Deborah Lindenau with Susan B (Marjorie Goldman) at the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House [Photo: David Kramer, August 2016 from Passing the torch at the Susan B. Anthony House]
When I was young, if a girl married poverty, she became a drudge; if she married wealth, she became a doll.
— Susan B. Anthony
As a fellow Rochesterian and passionate admirer of Susan B. Anthony, I should have been pleased to hear that Mattel recently launched its Susan B. Anthony doll, as part of a Barbie Inspiring Women Doll line that includes the likes of Rosa Parks, Sally Ride, Ella Fitzgerald, Florence Nightingale, Billie Jean King, and others. Yet something about this product feels like a distortion of her values.
To begin with, any developmental psychologist can tell you that toys have a significant influence on the development of children. By playing with them, children mimic social norms and receive and transmit subtle messages regarding gender and racial stereotypes. Early studies in the 1930s, for instance, showed how young black girls would more often choose to play with a white doll rather than a black doll, as the white one was considered more beautiful. The same goes for body image. Because children learn by observing and imitating the things that they see around them, their ideas about weight and appearance from toys mold their perception of the world and their place in it. In the view of many, Mattel and its Barbie doll have done more to promote unhealthy concepts about female bodies than any other cultural symbol in America. I read in an article online that if the original Barbie doll were an actual woman, she would be 5’9 and weigh 120 pounds. Her body fat percentage would be so low that she would not be able to menstruate. Her measurements would be 38-18-34. The average measurements, on the other hand, are about 41-34-43. In the book “Ken and Barbie at Life Size,” author Kevin Norton states that only about one in 100,000 women match the Barbie body image.Furthermore — and perhaps even more misaligned with Anthony’s beliefs — Mattel openly acknowledges that all manufactured Barbie dolls come from four Asian factories, two in China and one each in Indonesia and Malaysia. Is there anyone reading this who would be shocked if these factories were, upon close inspection, founded and run on the systemic exploitation of women laborers? I do not know enough about these particular factories to call them sweatshops, but I know that there is a reason Mattel is making Barbie dolls overseas and not here in America. I ask: would any of those reasons be acceptable in the eyes of a human rights champion such as Susan B. Anthony? I highly doubt it. The bottom line is that Mattel fails to meet the high moral standards that characterized her life and work. The likelihood that Mattel makes their products in factories where women earn less than their skills are worth, in unsafe conditions, and under tremendous pressure to conform to the rules and expectations of men, would no doubt outrage her sense of justice. She once said, “Trust me that as I ignore all law to help the slave, so will I ignore it all to protect an enslaved woman.”
I know that some readers will see this as a gripe. Who cares about a toy? Especially one designed to inspire children to learn about a great American heroine and to dream big. Is this worth the time and aren’t there more pressing issues in the world to talk about? Of course there are. But even if it is not a big deal, it is still a deal. And to borrow the noble words of Dr. King, “It is always the right time to do the right thing.” In this case, it is the right thing to call out hypocrisy and let Mattel know that they have no right to co-opt her beliefs or distort the causes she championed. If they want to honor the life and legacy of this great American civil rights icon, they can start by changing how and where they make their product.They can also do a better job of challenging the implicit messages they are sending to young girls about what constitutes an ideal body shape. Not a single doll in the Barbie Inspiring Women Doll line accurately reflects the real size and shape of the women they supposedly celebrate. I think the most blatant misrepresentation is the Ella Fitzgerald doll, but the SBA model is also overly curvy, skinny and even a tad vivacious. If Anthony were alive to hold it in her hands, I do not think she would be amused or flattered. I think she would have found it to be a superfluous form of female objectification and one more symbol of idealized beauty that has nothing at all do with the fight for equal rights and human freedom.
“Barbie version of Susan B. Anthony is here and local museum had hand in it”, (Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 10/3/20)
“Is Barbie bad for body image?” (The Conversation, 2014)
Harper, Ida Husted, The Life & Work of SBA Volume III, (Ayer Company Publishers, Inc, Reprint 1988)
On Sunday, 10/25, the Democrat and Chronicle published George’s Guest Essay, “Most Americans share common goals” — a special accomplishment given that, not to its credit, the D & C only prints three local Guest Essays a week. For George’s previous Guest Essays, see Saying goodbye to the weekday print edition of the Democrat and Chronicle.