appeal to me as sentiments like “everyone is a unique snowflake.” First, snowflakes, while distinct at the atomic level, are extremely similar in appearance. It’s a weird, meaningless cliché.

LammilySecond, for an “average” doll, Lammily is just like your everyday fit, thin, white, brunette lady (we’ve seen one blonde picture — below). She’s practically hefty next to Barbie (and the ruffled bikini doesn’t suit her). Still, Michelle Obama would definitely approve of her BMI, activity level, and likely generally healthy diet. In fact, with a fresh mani/pedi, she’s a dead ringer for a lot of the ladies at my gym. They spend a lot of time at the gym to look that way.

LammilyandBarbieTo compare her to Barbie in other ways, we need to know more about her. For example, does she have Black friends? Barbie has lots of Black friends! Barbie is just rarely portrayed as being Black herself. Or gay. Or…well a lot of things. We don’t hate Barbie, for the record, we are fascinated by her (“unresolved,” our PhD mentor accuses us, which sounds almost Freudian). We don’t hate Lammily either, we think she’s a way more progressive alternative to Barbie in terms of body shape. Barbie does not look like a real person, whereas Lammily looks like a real, very healthy and fit person. It seems a bit of a stretch to call her average (and what does that mean anyway?). We hope to see more diversity in her hair, skin, clothing, activities, etc, as the product develops. It sounds from the press like that is the plan.

If you want to get in on the ground floor, you can join the crowd sourcing effort here (for the next 15 days). If you want to know more about what we think of Barbie, read on…

(the following is excerpted from a post originally featured 9/18/12)

Barbie may be one of the most culturally iconic toys available to girls today. She is tall, thin, blonde, white…oh wait, that’s exactly the trouble with her! Barbie represents a single particular (heterosexual) feminine ideal, but unfortunately it is the single particular feminine ideal so revered in our culture yet so impossibly unattainable. There are very few brunette Barbies, let alone Barbies of color, and certainly no dolls of varying shapes and sizes.

The trouble with Barbie is literally more than (plastic) skin deep. Barbie comes in themed sets or packages. What these sets are – and perhaps more importantly, are not – defines what Barbie does, who she is, and transitively, what defines this feminine ideal. Through Barbie’s history she has been many things – a beach-goer, a corvette driver, a bride, a career woman, and even president.

Indeed, there are many reasonably progressive things Barbie has been, including all kinds of traditionally masculine careers. Sometimes she is even made in darker plastic (although most dolls who differ in hair color or ethnicity are Friends of Barbie). Existence is not the same as access, however. Most of these dolls belong to special collections and are more expensive and less available than Barbie in a bikini. If you go to your nearest toy store, you will find beach Barbie, perhaps ballet Barbie, maybe even the gainfully employed petsitter and babysitter Barbie. She will be white and she will be blonde.

The trouble with Barbie has become one of the obsessions of my own research. Why is she so popular? Does astronaut Barbie make little girls want to be astronauts? (NB: Nope. Au contraire. Read on.) Does it matter if astronaut Barbie even exists when she is comparatively more expensive and not available at my local big box store?

It is a true statement that less stereotyped career Barbies are difficult to come by. It is a true statement that Barbies of color, let alone employed Barbies of color, are also difficult to come by. I’ve tried to use career Barbies to teach about and expand interest in various careers as it is also a true statement that many, many little girls love Barbie. But, what I’ve found is that even astronaut Barbie reinforces girls’ interests in girly things without also inspiring them to become astronauts themselves.

So is Barbie good or evil? The research scientist in me says this (overly simple) question isn’t quite resolved. After all, we can ask girls to play with astronaut Barbie all we want, but what happens in the privacy of girls’ own homes and imaginations? The sensible person in me, however, says Barbie is sufficiently, deeply problematic to embolden the search for gender-fair alternatives.

What do you think? Leave a comment!