Controversy over Beautiful and Bald Barbie, a Facebook page that I had described a few days ago, devoted to encouraging Mattel to issue a bald Barbie doll. While the creators of the FB page aimed the Barbie at young girls who have hair loss due to cancer treatments and other causes, it was clear from the 100,000 people who Liked the page that such a Barbie would find an audience with adult survivors as well.
The new controversy comes from, of all place, the American Cancer Society website, specifically from a blog post written by Andrew Becker, the ACS's Director of Media Relations (in other words, ironically, their head public relations guy). On Friday, Becker wrote a blog post addressing the Bald Barbie issue, and he was very much not in favor of it. He likened the Bald Barbie to rubber bracelets and other attempts to "raise awareness," which he finds hollow. He believes that the money spent on such a doll would be better donated to research, not "awareness" campaigns.
But one paragraph really struck a chord -- a very bad chord:
Childhood cancer is exceedingly rare. I would also argue that cancer is rare among the age group of women likely to have daughters young enough to play with Barbies. Women have about a one in 50 chance of developing any kind of cancer before the age of 40 . Which brings me to the claim that bald Barbies can help improve the self-image of little girls who are faced with having lost their hair, or seeing their mothers lose their hair. If they are mass marketed, many of these dolls will end up in the hands of girls who luckily aren’t likely to be touched by cancer in themselves or their mothers. But could they end up being terrorized by the prospect of it in a far outsized proportion to their realistic chances? There is no reason to create this sort of fear. It’s why we don’t see advocates calling for lightning strike dolls.
Lots of people -- lots of people -- took issue with the comparison of childhood cancer to lightning strikes, and the idea of a "lightning strike doll" was seen by many as belittling the issue of childhood cancer. There's also the suggestion that kids would be "terrorized" by seeing someone bald from cancer treatments. (That's not exactly what he's saying, but it's how a lot of people who are dealing with childhood cancer interpreted it.)
Becker has removed the original post (though it was copied and commented on by lots of bloggers, including this one), and has issued an apology. He said that his intention with the post was to "raise questions about activism and social media around disease," rather than make it seem like the ACS didn't think children with cancer mattered.
Wow. So much going on with this.First of all, I'm stunned that a PR professional would write something so...dumb? Unaware? I'm not really sure what the word is that I'm looking for. I have no idea what the relationship is between the ACS and the Susan Komen folks, but I'm guessing it isn't very good. His comments seem to be an attack on those who promote "awareness" over everything else, especially research. What a very strange way of making that point, though.
I find it pretty interesting, too, that he wrote the post on Friday, which is when I wrote my own comment on the Beautiful and Bald Barbie Facebook page. But I wrote mine late enough to see what kind of reactions people were having to the Barbie. I don't know when Becker wrote his, but he clearly hadn't seen the kind of support, and the kind of reasons, people were giving to the cause. It went way beyond simply kids with cancer. Barbie, as I noted Friday, is a symbol of all kinds of things, and a bald Barbie plays with that symbolism in really important ways. He missed all of that.
Finally, I find it fascinating that a blogger -- someone steeped in social media -- had so little understanding of how social media works, and how it can be useful. The Public Relations expert had 100,000 things to think about, had he looked at the Facebook page. He would have had all kids of opportunity to gauge reaction. It's an incredible case study in the way social media works -- and how it can go horribly wrong.