Commentator and former Black Fern Melodie Robinson has become the first New Zealander to be given the Barbie treatment.
Melodie Robinson used to imagine she was a superhero and her power was the ability to turn her eyes blue. Not so that she could see in the dark or shoot lasers, but to look more like her Barbie. “She had blue eyes and blonde hair and I didn’t look like her,” Robinson says. “And that’s all Barbie’s fault.”
The well-documented history of Barbie and the dangerous body image expectations her proportions placed on young, impressionable girls is why Robinson hesitated when Mattel approached her to be part of their International Women’s Day celebrations. The Shero (she + hero = terrible name) campaign aims to celebrate women around the world who have brought about social change or challenged stereotypes. Robinson was flattered (who wouldn’t want to have a Barbie in their likeness?) but had to check back in with the plastic giant to see if anything had changed since her own Barbie-having days.
“I didn’t say yes immediately. I went and did the research into what they’d been doing [since]. I actually think they’ve really turned a corner. I think they’ve done a great job with getting away from what Barbie was and changing her. That’s why I said yes.”
It doesn’t hurt that Mattel is a huge platform and Robinson has things to say. “The other thing is, getting that message out about being an athlete and having a career post-sports and what you can choose.
“I’m pushing the message all the time that chicks can be journos, presenters; they can be sports directors and the boss. That’s the other reason I did it.”
If the original, famous, Barbie were to come to life, she would have size 3 feet and not be able to balance on them. Even if she could, her wrists and ankles would be so skinny she’d have to walk on all fours to get around. The only part of her body that would be ‘average’ is the size of her head. Proportionally, Barbie has a giant head.
After ongoing criticism, Mattel changed the proportions of their dolls. They’re still skinny but less freakishly so. They also added ‘petite’, ‘tall’, and ‘curvy’ sized. Robinson describes her doll as having “a leaner, more athletic build.” While the body may be slimmed down, the hair was not, with Robinson’s trademark curls out in full force. But it took some guidance from her for Mattel to reach that point.
“They did the first copy of it and her hair looked like she was an American newsreader. I said ‘My hair’s way curlier than that. That’s like me with about two hours’ worth of make-up and hair treatment. Could you do the hair curlier?’ They went back and changed it so that was good.”
Robinson is no stranger to the lack of women being represented in most industries and knows how malleable girls’ minds are. “By the age of five, young girls are already starting to doubt themselves and question their confidence. One way to get them out of that is to provide role models and different options that they can see in public, and that’s why they’re doing this role model programme.”
Young girls can certainly see these incredible and worthy role models like Naomi Osaka, Ava Duvernay, and Frida Kahlo, but they can’t play with them. The Shero line of dolls isn’t available for purchase which is disappointing, especially considering how popular a Māori doll would be in New Zealand.
“All of my Māori girlfriends texted me and said they want one or can they borrow mine for their daughters. They’re just really happy to see something representing what they look like and who they are.”
One can’t help but be cynical about the token effect of creating extremely cool diverse Barbies and then not making them available for purchase. “It’s just like that bloody Black Ferns jersey,” says Robinson, referring to an equal lack of Black Ferns merchandise available to the public.
But it’s still cool. It might be capitalist activism and we could talk all day about the evils of performative. But there’s a Barbie doll – only one, yes – of Melodie Robinson, a Māori rugby player turned journalist and commentator. That’s cool, and Robinson knows it means a lot to so many.
“She could be Ruby Tui, she could be Sara Goss, she could be a whole lot of Black Ferns who are working in the industry as well so she’s kind of a doll that can represent lots of different people. Even though she’s got my name and my story, she’s more than me.”