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Fact or Fiction?


CEO Barbie Criticized For Promoting Unrealistic Career Images

September 7, 2005 | Issue 41•36

EL SEGUNDO, CA—Toy company Mattel is under fire from a group of activists who say their popular doll's latest incarnation, CEO Barbie, encourages young girls to set impractical career goals.

CEO Barbie

Mattel's controversial CEO Barbie.

"This doll furthers the myth that if a woman works hard and sticks to her guns, she can rise to the top," said Frederick Lang of the Changes Institute, a children's advocacy organization. "Our young girls need to learn to accept their career futures, not be set up with ridiculously unattainable images."

The issue was first brought to national attention by mother, activist, and office manager Connie Bergen, 36, who became concerned when her 5-year-old daughter received the doll as a birthday gift and began "playing CEO."

"Women don't run companies," Bergen said. "Typically, those with talent, charisma, and luck work behind the scenes to bring a man's vision to light."

She added: "Real women in today's work force don't have Barbie's Dream Corner Office. More often than not, they have cubicles—or Dream Kitchens. I mean, what's next? 'Accepted By Her Male Peers' Polly Pocket?"

Despite the growing furor over the doll, Mattel's top brass has indicated no plans to cease its production, insisting that the newest member of the Barbie family represents a positive role model for girls.

"Young girls can be anything they want. There is nothing standing in their way," read a statement signed by Mattel CEO Robert Eckert, president Matt Bousquette, executive vice president Tom Debrowski, and CFO Kevin Farr.

Said Bergen: "I graduated cum laude from Radcliffe and have worked hard all my life, and my career doesn't look anything like Barbie's. Currently, there are only nine female CEOs in America's top 500 companies. To tell our daughters anything else is a lie."

Figures released by the Changes Institute indicate that, although women make up 46 percent of the work force, a mere 15 percent are senior managers. Lang maintains that these facts don't square with the image of the career woman put forth by the doll.

CEO Barbie Jump

Said Lang: "Any girl who thinks that she can run a large corporation when she grows up is in for a bitter disappointment, and it is simply shameful that Mattel would seek to cash in on impressionable young girls this way."

CEO Barbie comes with a number of accessories and environments, including the Super Barbie Conference Fun Table, Barbie's Company Dream Car and Underpaid Assistant Ken. But by far the most popular version of the doll has been the Talking CEO Barbie.

"This doll says things like, 'Did you get me those projections?' and, 'We need to cut our operating costs by 10 percent,'" Lang said. "It is dishonest to dangle this carrot of success in front of our daughters' noses, when we know that the odds that a girl will grow up to order someone around are virtually zero."

Lang said he does not expect Mattel to recall CEO Barbie, but he wants to send a powerful message to the people in charge.

"When your daughter comes home crying because she was passed over for a promotion for the fourth time, what are you going to tell her?" Lang asked. "It would be easier if she'd been raised with dolls like Glass Ceiling American Girl, Service Sector Bratz, or Maria The White House Maid."

(c) The Onion

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Bestseller in Mideast: Barbie With a Prayer Mat

September 22, 2005
By KATHERINE ZOEPF

DAMASCUS, Syria, Sept. 21 - In the last year or so, Barbie dolls have all but disappeared from the shelves of many toy stores in the Middle East. In their place, there is Fulla, a dark-eyed doll with, as her creator puts it, "Muslim values."

Fulla roughly shares Barbie's size and proportions, but steps out of her shiny pink box wearing a black abaya and matching head scarf. She is named after a type of jasmine that grows in the Levant, and although she has an extensive and beautiful wardrobe (sold separately, of course), Fulla is usually displayed wearing her modest "outdoor fashion."

Fulla's creator, NewBoy Design Studio, based in Syria, introduced her in November 2003, and she has quickly become a best seller all over the region. It is nearly impossible to walk into a corner shop in Syria or Egypt or Jordan or Qatar without encountering Fulla breakfast cereal or Fulla chewing gum or not to see little girls pedaling down the street on their Fulla bicycles, all in trademark "Fulla pink."

Young girls here are obsessed with Fulla, and conservative parents who would not dream of buying Barbies for their daughters seem happy to pay for a modest doll who has her own tiny prayer rug, in pink felt. Children who want to dress like their dolls can buy a matching, girl-size prayer rug and cotton scarf set, all in pink.

Fulla is not the first doll to wear the hijab, a traditional Islamic head covering worn outside the house so a woman's hair cannot be seen by men outside her family. Mattel markets a group of collectors' dolls that include a Moroccan Barbie and a doll called Leila, intended to represent a Muslim slave girl in an Ottoman court. In Iran, toy shops sell a veiled doll called Sara. A Michigan-based company markets a veiled doll called Razanne, selling primarily to Muslims in the United States and Britain.

But none of those dolls have enjoyed anything approaching Fulla's wide popularity. Fawaz Abidin, the Fulla brand manager for NewBoy, said that was because NewBoy understood the Arab market in a way that its competitors had not.

"This isn't just about putting the hijab on a Barbie doll," Mr. Abidin said. "You have to create a character that parents and children will want to relate to. Our advertising is full of positive messages about Fulla's character. She's honest, loving, and caring, and she respects her father and mother."

Though Fulla will never have a boyfriend doll like Barbie's Ken, Mr. Abidin said, a Doctor Fulla and a Teacher Fulla will be introduced soon. "These are two respected careers for women that we would like to encourage small girls to follow," he said.

On the children's satellite channels popular in the Arab world, Fulla advertising is incessant. In a series of animated commercials, a sweetly high-pitched voice sings the Fulla song in Arabic ("She will soon be by my side, and I can tell her my deepest secrets") as a cartoon Fulla glides across the screen, saying her prayers as the sun rises, baking a cake to surprise her friend Yasmeen, or reading a book at bedtime - scenes that, Mr. Abidin said, are "designed to convey Fulla's values."

A series of commercials seems more familiarly sales-oriented, starring young Syrian actresses who present Fulla silverware, Fulla stationery, Fulla luggage and, of course, new accessories for Fulla herself. "When you take Fulla out of the house, don't forget her new spring abaya!" says one commercial.

In Damascus, a Fulla doll sells for about $16, in a country where average per capita income hovers around $100 per month. And yet, said Nawal al-Sayeedi, a clerk at the Space Toon toy store in the city's upscale Abou Roumaneh neighborhood, Fulla flies off the shelves.

When Iman Telmaz took her two young daughters back-to-school shopping recently, disaster struck. Ms. Telmaz had promised the girls, 10-year-old Alia and 5-year-old Aya, new pink Fulla backpacks for the start of the school year, and the stores were sold out.

Ms. Telmaz resolved to keep looking. "The children love their Fulla dolls," she said. "Aya is starting school for the first time, and has specially asked for a Fulla backpack. For these girls, it has to be Fulla."

Ms. Sayeedi, the toy store clerk, said she felt sorry for parents.

"If you've got a TV in the house, it's Fulla all the time," she said. "The parents complain about the expense. But Fulla gives girls a more Islamic character to emulate, and parents want that."

Not everyone sees Fulla as such a positive influence. Maan Abdul Salam, a Syrian women's rights advocate, said Fulla was emblematic of a trend toward Islamic conservatism sweeping the Middle East. Though statistics are hard to come by, he said, the percentage of young Arab women who wear the hijab is far higher now than it was a decade ago, and though many girls are wearing it by choice, others are being pressured to do so.

"If this doll had come out 10 years ago, I don't think it would have been very popular," he said. "Fulla is part of this great cultural shift."

"Syria used to be a very secular country," he added, "but when people don't have anything to believe in anymore, they turn toward religion."

Fatima Ghayeh, who at 15 is a few years past playing with dolls herself, said she felt "sad that no one plays with Barbie anymore." But, pressed for further explanation, Ms. Ghayeh, dressed in a white hijab and ankle-length khaki coat, appeared to change her mind.

"My friends and I loved Barbie more than anything," she said. "But maybe it's good that girls have Fulla now. If the girls put scarves on their dolls when they're young, it might make it easier when their time comes. Sometimes it is difficult for girls to put on the hijab. They feel it is the end of childhood." "Fulla shows girls that the hijab is a normal part of a woman's life," Ms. Ghayeh continued. She gestured behind her, at a pair of excited little girls examining a rack of Fulla-branded Frisbees and pool toys. "Now the girls only want Fulla."

But Jyza Sybai , a lanky, tomboyish Saudi 10-year-old, visiting Syria with her family for a short vacation, disagreed. "All my friends have Fulla now, but I still like Barbie the best," Jyza said. "She has blond hair and cool clothes. Every single girl in Saudi looks like Fulla, with the dark hair and the black scarf.

"What's so special about that?"

(c) The New York Times
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