By: Emily Linginfelter ~Staff Columnist~
This past week brought a new wave of media content and advertisements that focus on the recurring topic of beauty inclusion. The New York advertising agency Badger & Winter produced the viral #WomenNotObjects campaign and promised never to sexually objectify women in their content again. In the same breath, Mattel — an international toy manufacturing company — announced a new product line of “body relatable” Barbie dolls designed with four body types, seven skin tones, 22 eye colors and 24 hair textures.
I applaud the media for taking the risks to change business practices in a way that accepts and reflects diversity, but at the same time, it appears as though this idea is growing into the blurred area between self-expression and monetary interests. How many of these social justice productions truly deliver the desire for inclusion, and how many feed off the consumer interests to boost revenue and brand awareness? These business “exposés” paint stories about wrongfully objectifying women, but the campaigns ironically seem to use this same theory of targeting women’s outward appearances as the resolution.
This is most evident with the Barbie example, because Mattel conspicuously made the attempt to spell out key issues and strategies and went to the lengths of getting their campaign, #TheDollEvolves, published on the front cover of the latest edition of Time Magazine. The title reads, “Now can we stop talking about my body?” What Barbie’s new shape says about American beauty,” and it pairs with a lovely side angle of the doll to highlight her new figure. This might be taking a stretch, but doesn’t the brand aim to generate more talk about its purpose for the doll’s physical appearance?
This obsession with satisfying consumers with the perfect figure is something that echoes the history of Barbie. Ruth Handler designed the doll in 1945 when she noticed her daughter using paper cutouts to play out the mature roles for her stories. Handler presented her idea and product to buyers at the Toy Fair in New York, and it became one of the first widely distributed dolls made to look like adults rather than babies. Indeed, the curvy figure of Barbie was extensively controversial, but offensive material was neither the intention nor purpose of its creation. Rather, Handler wanted to give her daughter and other children toys that were absent from the marketplace: Representations of people.
I can’t speak on behalf of Mattel or other children’s experiences, but I can share my perspective. When I played with Barbies as a little girl, I wasn’t concerned about having perfectly straight hair or a size two figure when I became older. Instead, I used those toys to reenact actual events, memories or scenes from fictional stories. They weren’t inspirations for the perfect bodily image; in an overly cheesy and nostalgic way, they became tools that clarified what it meant to be like my mother, teacher or favorite characters. Playing pretend reiterated those characteristics that made my role models special. In turn, this offered a starting point for how I wanted to turn out as an adult.
My opinions aren’t meant to bash the Barbie business for taking more than 70 years to redesign its items with inclusive features or scold advertising agencies for having some sort of “hidden agenda” behind their messages. I do, however, have a concern that these corporations abuse their social power by reshaping politics into a commercialized system where loyal consumers are built through the right pitches for whatever the trending issue is.
So I have a message to the businesses contending for the most viral campaign about standardized beauty: Please stop using our external representations to define your own roles as advocates for feminism.
At the minimum, your values should be placed on inspiring younger generations to dream big and believe that their curiosity and love for others leads to a future of possibilities.
If you decide to continue playing this game, choose a strategy that represents the public, not this doublesided of social construction.