Barbie learns to let herself go

Mattel has introduced a new line of Barbie dolls, with bodies more like those of average girls.
Mattel has introduced a new line of Barbie dolls, with bodies more like those of average girls. Mattel

Two holiday seasons ago, with her worldwide gross sales already in free fall, Barbie was bumped from the top of the National Retail Federation’s annual survey of what parents were buying their children for Christmas 2014.

It was the year of the Disney hit “Frozen” and girls wanted Anna and Elsa – dolls based on characters of substance, dolls with more on the ball than unnatural chests and a wardrobe with the occasional lab coat.

It was a sign of the times after 57 years at the top of the toy charts, not to mention a generations-long run as an impossible gender norm and a cultural icon. Another brand might have taken the hint and gone gently.

Instead, Barbie’s manufacturer, Mattel, last week unveiled a line of new Barbies, with more realistically shaped bodies. One is petite. One is tall. One looks like a plus-size model. The new line is being hailed as a cultural shift away from a stereotype that has long distorted American standards of feminine beauty and undermined young girls’ self-confidence.

It is of course good news that America’s best-known doll will now look less like a porn star. And Californians surely are rooting for Mattel, a homegrown company.

But culturally, ordinary-bod Barbie is more follower at this point than leader. Parents and pediatricians have been onto her predecessor for a while now. Rival products like the Lammily dolls, which are built to the specs of an average teenager, and Lottie dolls, which look like “petite” Barbie and are marketed according to interest, have already broadened the conversation in a more body-positive direction.

And in any case, distinguishing toys by gender is increasingly passé – a Barbie ad last year featured a little boy praising her “fierce” outfits, girls have become one of the hottest markets for Legos, and Amazon no longer separates “girls’” and “boys’” toys.

If anything, what’s happened to Barbie is poignant. Like so many baby boomers, her once-mighty force on the culture has been co-opted by her better-educated, better-adjusted and more-diverse children, and their voices are the ones social media is amplifying.

As in the race for the White House, where icons of yore are rebranding right and left to catch up with a suddenly unrecognizable market, Barbie is scrambling. And letting go doesn’t come easily, as Elsa would tell her.

Ah, well, Elsa. You, too, will see how it feels someday. Time comes for us all.