Hell froze over last week when Mattel introduced Fat Barbie. They’re calling her “curvy Barbie,” but, as she looks like she went from a size 0 to a size 12 overnight, I’m calling her “Fat Barbie.” To say this marks a point of departure from Mattel’s 57-year-old cornerstone brand is an understatement. Moms have been calling for a fashion doll that more accurately reflects the proportions of real women since the dawn of the feminist movement in the 1960s. But their wishes have always fallen on Mattel’s deaf ears, and each year Barbie appeared more sexualized than the year before. To be sure, Mattel defended its icon against charges of being a poor role model by giving her an increasing number of professions. Over the years, Barbie has been an astronaut, veterinarian, doctor, and even President. But she has also been a hair stylist, princess, and fairy. And her principal profession has always been that of a fashion model, forever subject to the male gaze.
Mattel’s long-standing tag line, “We girls can do anything, right Barbie?” continued to ring false as the number of model, princess, and fairy barbies continued to outnumber the odd astronaut and president thrown into the mix. And that shouldn’t be very much of a surprise. Those princesses and models sold like hotcakes. Little girls had long been instructed that their worth lie principally in their physical rather than cognitive attributes. Of course, we cannot lay the blame for this solely on the doorstep of Mattel. But Mattel’s marketing machine did its part to reinforce what little girls had always been taught by society at large: You are what you look like.
I find it interesting that Fat Barbie comes close on the heels of 2014’s Sports Illustrated Barbie, through which Mattel vehemently defended its iconic busty, anorexic fashion model. Equating Barbie with Sports Illustrated models was a slap in the face to the growing ranks of Barbie-denouncing moms. The SI swimsuit model is the very embodiment of anti-feminist sentiment. Her existence confirmed to concerned mothers everywhere what they had suspected all along: Barbie was the embodiment of Sex with a capital “S”–and the kind of sex of men’s misogynistic fantasies at that.
In what seemed like a emphatic slap in the face of feminists everywhere, Mattel adopted the hashtag #unapologetic as its marketing campaign for the swimsuit-clad, blonde-haired, blue-eyed model. “As a legend herself, and under constant criticism about her body and how she looks, posing in the issue gives Barbie and her fellow legends an opportunity to own who they are, celebrate what they have done, and be #unapologetic,” Mattel stated in its press release. Take that, feminists. You may hate Barbie’s body, but it’s here to stay. And we’re going to shove it in your face in the most misogynistic way possible. Fuck you.
It’s no surprise that this created a backlash among the feminist set, which is what Mattel probably wanted. You can’t buy the kind of coverage that accompanied Barbie’s debut as an SI model. Everyone media outlet from CNN to The New York Times fell over themselves interviewing Mattel’s media machine and angry feminists everywhere. The clear winner? Mattel. Their SI model sold out in no time. Again, fuck you, feminists.
But wait. Such a bold move to position Barbie as an in-your-face anti-feminist icon reeked not a little of desperation. When Sports Illustrated Barbie made her debut, Barbie sales were tanking. In January 2014, Mattel’s Barbie sales were on a downward spiral. Barbie sales plummeted 20% from 2012 to 2014, and they continued to fall last year. In fact, Barbie sales have been down for four consecutive years now. Heads have rolled in Mattel’s executive suite as new talent with new ideas have tried to save the brand that was once the envy of toy makers everywhere.
So how do we reconcile SI Barbie with Fat Barbie, which appeared just two years later? Simple. Being unapologetic about her body didn’t do a damned thing for Barbie’s sales. So let’s give the hollering feminists what they’ve asked for all along and make a Barbie that actually looks like a real woman. What the hell. It’s not like things can get much worse.
Other companies had already beaten Mattel to the punch. In 2014, Nickolay Lamm launched “Lammily,” a realistically proportioned fashion doll, after a successful crowdfunding campaign to create a Barbie alternative. “Lammily” sold out on her first run, and she’s attracted a large following. An African-American Lammily is currently in the works.
Mattel’s marketing campaign for Fat Barbie is the polar opposite of that used to market Sports Illustrated Barbie. Whereas Mattel declared that SI Barbie unapologetically owned her busty, skinny, leggy body, the same company is now telling us that Barbies come in all shapes and sizes, and that should be celebrated. In a video Mattel released to introduce the dolls, a bespectacled little redheaded girl declares, “It’s so important for Barbies to look different. You know, like the real people in the world.”
“Curvy” isn’t the only new body Mattel has given its iconic doll. The company is also debuting “tall” and “petite” variations. But those latter two will be lost in the shuffle in the media frenzy currently buzzing around Fat Barbie. It’s an admirable effort to put Fat Barbie in with a mix of other alternative body types, and it gives the appearance that Mattel isn’t really caving on changing Barbie’s proportions from one type to another. They’re just giving girls a few more options. And, oh yeah, one of them is fat.
I predict that Mattel’s Fat Barbie will likely get a positive reception in the media. The coverage that I’ve read thus far all echo the same “it’s about time” sentiment. And, of course, it is about time. It’s fucking overdue. But will finally joining the 21st century revive Mattel’s Barbie sales? Will little girls who have been forever conditioned to perceive thinner bodies as more desirable bodies voluntarily reach for Fat Barbie?
Sadly, probably not.