Barbie Gets a Political Makeover

News & Politics

Long associated with eating disorders and American materialism, Barbie is getting a political makeover. Sporting a blue power suit and a conservative blond bob, President Barbie hits the stores May 1. But according to the doll's creators, the point of this Barbie incarnation is to show that she is worthy of being a political candidate, and is not just dressed like one.

The brainchild of Marie Wilson, president of the non-partisan White House Project of the Women's Leadership Fund, President Barbie is supposed to represent political possibilities for young girls. Available in Latina, Caucasian, and African-American versions, the doll even has a platform which includes "equality," "world peace," and "animal kindness." "President Barbie changes a lot about what Barbie means," Wilson says.

Wilson approached Mattel, the doll's manufacturer, with the idea of "turning the dream house into the White House" last year. Girls Inc., a national organization which aims to "inspire girls to be strong, smart, and bold" through its programs, also joined President Barbie's bandwagon. But why is Wilson playing with Barbie?

"If you want to normalize the culture, you have to go to where the girls are," Wilson responds. She also points out that girls throughout the country own an average of eight Barbies and stresses the political nature of this particular doll.

In the box with each President Barbie is a copy of the White House Project's Girls' Action Agenda, which is designed to foster girls' leadership skills. Also included is a Girls' Bill of Rights, written by Girls Inc., which includes the rights for girls to "be themselves and to resist gender stereotypes."

The doll and the Girls' Action Agenda are also part of the White House Project's Pipeline to the Presidency initiative, which includes a national discussion with 18-24 year-olds, and a straw poll and national survey on possible female vice presidents.

The political nature of the doll is also shown on Mattel's Barbie website, Barbie.com. One of the links to President Barbie features women in politics and their favorite things when they were girls. The web surfer can read here that California Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez' favorite food growing up was chile rellenos, while Arizona governor Jane Dee Hull preferred lazy-dazy cake.

"I want girls to be focused on their power," says Wilson about the doll. "That's why there's an action agenda and a Girls' Bill of Rights in every box."

But the White House Project and Girls Inc. don't deny Barbie's politically incorrect origins. "We're trying to add an element to Barbie that hasn't existed before," White House Project Communications Director James Devitt explains.

Jodi Heintz, assistant director of communications for Girls Inc. says the organization did take into account Barbie's bad reputation as a symbol of unattainable beauty. "We understand the ramifications as well as the positive points," she says. "But if we really want to reach girls, for better or for worse, we have to reach girls through pop cultural mediums."

Yet this Barbie, though far more political than many of her past selves, still has a way to go on the road to political awareness. While the doll represents three races, there is currently no Asian President Barbie. Though the White House Project and Girls Inc. supported the idea of an Asian doll, Mattel said no.

"The three communities that really respond to having a doll in their ethnic background [are African-Americans, Caucasians, and Latinos]," says Mattel spokesperson Julia Jensem. "If the demand grows [among Asians for an Asian doll], believe us, you'll see it."

Another blemish in President Barbie's new politically empowered image is her body. According to Jensem, President Barbie's body is the traditional Barbie body and the doll's general proportions remain the same.

It's also hard to forget Mattel's corporate power behind President Barbie. When asked if she thinks the doll will sell well, Jensem says, "We don't produce dolls that we don't think will sell well."

President Barbie also has the corporate support of Toys R Us for her campaign -- the doll is sold exclusively at Toys R Us chains. Within the fiction of the doll's presidential run, Toys R Us is President Barbie's campaign headquarters.

But Wilson of the White House Project views President Barbie as a vehicle to send empowering messages to girls. "I want girls to be focused on their power -- the power that a girl can be the president of the U.S."

Bettina Aptheker, a professor of Women's Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz sees the potential for the doll to influence young girls. "The appearance of President Barbie seems at first glance like something of a contradiction in terms because of the many associations I have with 'Barbie' and her very name with its 'cutesy' and traditionally frilly, feminine connotations," Aptheker wrote in an e-mail. "Yet the concept as it is presented could be very empowering for young girls."

And Wilson points out what is probably the most overlooked part of Barbie. Although her physical form may be unrealistic, she says, "Her brain is anatomically correct."

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