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Barbie and McDonald's Happy Meal Disaster

I didn't really need another reason to dislike McDonald's. I have so many already. Same goes for Barbie. But a few days ago, an e-mail landed in my inbox from my friend Sarah from sarahcasm. "Have you seen this Happy Meal box?", she asked. I hadn't seen it, but sadly, it didn't surprise me.

This isn't the first time that Barbie has teamed up with McDonald's. They've been a regular pair over the years. Last time, Barbie was working at McDonald's. This time, she has different career choices in mind, but she is sending some pretty nasty messages along the way.

What does this Happy Meal Box say?

If you read the fine print on the box, it is about careers. If you just look at the box (which is what most people will do and is all that much of the Happy Meal eating public -- i.e. not yet literate children -- is capable of), you get a different message. You see a little girl of colour dreaming about being one of five almost identical blond, blue-eyed, unrealistically proportioned white women wearing a lot of sparkly pink. Even if you read the big, bold text without getting into the fine print, it is still telling this little girl that if she dreams really big, she can be just like Barbie.

A few years ago, Renee from Womanist Musings wrote about the damage that Barbie dolls do to girls, especially girls of colour:

For any little girl, a Barbie Doll is a complicated gift because it is so completely unrepresentative of female bodies.  Barbie is one of the mothers of negative body images.  This is compounded when the child in question is Black.  When a Black girl is given a Black doll with Eurocentric features and straight hair, what does it teach her but that she is not beautiful.  Because beauty is one of the few sites of female power this can be extremely damaging.

She goes on to talk about an initiative to re-tool Barbie dolls with black features, instead of just taking a white Barbie and painting it black (as Mattel has done with the existing black Barbie).

These identical and unrealistically "beautiful" (in quotation marks because it is not my definition of beauty) Barbie dolls shown in a variety of different careers also send a very specific message to girls. I wrote about this at Care2.com after attending the Women's World conference in Ottawa in a post called Are Women Groomed to Choose Oppression?:

Nathalie Elaine Meza Garcia, a political scientist from Colombia, talked about Barbie. Her presentation, Imperceptible Fundamentalisms: The Perfect Woman and the Multiple Roles of Barbie, examined the ways in which Barbie tries to break away from the patriarchy while still leaving her oppressed. The Barbie slogan, “We Girls Can Do Anything” is intended to be a feminist slogan. However, there is a hidden inconsistency in this. Women are able to enter into new spaces and break glass ceilings, but they still have to be beautiful, nurturing mothers, good homemakers, and doting wives. Essentially, women have demanded the right to do anything that men can do, but they have not shed any of their old roles, duties or subjugation in doing so.

For me, this new Happy Meal box is one more reason not to take my children to McDonald's. But what message is it sending to the thousands of children who will be staring at this box as they munch on their fries (or their apple slices)? How will those children both internalize that message and share that message with the rest of society? One of the things I am increasingly aware of is how peer influences affect our children and how the negative messages that other children receive in their homes and environments creep into our lives and impact our children too.

As a society, we need to demand better. Not just for our own kids, but for everyone's kids.

Note: The photo was taken by Sarah. She has generously offered to make it available for sharing. I've put it on my flickr account with a creative commons licence for that purpose. Please feel free to share on your own blogs.
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Reader Comments (85)

Honestly, I hate lebels and none of the terms used to define or distinguish them sit well with me. Unfortunately, the categories exist and affect how people operate in this society - and how they are treated.

Mulatto makes me cringe because it was derived from the latin word for mule, which is an offspring of two different species.

I understand why you use the term and if your brother uses it, who is to say he's wrong? No one. I reject its use in reference to my own kids, though (to whom I know you were not referring, to be clear) - and I will until they are old enough to decide what word they want to use to label their own racial identity.

Related: I also don't use the word caucasion because of it's origin.

February 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

Most white people don't like to be referred to as 'white' because we are taught to see ourselves as individuals. It is a luxury only white people are afforded.

Have you ever read "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" by Peggy McIntosh? http://www.antiracistalliance.com/Unpacking.html

Mulatto has horrible connotations. :(

February 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVanessa

Thank you. I am an early childhood educator and teacher of other early childhood educators. I have devoted a significant amount of time to the study of bias and the way that bias is perpetuated generation to generation. I may have to use this McDonalds box ad as an example in some of my workshops. Stuff like this is not just wallpaper -- these messages really do have an impact on the way children see themselves and others as they grow up. Thanks again!

February 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAbundant Life Children

Ugh, since when is the opposite of "nurturing mother, good homemaker, and doting wife" a "shriveled feminist shrew"? Lots of people are neither the former and yet manage not to be the latter.

February 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoyce

So, I read this through and then read some of the comments. I'm aware that I'm really tired so what I want to say may not come over correctly.

I am the mother of 3 daughters of colour. We live in a mainly white area and my children (I have 2 boys as well) all went to the local primary school. My eldest two daughters have now gone to senior school. When they left primary school, they desperately wanted straight hair. My youngest daughter wants straight yellow hair.

Now I think I do a pretty good job of building their self esteem and ensuring that they know themselves as beautiful, but these images are everywhere. Why do girls like my daughters have Barbies? Because their friends have Barbies. Because they have birthdays and their friends GIVE them Barbies. I don't like Barbie, for many, many reasons. I don't like the subliminal message from McDonalds. Why on earth should a young girl of colour want to grow to be like a blonde, white woman? Nothing wrong with being a blonde, white woman if you are a blonde, white woman. My daughters will never be that.

The Princess and the Frog. Do you know which doll was easily bought in all the shops? The blonde doll. It's only in recent years that I've been able to find black dolls for my daughters that weren't european dolls dipped in brown paint. This might not seem important to some, but it is to me. I've spent 14 years looking for a doll head that you can style hair on, but I don't want a white one or one with straight hair.

I could go on forever, but ought to be in my bed. What I want to say is simply this: I am a woman of colour. I notice these things and have done throughout my life, yes even as a child. My children notice these things, not because I've primed them too. Of course the subliminal messages come through. If they didn't, people wouldn't pay a fortune for advertising. So I'm with you PhD. This is NOT sending a good message to my daughters. But so far, it seems that THAT particular marketing strategy hasn't crossed over to my side of the Pond. If it does, I will be making my voice heard at the Head Office of the Golden Arches.

February 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMars Lord

Loved reading your perspective. I have contacted McDonalds Canada's head office requesting to have the box removed from rotation. My friends have, too - and we intend to continue to until we are satisfied with the response.

My avoiding McDonalds only helps my kids. I can do more.

February 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

I never had a Barbie growing up and never wanted to. I find it so hard to relate to the girls that love Barbies, dolls, tutus, and pink. My own daughter is 3.5 and loves all of those things (except we don't have any Barbies). I am fine with all of that, except I agree that the brands that deliver these things to the mainstream population are using tactics that are inappropriate for little girls (and boys) whether we/they may realize that now or ever. Those messages are still there. They are still prevalent and why wouldn't we ask for better for our children?

I was answering one stereotype with another.

February 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMrs Rochester

Encouraging our children's individuality, to me, is the most important thing I can do. Teaching my child that they are wonderful the way they are. Encouraging any child to strive to be something unattainable is absolutely absurd and wrong; no one should want to change their race, but it is going on right before us everyday. Still today our commercials and movies are full of predominantly white skinny people; and you think this doesn't affect a child's self-image? They are passively learning what our society says is the ideal: thin, white and blond.....barbie. Even the black actors and actresses in mainstream movies tend to be more "on the white side". Disney has so many of these examples it's maddening, I invite you to watch Selma Lord Selma keeping this McDonlad's happy meal in mind.....
There is an entire industry of skin product designed to lighten skin. I have had friends travel in Japan and China and have had mishaps with bleaching skin cream b/c that was all they could find on the shelves. If you can't see what is wrong with this, the you too have fallen victim to our societal pressures and "subliminal" messages.
For years we have been bombarded with media pictures of skinny white blond females with smaller and smaller waists and butts (note here many would tell I am one of those women). this is not realistic or beautiful, but many men have come to believe this is ideal through passive absorption of the so-called harmless barbie or the numerous models and actresses. Of course this affects us and our views and our personal insecurities; if it didn't the media wouldn't waste their time on presenting these images. There is a huge thriving industry of "beauty" products and diet products that continue to sell everyday- but we have no problems in our society with image right?
Lets try telling our children you should be you and that 's perfect!

February 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCaroline

Me too. Many of the Barbie issues being discussed are old ones and debatable. But the thought bubble over a dark skinned child dreaming of having blue eyes and fair skin is rather sick. Made me think of Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye." To give it the benefit of the doubt, I imagined a different, less loaded character. The first alternative childhood icon that came to my mind was Sesame St.'s Elmo. Would it make sense for a little blonde boy to be thinking about future careers and seeing Elmo as a doctor, etc. in his thought bubble? It would be more likely that we'd see ELMO imagining Elmo in these careers. Or the little boy seeing himself. Not the little boy seeing some character with the caption "i can be." But it could work; Little white boy dreaming of growing up to be a red monster probably wouldn't bother me as much. It would seem stupid, but that's all. So maybe it is my Barbie baggage. Remembering a time when all Barbies were white and little African American girls would comb their blonde hair... Remembering when block dolls were a novelty... Maybe that makes me more sensitive to this. But I think we SHOULD be sensitive to it.

February 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJulie

Such a profound message being sent to our children. I am a preschool teacher and just recently have faced this dilemma with a 3 year old child in my room. This issue of colored skin and the "ideal" skinny white skinned blonde person. As she was going to sleep one other teacher who is Sri Lankan went over to sit next to her, the child looked the educator up and down and said 'i don't want you to sit next to me' the educator asked 'why' the child responded 'because you have black skin'. My jaw dropped when i later was told of this... how society works it's magic on young children! Everyday we try to educate children on acceptance, equal rights, fairness, diversity and it saddens me to know that once out of the little bubble of kinder they are faced with different messages. Think of how much more they see driving, walking, taking public transport to places. Constantly faced with images, messages, advertising with 'white middle class people' promoting things to them and how shameful for our society that is becoming increasingly multi-cultural. Not only that but gender roles that are promoted through seemingly 'innocent' story books that you read to children on a daily basis. How many books do you have at home that talk about the male in the house hold making dinner or working around the house? How many stories do you have at home that promotes multiculturalism to your child? Who is included and excluded in society by the choices we make for ourselves and our children on a daily basis. We could easily go onto to only blame media and advertising and McDonalds and Barbie and so on and so on (TRUST ME I AM MORALLY OPPOSED TO BARBIE) but first we always need to look at our own messages we are sending to our children....

February 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

Marry said her big boobs and wast line did not make her feel Beautiful and then that she had no problem with Barbie!!????WTF what a waste of defense!!

February 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersample

[...] out McDonald’s new Happy Meal box  on Phd in parenting, It features eaturing Mattel’s Barbie I Can Be with 4 different Barbie variations in [...]

honestly, I think the parents think about this more than kids do. I understood barbie was fake. I was also reinforced with that understanding. She's make believe. where I got into trouble was magazines as a teen. Teen people, seventeen, etc seeing REAL girls not getting they have fake hair and eating disorders.

February 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

I think the whole point is that the children aren't thinking about it. It is passive absorption of negative messages. The media counts on it. We NEED to talk to our children about it so they can protect themselves and learn to filter on their own. It is our jobs as parents to do the filtering for them!

February 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCaroline

I'm stunned how many people don't see the problem of a child of colour appearing to be dreaming of growing up to be a white woman. This box is not existing in a vacuum.

February 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

That little girl is probably as white as she is black. She may even be multi-racial. Her mom could look like Barbie. Who knows? I doubt people would complain if it was an Asian child and white Barbie or a brunette child and blonde Barbie or a white child and a Hispanic Barbie.

February 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersophie

This is awful on so many levels, starting with how sad it is that there is a market at all for McDonald's. I see that box and want to cry for the succinct internalizing of the "skinny blondes are the ideal" message that it will perpetuate in so many little girls who will not get a chance to read this piece or think critically for a number of years. As someone with brown/mixed/Jewish/everything heritage, it just reinforces that feeling I had growing up, that I still have living in a predominantly white place - that sinking feeling that no amount of eyebrow tweezing, arm hair removal, or hair straightening will ever really measure up to our cultural ideas of beauty. As someone raising two little girls, I feel mildly relieved sometimes that they "look white" and will hopefully not face some of the questions and challenges that I have. BELIEVE ME, nothing makes me feel guiltier than admitting that last one. Do I blame it all on Barbie and McDonald's? Hell no! Disney and tv and many other cultural influences including my own mother contributed to this....but McDonald's and Barbie are certainly not helping with stunts like this.

February 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commentereva

Thankfully neither of my kids asks for McDonalds. Won't go there for the food, and certainly not for all their 'marketing' either.

February 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJavamom

As a kid barbie to me was just another doll that didn't look like me. yeah i had 2 or 3 of them but i did at a point ask if my family members would by dolls that look like me.
I had nothing against Barbie but she seemed to not show me if those opportunities open to blonde white girls were open to black girls. Barbie isn't particularly bad but even at young ages no matter the race messages can be picked up. I had a white childhood friend who said she'd grow up just like Barbie(even die her hair blonde and have blue eyes). Now she is like "What was I thinking? Barbie is just a fantasy. Not something that you can ever completely mimic."

February 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCiara

Re: Mary's Barbie owning

As a biracial child, looking very much like the child on the Happy Meal bag, I understand why you don't get it. I hear your argument but as a child what you get from these messages are -- "you are not good enough or pretty enough". Growing up I wanted to know why Barbie didn't look more like me? My white mother tried to find dolls but they didn't make black dolls with long hair when I was little (70s/80s) and what good is the doll if you can't play in hair? I had long hair so I knew the stereotypes were incorrect and hurtful. It hurt my family was never represented on TV, advertising or even in my toys. Believe me, we've all owned Barbie but our experiences are different.

It matters.

February 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Fager

It would be quite difficult to find a doll that looks like that little girl, even today, unless it is custom ordered. I think every little girl likes to have a doll that looks like her. But I don't think every doll has to. I am about as pale as they come, and I had a black Barbie in my collection because I thought she was prettier. She looked like this: http://www.flickr.com/photos/barbiecreations/3949678711/in/photostream/ That was about 1983. Really, to me this Happy Meal box makes as much sense as the little girl imagining herself as Rainbow Bright or Elmo being in different career roles. Children pretend and role play when they play with dolls and toys. The message can be taken more than one way. It can be taken as the little girl holding up Blonde Barbie as her ideal above what she realistically will grow up to look like (which is not going to be like an African American Barbie either), or it can be taken as a little girl role playing with a character, which is how most people would take it had it been anything but a blonde Barbie if you think about it. Most children will not grow up to look anything like Barbie. People come in all shapes and sizes, skin tones, hair colors and textures. If Barbie was green or had fins or was ugly-looking, no one would worry about children comparing themselves to Barbie or pretending to be her.

February 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSophie

I think it's really easy for anyone who is pale and blonde to assume this because this image is represented everywhere in the media. As, Lisa pointed out very nicely, it does matter.
We've been programmed to accept what is in front of us without question and deal with the consequences quietly and on our own.
There continues to be no question in my mind (or heart) that this advertisement is wrong and an extremely negative influence on all young girls and boys.

February 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCaroline

[...] out {{title}}{{url}} (via @phdinparenting)'"}};} The pink, the Barbies, the "Daddy's little" princess, the new LEGO Friends, the shopaholic, the American [...]

[...] you seen the new Barbie I Can Be line? I've written about it before. In addition to the usually princessy/fashion-focused dolls, Barbie is now promoting a variety of [...]

I guess everything you're bitching about in this post when it comes to what companies should be doing because you have a problem, will come to light and your daughter might someday thank you for wringing your hands over something as stupid as a fucking doll if she turns out to not have any issues at all. How comforting that you're more concerned about what is out there and the possible damage, than the neurosis you're probably going to pass on to your child because everything upsets you in the media.

I wonder how many parents tried to encourage the makers of teletubbies to quit making Tinky Winky because Jerry Falwell said he/she was gay and because whatever gender Tink was, carried a red bag thought to be a purse and was purple with a triangle on his head.
Oh the anarchy! But of course, it is another example (like Barbie here in this post) of sheer projection because you have a problem with a product.

It is as ridiculous as parents complaining that there aren't dolls out there that represent children with disabilities. Enter downsyndromedolls.com where there is a doll that is made to make even disabled people feel even more... special.

Seriously, if you grew up insecure for whatever reasons and you project it on something made out of plastic, then I am really sorry you had a miserable life. But when does it go from a reason to be an excuse for body image identity? Why should models be held accountable because you hated your thighs growing up?

I would be more worried PERIOD if a parent was treating their child to McDonalds or any other fast food place and call it a 'happy meal' that the child can feel good about, as obviously having something fried isn't healthy, at all.

The issue facing little girlstoday in the toy department: Barbie or Bratz or a Kitchen Set from Playskool or Fisher Price. Nothing like a dose of reality to a little girl when she has to make the choice of "Hmmm....whores or chores"?

Seriously, get a grip.

May 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvelyn

Dayum, Evelyn... that's a lot, but I will say some of us give a shit about our children of color being pushed European standards of beauty. You know those weaves and colored eyes they all want is problematic when their beautiful shades of brown and black are looked at as less than. And not sure what you are bitching about and ranting about tele-tubbies, apples vs. candy bars.

And then there are people like you that probably like to just listen to themselves talk. Get a grip Evelyn and be happy somebody gives a shit about colored girls.


May 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLisa

Dolls with Downs? That's awesome! Thanks for letting us know about the site.

Yes, I agree the choices in the toy department are rather disgusting. I avoid those isles. This morning my child's choices were, "Do you want to help daddy in the garden or do you want to work on your homework?"

Issues involving Happy Meals or Barbies do not affect my daughter directly, but I care about people beyond my own family, and I care about the attitudes / mindsets / paradigms that the world around me is operating in. Sometimes those things can mean the difference between war and peace. Or slave trafficking and empowerment. Or rampant self-destructive behaviors in teen girls and healthy constructive behaviors. Or any number of things. This happy meal issue is a symptom of something larger that should be acknowledged.

May 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJulie

I think Julie has just hinted as something really important- parenting choices and home environment. That is something we can do something about on a personal level, whether we agree with each other or not.

May 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSophie

Colored girls? What is this you speak of Mrs. Jim Crow?

May 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvelyn

Evelyn, Not sure what your point is. Do you discount the amount of research that correlates childhood attitudes towards themselves and others based on exposure to media (which includes things like Happy Meals?). If that's your choice - fine. But just because you don't find it valid doesn't mean that it isn't.

May 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStephanieMZ

Look let me guess you are a blonde weave wearin sista with colored contacts working at Mickeys and taking parents who actually give a shit about their kids way too personal. And what am is an educated black woman who gives a fuck. Try thinking beyond yourself one day.

May 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterlisa

Sorry but maybe the only issue with Barbie is adults.
You are reading the happy meal box too deeply. If the child on the box was a blonde haired, blue eyed white girl would you have something else to say? Would you then say that they should have used a child of color?

Keep Barbie's race out of it, it really has nothing to do with anything.
Barbie's creators were white and created a doll that was white. Why is this a big deal to you?
Sorry to tell you but people with blond hair and blue eyes do exist. Would you rather that they be excluded? I'm pretty sure that the blond Barbie issue is not only a issue for people of color, she is the most popular one so any child would want her. Why don't you ask a white red head or brunette which Barbie they prefer? All bets go to the blond Barbie.

I used to play with many white Barbie dolls as a child and I never once said I want to be like Barbie when I grow up... I didn't even care to look like her.

Those against her need to keep in mind that she is a toy. Children of the 80's and 90's were born at a time of entertainers like Michael Jackson and Madonna, we even had nintendo!Who the hell really cared about Barbie that much??? Television and celebrities have a greater influence on kids than toys. Kids are just attracted to cute and colorful things.

Sad fact to you older adults that are against Barbie is that she isn't even that popular with kids anymore. What seems like the ideal image of beauty to you guys is seen as very plain and boring to kids. Why is Barbie an issue? There are so many new toys out that are better than Barbie. Monster High dolls are the new thing now, are you gonna say the dolls paint a unrealistic physical image to kids too? Are you going to mention their race??? Are you gonna say they also are from Mattel so they are the same as Barbie?

Keep in mind that toys are toys and are not meant to be real. They are not people and do not have a brain or personality to make people like them. A child will pick any doll that is attractive to them. If you had a choice between a pretty doll and a average one, will you really pick the average?

Another thought:
I'm pretty sure you read your children fairytales and other stories that are made up. Why is this acceptable?

The message on the box is very real "DREAM BIG"... maybe you need to think big and open your mind.

September 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrianna

Sorry... forgot to add that the child on the box already has blue eyes and light hair.
So I don't get the blue eye, blond hair argument

September 27, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrianna

[...] her point of view in regards to a recent Happy Meal box photo that was sent to her by a friend.  Here is the link.  Go look at the picture.   Seriously, go do it.  I’ll [...]

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