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McDonalds’ Barbie Fashionistas/Hot Wheels Happy Meal draws familiar gender lines, with a twist

There’s a certain eye-roll I do whenever McDonalds dusts off their BARBIE/HOT WHEELS Happy Meal toys for yet another pass at greasy stardom.  This split promotion is the chain’s most common.  Having started in 1991, the pairing has popped up at least 15 times since then.  Each time, the advertising is clear: the pink Barbies are the “girls’ toy” and the blue Hot Wheels are the “boys’ toy.”  When ordering a Happy Meal, customers are commonly asked, “Boy or girl?”  When waiting on line to order my own Happy Meal toys, I know this question is coming.  I long for the day when the question is simply, “Barbie or Hot Wheels?”  (There’s been some evidence to suggest this is very recently been made policy, though I have not experienced it.)  I imagine what the display case would look like if the Barbie toys were mixed in with the Hot Wheels, not separated by the clearest border of contrasting color imaginable.  Cue the aforementioned eye-roll.

Lately, however, McDonalds has given its Happy Meal consumers some reasons to be truly happy.  Though their gender segregation is ever-present, the fast food juggernaut has made some impressive choices for their “girls toy” offerings.  Their wave of POWERPUFF GIRLS toys of 2016 put to shame the SKYLANDERS toys meant to be the “boys toy” of that promotion.  Later that same year, McDonalds struck gold again in the “girls toy” department with their DC SUPER HERO GIRLS promotion, offering figurines and accessories from the insanely popular series aimed at empowering young girls through female superheroes.  The “boys toy” counterpart, JUSTICE LEAGUE toys, did not draw nearly the same excitement.

So when I saw that the 2017 Barbie promotion was to feature smaller, less posable versions of the Barbie Fashionistas dolls, it seemed that McDonalds was once again trying to do right by its feminist demographic.  After all, the Fashionistas dolls are the first in Mattel’s history to feature a range of three new body types: tall, curvy, and petite.

Mattel has also created a variety of skin tones for these dolls, ensuring a level of diversity unseen in previous Barbie products.  The dolls hardly represent all possible bodies and backgrounds, but they do indicate that one is able to admit that a Barbie doll does not have to adhere to one specific set of measurements.  Done right, a Fashionistas Happy Meal could stand out against a backdrop of largely bland, gender-normative Barbie and Hot Wheels toys.  So how did McDonalds do?

Included in the Barbie Fashionistas line-up are a number of accessories, like this comb-and-mirror set.  Perhaps the only noteworthy aspect of this “Glamour Set” is the image on the back of the mirror.  It features a picture of Mattel’s main Barbie Fashionistas dolls, not their McDonalds Happy Meal toy versions.  This is useful when comparing the Barbie figurines in the promotion with their original doll counterparts.

“Sweetheart Stripes” is meant to mimic the “Curvy” Barbie Fashionista doll of the same name.  While basic similarities between the two products exist, close examination of the full-size doll reveals that the toy was not only miniaturized for the Happy Meal version, but slimmed.

The larger bust, wider thighs, and fuller calves featured on the “Curvy” dolls only slightly appear on the Happy Meal edition of Sweetheart Stripes.  With McDonalds using pictures of the full-size, body-diverse dolls on much of its printed material, Sweetheart Stripes’ sculpt-related shortcomings are readily apparent.  There is surely a plethora of reasons, from the economic to the dubious, why this facet of the dolls did not translate into the Happy Meal figurines, but, no matter the rationale, the fact remains: the creation of one body-positive doll does not guarantee the creation of another.

Certainly, though, the McDonalds Fashionistas line is far from a failure.  There is a decent span of skin and hair types across the four figurines.  Furthermore, the toy representing the “Tall” Fashionista doll does stand proportionally taller than the others in the wave.  And I would be negligent if I didn’t mention the McPlay app, which allows consumers to interact with their Fashionistas virtually by scanning their toy with an electronic device.  Perhaps most importantly, however, is the way these toys draw attention to the Barbie Fashionistas line, introducing new buyers to a growing collection of dolls that at least aims to open up new levels of diversity on otherwise homogeneous toy shelves.

Returning to the question: how did McDonalds do?  They effectively moved a traditional, gender-segregated duel promotion from a place of solid predictability into a much more grey area, where their “girls toy” products make an attempt, if flawed, to acknowledge a fraction of the scope of female bodies that are only now starting to get their due in plastic form.  I hesitate to heap praise upon massive corporations, but, as far as McDonalds Happy Meal toys go, there’s reason to keep your eyes on the Golden Arches.

Jonathan Alexandratos is a New York City-based playwright and essayist who writes about action figures and grief.  Find his Happy Meal version on Twitter @jalexan

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Jonathan Alexandratos

Jonathan Alexandratos is a New York City-based playwright and essayist. His most recent play, We See What Happen, was created with Nashville Repertory Theatre, and is the immigration story of Jonathan's grandmother, as told by superhero action figures. Jonathan's book of academic essays on action figures, Articulating the Action Figure: Essays on the Toys and Their Messages, is due out in May from McFarland.

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