Barbie launches a trans model: real progress or misleading marketing gimmick?

The most famous doll in the world makes history again with the creation of a Barbie in the likeness of Laverne Cox, the American transactress, best known for her role in the Netflix series Orange is the new black† This is the first time a trans personality has received such an honor, 63 years after the creation of Barbie. But this real progress for transgender representation should not obscure another reality: Working conditions in Mattel factories are far from being celebrated in the media, several NGOs warn.

Pioneer. Icon. Activist. In celebration of her 50th birthday, Barbie is delighted to welcome Laverne Cox as the new Barbie doll to her tribute collection, recognizing her impact on TV, film, fashion and the LGBTQ+ community. ” Here are the words written on the Instagram account dedicated to the famous doll, on May 27. Barbie has just released a new statuette of American trans actress, Laverne Cox, known for her role in the hit series Orange is the new black (Netflix).

The main stakeholder has also expressed her enthusiasm for the idea of ​​joining an already long list of personalities whose image has been borrowed by Mattel, the company that makes the most famous dolls in the world: “What excites me most about her presence in the world is that young transgender people can see her and maybe buy her and play with her, and know that the first Barbie has been created by Mattel, in the image of a trans person”she explained to: People

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This promotion of a transpersonality, known to the general public, is indeed important. Transgender people, especially children, face many threats in the United States, Laverne Cox said in her press release. As reported KomitidSeveral bills introduced in South Dakota, Arizona or Oklahoma want to prevent the youngest from claiming their gender identity or even reading books whose subjects “sexual preferences” Where “gender identity”

In France, anti-trans discourse is also on the rise in the mainstream media, fueling the confusion between gender identity and sexual characteristics. to miss in this article. More recently, a general panic seems to have taken hold of certain newsrooms (Le Figarothe ParisianMarianne…) with articles about transitions in young people and their “irreversible” character. However, as Marie Zafimehy (journalist and author of the gender declared) in a Twitter thread, these transitions are not irreversible:

However, what is real are the suicides that are affecting the trans and queer community in France and elsewhere. In question ? The lack of information, lack of support and stigmatization of transgender people. In 2021, at least 375 transgender people have been murdered worldwide, we can read more Stubbornly† More recently, in Le Mans, a young 15-year-old transgender high school student committed suicide at his establishment, still reports Stubbornly“Suicide rates among trans youth are delusional: 7 to 10 times higher than cis youth”remembers the association OUTer on its website.

More and more diversified dolls

A Barbie that normalizes trans identity can therefore have a positive impact on society as a whole: it allows trans children to identify with a doll that has reflected a standardized image of women since its creation, despite the creation of more and more models “diversified” like the model in a wheelchair, without hair or the one with the picture of Japanese tennis champion Naomi Osaka.

But the presence in the toy shelves of a miniature Laverne Cox also makes it possible to make children, regardless of their gender, aware of the multiplicity of identities. “That in this environment where trans children are being attacked, it can also be a celebration of trans identity, and also a space to dream, understand and remember that trans identity is a beautiful thing. That there is hope and the opportunity for them to be themselves.”says Laverne Cox enthusiastically.

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A view that applies to all dolls in the “Barbie Signature” collection, which celebrates women and their positive impact on society. Like the black poet Maya Angelou, the lesbian tennis champion Billie Jean King, or the deaf and blind activist Hellen Keller. Price of a doll: 40 dollars (about 37 euros).

A gap between Mattel’s speeches and factory working conditions?

However, faced with these positive actions for the representation of diversity to a young audience, Mattel has been attacked by NGOs for several years. The latter denounced the working conditions of workers who make Barbie dolls at the company’s factories in China.

In their latest reports, published in November 2019 and December 2020, ActionAid and China Labor Watch write that the new direction Mattel is taking for its Barbie dolls “has boosted Barbie sales, but the gap between Mattel’s rhetoric and the working conditions of the women who make Barbie dolls is all the more shocking”

The two NGOs describe in their reports the results of their surveys conducted on various sites of the Mattel group: salaries “under a living wage”extended working hours, production rates “way too high” as well as a lack of protection against chemicals handled by workers or the trivialization of sexist and sexual violence.

NGOs have been warning Mattel for 20 years and since the publication of the first studies, some valuable changes have been noted at the company’s factories: “Chinese labor law requires companies to take out social insurance for all employees in addition to the housing fund”we read in the report from 2019. “Social insurance covers maternity, old age, unemployment, accidents at work and illness”† In their 2019 report, ActionAid and China Labor Watch indicate that the workers of the investigated factory will have access to this social insurance after a month on site.

Mattel also defended himself in the columns ofFemalerecalling the existence of its “Code of Conduct”, which is described by the company as “strict”.

“At our manufacturing sites in China, we provide anti-harassment training, train our employees in the process of reporting workplace concerns, and also have a hotline for our employees to anonymously report harassment or other complaints. If we receive a report of harassment, an investigation is initiated immediately and we take appropriate action based on the findings of this investigation. In addition, ICTI’s Ethical Toy Program conducts audits of our factories to ensure safety and work environment standards are respected.”


Contacted by phone, ActionAid France explains that this is not the case “satisfied” of this response and considers ICTI’s Ethical Toy Program (deInternational Toy Council
) as “the right arm of the Chinese toy industry lobby”† Despite her concerns, the association explains that it has discontinued its investigations with China Labor Watch. In question ? “It is getting more and more complicated to investigate on the spot.”

Lisa McKnight, Executive Vice President and Global Head of Barbie and Dolls at Mattel, said of the new Laverne Cox doll: “We are proud to emphasize the importance of inclusion and acceptance at all ages and recognize Laverne’s significant impact on culture.”

In the hope that the practices denounced by the NGOs will evolve internally in the same way as the facade of a company of great influence. Every year, 80 million dolls are sold in more than 150 countries around the world.

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