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The boy in the Barbie commercial breaks down stereotypes … or does he?

Concordia marketing professor Zeynep Arsel questions whether the much-discussed Mattel-Moschino ad really is a leap forward
November 19, 2015
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By Zeynep Arsel

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Hallelujah! Mattel has finally declared that it is okay for boys to play with dolls.

The advertisement for the limited-edition, already-sold-out Moschino Barbie portrays an adorable boy exclaiming that the doll is “so fierce!”

This is amazing of course, but maybe we should stop and take a deep breath before interpreting it as a giant step toward our liberation from gender stereotypes.

Let’s not forget that this is an ad, and one for Moschino as much as Barbie. It is an insider joke to those into high fashion, who won’t need the internet to tell them how much this boy with his faux-hawk resembles Jeremy Scott, the creative director of the fashion brand.

This is in an alternate universe, where kids can play with $185 dolls sold at Net-a-Porter. It corresponds to the same aspirational narrative that Barbie has been criticized for: glitter, consumerism, sexism, and not much substance.

It is a foreign land, especially for common folk like me who, after watching the commercial, embarrassingly realize that they’ve been mispronouncing Moschino all wrong (it’s mos-kino, like mosquito).

Perhaps Mattel needed the insulation of high fashion to make this step, because despite all its other problems, high fashion rarely had issues with men playing with dresses and dolls. But frankly, Mattel just wants to sell Barbie; they don’t have an agenda other than a need to rectify decades-old criticism about their gender problem so that they can reverse declining sales.

It is an irony that we are expecting brands to become activists for social change. 

As much as I cheer seeing a boy in a Barbie commercial, I am a bit hesitant to celebrate this as a successful attempt to destroy stereotypes and binaries. Rather, I see this as a naïve but further-polarizing one that reinforces another stereotype.

The ad doesn’t seem like it will make inroads among those who most need to hear that boys can play with dolls. Remember all those parents who were so terrified when Target decided to stop classifying toys by sex? Do you think this ad is now making a convincing case against arguments that insist, “Boys will be boys?”

If you are curious, check Twitter and conservative forums, and allow your jaw to drop. I do not want to dignify them by linking to them.

The problem lies in the age-old politics of representation. By highlighting one possible representation of boyhood, this ad has the potential to open a discussion about the many ways of being a boy.  But it might also make us fall back into more dividing discussions, because its salience undermines the plurality and complexity of the population it is supposed to represent.

In short, it becomes another stereotype.

We could perhaps do better by showing that not-so-fabulous-and-affluent boys play with dolls too. Because they exist as well, and they probably are more vulnerable than those who live in privilege.

Barbie recently told us to imagine the possibilities for girls; why can’t we do this with boys as well? We owe it to our sons, considering our society’s shameful and painful history of bullying gay and straight men who did not comply with rigid gender binaries.

To liberally quote a great thinker: I'm pretty sure there's a lot more to men playing with dolls than being really, really, ridiculously good looking.

If we want to break stereotypes, we need to talk about all available possibilities. I doubt that we’ll find that many in an advertisement masquerading as activism.

 

Zeynep Arsel is the Concordia University Research Chair in Consumption and Markets at the John Molson School of Business. Her research focuses on places, exchanges, value and taste. 

 



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