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This Barbie has something to say!

Barbara Millicent Roberts, a 64 year old, resides in a candy-pink abode nestled beneath bubble-like clouds in a sky as blue as the ocean. No matter the occasion, she dons impeccable attires, ranging from tailored polka-dots to striped bodysuits, perfectly suited for the task at hand. It's clear she is cherished by the community, as evidenced by the glossy faces, that greet her when she brings out a mousse dessert as smooth as her skin. Everything appears flawless - perhaps too perfect. It's a danger reminiscent of the StepFord Wives, or more fittingly for today's generation, WandaVision. But, how did we get here?

First, let me backtrack a bit - Barbie is a toy that Mattel introduced in the 1950s. She was created with the goal of designing a doll that looked less like a child or a teddy bear and more like a ‘real woman’. Suddenly, the world had a toy that dangerously mirrored society's perception of a woman and her place in the world. But does a 10-year-old millennial really care about this? Probably not. They're not aware that while they are spending hours innocently imagining a story in their head with Barbie, she silently represents a treacherous world view. The truth lies somewhere between what we didn’t know and what we find and choose to ignore.

Now, it is impossible for everyone to buy into this plastic representation of femininity. As expected, people took notice and pushed back against it. If Barbie were introduced as a new toy today, she'd likely be met with immediate cancellation - in fact, her most recent movie almost faced a similar fate. But we'll dive into that later. Looking back, Mattel's approach to resolving these concerns seemed rather lacklustre. Nonetheless, Barbie thrived. Mattel employed one of the earliest versions of product recommendation systems and customization to demonstrate to parents, who were the primary consumers, that Barbie was diverse and inclusive. Barbie wasn't just limited to being a pretty face at home - she was also a pilot, a businesswoman, and a dancer. She had friends who came from different backgrounds and looked different from her. However, this alteration in Barbie's image was a temporary fix to pacify the community that had started to take notice of the issue. It was like offering only three shades of makeup - light, medium, and dark - when we all know that people's complexions are more diverse than that. It's ironic that companies acknowledge we aren't created in a plastic factory using AI tools with pre-set specifications, yet they still treat us all as if we are. The cause is a combination of factors - making money while moulding the society.

Years later, Mattel made an attempt to tackle body image concerns with Barbie, but their motive wasn't to find a solution. Instead, they wanted to ‘remain relevant’ in a contentious debate by not taking a side. To do this, they released three new versions of Barbie: a tall Barbie who looks just as uncomfortable as the tallest girl in high school, a petite Barbie who uncomfortably smiles while wearing a pink pilot suit, and a curvy Barbie who looks like a regular Barbie who's just bloated during that time of the month. Disturbing? I know!

Efforts are made. But just about enough. On the one hand, Barbies are meant to inspire young children to aspire to be more. On the other hand, they give a false sense of support without genuinely representing diversity, instead playing into stereotypes that exist in the real world. This brings us to the truth - Barbie is a mirror to the world and that is its main source of relevance. You can’t change the reflection in the mirror without making a move. This strange dance between reality and Barbie looks as uncomfortable as the awful realisation that her feet look like a stiletto.

Ok, I get it. I am butchering the toy of my childhood dreams - all 18 of them that I still have somewhere. But it is necessary to understand the correlation and figure out where we can go from here. The proof lies in the AI-powered marketing campaign for the Barbie movie which faced some level of dissent on its announcement last year. Within the campaign, you can be featured on a retro-themed Barbie poster with the iconic logo and - this is the part I absolutely adore - you can add your own personal touch to say what makes this Barbie unique? So, once again, Mattel is keeping up with the times and making a profit by using the latest technology to create content. However, this time, the narrative is only limited by our imagination and abilities, which are both infinite. By putting the power of relevant marketing concepts - social media, virality, memelogy, and artificial intelligence - directly in the hands of all generations, while also tapping into nostalgia, Mattel has created a fail-proof strategy. Barbie has through this campaign evolved into the change that we, as true fans, have always wanted to see and what she has stood for in our minds.

To this end, it’s time for us to take part by adding Ken and all of her friends to the story - not as side characters, but as people we can relate to and rightfully the main characters in their own stories. We have the power to control the narrative and it's our move to make. Let's use this opportunity to hold the society - albeit a plastic one - accountable and demand to make a course correction and address the issue without pulling anyone down. This time, we have the chance to not just watch Barbie and emulate her iconic fashion trends, but to make it possible for everyone to aspire to be like Barbie - the possible symbol of true feminism, diversity and aspiration.


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