Barbie becomes more than just a pretty face

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AGENCY: Ogilvy & Mather, New York
RATING: Two and a half stars

Forget Malibu Barbie. Forget Bloomingdale's Barbie. Take Totally Hair Barbie and totally forget she ever existed.

Because now, new from Mattel, meet Totally Self-Possessed Barbie. She's still built to the same dimensions as Pamela Lee Anderson, and made of basically the same materials, but she is no longer a blond bimbo clotheshorse.

This Barbie doesn't need a killer wardrobe, a pink Corvette or a future game-show-host boyfriend. She certainly doesn't need a polystyrene Dream House; she has dreams themselves. Also values, goals, confidence and self-esteem.

She is Inner Life Barbie, Be All You Can Be Barbie. She is Barbie Streisand, Barbie Didrickson Zaharias and Ruth Barbie Ginsburg all rolled into one.

"I am queen of the ocean," declares a little girl to open a 60-second spot from Ogilvy & Mather, New York. "I'm a princess," says another. "I'm soccer champion of the universe," announces a third, in a style that looks strangely FAMiliar--that's FAM as in Female Aspirational Montage. It could be a Nike commercial, or Microsoft, or Cisco Systems or, hell, even But it happens to be for Mattel.

"I am unstoppable," another girl avers. "I am wise . . . I am curious . . . We're going to rule the world!"

Meantime, underneath all the FAMcam is the self-actualizing anthem ("Together we can do anything. Be anything. Be anything . . ."), the sort of lame Mary Kay piety that is true in the sense that is only mostly false. But when the inspiration of an entire gender is at stake, it is no time to obsess on the percentages.

"I am a friend . . . I am my own hero . . . I am anything. . . . Anything . . . I am anything . . . I am anything I want to be."

What a fascinating commercial, representing not quite a repositioning and not quite historical revisionism but something more like a cry for help.

This is, of course, not a new-product launch; it's not promoting an actual Politically Correct Barbie. It is simply an expression of Mattel's frustration at having its biggest (and currently struggling) cash cow be a reviled symbol of all that is vain and venal and superficial in our society.

Mattel wishes for us to view the Barbie doll not as the ultimate sexist icon, enslaving our precious little girls in the lifelong bonds of mindless acquisitiveness and poor body image. Instead, they propose, think of Barbie as the great emancipator of childhood imaginations.

She doesn't imprison; she liberates. She doesn't intimidate. She empowers. The contemptible outer princess conceals the complex inner woman.

It is clearly a fatuous, preposterous case of corporate wishful thinking--except that it happens to be true. Anyone who has seen young girls "play Barbies" understands that the dolls do indeed unleash imaginations. The clothes and the accessories and those damned little high-heel land mines inevitably are cast aside while the Barbies themselves take center stage in elaborate, stream-of-consciousness role playing.

Yes, the play centers on busty, size-two figures with impossibly lustrous and manageable manes. And, yes, absent countervailing guidance--or even with countervailing guidance--the Barbie ideal perpetuates unrealistic notions of beauty and material standards. But remove Barbie from the shelves and the society will not suddenly transform; the Plastic Culture is everywhere.

We have every right to frown on Barbie for what she, at her worst, represents. By the same token, Mattel has every right to boast about what she, at her best, achieves.

Copyright February 1999, Crain Communications Inc. ; ;

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