Looking to cash in on trends like "Second Life" and increased usage of the Internet by girls, Mattel launches BarbieGirls.com. Does using technology to play Barbie encourage savvy girls or just reinforce tired gender stereotypes?
Last week, the global launch of Mattel's new Barbie product, Barbie Girls took place. I went to a media launch event for this next phase in gender stereotyping for fun and profit in May, and have eagerly been anticipating how virtual Barbie would affect Mattel once they officially launched on June 15. From the press release (which I am pleased to note they distributed on USB ports):
NEW YORK CITY (April 26, 2007) – Today, Mattel unveiled the next generation of fashion doll play with Barbie Girls™, an unparalleled, hybrid play experience that blends fashion, music and an online virtual world. Representing the true evolution of what today’s girl loves and opening the door to how tomorrow’s girl will play, Barbie Girls™ fuses the best of virtual and real life for a fresh, new experience. At launch this week, Barbie Girls™ first comes to life via www.BarbieGirls.com, the first global, virtual online world designed exclusively for girls. At BarbieGirls.com girls can create their own virtual character, design their own “room,” shop at the mall, play games, hang out and chat live with other girls. In July, Barbie Girls™ will take shape in the real world with a sleek, handheld, 4 ½ -inch portable device that serves as a music player and fashion statement-in-one, while also unlocking new content within BarbieGirls.com.
According to the "Chief Barbie Girl's" (seriously, that is how she was introduced) presentation at the launch, girls today love music, shopping, and being online. A group of hired minions – er, I mean "real girls" – stood around shouting out their agreement at this statement, and as Chief Barbie Girl walked us through the virtual world that is supposed to represent tomorrow's girl, they kept whooping their approval at all the "cute outfits and cute accessories and cute pets" that a girl can virtually acquire by watching "movies" (aka commercials) on the Pepto pink site. Did I mention that the Barbie girl avatars look like Bratz, but without the thongs? Oy.
The games available on Barbie Girls, which also help a girl earn virtual dollars which she can then spend on clothes and furniture, involve painting digital fingernails and giving Ken a makeover. I detected nothing game-like in this. I'm thinking if all goes well, Mattel might earn some serious dough from all the "synergies" they are creating as they build the ultimate female consumer. As for the Barbie Girls MP3 player . . . well, Barbie's finally an official 'Pod person. (Ha! I kill me). Although an MP3 shuffle player at $59.99 is not a bad deal.
After the main presentation, the press was unleashed to a buffet and chance to chat up the "real girls" about why they like the site and Barbie 'pods. I sidled up to Pauline, who told me that she was 11 years old. Our interview went down like this:
Me: So what can you do on BarbieGirls.com?
Pauline: You can go shopping!
Me: Can you do anything else?
Pauline: You can talk to friends in the park.
Me: Can you play any games, like baseball, or rollerblade in the park?
Pauline: (confused) No.
Me: Oh, OK. What else can you do?
Pauline: (smiling again, "Stepford Wives" look in her eyes) There's a beauty shop where you can hang out with friends. And you can play with your [virtual] pet! Or see a movie…
I was getting nervous that the robot who replaced Pauline might overheat, so I thanked her for her insight and wandered away. Don't get me wrong. I not only played with Barbie when I was Pauline's age, but I also LOVED shopping (still do). I also liked reading and roller skating (ditto). Monopoly was my favorite game, which consists of a bit more than painting nails and hanging out with friends at a beauty parlor. Time to talk to another girl.
Kristie, 10 years old, was kind enough to show me around the virtual world of Barbie:
Me: So what kind of stores are there?
Kristie: There's a furniture store, and a pet store. There are two boutiques and a place for accessories.
Me: Can you show me how the boutiques are different?
Kristie: (site freezes) Sorry, but it's not working now.
Me: Are there any other stores that you might like to have in Barbie world?
Kristie: I don't know.
Me: (slightly desperately) How about a book store?
Kristie: (blank stare)
Me: A music store?
Kristie: Yeah, that would be cool.
Me: One that sold instruments…
Kristie: MP3s are cooler.
Me: What do you like best about this site?
Kristie: I use the Internet a lot and this is the best site ever!
Honestly, I give Kristie, Pauline, and the other young ladies kudos for their work as pitchwomen. They handled all the questions from me and other press with a level of confidence and poise that I probably lack today, let alone when I was 10. Still, I wish that BarbieGirls gave them something better to aspire to than shopping and chatting with friends.
At least they don't spell "girls" with a "z," right?