Wednesday, January 4, 2012

A Barbie with Cancer?

If I told you there was a mass-produced Barbie with cancer, what would you imagine it looks like?

There are campaigns online to encourage Barbie manufacturer Mattel to make this happen. I'm picturing a regular Barbie wearing a pink gown, not a bald Barbie with one breast. I'm picturing a Barbie "not letting cancer defeat me" by wearing lots of make up and high heels.
I can't support a campaign for a Barbie with cancer because, given Barbie's long history of misrepresenting women and pandering to corporations, I am cynical that Barbie will realistically portray the experience of cancer and instead will fetishize it. It will be just another example of pink ribbon culture. Another opportunity to pink-wash little girls.

But if Barbie came out with a real cancer patient -- that feels strange to say -- I'd be all for it.
Children need to be able to identify with the toys they play with. Play therapy is also a good way to explain cancer to children and help them express their feelings about it.

Having said all this, we shouldn't define children, or anyone, by their cancer. It would be important to teach children that a Barbie with cancer is still a whole person whose needs exceed her cancer. She's not just a cancer patient: she needs to stimulate her intelligence; she loves to laugh; she's a mom and/or career woman and more. 


  1. Only heard about this today. I'm not sure how I feel about it. I'm not a Barbie fan anyway so that doesn't help. I do think your last point is pertinent to the whole discussion. Are you an illness or are you a person with an illness? I think it is often tempting to label yourself as an illness, as a means of finding your tribe for instance. But long term I don't think it helps.

    Recently, I was asked if I preferred the term 'Dysautonomiacs' or 'a person with Dysautonomia'. I am definitely the later and would never use the first. As you say we are all so much more than our illness, whatever it may be, taking it as an identity is problematic as you can end with a life where you are nothing more than the illness. Not helpful in any sense.

    Maybe instead of adults imposing our ideas and making the decision we ask the kids if it's actually what they want. Barbie is a fantasy, she's not reality by any stretch of the imagination. Do the kids want to maintain that little bit of fantasy, and normality in the sense that all their friends have regular Barbies, when dealing with cancer treatment and all that entails? Or do they want a Barbie that is more relateable to their experience? Does anyone ask the kids or as the cynic in me tends to believe, is it just a great marketing gimic for Mattel?

  2. Is this for real? It'll be interesting to see how they portray cancer. I don't have high hopes, though.

  3. Given how Barbie already sets unrealistic body images for women, I can't imagine how this is a good idea. I went through a bilateral with reconstruction and I'm now (nearly) three years out and in a very good place. But this doesn't feel right. On the other hand, if this could be done authentically through a toy or doll, I would be all for it. But I dread that Komen or some other self-serving group would get their hands on it and feed the pink beast. Because if the money REALLY went to research, there would be a cure and no women would be dealing with BC (yes, I know this product was aimed at children, but I'm sure you get my point)

  4. Well, considering with her physical dimensions she wouldn't be able to stand, would have constant digestive problems, and be near death, cancer shouldn't be a big obstacle for Barbie.

  5. How can one doll/model represent the hugely varied thing that cancer is? Which part of her has cancer? Her lungs? Her skin? What about an uncontrolled-diabetes Barbie who's lost one of her legs through gangrene? This is tokenism at its worst.

  6. When I first read this I thought it was a hoax or spoof of some sort. After reading the post it looks like a serious product they may be considering. If so, I can almost see this being a national news story.

    Makes you wonder if this is a publicity stunt for barbie. Do kids really still play with Barbie and Ken anymore?

    If this is real and the cancer Barbie is intended for educational purposes then it will be interesting to see how it will be accepted. I think they should ask cacncer patients/survivors what they think. If they think it is a great idea then I would say go for it and who cares whagt anyone else thinks.

  7. I hadn't heard of this until I stopped by your site, Ashley. Is this for real? I'm intrigued ... Barbie has been around for a long time and I wondered if this is just a gimmick to keep her active in the new world of toys? What does Ken think?

    Will watch and wait in anticipation :)

  8. Rusty Hoe - Thanks for yet another thoughtful comment. I think it would be difficult for Barbie, a brand based on one-dimensional characters, to not define "cancer Barbie" by her cancer and one-dimensionalize her.

    I'm not suggesting that we assume a child with cancer will want to play with a doll who has cancer, or that we should try to make kids play with dolls that WE think they can or should identify with. I brought this topic up because many children are interested in playing with toys or playing games that they can relate to. If there is a healthy product that can allow them to do this, I'm all for it. I just doubt that Barbie can provide it.

    Vicki - The petition is real. I couldn't find any evidence that a related Barbie is in the works, though. I wouldn't be surprised if it comes out. Like you I am cynical that it would be a healthy representation...

    Anonymous - Yes, it would be out of character for Mattel to positively change the Barbie brand and avoid corporate pandering just for "cancer Barbie," wouldn't it? The pink groups would be all over it too. That wouldn't be a good influence on Mattel!

    Allen - Hahaha that's hilarious. Great point about the paradox of this proposed "cancer Barbie."

    MorningAJ - No toy could represent all experiences with a medical condition, just as children all can't identify wholly with any toy. I don't think showing a specific, dramatic, REAL experience with cancer would constitute tokenism.

    Casey T - The campaigns online I referred to had nothing to do with Mattel and I have no idea if Mattel has even heard about them, let alone considered them. Given that the campaigns propose Mattel create "cancer Barbie" features that do not reflect any existing Barbie, I don't see what benefit Barbie would see in using this as a publicity tactic. If anything, it would be bad publicity for them because it points out what is missing in the current Barbies.

    I like your idea to ask cancer patients what they think -- and maybe they would do that in a preliminary focus group -- but I'm sure the purpose of that it would be to predict PR issues, not empower people with cancer. Unless Mattel changes the Barbie brand, of course, but I'm cynical.

    Mary - The campaign I referred to is real, but Mattel has nothing to do with it. Actually, I was doubting that Mattel would create the Barbie I proposed because after decades of the same old thing, I don't see them changing their brand this way. If they mean it as a gimmick, they'll probably dress her up in pink like I predicted.

  9. I wonder if some artists could respond with their own "cancer barbies"? E.g. bald, stuck in bed or their heads in bucket/toilet, possibly amputated, on oxygen etc... At least Barbie already comes overly thin. :-P Things like the "nice" puffy steroid look would be difficult to achieve, though probably not impossible.

  10. Wow, I really don't know how to feel about this. I think teaching children about health and wellness is a good idea, but I doubt Barbie is the best route to go.

  11. It's hard to imagine how they could do this in a caring, helpful way.

  12. Personally, I'd prefer to see GLBTQ Pride Barbie. It always happened between mine eventually, given how few Kens there were to go around.

  13. Maija - I think artists creating their own dolls is an amazing idea! I doubt Mattel would let you do that for Barbie, though. But who needs Barbie, anyway? Other dolls can do the trick just fine, but the large market for Barbie is what really appeals to me.

    The Tsaritsa - Yes, the Barbie route seems too problematic, even unhealthy, doesn't it?

    Terry - I think your cynicism is healthy and realistic.

    Katie - That Barbie may be way off, I'm afraid... What do you mean by "between mine"?

  14. Who cares what Mattel thinks? Are you worried they would sue a group of cancer activists or something? Even if they were stupid enough to do that, the backslash would quickly get back to them! I say, go for it.

  15. Maija - Let me clarify my point: by "create your own Barbie," I wasn't referring to artists and/or activists choosing to modify an existing Barbie; I meant that Mattel would never create a "create your own Barbie" product and campaign in the vein that we were discussing, if at all. That would be inconsistent with the company's brand. By my "market" point, I meant that I was interested in the benefit of Mattel reaching Barbie's wide audience with a positive campaign.

    But since you mention it, if an artist and/or cancer activist modified an existing Barbie and promoted it (as a protest against Mattel/pink culture or for another reason), I do think Mattel probably would sue. They'd have more incentive to protect their brand than to do nothing to avoid a PR crisis.

  16. I think you are taking this whole thing the wrong way. What we want is a bald Barbie so our children can relate and feel beautiful while they are on chemo, fighting cancer. We do not want a breast cancer barbie because honestly breast cancer already gets enough funding. Childhood cancer gets the least funding and the least media attention. Why is it so taboo to speak about childhood cancer? Does it hurt too much to hear about children dying? Or to hear about children being pumped with chemo which causes further damage to their tiny bodies? Or children being cut open time and time again for biopsies and tumor removal? Do you think it was too painful for me to watch all this happen to my child who began chemo at 2 months old? I can tell you from fighting for my child and her life it was and still is the most painful moments of my life. Something that nobody will every understand unless they have been through it. We do not want a Barbie to glamourize cancer we want a Barbie to glamourize our children. Our babies and our kids who can not fully understand what is happening to their bodies, why they no longer have hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. Who would it hurt to make these little kids feel beautiful? Nobody. Unless you have had a child with cancer or know a child with cancer I just don't think you can fully understand it.

  17. I have bestowed a Kreativ Blogger Award upon you! Congratulations...

  18. Anonymous - I'm sorry about what you and your child went through with your child's cancer.

    I'm quite confused about your comment because:

    1. "I think you are taking this whole thing the wrong way. What we want is a bald Barbie so our children can relate and feel beautiful while they are on chemo fighting cancer" - I WAS advocating for a bald Barbie to help kids deal with cancer.

    2. "We do not want a breast cancer Barbie because breast cancer already gets enough funding." -- I don't think I or any of my commenters ever even proposed funding for any cancer, or breast cancer, in this conversation. Yes, funding for cancer would probably be the equation here and it would be relevant to the cancer faced by Barbie (an adult), but that is a whole other discussion. This post was about body image, branding and child therapy, not money.

    3. "Why is it so taboo to talk about childhood cancer?" I NEVER even remotely suggested childhood cancer be taboo. The only thing I can infer is that you have made a huge assumption that, because I was discussing Barbie (an adult) and breast cancer, an adult cancer, that I must be against showing childhood cancer. This is faulty logic and not based on anything I wrote. Barbie has always been an adult, a toy for kids who like to play grown up. If you think that a child Barbie be made so kids can identify with a child, that is a whole other argument.

    4."Does it hurt too much to hear about children dying?...Do you think it was too painful for me to watch all this happen to my child who began chemo at 2 months old?" - You're suggesting that I've shown some denial about the fact that children suffer with and die of cancer, but this impression you got is the opposite of what I was arguing. Please don't make this assumption about me. It isn't even founded on anything I wrote.

    5. "We do not want Barbie to glamourize cancer we want a Barbie to glamourize our children... Who would it hurt to make these kids feel beautiful?" - I'm not sure what you are proposing here. And also, where did I suggest we glamourize cancer? I'm confused. Are you for or against showing the ugliness of cancer? I'm also unclear about your definition of glamour here.

  19. The Barbie you describe is the same Barbie that's already being sold. It's hard to see how they could portray Barbie with cancer since it can manifest itself in so many different ways.