New Eleanor Roosevelt Barbie thrills historians: 'Any way you can capture children's attention in 2021'

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Mattel's new Eleanor Roosevelt Barbie hit shelves on Wednesday. (Photo: Mattel)
Mattel's new Eleanor Roosevelt Barbie hit shelves on Wednesday. (Photo: Mattel)

Women's History Month kicked off this week, and toymaker Mattel, for its part, dove in with an announcement: It would be releasing an Eleanor Roosevelt Barbie, part of its Inspiring Women Series, which has previously mass-produced versions of Billie Jean King, Sally Ride, Susan B. Anthony, Maya Angelou and others who "paved the way for generations of girls to dream bigger than ever before," a press release noted.

It went on to explain that the newest doll, "A champion of policies around civil and economic rights, Eleanor Roosevelt’s passionate advocacy was unwavering, even when faced with resistance. Earning the title 'First Lady of the World' for her hard work and dedication to humanitarian efforts, Eleanor Roosevelt’s perseverance redefined the role of women in politics and public life."

Barbie, of course, tends to bring out strong feelings in people. The petite, 60-year-old doll was derided by some for decades (and still is) over her comically unrealistic proportions and details — from her tiny waist to her stiletto-ready feet — and accused, even found through studies, of doing years of damage to the collective body image of little girls everywhere. Not to mention its diversity problem.

But Mattel has been making obvious efforts over the years to turn its Barbie brand around, introducing dolls representing a range of races, physical abilities, body sizes and careers, as well as continuing its Inspiring Women series — releasing Roosevelt, which hit shelves on Wednesday, along with its "You Can Be Anything" virtual series, starting Saturday, ahead of International Women's Day, spotlighting current role models including Yara Shahidi and Adwoa Aboah.

To get an early read on how news of Roosevelt's Barbie version is going over, we turned to those who know her best: renowned researchers and historians of the First Lady of the World.

Blanche Wiesen Cook, historian and professor of history

Author of definitive biographies Eleanor Roosevelt, Vol I: The Early Years 1884-1933, Vol II The Defining Years 1933-1938; Vol III The War Years and After

"I am delighted that Eleanor Roosevelt will be a Barbie doll – imagine! Young people will contemplate her vision: health care, housing, dignity for all! Human rights, peace, justice for all. The end of racism, bigotry, cruelty, poverty! The triumph of love and hope throughout the world."

Carl Sferrazza Anthony, first ladies historian

Author of a dozen books on the topic, including the forthcoming Camera Girl, about future first lady Jacqueline Bouvier's time as a newspaper columnist

"I think it’s very cool. It's reality in 2021," he tells Yahoo Life. "There is so much competition for attention among children and so, whether it’s in cartoon form or comic book form or toy form, it’s important that essential historical figures are understood and studied. Oftentimes the best way is to meet children in the world that they occupy because by introducing them at a young age and capturing their fascination you often will lead to a deeper and better lifelong interest…" Adds Sferrazza Anthony, "I began researching Eleanor Roosevelt 30 years ago, and to this day when I read material about her, I am still stunned by her vision and stunned by her wisdom and her compassion, and it’s very important that she not in any way be forgotten…Any way you can capture children’s attention in 2021 — and sustain it — is worth pursuing."

"The dress doesn’t make her look like toothpick! And [the hat] looks like one of the hats she wore," notes historian Allida Black. (Photo: Mattel)
"The dress doesn’t make her look like toothpick! And [the hat] looks like one of the hats she wore," notes historian Allida Black. (Photo: Mattel)

Amy Bloom, bestselling writer and psychotherapist

Author of White Houses, the historical novel about Roosevelt and her longtime lover, journalist Lorena Hickok

"This announcement made my day. Eleanor Roosevelt went from being America's princess in the Roosevelt dynasty (the adored niece of President Teddy Roosevelt) to being an advocate for the poor and the disenfranchised. She came later in life to political activism — desegregation, civil rights, voters' rights, women's rights — and once there, she did not falter," Bloom says. "She didn't care what the press said about her (too brash, too caring, too political) or what her enemies said (women should be seen and not heard). This Barbie is wonderful for young girls and possibly even better for their mothers and grandmothers. Can't stop, won't stop."

Sue Williams, documentary filmmaker

Director of American Experience: Eleanor Roosevelt for PBS

"It strikes me as ironic, almost poignant, because when Eleanor was a small child, her mother made her painfully aware that she was definitely not a beauty; it was a deep wound that likely never healed," Williams tells Yahoo Life. "Today, Eleanor’s work as a champion of civil rights, a defender of the poor and dispossessed, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s partner in many of his domestic programs, so far outweigh any of her physical attributes that they are all but forgotten. And if young girls today are encouraged to learn – from Barbie, no less — about Eleanor’s full complexity, her determination, political strengths and sharp intelligence, realizing that her appearance was simply irrelevant, I think it’s just fine."

"Girls need more role models like Eleanor Roosevelt," notes the packaging of the new Barbie, "because imagining they can be anything is just the beginning. Actually seeing that they can makes all the difference." (Photo: Mattel)
"Girls need more role models like Eleanor Roosevelt," notes the packaging of the new Barbie, "because imagining they can be anything is just the beginning. Actually seeing that they can makes all the difference." (Photo: Mattel)

David Michaelis, best-selling biographer

Author of Eleanor

"My first thought was, well her uncle got the Teddy Bear, so why not?" says Michaelis. "Here’s the thing about Eleanor — yes, she had buck teeth. Yes, had a reputation for being plain, for being homely… but in real life, when people experienced her, they were almost uniformly blown away. She was fresh, youthful, urbane, she had energy, and when you got up close, she had glow that came through her clear skin. She had luminous blue eyes… and a radiant smile, lustrous, upswept hair… and she was quite something, according to people from Ernest Hemingway to the little girl in a town she visited famously piping up and saying, 'She’s not so bad looking after all.' I thought the way [Mattel] presented her on the box was really stunning and wonderful, and so from an educational and historical point of view, this is terrific… This is an idealization, and Barbie is necessarily an idealization, but what interests me is how Mattel is presenting her [on the box], with a pretty glamorous black and white photo, with copy about her as an international figure of human rights and the NAACP… all pieces of what Eleanor really was…"

Allida Black, research professor of history, Eleanor Roosevelt historian and FDR Library Trustee

Editor emeritus of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers

"I think it’s fabulous. I’m all for people learning about Eleanor Roosevelt in whatever way reaches them, and if this inspires young girls and even young boys to have the vision and the courage of Eleanor, I say go for it," Black says. "Eleanor liked clothes — she posed for Vogue magazine — so it’s also sort of lovely to see her characterized as a woman of fashion rather than denigrated as a woman of sorrow with horrible teeth. She really is stereotyped as ugly as sin, which is totally not accurate. She had piercing blue eyes, a smile that lit up a room, and young Eleanor was drop-dead gorgeous. So, I'm happy to see this, happy for children to be exposed to her… Plus the dress doesn’t make her look like a toothpick! And [the hat] looks like one of the hats she wore. I'm just glad she’s not in a swimsuit."

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