Making Barbie politically correct

November 20, 1997|By Kevin Leary

CHALK UP a victory for political correctness in Toyland.

Barbie Doll, the shapely, 11 1/2 -inch-tall, plastic queen of the toy world, has become a victim of her own elaborate beauty and is about to be overhauled to look more like her critics.

Mattel Inc. has decided to downgrade the doll with a thicker waist, slimmer hips and a bust reduction.

It will give the doll a ''more contemporary'' and ''natural'' look, they say.

Why not give her a mustache, cellulite and varicose veins, too?

Mattel madness?

Have they gone mad at Mattel? They have marketed the most successful toy in the history of the world, a glamorous fantasy vehicle for little girls that has become an international icon. And they want to change it.

The average American girl, ages 3 to 11, owns 10 Barbies. Little girls -- and many boys -- appreciate Barbie the way she is, exquisitely slim, with long, well-formed legs, a tiny waist and extraordinary size breasts.

It didn't take long for salacious adults to calculate that if she were a life-size 5-foot-6, her measurements would be 39-21-33. jTC That set off more feminist cawing about sexuality and impossible physical standards of beauty.

Shrieking Barbie-bashers -- with a lot of time on their hands -- insist the doll is a brainless clotheshorse and a symbol of materialism and sexist stereotyping. They blame Barbie for an epidemic of anorexia and low self-esteem among young girls.

That, of course, is simply nonsense. Barbie dolls are toys. They are not meant to be role models or major influences in a kid's life.

But even as mere toys, the dolls have been models of women's liberation and success, as well as physical attractiveness. During her 38 years, Barbie has been a doctor, a nurse, a stewardess, a broadcaster, an Olympic gold medalist in several sports.

The relentless criticism frequently focuses on the doll's physique. But anyone who has observed young girls playing with Barbies -- including Skipper, Ken and the rest of the doll gang -- knows that the dolls are not about sex and materialism.

They are simply attractive dolls with lots of clothes and accessories that encourage children to be anything or do anything they can imagine.

It's too bad that Mattel is bowing to decades of relentless silliness, but the company's marketeers are not stupid. Mattel will introduce 24 new Barbie models in January, and only one of them will bear the new dumpy look.

Kevin Leary is a San Francisco Chronicle editorial writer.

Pub Date: 11/20/97

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