Barbie, a Mirror for the Times

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Aug 15, 2016 9:35 PM
Barbie, a Mirror for the Times

Which will win out -- nature or nurture? It's a question at least as old as Shakespeare and as new as who will direct Barbie's latest make-over. Surely some sociologist somewhere has already explored the socio-economic significance of Barbie's changing appearance through the years. And now the little doll with the big appeal is undergoing still another make-over. The result may tell us less about what little girls want than about what their upwardly mobile moms and dads will buy for them.

Barbie, how you've changed over the years! Just as American society has. Always in tandem with the changing times and changing demographics of an ever changing America. But have little girls changed their nature, or have their moms just decided to nurture them differently?

Some of us are old enough to remember when Barbie was surely a WASP -- White Anglo-Saxon Protestant -- in her mores even if those who loved her were formally Catholic or Jewish, for they had adopted her lifestyle. (A note on American usage: Lifestyle seems to have replaced life some time ago among the more with-it reaches of the American middle class.)

The first Barbies, the grandmothers and great-grandmothers of the current generation, had all kinds of glittery attractions: the dream house, the pink convertible, the closet full of shoes with stiletto heels, the frilly dresses. She was a Barbie for the era as the country shook off wartime austerity and entered the Eisenhower era, which combined economic growth with an underlying social stability -- however restless that era may have appeared on the surface. It was all watched over by an avuncular president who, however derided he may have been by the country's intelligentsia, knew just what he was doing. Especially when he seemed to be doing nothing. His critics called him inarticulate. Yeah, inarticulate like a fox. No wonder Americans liked Ike.

Now you can tell which way the country's style setters (or those who would like to be) are going by the latest: President Barbie, who also has a vice-presidential running mate. It's a balanced ticket: one brunette, one blonde. And both are designed to mirror the ambitions, fixations and assorted hang-ups of consumers with cash. (Who says the free market is dead?) Both of these new Barbies might as well be running on the Democratic ticket this year. And both are being sold as harbingers of still another brave new world in which stereotypes will be smashed. Only to be replaced by new ones, this time stereotypes of the politically conscious career-savvy woman of 2016.

If the 2016 model Barbie is a sociological indicator, she also says a lot about American marketing. She's been designed to win the hearts, or at least the pocketbooks, of the generation dubbed millennials (1980-2000). It's a generation whose exemplars may not be satisfied with having its children just play, but would like to shape them every moment of the day. From birth. Pity the poor products of this regimen, for they'll be pressured to enter the right prep school, the right college, and then the right grad school and post-graduate program after that, along with entering the right income bracket.

It may not have occurred to these oh-so-advanced parents that, by setting out to smash the old norms, they're just going to create new ones. Like looking odd, something that may excite adolescents of all ages while mortifying an older generation carefully taught not to show out. ("Look at me! See my tattoos and my hair dyed in all the colors of the rainbow!") For these kids, being unfashionable has become the fashion.

At the moment, Barbie's makers at Mattel are gearing up a whole new advertising approach. This fall's television commercials for this latest Barbie do away with all the stardust and replace it with shots of a little girl posing as a college science professor and lecturing her Barbie about the human brain. (For some of us, it would be more assuring if the pretend professor were lecturing on genetics, particularly the ineradicable nature of heredity.)

This year's Barbie is all work and no play. She comes equipped with a prompt that'll download a worksheet meant to prepare her for a career as a leader. It asks little girls to circle words like "brave" and "fearless," as if leaders can't also be cunning and charming. The new prime minister of Great Britain sounds like she'd fit that bill, and she's nothing if not a leader. The best leaders may know when to do nothing and do it particularly well. Again, see the example Dwight Eisenhower set when he was president of a country returning to peacetime prosperity -- right after he'd been a five-star general leading a crusade to liberate Europe.

But the significance of this year's Barbie may have less to do with sociology than marketing, specifically how to rebrand a product. To quote Lisa McKnight, senior vice president and general manager of the Barbie brand at Mattel: "It's sort of the beginning of our brand to start encouraging girls to do something." As if playing with dolls (Barbie, for instance) were nothing. You have to wonder if Ms. McKnight has ever heard of the adage about children's play being their work. Nothing might benefit a child of any era like a good leaving-alone. To just look up at the sky while chewing on a blade of grass and daydream about the wonder of it all. Some of a child's happiest moments may also be the most productive.

But in these times, Barbie may not be welcome in all too socially conscious households. One executive at Mattel recalls being told by a mother, "I don't know if I can bring a Barbie to a party. I don't know if the other mom would want that in her household." Barbie has a lot to learn about life -- as opposed to fitting into a lifestyle -- and one of them is not to let being shunned bother her. She'll need to learn just to be herself, whatever that is these confusing days.