On the heels of a renewed barrage of criticism over Barbie’s unrealistic body, Mattel has launched a campaign to rehabilitate the iconic doll’s image. The theme of the campaign, “Unapologetic,” makes clear the company has no intention of changing course. To emphasize just how unapologetic Mattel is, it partnered with Sports Illustrated, another company accused of promoting unhealthy body image, to put Barbie on the cover of the magazine’s 50th anniversary swimsuit issue.
Barbie’s lead designer, Kim Culmone, recently asserted that girls do not compare their own bodies to Barbie’s anatomically impossible physique, despite evidence to the contrary. She also dismissed any suggestions that Barbie needs to change with the times, stressing the “integrity” of the doll’s “heritage” must be preserved.
“As a legend herself, and under criticism about her body and how she looks, posing in ‘Sports Illustrated Swimsuit’ gives Barbie and her fellow legends an opportunity to own who they are, celebrate what they have done, and be unapologetic,” a Mattel spokeswoman told AdAge.
Mattel seems to be trying to deflect criticism that it promotes unrealistic standards of body image by suggesting that discussions of Barbie’s physique are equivalent to shaming people who are heavier or who have different proportions than she does. Even Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition, which primarily targets men with its images of scantily clad women, gets to be part of this unapologetic, embattled group. “As with Barbie, every year the Swimsuit edition sparks conversations about women and body image, and Sports Illustrated stands unapologetically behind this issue that women, in reality, love,” another nameless Mattel spokesperson told Adweek. “Unapologetic is a rally cry to embrace who you are and to never have to apologize for it.”
But Barbie, unlike real women, was specifically engineered to fit an ideal that is literally unattainable for most women. In fact, Barbie was designed to be a “Teenage Fashion Model,” exemplifying the perfect young woman. By society’s standards, she has nothing to apologize for.
Mattel’s definition of the perfect young woman, however, hasn’t translated so well to today’s world. Children and parents alike seem to be losing interest in Barbie, as evidenced by a steady decline in sales exacerbated by a staggering 13 percent drop over the past holiday season. By refusing to “apologize,” Mattel is choosing to simply ignore the increasingly urgent need to re-think Barbie’s model for the modern world. Even Barbie’s Sports Illustrated cover emphasizes the doll’s heritage, not her future. The feature pays homage to her inaugural 1950s bathing suit and introduces new Barbie and Ken dolls…styled to resemble Mad Men characters.
But Barbie’s adherence to tradition in the face of a changing market opens opportunities for other dolls to challenge her monopoly. One former Mattel designer profiled by Quartz recently launched the multi-cultural, slightly more realistic-shaped Prettie Girls, an effort to appeal to the fast-growing population of young black and Latino girls who can’t see themselves in blonde, blue-eyed Barbie. Even Mattel, though publicly “unapologetic,” is hedging its bets on Barbie’s traditional appeal. As Barbie sales plummet, the company is enjoying major success with its Monster High dolls, which are being marketed as “Goth Barbies” that help girls “celebrate your own freaky flaws.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mattel’s alternative to Barbie has also come under fire for being unnervingly thin and oversexualized.
Since sales and stocks are already flailing, Barbie’s designers could choose to interpret this moment of competition as ripe for experimentation. Why not try to fix whatever’s not working for today’s girls? Why not build a better Barbie, who could tap into the imaginations of non-white, normal-sized girls and push them to aspire to new, healthier ideals? Mattel may be “unapologetic” for Barbie’s image right now, but shareholders might make them reconsider if the doll continues to flop.