Women’s History Month has given a promotional platform for businesses to both honor female historical figures and support women in their customer base. Mattel – the maker of Barbie – has joined this public respect of feminist figures by unveiling an “Inspiring Women” collection of Barbies.
The “Inspiring Women” series, released on March 8th, International Women’s Day, features 17 prominent female figures of past and present including Amelia Earhart, Bindi Irwin and Ashley Graham. However, Mattel’s sanitation of one particular Barbie, Frida Kahlo, invalidates this historical figure’s ideologies and negates the “feminist” position Mattel is attempting to emulate. This depiction of beauty is hardly celebratory of women. Instead, it contributes to an overall sexist attitude of beauty.
Kahlo was a disabled Mexican artist and activist. She followed the communist ideology and is widely celebrated by feminists for her work and politics. It makes sense that Mattel would use Kahlo as part of an “Inspiring Women” collection, but their depiction of Kahlo contradicts the artist’s ideologies and self-expression. The Kahlo Barbie features light-colored eyes, an able-body and excludes her unibrow. As a Mexican, communist and feminist icon, it is unlikely Kahlo would appreciate her likeness being attributed to a white-washed toy sold for $29.99.
Mattel’s updated image of Kahlo proves that their agenda is less about promoting feminism or honoring historical women and more about keeping their brand afloat in a culture of progression. Lightening Kahlo’s eyes, removing her unibrow and excluding her wheelchair contributes to a sexist ideal of womanhood and beauty. In a statement regarding the “Inspiring Women” series, senior vice president and general manager of Barbie, Lisa McKnight said, “Girls have always been able to play out different roles and careers with Barbie and we are thrilled to shine a light on real-life role models to remind them that they can be anything.”
The “real-life” they are attempting to depict does not apply to this version of Kahlo. Real life, to Kahlo and to many other girls and women, includes being disabled, having dark features and having hair in commonly groomed areas. This sanitized representation of Kahlo sends the message that girls “can be anything,” as long as their appearance aligns with societal conceptions of beauty.
This series does not break any barriers nor celebrates women as Mattel intended. By using depictions of past and present prominent female figures, Mattel is thinly veiling their problematic depictions of women under a false guise of feminism. In reality, the brand is promoting a one-dimensional archetype of beauty. If Mattel was truly interested in honoring “Inspiring Women,” they would provide accurate portrayals of these historical figures.
Mattel should incorporate Kahlo’s unibrow, keep her dark eyes and include her wheelchair. The girls who might play with this doll could share these qualities. It would be more groundbreaking to send the message to these girls that what is natural to them – such as where their body hair may grow, their disability or their dark features – is normal, beautiful and not in need of revision.
Paige Wisniewski is a junior majoring in interdisciplinary sciences.