Arts & Entertainment Editor
Disclaimer: The individuals in this article are speaking in an unofficial capacity and do not reflect the views and opinions of Mattel.
Maybe life in plastic is just starting to get fantastic. Mattel first introduced Barbie in 1959, but has undergone many design and marketing changes since then and, now, sells approximately 58 million dolls a year. To adults who grew up on Barbie dolls, many likely still associate Barbie with the skinny, blonde, White doll. The @BarbieStyle team, joining Visiting Assistant Professor Joe Donnelly’s Short Fiction Writing class on Wednesday, Nov. 11, is here to prove them wrong. Now, there is not just one “Barbie;” each doll under the brand, no matter their look, is Barbie. Barbie endures as a symbol of childhood nostalgia — the Barbie Style account’s 2.2 million followers are mostly composed of 25 – 35-year-olds, according to Barbie Style Senior Art Director Zlatan Kusnoor — but her story adapts within modern sociopolitical context.
Kusnoor grew up in Bosnia, during the Bosnian War. The war spanned from 1992 to 1995 following the breaking up of Yugoslavia, and is infamous for the war crimes committed in pursuit of ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims. With a Muslim Bosnian father and Orthodox Serbian Mother, the conflict often felt close to home. At 11 years old, he and his family immigrated to Croatia for a few months before coming to the U.S., where they still reside. While Kusnoor does not have firm memories of the war, now Barbies serve as a safe representation of childhood. “We find comfort in imaginary and escapism, like with Barbie,” said Kusnoor. “It seemed like a safe place in a time where other things don’t seem so safe.” Now, Kusnoor is an avid Barbie collector, relishing the musty basement scent of eBay-bought collectors dolls, reflecting on Sandra Cisneros’ short story “Barbie-Q.” As Art Director, Kusnoor is integral in translating Barbie’s social message to brand fans like himself.
What is the message Barbie is communicating? Perhaps there’s still a level of unattainable beauty standards and socioeconomic privilege — while surprisingly affordable — that people will always associate with the smooth, made-up doll and the capitalistic society that popularized her. Though, Mattel has made an effort to increase the audience who can identify themselves with the doll by introducing Barbie Style six years ago, an account that prominently features the message of inclusive representation. Barbie is no longer the skinny White doll with bleach blonde hair; she comes in different figures, skin tones, with prosthetics and vitiligo, and has become a more honest representation of a diverse society which can be found through the Barbie Fashionistas line. With studies linking Barbie to dangerous gender stereotypes and lowered self esteem in girls, it was almost obligatory that Barbie updated their look. As a photographer for Barbie Style, Shannon Donnelly ensures this increased message of inclusive empowerment is evident in the posts. Often, they stage photos so that the blonde, White doll is not always in the center as the “hero figure.”
Donnelly feels that she can see her influence reflected in some of the Barbie Style Instagram posts, with Barbie in what she calls “fierce poses.” Barbie is purposefully framed to appear life-size so her story feels more authentic, and Donnelly’s photography adds a layer of power to this scaling. Not only has Donnelly been able to see herself in Barbie’s power poses, but she has also felt Barbie’s influence of empowerment in her own life. She and the rest of the Barbie Style team travel across the globe with Barbie, even bringing her to Milan for fashion week; if you see Barbie posted in a location, she is in that location. While the rest of photographers at fashion week were relegated to a bullpen, Barbie got front row seats, and Donnelly was allowed on the runway to photograph Barbie. “Not only was I given that moment of empowerment because of Barbie, I was the only female photographer there,” said Donnelly. “All of the men in that bullpen were looking at me like ‘who does she think she is?’”
Donnelly’s experience is a testament to the empowering and sociopolitical messages embedded in Barbie’s story. Barbie Style is of the moment, in the moment, when portraying Barbie. They show Barbie respecting current moments as we experience, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and even voting. “Barbie has a stronger voice now,” said Lucas Allen, Social Media Project Coordinator. “She’s really empowering all women.” While the team says that Barbie does not take a side, there is still an inherent political message within Barbie’s positioning, both on the account and as a bigger brand. Ideas of diversity and inclusion are political messages. Even the coronavirus is politically polarized. In July 2020, Barbie partnered with non-partisan organization She Should Run in announcing a new line of politically-themed dolls. The set included a political candidate, campaign manager, fundraiser, and voter.
The 2020 election resulted in a record number of women in the incoming Congressional class, beating the record set two years prior. While the Vice President-Elect is the first Black and Indian woman to hold that office, the majority of women elected to congress are White. While this is not the first time Barbie has had a Black woman on their fictional ticket, Black women, despite being a crucial voting bloc, remain underrepresented in elected office. “Since 1959, Barbie has championed girls and encouraged them to be leaders whether in the classroom, community or someday, of the country,” Lisa McKnight, Mattel’s SVP and Global Head of Barbie & Dolls, said according to The Hill. “With less than a third of elected leaders in the U.S. being women, and Black women being even less represented in these positions, we designed the Barbie Campaign Team with a diverse set of dolls to show all girls they can raise their voices.”
The Barbie Style account, with a demographic of primarily adults, translates this message to people who grew up and remain attached to the brand. In a time where nostalgia has become a source of comfort, perhaps Barbie is the figure we need to tell her ever-evolving story in the sociopolitical context of our current time. Currently, 92 percent of 3 – 12-year-old girls own a Barbie, they have a clear influence on a large portion of young girls. Treating her as real and seeing it important to have her reflect real life, both in appearance and messaging, acknowledges the massive effect the doll has had on so many childhoods. “I think because people put so much pressure on Barbie, and they do humanize her in a way,” remarked Kusnoor, “she’s had to carefully evolve with the times to be a current representation of who we are as a society.”
Featured Image Courtesy of Sage Amdahl