On the heels of plummeting sales and controversy surrounding the release of Hello Barbie, last week Mattel released a new video seemingly designed to bring the public back to its side. Called “Imagine the Possibilities,” the ad features girls in various adult job situations: one girl is a vet, another is a college soccer coach, a third a professor, a fourth a museum curator. As the girls do their “jobs,” cameras show reactions from onlookers, usually giggling adults who obviously think the girls are precocious and wonderful. In the last moments, a slow fade reveals that the girls have actually just been playing with their Barbies the whole time.
The ad is being hailed as “empowering,” “feminist,” and even “perfect.” And I’ll admit: it’s pretty darn adorable, at least until the end. The girls in the video are fantastic. I think my favorite is Dr. Brooklyn, who, when questioned about whether she’s really a vet, shows her handwritten “Doctor” nametag and says “see?” in a matter-of-fact way. I wish we all had that kind of confidence when people questioned our credentials! But that moment–and everything else about this ad that makes us feel good–is great because it illustrates the strength of girls and their imaginations. It’s not Barbie the toy, and certainly not Barbie the brand, but the girls in the commercial that cause our delight.
The video is really about the benefits of imaginative play: of using your creativity, dreaming about your future, and all that truly excellent stuff that has been shown to have positive developmental effects for kids. But it conflates kids’ imaginations with Barbie herself, suggesting there’s something about the doll that unlocks girls’ creative potential and lets them dream of being vets or sports coaches or businesswomen. (This is a pretty convenient conflation for Mattel, which has a whole line of vet and coach and businesswoman Barbies for sale. What’s $20 a doll to bolster your child’s career aspirations?)
The truth is that playing with Barbie isn’t any better for girls than the kinds of creative play that happen without her. In fact, playing with Barbie is worse: research shows that girls who play with Barbie, even “doctor Barbie,” have a more limited sense of what kinds of careers they can have when they grow up, and those limits have a lot to do with what they perceive as a “boy” job or a “girl” job. This is a pretty far cry from the ad’s claim that through playing with Barbie, girls can imagine themselves as anything.
And of course, there’s still the age old body concern: one study shows that for girls between 5 and 7, being exposed to images of Barbie correlates with lower body satisfaction and a desire to be thin. When girls play with Barbie and imagine their futures, they’re not just imagining what they can (and can’t) be: they’re imagining what they think they should look like, and “what they should look like” means “thinner.” In a world where younger and younger children are developing eating disorders, this kind of body preoccupation is very dangerous.
One thing about this ad is true, though: girls are incredibly creative and have unlimited potential. As people who love and guide girls, we should acknowledge and encourage that ourselves, not look to huge brands seeking to sell toys to do it for us. And as we watch this video and feel our hearts grow warm, we should take care not to mistake our fuzzy feelings for girls and their infinite possibilities for affection toward the Barbie brand.