L-to-R: Katniss Barbie, Baking Fun Barbie, and Gustav Klimt Inspired Barbie.

Barbie Blonde

“Mom, why don’t I have blonde hair like Barbie?”

I was probably six or seven when I asked this question to my mother, and I don’t remember if she actually gave me a real answer.  What I do remember is that she laughed. After all – really – what could have she have said to me that would have made sense?  Explain genetics?  Talk about how I was a descendent of multiple generations of Asian ancestors?  Probably not.

I didn’t ask this question because I didn’t like my own hair.  I have no distinct memory of ever thinking dark hair wasn’t equally as beautiful as blonde.  If this was supposed to set some kind of precedent, it didn’t happen. Later literary heroines Nancy Drew and Anne Shirley would make me love red hair and not ask for it to be my own.

I distinctly remember asking this question because I wanted to be like Barbie for all the reasons a little girl might want to be like Barbie.

She had everything – friends, cars, houses, clothes, and careers – you were literally sold on this idea. It was spelled out for you in the toy store aisle and on TV and with your friends whose parents got them all the cool accessories. I could believe she had everything and I only got the hand-me-down dolls from my cousin.

But lately I’ve been wondering why as a little kid I correlated her success with her hair color?  Was this just an odd, innocent connection?  Or was that moment just a few steps shy of girls whose body image issues have been associated with Barbie dolls? It wasn’t until the recent Mattel #unapologetic campaign that I think I began to see Barbie for what she has always been – a very problematic fashion model.

#Unapologetic is the catchphrase for Mattel’s recent campaign with Sports Illustrated where Barbie – in her original bathing suit design that made her famous – graced 50th anniversary covers of Sports Illustrated.  According to an official statement:

This is not a program targeted towards girls. As a brand that is always a part of the cultural conversation, Barbie, for the first time, has an active voice in the debate with her #unapologetic stance. The goal of the campaign is to empower fans to engage and celebrate all that makes them who they are… (CNN)

But I have problems with this campaign – this campaign geared toward women.  As a woman who once wanted Barbie hair, I don’t believe that Barbie really has a voice let alone an active one.

It’s in the way that she’s never really had over 150 careers.  In an “op-ed by Barbie” on the Barbie Collector’s website, she “says”:

My bathing suit now hangs beside a Presidential power suit, Pastry Chef hat, and Astronaut gear in a wardrobe reflecting the more than 150 careers I’ve pursued to illustrate for girls that they can achieve anything for which they aim. And yet, I am still seen as just a pretty face. It’s simpler to keep me in a box—and since I am a doll—chances are that’s where I’ll stay.

She’s a doll who has been crafted to fit anything anyone has ever wanted her to be.  But the message is flat.  Has “Barbie” had a say in this?  No, because she can’t.  Like she says – she’s a doll.  She can’t apologize because criticisms and scientific studies will never ever hurt her.  She can’t support ideas and campaigns because she personally believes in them and is empowered by them.  She can only represent what her creators say she represents. In the hands of little girls – or even the memory of being a little girl – what she represents might be even out of their hands.

I’m all for the power of imagination and children have excellent imaginations, but to what extent does Barbie “illustrate” careers?  I’m aware that there are whole lines of media, games, and books about Barbie, but does she illustrate them as a “pretty face”? Do we not just see a model – impossibly slim figured, blonde-haired, constantly smiling – dressed up in what a career is supposed to look like?

If she is supposed to “empower [older] fans to engage and celebrate all that makes them who they are” then I don’t think the cover of SI is going to bring that message across because that logically can’t be on most of our radars.

How’s this for unapologetic?  I had a Galentine’s Day for Valentine’s Day with a group of girlfriends.  We were enjoying greasy pizza and drinks after watching Casablanca at the Egyptian Theatre.  At the pizza place, a TV special for Sports Illustrated was being aired – showing beautiful women with non-typical bodies.  We asked to change the channel to the Olympics because those women didn’t make us feel empowered or entertained on our girl’s night out – in fact, it was the complete opposite emotion.   We are all career women – real-life actors of costumes Barbie models – unapologetic about who we are but never going to make it on an Sports Illustrated cover because of who we are.

In the same op-ed, Barbie “says”:

The word “model,” like the word “Barbie,” is often dismissed as a poseable plaything with nothing to say. And yet, those featured are women who have broken barriers, established empires, built brands, branched out into careers as varied as authors, entrepreneurs and philanthropists. They are all great examples of confident and competent women.

I’m not dismissing the value of women in that professional industry, but I’m not sure how this campaign was supposed to make a new point.  I wish #unapologetic had been about Barbie breaking the mold – showcasing her and her friends across different magazine covers and careers, telling the story of actually being anything you wanted to be because women have long succeeded in the many career fields that are representative in outfits in Barbie’s closet.

But perhaps that’s too much to ask for when television shows that advocate for women in science objectify women’s bodies.  In a recent episode of Bones (9 x 14 – “The Master in the Slop”) brilliant scientists Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan and Dr. Camille Saroyan and Forensic Artist Angela Montenegro are asked to don bikinis with the faces of famous scientists on the bikini top as part of celebrating their roles as “Outstanding Women of Science” for a magazine. This is how their achievement is supposed to be acknowledged — and they accept.

I don’t think beauty and intelligence are separate categories.  I believe that often the two intertwine in ways we can’t ever see or describe.  But the more we frame our understanding of being unapologetic as women to how we look and what we wear (or lack thereof), the more we take away from the beauty of everything else.

So while it’s been quite awhile since I was seven, what I think seven-year-old me was asking wasn’t really about blonde hair at all.  I think I was trying to find something tangible for my imagination to hold everything together – after all, how does Barbie have it all?  The easiest answer is that it’s because she stands still and looks pretty.

Decades later, I still like Barbie, but not in the way I did as a little girl. I actually have three of the dolls pictured in this piece: Baking Fun Barbie, Katniss Barbie, and Gustav Klimt Inspired Barbie.  The Baking Barbie was a gift, but I did buy the other two for myself and maybe’s there’s a psychological aspect to it that they’re brunettes! So I appreciate Barbie as a cultural icon tied to other cultural things that I love, but I’m conflicted in this idea that  – in her current state – she’s supposed to make little girls and women believe that anything is possible.

Campaigns like #Unapologetic – coupled with covers of Sports Illustrated (the non-Barbie 50th anniversary cover looks like this, by the way) – communicate what we should value as a society. Glossy magazine covers adorned with scantily clad women with often impossible figures?  Haven’t we been unapologetic about this for long enough?  Maybe we should try something new…that looks like everyone else too.