Yesterday, Mattel revealed some drastic and awesome changes to the Barbie line. In addition to “original” (read: preposterously proportioned) Barbie, fans can now purchase “petite, tall, and curvy” dolls on Barbie.com.
Barbie’s new inclusivity was prompted by dwindling global sales and feedback from customers concerned over the message Barbie’s unattainable body sends to kids, and, for myself and many other people who grew up coveting “original” Barbie’s physique, it’s incredibly exciting to see Mattel taking responsibility for the unrealistic expectations Ye Olde Barbie can give kids. Of course, as with any long-coming push for greater inclusivity, Mattel is facing criticism (some of it sincere, some not-so-much) for representational gaps in their new line:
— BigHeadSports (@BigHeadSports) January 28, 2016
— Tom Buchanan (@tmbuchanan2) January 28, 2016
Girls whined about Barbie’s body enough to get it changed because it was “unrealistic”. Meanwhile… pic.twitter.com/1xZducaSGv
— Bradley Price (@BradleyPrice15) January 28, 2016
— Will McFadden (@willmickyficky) January 28, 2016
Many of the responses that I saw from men on social media yesterday oscillated between “Women are too sensitive if they’re bothered by a doll’s body!’ and “Why do men still have to put up with unrealistic body standards? Where’s my inclusive Ken?” There’s a lot to unpack about that last question–but, despite some concerns over the timing and context of those complaints, I’m 100% in agreement that men deserve more inclusive body representation as well.
In terms of my concerns: it’s important to remember that body positive Barbie isn’t just a victory for women and girls. Some boys obviously play with Barbies as well, but original Barbie is iconic enough that even someone who’s never owned a Barbie of their own or spent an afternoon trying to fit tiny plastic high heels onto tiny rubbery arches would likely at least recognize her famous silhouette.
Modeled after German “adult entertainment” doll Lilli, Barbie was undeniably designed and inspired by the male gaze, despite being ‘for girls.’ Considering she was literally based on a sex doll, it’s probably appropriate that America grew to fetishize Barbie and all that she stood for as an objective symbol of feminine excellence; an empowered woman, yes, but never emasculating (she might learn to code, but she’ll still need your help!).
This collective adoration of a doll with such dangerously unrealistic proportions has historically taught society to expect something from women that human females with internal organs and other unfortunate physical encumbrances just can’t live up to. With these new dolls, Mattel aims to shift the feminine ideal, a shift that will hopefully change the toxic relationship many people of all genders have to women’s bodies. In calling for inclusive Kens, I think it’s important not to forget that body positive Barbies aren’t just for women; ideally, they’ll have a positive influence on men, as well.
Ken’s origin story is a little different from his girlfriend’s. Barbie’s on-again-off-again squeeze was originally designed to resemble designer Ruth Handler’s husband, but almost definitely not to scale; Yale University psychologist Kelly Brownell wrote in 2006 that most men would have “to increase 20 in. in height, 11 in. in the chest, and 7.9 in. in neck circumference” to achieve Ken’s look.
Given that Ken’s physique, like Barbie’s, is basically physically impossible without surgical assistance, I’m totally in agreement with people who sincerely want to see realistic Ken dolls at some point in the future. But I think it’s important to point out why a Barbie redesign was so urgent, since her design and popularity are incredibly indicative of the way society views women’s bodies.
Barbie and Ken as characters were both designed to be objectified, but one of them was based off a fulfillment of male sex fantasies, and the other was intended to act as a mate. It sucks that the “ideal male mate” was presented by Mattel as unrealistically tall and bafflingly buff, but I think that in some ways, Ken’s body was always less relevant than Barbies’.
As Maddy wrote in reference to the “Hot Ryu” meme last September, there’s a difference between sexual objectification and sexiness, and in this instance I’d argue that Barbie represents the former, and Ken the latter. Ken’s body is less political than Barbie’s, because men’s bodies aren’t as politicized as women’s. As such, I think certain expectations are placed on women as a direct result of Barbie and other unrealistic portrayals in media, but that might be less true for men and Ken. I’d argue that women and girls see Ken dolls as a blank slate on which to project the personality traits they expect from a husband–despite, not because of, Ken’s bizarro proportions. Again, men do deserve better Kens and more inclusive representation in general–but the reason why Barbie’s new designs are such a milestone, is that overall women’s bodies are more fetishized by society, and less diversely depicted in media, than men’s are.
One reason the inclusive Barbies are so important to women, and why some men conflate that importance with “weakness,” is that men are taught they have value beyond their looks (for proof of that, just look at the IMDB page for any movie, and check out the ages of the male actors vs. the women). Society values women by our weight and the health of our perishable cells; and I’m willing to bet the same men who dismiss that statement as pessimistic weakness are the same men who constantly reinforce for women that we are what we look like.
So yes, inclusive male dolls are necessary and important. That’s something Mattel can address with Ken, and something that’s obviously relevant to other male action figures and dolls, as well. (Worth wondering why some men are more concerned with accusing Mattel of double-standards than they are in drawing correlations between Barbie’s redesign and the need for similar measures in action figure merchandise and other media primarily aimed at men. Could it be because they’re more interested in not letting women have a goddamn moment of celebration than they are in actually advocating for more body diversity? Hmmm…).
Unrealistic male body types in media are undeniably harmful to men, and inclusive representation shouldn’t be a contest of “who has it worst.” But there’s a context to Barbie’s new inclusiveness that is worth acknowledging, in order to ensure that the way women are depicted going forward incorporates the lessons Mattel has learned.
Of course, if you’re one of the “y’all are reading into this/must be so sensitive to care what a doll looks like!” types, then this is all largely irrelevant, and frankly I don’t know why you’re reading The Mary Sue (are you lost?). Caring about Barbie or Ken’s body necessitates a belief in the power of media and representation to powerfully influence, even permanently change, our lives. I believe in that, because I’ve experienced it. I know having a doll/role model that looked like Barbie exacerbated if not directly inspired a lot of my own issues with body image, in the same way that only seeing women of a certain body type in movies and magazines as I grew older cemented my belief that I was physically unworthy of being the center of any narrative; even my own.
Point is, I want to see more Kens–shorter Kens, bald Kens, you name it. And I think it’s important to take men seriously when they call for more male body diversity in media, at least when those requests aren’t obvious attempts to derail or devalue a shift in representation for women. Unrealistic body expectations are a patriarchal institution, but that doesn’t mean men are immune to their toxic effects.
But please, please, let’s retire the word “DadBod.” The entire “DadBod” phenomenon is an encapsulation of why Barbie’s new dolls are so important. When men of a certain age gain weight, their new physique is condoned, cool, and even fetishized as “DadBod.” But when women experience the exact same transformation, often as a result of devoting time and emotional energy to caring for others, we’re assailed with media urging us to put money and effort towards returning our bodies to an arbitrary form where we were deemed desirable for the male gaze. Besides, “DadBod” is plenty well represented–look at any of the countless sitcoms out there featuring men who look like actual middle-aged Dads (and note how precious few of the wives on those shows are allowed to have whatever-the-female equivalent of “DadBod” is. I refuse to call it “MomBod”).
TL; DR: media matters, or at least I know it has to my life. We all have to spend our days stuck in stupid, uncooperative meat-sacks, so the least we can do is support media for all genders that makes living in those meat-sacks slightly more tolerable. But in striving for that goal in 2016, we should also acknowledge that the work left to be done to isn’t equal, and that men already have far better and more diverse representation than women do. Let’s learn the lessons of Barbie, so we don’t repeat them.
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