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The Forward Sisterhood: The Evolution of an Iconic Doll

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Barbie just got a makeover. In Time Magazine, Mattel announced that the doll – once frozen in time like a carbonite Marilyn Monroe only skinnier – will now come in different sizes and skin tones. Some are saying the change comes too late but I for one am happy. I tried my best to raise a Barbie-averse daughter and failed miserably.

By the time my daughter turned three, she was obsessed with pink and princess. All my gender-neutral efforts were obliterated by about three seconds of pre-school. Mari – now four – was instantly attracted to the princess culture – the princesses, the accessories and anything that sparkled. It was so immediate and absolute that the only way to have kept her pink-free would have been to lock her away from any external influences. And that’s pretty much the plot of half of the princess movies, so perhaps there’s no way for mothers like me to win this battle.

Or is there?

Consider Barbie. Ruth Handler famously created the busty doll back in 1959, when feminism was in its sleepy period between getting the right to vote in 1920 and Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” in 1963. Over the years feminists have critiqued Barbie’s impossible looks and porn-star proportions. The argument goes that giving girls a doll which exemplifies an impossible beauty ideal could play a role in eroding their self esteem and self belief. In a world where way too much focus is placed on women’s looks, can a popular too-beautiful doll harm girls?

Mattel consistently dismissed the criticism publicly, but they were apparently listening. In 1973, Barbie was released as a surgeon. She might have been sandwiched in between a flight attendant and Miss America, but at least she was dressed in scrubs.

But even as Mattel expanded Barbie’s career choices, they never expanded her waistline. And why should they have? They were profitable. In America, money dictates the market – not feminist theses or socially progressive ideas. Mattel had no reason to change Barbie.

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