What does Barbie mean in 2016?

Barbie dolls have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. From my first car being Barbie’s purple Volkswagen (with your very own key), to my brother celebrating my 21st with a Statue of Liberty Barbie Doll - pairing my belief that my soul belongs in New York with the figure of my childhood playmate. My point is that despite public criticism, ranging from her unrealistic body proportions to her impact upon young girl’s aspirations, Barbie hasn’t gone anywhere. And perhaps that’s the problem. Society is constantly changing and Barbie has been lagging behind, rooted in the social climate of 1959 when she first came on the scene. So, when Mattel, the product’s brand, recently claimed that #TheDollEvolves in 2016, with new designs varying in height, shape and skin tone, Barbie finally entered a conversation around identity that has been going on for over 50 years.

Looking at the media response to the newly designed dolls I found that beside a Guardian article asking when Barbie will “truly grow up”, was a piece questioning “Why Vanity Fair's Hollywood diversity cover fails to conceal industry prejudice”. The two articles, though seemingly unrelated, are both touching on a ‘popular’ topic in the media; diversity. This includes the social inclusion and representation of women of all shapes, sizes, colours, ethnicity, disability…the list goes on. So, the 24 new variations of a doll which was famously uniform in its levels of perfection, shows that positive changes are being made to an image which was once seen as an achievable goal for young girls. For me, this dream disappeared entirely when I realised that 5’3 was as much of the world as I was going to see with my feet firmly on the ground – attachable pink stilettos excluded. Instead, the face (and height) of a Barbie doll is now one step closer to the visual landscape of today’s women.

In the same way, this Vanity Fair cover which is published annually to celebrate awards season, appears to feature a unique array of female stars, diverse in age and colour. However, Viola Davis who appears on the spread, received an award for outstanding actress last month with the message that “we have become a society of trending topics. Diversity is not a trending topic.” It is significant that Davis is the first black woman to appear on the Vanity Fair Hollywood cover since 1999, and the first ever as a black woman over the age of 30. The actress’s message comes amid this year’s Oscars controversy, criticising the film industry for a lack of roles for people of colour and for representation on the big screen. The actress’s speech highlights that the conversation around diversity doesn’t end with one award, a high profile magazine cover or with 24 variations of a Barbie doll. As important as it is to celebrate success and beauty symbolically, whether in award or toy form, society needs to create real life opportunities for women regardless of their identity. Whether that means creating acting roles for women of colour, encouraging women to take subjects at university normally considered ‘male’ or advertising toys for children as gender neutral, the conversation needs to continue.

So, perhaps Barbie’s place in society has changed to represent not only what girls can become (astronaut suit and helmet included), but also what girls already are. Like in the past, we can see how toys still shape the aspirations of young girls, and we need to look at how society can meet these aspirations. The conversation around the Oscars shows that as well as having diverse symbols, such as Barbie Dolls that resemble realistic women, society needs to create real spaces for women to reach their potential. Personally I’m still waiting on 2016 for a ginger emoji to harass my sister with, but a varied range of dolls which didn’t exist before, seems to be one small step for Barbie but one giant leap towards diversity in the 21st century.