Controversies

With Barbie's popularity has come increasing controversy, both about Barbie's (unrecyclable) plastic body and about the flesh to which it does, or does not, refer. To a number of critics, Barbie represents shallow feminism, focused primarily on individual success and fulfillment, and Barbie's world looks like diversity lite, peopled by innumerable white, blond Barbies, unquestionably front and center, and a much smaller number of Barbies who look like white Barbies with skin and hair dye jobs. Detractors have advanced other arguments as well: that Mattel's restriction of Barbie's dating life to boys adds yet another set of cultural narratives guiding young people to see heterosexuality as the desired, perhaps required, norm; that Barbie's impossible-to-attain proportions contribute to cultural ideals of beauty that invite self-loathing and unhealthy eating practices; and that Barbie promotes an undue focus on looks in general. Why give a girl Soccer Barbie (1999) instead of a soccer ball?

Yet as other commentators have noted, Barbie has generated a lot of play far from Mattel's official sponsorship. Mattel's WNBA Barbie may not emerge from the box with the characteristic butch flair displayed by many of her charming human counterparts, but in the hands and minds of many consumers, Barbie has been butched out, turned out, fixed up with diverse sex mates, and, of course, undressed; for a doll whose wardrobe forms the centerpiece of her reputation, she spends quite a lot of time naked. Then again, for some critics, this is Mattel's fault, too. People who like to imagine children as innocent of sexual desires have accused the company of turning their children's minds to sex with its big-breasted adult doll. Others, conversely, have mourned what Mattel couldn't do: inspire femininity in their daughters or distaste in insufficiently truck-minded sons.

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