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Not Only Fun, But P.C. Too : Culture: With Barbie--yes, Barbie!--leading the way, playthings are delivering messages. And ‘math class is tough’ is not on the agenda.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

We’ve seen games like “The Dinosaur’s Journey to High Self-Esteem.” Black action figures with super powers derived from the melanin in their skin. Ballerina dolls with hearing aids. Mommy dolls with briefcases.

But few would have guessed the new leader in the toy correctness movement would be that bottle-blond bombshell in a box, that icon of frilly femininity, that silver-gowned, high-heeled recreational shopper--that Barbie.

Mattel Toys surprised many observers recently by caving in to the American Assn. of University Women, whose members complained that a new version of Barbie was limiting girls’ future options by saying, “Math class is tough.”

Not only did Mattel, the nation’s second- largest toy maker, change the talking computer chip, it also invited the AAUW to approve any further words spoken by the world’s best-selling doll.

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The episode marks a new plateau for political correctness, bringing it from the shadows of small interest groups to the toy shelves of little girls everywhere.

“Mattel’s decision says if political correctness had previously been considered marginalized, it’s no longer in the margins. It’s in the mainstream,” according to columnist M. G. Lord, who is writing a book on Barbie. “Barbie never leads; she always follows. If Barbie does something, that means people in America are comfortable with it.”

The decision also represents a victory for a school of thought that views toys as serious and powerful tools in shaping sensitive young psyches, competing with parents and teachers in teaching self-image and values.

In other words, says Santa Monica psychotherapist Sandy Plone, “Toys are not playthings for children.”

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According to this philosophy, “negative” messages in toys can lead to serious mental and physical problems.

“It’s almost a form of brainwashing,” said Cathy Meredig, president of High Self-Esteem Toys, a company in Woodbury, Minn., that has designed a “realistically proportioned” fashion doll, Happy To Be Me, to compete with Barbie’s “tyranny of thinness.”

Her new math consciousness notwithstanding, Barbie has many critics. Beverly Hills psychiatrist Carole Lieberman said Barbie should be sold with a warning label. Some of her patients with eating and shopping disorders played with Barbies and have talked about wanting to be like Barbie, she said.

Barbie’s defenders point out that the fantasy doll has done her part for girls’ positive images by appearing in astronaut and business personas. This year, the Year of the Woman, a Barbie is running for President--albeit in a sparkling red, white and blue ball gown.

In the last few years, major manufacturers have joined independent toy makers in trying to infuse children’s toys with “positive” messages, notably about the environment and ethnic heritage: Crayola repackaged and renamed some of its crayons to represent various skin tones. GI Joe came out with “Eco Warriors” who wage war against polluters. Mattel and others have produced lines of ethnically correct dolls, in various shades and with more realistic facial features.

This year, Tyco came out with a doll dressed in traditional African kente cloth. Her hair can be plaited in corn rows or straightened.

“Dolls are one big area where political correctness can be in,” said Diane Cardinale, assistant communications director for the Toy Manufacturers of America.

More to the point, these manufacturers also hope to tap into the spending power of growing black and Latino populations. “By the year 2000, there will be nearly 9 million African-American and Hispanic children under 10. If you ignore a market that size, I think you’re being unwise,” Cardinale said.

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The toy correctness movement has had a mixed history of success. Although some protesters have persuaded manufacturers to pull a few offending dolls from the market, toys with messages haven’t been the biggest sellers.

For the most part, message toys are geared to parents, not to children, and most environmental- and gender-correct toys haven’t made much of a dent, Cardinale said. “While I won’t say they’ve bombed, you don’t find them in the top 100 toys. . . .

“The company that makes Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtles introduced a line, Toxic Avenger. The Toxic Avenger was created from a toxic waste accident, and he fought against all the polluters. Now you can get it in the discount bins. It just didn’t sell.”

“A couple of years ago, a Mommy doll came out,” Cardinale continued. “The whole theme was that the woman could have a family and a career. Mommy came with her sweat suit and a Snugli for the baby but also a business suit and a brief case. I don’t think it sold that well.”

Meredig, the creator of Happy to Be Me, said she has been waging an uphill battle to sell the doll for a year. It is not because the doll is unpopular, she insists, nor because Mattel has a larger advertising budget.

“Mattel has a stranglehold on distribution channels,” she said. Now she is pursuing direct mail.

“I am absolutely determined,” Meredig added. “The course of the universe is not to raise children to believe they are not valuable unless they have an 18-inch waist. By sheer demand, we’ll find a distribution channel. Through pediatricians’ offices, maybe bookstores. Someone who doesn’t have a vested interest in fashion dolls.”

On the other hand, outraged consumers have had some victories. Protesters, for example, convinced toy manufacturers to pull Steve the Tramp, a homeless man who appeared in a line of Dick Tracy dolls, and Nomad, the Enemy of Rambo, an Arab guerrilla fighter described as “devious, traitorous and desperate.”

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In those cases, as with the Teen Talk Barbie, the main effect of discontinuing the doll amid controversy was to raise the demand from collectors, Cardinale said. In the days after the announcement that the doll would be changed, toy shelves were ransacked by shoppers ripping open Barbie boxes to see which dolls said, “Math class is tough.” Sales jumped, Mattel spokesperson Donna Gibbs said.

Author Lord called the move a “brilliant tactical decision.” Not only did sales increase, but the continual revising of Barbie to please the customers is the main reason the doll continues to be a success, she said.

“The decision to have P.C. Barbie is part of the reinvention that will ensure that Barbie is never going to go away.”

Meanwhile, now that she has access to Mattel, AAUW’s president, Sharon Schuster, dreams of what she might accomplish in its boardrooms.

She envisions Barbie as spokesmodel to encourage girls to achieve. “If Barbie were able to say, ‘I can be pretty, I can dress well and it’s also important that I achieve in school and look to having a good future,’ that would be a powerful message.

“I could see Barbie being the focal point for computer games that appeal to girls.

“Perhaps Barbie could talk about good nutrition and try to deal with the terrible problem of anorexia in girls.”

Mattel’s Gibbs says every consumer complaint is decided on a case-by case basis. “We’re not saying that any group in America with an agenda can review what Barbie says. Mattel is a responsible company. If a group brings up a valid point, we’ll listen and remedy the situation.”

Two years ago, she said, Mattel refused to change an environment-related Barbie commercial opposed as “radical” by the Oregon Lands Coalition, a mining and farming interest group.

Similarly, Mattel was unfazed when a group of sixth-graders buried three Barbie dolls to protest their plastic non-biodegradable material. “The technology doesn’t exist to make Barbie biodegradable,” Gibbs said.

One thing that will never change is Barbie’s shape, Gibbs said. “Why mess with a good formula?”


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