Earlier this year, Mattel announced a new line of “body positive” Barbie dolls – i.e., redesigns of the iconic toys, now with pronounced posteriors and sagging tummies. The more socially cognizant figures are obviously a rejoinder to the decades of criticism lobbed at the cash cow franchise – Mattel claims they have sold more than one billion of the toys over the last 60-or-so years – that the line promotes “poor body image” to young children.
Needless to say, the notion that Barbie inspires anorexia, body dysmorphia and even promotes misogyny is a rather popular one in academic circles. “Early exposure to dolls epitomizing an unrealistically thin body ideal may damage girls’ body image, which would contribute an increased risk of disordered eating and weight cycling,” claim researchers in one 2006 Developmental Psychology study. In her 2008 tome Battleground: Women, Gender and Sexuality, Amy Lind popularized the term “Barbie Syndrome” to describe women who attempt to physically emulate the doll’s nigh-impossible anatomy. British researchers in 2005 even suggested that the ubiquitous plaything may instill violent envy in children, who take out their projected frustrations over their own self-image on their dolls by chewing their heads off and microwaving them.
Indeed, the hyper-popular line has been accused of everything from perpetuating stereotypes about girls failing at mathematics to promoting racism to literally spying on children through high-tech accessories. However, perhaps the doll’s biggest social impact on children – and the one that lingers throughout their adulthood – is one that is rarely discussed.
Namely, the fact that the dolls are designed to turn girls into hive-minded, super-materialistic consumers.
According to an American Journal of Psychology report from 2007, an estimated 5.8 percent of Americans – a sum that evens out to about 19 million people – display “obsessive compulsive buying” characteristics. Literature reviews have come to the consensus that women represent the majority of “problem shoppers” in the U.S., with most studies on the subject suggesting they represent about 80 to 95 percent of all compulsive buyers in the U.S. “Compared with other respondents, compulsive buyers were younger, and a greater proportion reported incomes under $50,000,” one report ominously declared. “They exhibited more maladaptive responses on most consumer behavior measures and were more than four times less likely to pay off credit card balances in full.”
Pretty spooky stuff, eh? So, where exactly did these individuals pick up such lavish and irresponsible consumer behaviors?
Well, all you have to do is take a stroll down your local big box store’s toy aisle – as I did a few weeekends ago – and you might find yourself a clue.
While the boys’ section is glutted with the expected armaments of make-believe mass destruction – robotic tanks and plastic laser cannons and pro wrestling rings of all shapes, sizes and hues of the rainbow – the girls’ section is stocked with less fantastical, but nonetheless luxurious, wares.
Little plastic “fashion vlogger” starter kits. Miniature walk-in closets, complete with wee widdle name brand designer clothing. Extravagant beachside condos, with a spacious garage to store Barbie’s convertible sports car (sold separately, naturally.)
But the most telling item I saw, however, was a plastic facsimile of a checkout counter – complete with an array of faux credit cards little Susie and Joanie can swipe over and over again, just like all of those grown-ups on television.
I find it curious why so many academics and concerned activist organizations are so quick to chide the venerable Barbie brand for instilling in children “virtues” that may lead to eating disorders, but so few ever attack the toy for promoting vapid materialism and obsessive consumer tendencies. The psychological priming follows the very same pattern: the same way Barbie’s outlandish anatomy presents unrealistic expectations of beauty for impressionable young minds, the brand likewise celebrates wholly untenable expectations of adult finances.
Whereas your rank and file Transformers or Spider-Man toy exists simply as itself – an individual chunk of plastic to be tossed around the yard or submerged in bathtubs or swung around on a leash – Barbie is marketed as the prerequisite base for the product’s true selling point: accessories out the yin-yang. A personality-less mascot with nothing even remotely resembling a real backstory, Barbie is hardly anything more than a glorified department story mannequin, whose causa sui is to serve as a humanoid-shaped rack for all sorts of trendy outfits. Sure, Barbie can be transformed into a doctor or astronaut, but all those accessories seem to goad the elementary school set into pursuing other ventures: namely, shopping at Lilliputian retailer playsets and reveling in that Taj Mahal of lavish consumer excess, Barbie’s Dream House – the latest model being a gargantuan, three-story, nine-room, three and a half foot tall, 25 pound hot pink monstrosity with the mammoth MSRP of $600 USD.
The Barbie line does not celebrate “doing,” it celebrates experiencing. And the bulk of those “experiences” are narrowly tailored around that great American pastime, frivolous spending. With average U.S. hold porting about at least $15,000 in credit card debt, the consume-at-all-costs Mattel Tao seems at best callously detached from reality and at worst wantonly irresponsible.
If children are capable of understanding the unfettered joy of maxing out credit cards and collecting luxury goods as a competitive sport, they are probably able to understand the dire consequences of overspending as well. The same way there has been such a maelstrom of support to make Barbie’s body type more “believable” (although the lack of a balding, flabby Ken reeks of a “double standard”), then why won’t Mattel make a Barbie that also conforms to more realistic fiscal standards?
Of course, we will see an entire armada of chunky and chubby dolls on store shelves before Mattel even entertains the idea of a “Chapter 9 Barbie.” Alas, with four-fifths of college-educated millennials carrying around substantial long-term debt – by comparison, hardly 6 percent of young people in the U.S. have diagnosed eating disorders – one has to wonder why interest groups aren’t also clamoring for Mattel to reflect this much more statistically significant social issue in their products, as well.
Really, what tyke wouldn’t want to get her hands on “Debt-Burdened Barbie,” complete with eviction notices and a stack of unpaid electricity bills? Instead of issuing the dolls certificates of authenticity, they can come with little paper credit scores, so girls can bicker back and forth about whose doll is spiraling closest towards complete insolvency. “Look, Maddie, my Presumptively Eligible for Medicaid Barbie can’t even qualify for a used car loan!” I can hear them gleefully shouting already. “Oh yeah, Abbie, take a look at my EBT Barbie – she’s written so many bad checks she has to pay for her phone bill in loose change!”
Oh, and don’t even get me started on the playset possibilities! Move over, fuchsia-toned coastal townhouse – that neon-teal bankruptcy court is the epitome of 21st-century chic.