After Lego, Barbie Now Criticized for Being Too PC

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After Lego, Barbie Now Criticized for Being Too PC

February 1, 2016

Last month, I took a look at the criticism leveled against Lego for making toys that are too “girly” or which are not enough like toys made for boys.

That was a case of a toy company supposedly not being sufficiently politically correct. I defended Lego and suggested that Lego was simply attempting to make toys that it thought would make Lego the most money based on the existing biases and desires of potential customers. Whether or not pink Legos are “bad” (as some feminists would have us believe) is irrelevant to Lego. If girls preferred orange Legos, you'd find more girl toys in orange.

But now, we're seeing similar criticism for another company, but for the opposite reason.

In this case, Mattel, which makes Barbie dolls, is being criticized for being too PC, thanks to its recent line of Barbie dolls made in shapes and sizes (including “curvy”) other than the proportions of the “traditional” dolls.

You Can Blame “PC,” but Not Mattel 

The criticism has been harsh in some corners of the  media, with the New York Post declaring “The PC Nazis get their hands on Barbie.”

The implication here is that the only reason that Mattel chose to introduce new sizes was because of pressure from interest groups.

That's possible, although not necessarily so. Mattel, which is losing market share to Lego, might simply be interested in trying new things.

After all, can't we apply the same logic to Lego? Lego spent many years making plenty of money focusing on toys for boys. Isn't making girl-focused toys the same thing as “caving” to political correctness? If girls want to play with Lego, they can just play with some set designed for boys.  Ain't I right, guys? 

By the same logic, if any girls at all would prefer a Barbie with a different body shape, they should just shut up and play with what Mattel tells them to like.

That's not how it works. The case being made by the New York Post, however, is that no girl would ever want to play with a “fat” Barbie. That may be true, and if it is true, expect the “fat” Barbie to disappear from stores soon — because shelf space is expensive. And in case that happens, Mattel can then forever claim that “we tried the other Barbie shapes and they didn't sell.” End of story.

If it's not true that they're unpopular, and the dolls are at least somewhat popular with some segment of the toy market, they'll continue to be made. (Speaking of “PC” stuff, they still make the “Native-American” GI Joe action figure.)

We should also note, by the way, that Mattel is not discontinuing the line of skinny Barbie dolls. They'll continue to be made  indefinitely. And you know why? They're popular. But the continued existence of skinny Barbie is evidence that Mattel is not simply a slave to PC demands. The move to diversify the toy line is also perfectly compatible with the hypothesis that Mattel is really just a slave to revenues and market share.

But even if Mattel were making the new Barbie as a means to please the PC mongers, we can hardly blame Mattel for that. Companies take steps to advance the public image of their products all the time, even if those moves can't be directly measured in sales of specific toys. It's called public relations.

It's hard to tell, though, if the Post and other outraged partisans of the old Barbie are mad at Mattel, or if they're only mad at people who wanted the plumper Barbie. As with the Lego situation, it would be illogical to blame Mattel for simply attempting to cater to some segment of the public. Just as it's not Lego's job to fight culture wars for feminists, it's not Mattel's job to fight culture wars for the anti-PC crowd.

If someone hates any Barbie other than the skinny Barbie, I suppose it's their prerogative to criticize people who like a different kind of Barbie. As an example, I could note that I personally think people who like Michael Bay films are wrong and tasteless for liking them. On the other hand, it would be futile and confused of me to criticize movie studios for making his movies, because they generally make about a billion dollars each. (Much to my dismay.)

So, as with the Barbie situation, anyone who hates the new Barbies should make sure and save their disdain not for Mattel, but for the consumers who verbally demanded new Barbie, and especially for the consumers who actually buy the new dolls.

Are Dark-Haired (and Dark-Skinned) Barbies “PC” Too?

On the other hand, the new rounded off Barbie might just be the natural progression of toys in a world where a third of the American population is obese. Besides, the new “size 10” Barbie is not exactly obese and is downright svelte and quite reasonably proportioned compared to the millions upon millions of Americans who are morbidly overweight. This latter fact might explain, by the way, why Mattel is still being criticized for not making the new Barbies “curvy” enough.

And although its a slightly different issue, it's hard to view the current controversy and not wonder if people were saying similar things back when Barbie started introducing dolls with dark hair and darker skin tones.

Even as late at the 1970s, it was still difficult to find a doll of any kind (Barbie included) that had dark hair. I know this because my mother (a dark-skinned woman who grew up playing with blonde, presumably WASP-inspired dolls) had to have dolls with black-yarn hair specially made for my sister. Had there been dark-haired doll that were easy to find, my mother would have bought one.

So, was it caving to “PC” when Barbie started making dark-haired dolls? It's possible, although toymakers might simply have been motivated by the fact that the old 1950's hegemony of blonde dolls (in terms of market demand) was breaking down by the late 1970s. If the public was demanding more non-blonde dolls, Mattel's insistence on blonde-only dolls would eventually cost them market share and money.

The same logic applies to dark-skinned dolls, and also potentially to more “curvy” dolls. 

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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