Since Barbie made her debut at the New York Toy Fair in 1959, she has been as beloved by little girls as she has been reviled by feminists. The only matter not up for debate has been her ubiquity. In 2009, her maker, Mattel, estimated that 90 percent of three- to 10-year-old girls in the U.S. owned at least one Barbie.
But it looks as if the iconic doll might finally be losing its grip on American girls. In 2011, $1.3 billion of Barbie products were sold, but that number was down to $1 billion in 2014. And Mattel is staking her comeback on a high-tech, speaking edition of its flagship doll.
Hello Barbie, scheduled to be on sale in November, comes programmed to engage in dialogue on topics like hobbies, families and professional aspirations. With thousands of lines of built-in conversation, she’s designed to remember children’s responses and ask follow-up questions in subsequent sessions. According to New York Times Magazine writer James Vlahos, who has seen demos of the new doll in action, “Hello Barbie comes across as chipper and positive, verging on cloying. But she is also fun-loving, with just a hint of conspiratorial mischief.”
Critics worry that Hello Barbie could deprive children of the chance to develop their own imaginations; when playing with an inanimate doll, they note, kids are happy to invent both sides of the conversation. Critics fear, too, that speech capacities will only heighten Barbie’s influence on little girls.
In spite of gestures toward political correctness — including iterations as a doctor, an astronaut and the president — Barbie’s most distinctive traits remain her vacant gaze and preposterous proportions. Scientists have estimated that if Barbie’s figure were translated to a real-life woman, her waist would be smaller than that of the average anorexic, her body fat would be below the minimum that makes it possible for a woman to menstruate, and her neck — at six inches thinner than that of the average woman — would be incapable of supporting her head (which is, incidentally, larger than her waist).
Research also suggests that playing with Barbies really does affect girls’ feelings toward their own bodies and even their options in life. In one of the most damning studies, a team of psychologists from the UK’s University of Sussex created three picture books — one focusing on Barbie, another featuring a full-figured doll called Emme, and a third that didn’t include any dolls. (The narrative in each book was the same: the protagonist goes shopping, tries on clothes and gets ready for a party.) The researchers had 162 five- to eight-year-old girls listen to the story and see the accompanying pictures for one of the three books. Afterwards, the researchers asked each girl to select, from a group of seven line drawings of bodies, ranging from very thin to very overweight, which image most closely resembled her own body and which image she would most like her body to resemble. (The difference between the two choices is understood as a measure of body dissatisfaction.) For the girls on the younger end of the spectrum — the kindergarten and first-grade students — seeing pictures of Barbie did lead to a significant increase in body dissatisfaction. For the oldest girls, however, the opposite pattern held: this group registered greater dissatisfaction with their bodies if they’d been exposed to pictures of the bigger doll. The researchers don’t interpret this, though, as evidence that Barbie loses her sway; rather, they believe that by age seven-and-a-half or eight, the girls have already internalized the “thin ideal” and react more strongly to fear that they could become like the fuller-figured doll.
In a 2010 paper in the journal Sex Roles, a pair of Dutch researchers, Doeschka Anschutz and Rutger Engels, designed an experiment to explore how playing with thin dolls would impact young girls’ food intake and feelings about their bodies. Anschutz and Engels assigned 117 six- to ten-year-old girls to spend ten minutes playing with either a skinny doll, an average-sized doll or a Lego set. Afterward, the experimenters administered a questionnaire about body image and offered them bowls of chocolate-covered peanuts. In this study, the questionnaires didn’t show any difference in feelings about body image — but the girls who had played with the realistically-proportioned doll ate about 40 percent more peanuts than the girls in either of the other groups.
In 2014, Aurora Sherman, a researcher at Oregon State University, set out to study whether playing with a Barbie had any impact on girls’ professional aspirations. Sherman and colleague Eileen Zurbriggen recruited 37 girls between the ages of four and seven and split them into three groups. One group played with a “fashion Barbie,” decked out in a dress and high heels; one group was given a “career Barbie,” who comes with a lab coat and stethoscope; and one played with Mrs. Potato Head. (The researchers considered Mrs. Potato Head a “neutral doll,” because she’s female but lacks Barbie’s sexualized features.)
Afterwards, Sherman and Zubriggen asked the girls if they could see themselves—or boys—in any of ten jobs when they grew up; half were stereotypically male jobs, while half were traditionally female. The ones who played with Mrs. Potato Head were able to picture themselves in almost as many jobs as boys, but those who played with a Barbie believed they had fewer options. Interestingly, it made no difference whether Barbie was dressed in high heels or a lab coat; the psychologists believe that girls hone in on her unrealistic body and face no matter what she’s wearing.
So it probably doesn’t matter if Hello Barbie is programmed to tell little girls to do their math homework; her body still speaks louder than her words.