Our Dolls, Ourselves

On the Ms. Blog just over four years ago, I wrote about Mattel’s (then) newest and largest doll launch: the Monster High line. Mattel was proudly offering girls dolls that were “different” and that strayed from the look of their long-lasting progeny, Barbie, and her contentious, estranged cousin, the Bratz dolls, (at that time, still under litigious dispute over their origin story). In my research, however, what I found was that despite the “freakish” appearance of the dolls, the story lines espoused by each, never mind social stereotypes promoted, were nothing new. Body shapes were as stereotypically thin as ever, and the narratives of social aggression and jealous sniping recycled the same tropes.

What amazed me, however, was the debate in the comments about whether this line was truly unique—or not. For me, the most interesting remark came from an adult woman who read the dolls as representative of disability since they were, technically, monsters, and not the “average” norm. “This means there is now a mainstream doll for many youth with disabilities,” she wrote, strikingly. Her message struck me as so filled with longing—the desire to have a doll that, literally, was not mainstream and offered some kind of different image. Yet, as another commenter posted, when the discussion turned to whether or not a doll who erred from the standard could even be imagined, she questioned: “Exactly what is a fat doll going to come with? Food? A treadmill? Plus size clothing?” The comment reflects the idea that it’s virtually impossible to understand how this can be offered and would be considered a desirable toy.

But more recently there have been some real breakthroughs. There is the still-new Lottie doll, with articulated knees, hips and hands, whose body proportions are based on that of a 9-year-old girl. And this past week, it was the Lammily doll, promoted with the tagline “Average is Beautiful,” that made a splash. Crowd-funded with such gusto that 19,000 dolls were pre-ordered, and interestingly developed by a man, (artist Nickolay Lamm), Lammily is based on average proportions of a 19-year-old woman. So far, the accessories one can buy include wardrobe sets that reflect different travel destinations (“A Stroll through Paris,” “Exploring Rio”) with nary a high heel in sight.

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What’s gotten more attention, however, is the optional set of “Marks” (vinyl stickers) that you can purchase to individualize each doll with distinguishing features such as moles, stretch marks, tattoos, bandages, bruises, dirt stains and scars, among others things. Criticism of the doll, so far, seems to range from just plain bewildered that a non-skinny, non-blonde figure could even be made and marketed, to horror over the “realism” that anyone would want to apply such body details such as cellulite. More thoughtfully, some have questioned that the doll is only available in one skin tone and her narrative, thus far, seems to be only about appearance, in contrast to “career girl” Barbie.

Lammily’s heart-warming video of second graders (including a boy) first encountering the doll, however, tells a different story, and one that is optimistic. Several of the students mention how the doll reminds them of their sisters and her realness is of strong appeal. When they hold Barbie in hand and are asked which they prefer, there’s no contest—Lammily wins every time. Granted, the short film is likely edited to cast her as the winner, but the students’ enthusiasm seems entirely real. A quick check on Amazon makes it seem that orders are not filling fast enough to meet with demand. I have every reason to believe that the desire for an alternative is genuine, as parents have had so few options against the lockhold of the Disney princesses and the ubiquitous Barbie.  Barbie’s distorted proportions have been commented upon for years, yet, as the attempt made by Monster High revealed, nothing much has been made new by Mattel.

This past week proved, despite the fact that she’s now entered the digital age, it’s the Mattel creators who haven’t advanced at all. The epic fail of a new Barbie picture book, I Can Be a Computer Engineer, featured Barbie recycling (in spirit, not literally) her now famous lament, “Math class is tough!” by way of the more modern comment that she’s “just the designer” on a new game but “I’m only creating the design ideas … I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!” further exacerbated when she needs the boys’ help again to fix a computer virus she’s unwittingly passed along.

Outraged reaction was swift and Mattel has issued an apology and pulled the book. But not before feminist intervention hacked the text with inventive and corrective alternatives. Feminist Hacker Barbie is a delight to use and to read with cathartically sharp rewriting that reverses the stereotypes Mattel unthinkingly perpetuates. In her post “Barbie Fucks it Up Again,” writer Pamela Ribon ably deconstructs the outrage she shares with a friend (both mothers of young girls), circling back to her own experiences in the world of coding and its entrenched sexism, and how the original text does nothing but reinforce this. She writes, “Steven and Brian represent every time I was talked over and interrupted—every time I didn’t post a code solution in a forum because I didn’t want to spend the next 72 years defending it.”

Casey Fiesler, a PhD student in human-centered computing at Georgia Tech, wasted no time rewriting the book, available for free download and shown here. Fiesler details her own experience with sexism in the tech world and comments that she wanted, foremost, to give Barbie agency and take out her incompetence, and she first rewrote the book as a cathartic exercise. “Change the narrative” is a theme Fiesler reiterates, particularly with bringing girls more solidly into STEM fields. Just as she has, so the Lammily doll offers new options. Striking to me in the comments on my own previous article was the ever-present “but it’s just a doll” retort to any weight being given to girls’ takeaway from what they play with. A doll models not only body shape but possibilities is how I would respond. It’s great to see this new contribution changing the narrative of what is made available to both girls and boys alike. “If she can see it, she can be it” is a tagline from Seejane.org, under the umbrella of the Geena Davis Institute, which seeks to promote gender equity in television and film. Mattel pulling their latest Barbie iteration due to pressure for its sexist stereotypes just as the avid hunger for a new doll is made clear signals more visible and necessary change to come.

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Photo of Lammily via Lammily.com



Elline Lipkin is a poet, academic and nonfiction writer. Her first book of poems, The Errant Thread, was chosen by Eavan Boland for the Kore Press First Book Award. Her second book, Girls’ Studies, explores contemporary girlhood in the United States. Currently a research scholar with the Center for the Study of Women at UCLA, Elline also teaches poetry for Los Angeles Writing Classes. As a nonfiction writer, she has written about everything from being a feminist bride to female mentorship and influence within the literary world, as well as Barbie’s new body and “fauxpowerment.”