Should fashion dolls ‘get real’ — or stay plastic?
This week, the perennial Barbie debate resurfaced when artist Nikolay Lamm‘s Kickstarter campaign to raise $95,000 to create a realistic doll overshot its target in just one day. Lamm’s doll, Lammily, is based on the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s measurements for an average 19-year-old girl, and carries the tagline “average is beautiful.”
The doll boasts articulated joints that allow her to wear flats and running shoes, as well as toned-down make-up, hair and apparel. Once she ships to retail in November 2014, Lammily’s creator hopes she will help promote realistic beauty standards.
Toymaker Mattel has long been criticized for Barbie’s unrealistic proportions, with a 2006 University of Sussex study concluding that dolls like Barbie can have a negative impact on the body image of young girls. Last month, in an interview with Fast Company, Kim Culmone, VP of design for Barbie at Mattel, defended the doll’s design, saying: “Barbie was never designed to be realistic; she was designed for girls to easily dress and undress.”
When I think back to my own Barbie-playing days, I realize something key: I never wanted to look like Barbie. I didn’t care that she had blonde hair and blue eyes, while my hair and eyes were brown. It didn’t bother me that she didn’t look like me, or anyone else I knew. I didn’t yearn for her flashy fashion sense. She wasn’t my role model; the real girls and women in my life were. I didn’t measure them or myself against the doll’s plastic standard of beauty. Barbie was, simply, a conduit for my imagination — just as my younger brother’s superhero action figures were. I can’t remember ever knowing her narrative, the backstory cultured by her marketers. In my world, Barbie became who and what I wanted her to be. She was defined by no one’s standards but my own. Sometimes, she even mixed with superheroes. The richness of play actively avoids reality.
That said, today’s little girls live in a different reality — one that can’t always be actively avoided. They are bombarded from an early age with media images of women who are made to look as unrealistic — as plastic — as Barbie through the magic of Photoshop and Hollywood lighting. Those images are every bit as unattainable for the average girl as Barbie’s physics-defying proportions.
The use of plus-sized and ethnic models and ‘average’ people in marketing and media is gaining traction. So perhaps the fashion doll industry could stand a dose of diversification as well. After all, Barbie has reigned as Queen of the Dolls for 55 years. She’s outlived Hasbro’s Sindy (who I actually preferred to Barbie), and weathered storms from MGA’s Bratz and others. She needs the challenge. Still, I wonder if a doll made to look more like a real girl can unseat her. I also question whether sales of a doll like Lammily will be driven by parents or by the pester power of kids who see themselves in her. Set to launch at the apex of the all-important holiday retail window, Lammily’s debut will be a fascinating one to watch, no matter which side of the Barbie debate you stand on.