A new kind of Barbie is hitting the shelves this week: “Girl Scout Barbie,” the result of a $2 million dollar partnership between toy maker Mattel and Girl Scouts USA. Both groups say the campaign is a good fit because Barbie inspires girls to use their imagination and give back to their communities. But not everyone is happy about the Girl Scouts’ new corporate sponsor.
Announced last August, the partnership also includes a Barbie-themed activity book, a website, and a Barbie uniform patch — “Be Anything, Do Everything” — that Girl Scouts can earn. It represents the first time that Girl Scouts USA has offered a corporate-backed badge. In a press release announcing the campaign, the group said the badge is intended to “inspire the next generation of female leaders.”
At least two consumer advocacy groups want the organization to reconsider. For months, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Center for a New American Dream have been encouraging Girl Scouts USA to break ties with the doll manufacturer, saying that Barbie is a “terrible role model” for young girls. The groups have also criticized the new Barbie patch, which is targeted at Daisies and Brownies under the age of eight, for making girls into “walking advertisements” for the doll.
“While Mattel and the Barbie brand benefit enormously from GSUSA’s endorsement, the partnership harms girls. In addition to encouraging sexualization, the Barbie brand idealizes a dangerously impossible body type,” reads a petition launched by the Campaign for a Commerical-Free Childhood, citing studies that have found the young girls who are exposed to Barbie tend to report more dissatisfaction with their bodies and wish they were thinner.
In an interview with the Today Show, a spokeswoman for Girl Scouts of the USA stood by the partnership, saying that “girls and moms alike associate this doll with the outdoors, camping, giving back in your community, and we think that those are really positive messages to all of our girls.” Similarly, Mattel has maintained that Barbies can help teach Girl Scouts that they can grow up to be anything they want to be.
It’s hardly the first time that the iconic doll has sparked controversy. This past spring, Barbie was criticized for appearing on the front page of the Sports Illustrated magazine, a move that united two brands that have frequently come under fire for promoting idealized images of women’s bodies. Around the same time, the lead designer for the doll defended Barbie’s anatomically impossible physical proportions, saying that it’s the only way to make her clothing “fall properly on her body.”
Other toy makers have also gotten pushback for marketing their products in a way that sexualizes the female form. For instance, Disney recently got slammed for its “sexy makeover” of one of its princesses, Merida from the movie Brave, that drastically slimmed her waist and lowered her neckline. Disney’s iconic mouse is sometimes portrayed as a much skinnier and sultrier version of Minnie. And even classic board games like Candyland have redesigned their characters to amp up the sex appeal.
Consumer advocates argue that those media portrayals help contribute to the fact that disordered eating is on the rise among children. According to a recent study, hospitalizations for eating disorders in children under 12 years old increased by a staggering 119 percent between 1999 and 2006. Eighty percent of U.S. girls say they’ve been on a diet.
The Girl Scouts themselves aren’t strangers to controversy, either, but the organization typically receives criticism from the other end of the political spectrum. Anti-choice activists frequently call for boycotts of Girl Scout cookies based on the group’s supposed ties to Planned Parenthood and Democratic politicians. Although Girl Scouts USA takes no official position on either abortion or birth control, it’s been accused of promoting a “radical feminist agenda.”