Barbie recognizes her social responsibility with her new Dream Gap Campaign.

On October 9th the Barbie Company launched The Dream Gap Project, a global initiative involving funding research and creating empowering content in an effort to encourage girls across the globe to realize their full potentials. At the center of the project is a moving video featuring young girls identifying the problem and listing unsettling statistics such as, “Our parents are twice as likely to google is my son gifted than is my daughter gifted.”  The young girls’ cry for help is poignant and their message is clear: it’s up to all of us to close the dream gap. The project also includes a commitment from the company to highlight 10 empowering female role models each year by honoring them as dolls and by creating meaningful content to effectively share their stories.

Screen Shot 2018-11-09 at 3.02.36 PM
Photo: Instagram / @barbie. Captioned: We thank our Barbie #RoleModels for helping girls continue to believe that they can be anything.

A company affecting so many young minds worldwide undoubtedly has the social responsibility to use their platform to empower and inspire. Especially after more than 50 years of the brand pushing unrealistic body standards, The Dream Gap Project poses the question: is Barbie a feminist? 

This project is definitely feminist.  If executed effectively, the initiative will inspire young girls around the world.

But how can Barbie, a toy originally inspired by a German sex doll, as a public figure, be considered feminist?

Let’s take a look back at the times the Barbie company has (or at least attempted to) move away from problematic messages and shift toward presenting a more empowering (and dare I say) feminist presence.

1965: Astronaut Barbie

Barbie landed on the moon four years before Neil Armstrong did. While the company was probably more motivated by a desire to capitalize on the Space Race frenzy than by a goal of inspiring young women, presenting a female as an astronaut (in a time and sphere in which  most women were presented as secretaries and astronaut’s wives) was a significant step.

1968: First African-American Doll

In 1968 we met Barbie’s African-American friend, Christie. While this might have laid the foundation for greater representation in the brand, the Barbie’s company’s efforts at the time were wildly insufficient.  The company was producing African-American dolls with primarily Caucasian features. It wasn’t until 1990, after meeting with a focus group comprised of African-American families, childhood specialists, and clinical psychologists, that the company designed new molds with more representative facial features, skin tones, and hair textures.

1971: Barbie Looks Up!

In response to the second wave of feminism, Barbie’s redesign included a change in facial expression.  Her eyes were no longer cast downwards; her makeover enabled her to look straight forward.

1973: Surgeon Barbie

Starting out as a teenage fashion model, Barbie moved up the ranks as a fashion editor before taking on roles as a flight attendant, nurse, and aerobics instructor.  Here we see Barbie move toward filling careers where women have been historically underrepresented. The release of Surgeon Barbie marks a distinct shift in the brand’s portrayal of women in the workforce.

1975: Olympic Barbie

A year before women were allowed to compete in rowing, basketball, and handball at the Olympic level, Barbie won a gold medal in gymnastics.

1992: Barbie Runs for President

This marks the first of Barbie’ six presidential campaigns. While overdue (a common trend in the Barbie brand) encouraging young girls to see presidency as a realistic possibility could only have been positive.  

2004: Hispanic-American Barbie Runs for President

This is Barbie’s third presidential campaign, this time as a Hispanic-American woman.  Considering the United States has yet to see either a female or Hispanic-American in the Oval Office, this can definitely be considered a progressive step.

2015: “Imagine The Possibilities” Video Goes Viral

After a 2014 crisis for Barbie, involving plummeting sales and PR disasters, the company knew their next move would need to be socially relevant if they wanted a successful comeback. When Barbie’s Imagine The Possibilities campaign was released, it instantly went viral, and understandably so. The video follows a handful of girls trying on different careers, highlighting what can happen when girls are able not just to dream, but to understand that their “dreams” are real possibilities.

2016: Barbie Changes Her Body… Finally!

Still trying to repair their public image and recover from 2014, the Barbie company decided to make their most drastic and arguably the most socially important change to the brand. The brand released three new body types for the dolls: tall (with a more athletic build), petite, and curvy.  Barbie has been criticized since her inception for promoting unrealistic body ideals. In the early 60’s, a slumber party set Barbie came with a scale fixed at 110, holding a book with a cover reading “How to lose weight,” and a back cover reading, “Don’t eat.”  

It’s surprising how long it took the company to make this change, considering the public’s ongoing cry for greater representation of realistic women.  The release was generally well-received, with young girls (and mothers alike) happy to have dolls that actually looked liked them.

2018: Barbie Challenges the “Sorry Reflex”

Earlier this year, Barbie took to a new platform: Youtube.  The Barbie vlogs feature a wide range of videos, from fun room tours and DIYs to honest talks dealing with depression and bullying.  One of her more socially relevant videos tackles the “Sorry Reflex”. She explains how many girls instinctively apologize in different situations as if they are afraid of being “too big”.  Barbie takes this complex social phenomenon and effectively communicates how it can diminish a girl’s confidence to a younger generation, challenging us to replace “sorry” with “thank you for___” to change social dynamics.

June 2018: Barbie Teaches Girls To Code

The Barbie company released a new doll, in partnership with Tynker (a game-based computing platform), that comes with six free coding lessons.  It has been made clear (study after study and statistic after statistic) that women are less likely to enter a career in STEM than their male counterparts.  By exposing young girls to this kind of play, Barbie is also exposing them to an entirely new field of opportunities in the tech world.  

Barbie’s role as a feminist presence can historically be contested. However, in recent years, (even if the company has been motivated mostly by monetary factors) Barbie seems to have recognized her social responsibility to the generations of young girls that engage in her world of play. It will be interesting to see what the Barbie company does with their Dream Gap campaign and if they are truly able empower a diverse number of girls around the globe.  

I am excited about the future of Barbie and although her steps may be doll-sized, it is clear that these steps are being made in the right direction.

(Illustration: Sophie Lee)

Posted by:Amanda Bello

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