I guess E.B. is Mattel’s stab at “Lean-In Barbie,” based on the title of the best-selling book by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. And why not a “Start-Up Barbie”? Doesn’t that sound more contemporary? The doll could come with a hoodie, sweatpants, laptop, and a dead expression from staring into the screen late into the night. (That might be hard to capture in plastic, though.)
And that’s the thing about Barbie. In the course of her 54 years, she’s been given 150 different occupations, friends, little sisters (even into her 40s) cars, dream houses, and a series of genitally abridged boyfriends named Ken. She elicits such strong reactions that at times she’s been the scourge of both feminists and “traditionalists” alike. In that time, for better or worse, she’s had more impact (both consciously and unconsciously) on the culture than perhaps any living female figure.
And with this latest update, Mattel is obviously going for some serious female empowerment cred. Thus, the brand has not only created the doll (available starting in July) but also partnered with eight actual female entrepreneurs -- aka, “Chief Inspiration Officers” -- from companies including Rent the Runway, One Kings Lane, and Girls Who Code, who will offer insights and responses to questions on the Web site. The online push will include a LinkedIn Profile (really?) and a social media campaign using the hashtag #unapologetic -- suggesting that for now, the sometime flake (“Math class is tough!” was a former quote attributed to the unliving doll) with the three-inch waist is going for unabashed excellence.
It’s interesting that #Unapologetic pops up at the same time as the latest Pantene commercial that asks "Why are women always apologizing?" In a series of relatable vignettes, the spot shows women saying “I’m sorry" when it’s completely unnecessary -- like to qualify the need to ask a question in a meeting, or to react to the guy who just brazenly invaded one’s armrest and personal space. While watching, I vigorously nodded my head, realizing that I do this all the time, like a nervous tic, without thinking. (Sorry.) I liked the spot, although the second half, with direct action offered instead of apologies, was not half as strong.
But the idea obviously touched a universal nerve: The Pantene spot has so far earned more than 2 million views on YouTube.
Still, just as there are built-in contradictions and ironies in trying to present Barbie as all-business (which we’ll get to later), there are also complications and ironies with the Pantene spot.
First, isn’t it a touch ironic that having seen this, now we have something else to be sorry for: i.e., feeling sorry? And sometimes, saying “sorry” is less a matter of female weakness, and more just good manners. At the same time, I caught another Pantene commercial featuring Brazilian supermodel Giselle and her array of superhuman physical gifts, including her long, shiny hair. In order to feel good about the first Pantene commercial, are we supposed to hold two opposing ideas in our heads at the same time? (The noggins perhaps covered with non-Giselle-like hair?) That we should stop apologizing, but never stop lusting for shiny hair?
So here’s the duality built into Barbie: she started life as German sex doll called “Bild Lilli.” (A great source of info is “Forever Barbie” by M.G. Lord.) Based on a comic-strip character who was a post-war gold-digger and high-priced escort, Lilli became a gag gift for German men. Ruth Handler, one of the founders of Mattel, along with her husband Elliot, found her in a Swiss shop. She’d always wanted to create a doll for girls that had a full-grown woman’s body. So she brought her Lilli back to southern California to get her redesigned and then manufactured in Japan.
And in a detail you just can’t make up, Handler had Mattel designer Jack Ryan (a genius who went on to create Hot Wheels toy cars, and before that designed Hawk missiles) redo the scarily proportioned doll. “We did our best to make her look less like a German streetwalker,” Ryan was quoted saying at the time, and made Barbie’s gaze straighter and her eyebrows less arched. (The missile designer kept the original torpedo breasts, though.) And when it came to selling her in 1959, through one of the first big TV blitzes ever, the agency, Carson/Roberts hired the Sigmund Freud of marketing at the time, Dr. Ernest Dichter, to come up with a strategy that would help threatened moms warm to her. (The word “bimbo” had not yet been invented.) He suggested selling her as a teenage fashion model, to encourage a concern in little girls for “proper grooming and appearance.”
The rest is history. I checked with a friend who has a five-year-old daughter with seven or eight Barbies -- and is a stay-at-home dad. He said although her mommy makes presentations all the time, “a situation such as making an important presentation wouldn't cross [his daughter’s] mind. She and her friends like dressing up the dolls and putting them in situations like beauty pageants or hanging out poolside.” He added that she might like the little phone that comes with Entrepreneur Barbie, but the outfit was probably “not sparkly enough” for his daughter’s taste.
The push and pull between generations is too complicated to go into here. But with obvious dualities and issues like these everywhere, we begin to see what a candidate like Hillary is contending with.
Who is Mattel making the doll for? Probably adult collectors. By the time girls reach the age when they might want to interact with (or become) real, live entrepreneurs, they have long stopped playing with Barbies.
But Mattel has the lingo down. A print ad has Barbie saying, “You can’t be what you don’t see!” And in the press release, the brand even joked about breaking a “plastic ceiling.”
So let’s get out there, stop apologizing, and start breaking those plastic ceilings, women! And try to get your hair right!
See what I mean?