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Wednesday 10 February 2016

Nuts and Bolts: The Language of Barbie

Barbie's getting a new body. Well, actually she's getting three new bodies: one extra tall, one short ("petite") and one curvy.


The fact is that mums don't like Barbie very much. People have worried for a long time because Barbie doesn't have the proportions of a healthy human being (Yale academics have estimated Barbie's vital statistics as 36, 18, 33 inches, and eighteen inches is under forty-six centimetres). People have also criticised Barbie for lacking aspiration and having far too many clothes.

The shape – and size – of Barbies to come: dolls petite, curvy 
and tall flank regular Barbie

But hang on, Barbie is...plastic. She's a doll. How can a lump of plastic have any aspirations at all? All Barbie can hope for, surely, is to be recycled into something elegant by Philippe Starck.

Well, Barbie may be voiceless but she's still giving her young owners messages: or so, at least, her owners' mothers believe.

The trouble is that mothers at the moment are apparently all for social justice (not that I disapprove) and Barbie, with her wardrobe the size of a medium-sized dictatorship, is seen to be encouraging selfish consumerism.

Will making Barbie taller, shorter or chunkier help? Will her new seven skin tones come over as more aspirational? More responsible? Will we see Barbie in thrift-shop chic? Will she be allowed back into Saudi Arabia, where she's been banned as a bad influence since 2003?

I can't answer any of those questions, but this is a fascinating example of mass communication. The mums and dads disapprove of the message they're receiving, they stop sponsoring the product, and so the manufacturers, Mattel, have to work out why and then fix it.

And pretty much all without a word being said.

Word To Use Today: Barbie. Barbie's full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts. Barbara comes from the Greek barbaros, which means foreign: the word is an imitation of stammering speech. The Sanskrit barbara means stammering or non-Aryan.


  1. Thrift-Shop Barbie. I love it!

    1. Thanks, Eddie. Hm, how politically correct can we get? LGBT Barbie?


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