Amid this summer’s ongoing Barbie-mania came one product drop that actually stood out above the bright-pink cacophony: a line of MyCelia™ EcoWarrior Barbies, inspired by environmental activists including Greta Thunberg and Daryl Hannah, along with the unprecedented announcement that Mattel will stop using plastic completely by 2030.
“I am honored to join forces with Mattel in their visionary efforts to create a better world through play,” said actress and longtime activist Hannah in a news release seemingly issued by the toy company on Tuesday, as reported in outlets from the Washington Times (since removed) to People. “Barbie has changed in many ways since I was a girl, but under the surface, she’s still toxic. Now, when she’s done being used, instead of persisting forever as a poison Barbie will be able to return to the earth, just like all living things. I am thrilled to be a part of this exciting journey.”
Even further, noted the press release, the new Barbie line will soon expand to honor more than 2,500 global environmental activists who have died or been killed in the line of protecting nature in the last decade.
It was all pretty astonishing.
And you’d even be forgiven for finding the news unbelievable — since it was, in fact, a hoax, as shared exclusively with Yahoo Entertainment prior to Tuesday's announcement.
The trick came courtesy of longtime political pranksters the Yes Men, comprising Igor Vamos and Jacques Servin (better known as their activist alter egos, Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum), and Hannah herself, who starred in the fake commercial about the line of EcoWarrior Barbies and was scheduled to host a late-day press conference on Tuesday to reveal the hoax. Together, the activists decided to seize this Barbie-obsessed moment to sound the alarm on the climate crisis.
“This is probably the most successful PR coup of all time when it comes to people thinking that because there are surface changes in the doll that it’s changing some fundamental dynamic in our culture, which it’s not,” Vamos tells Yahoo of the Barbie movie, which he has not yet seen but plans to with his kids. “Barbie is still literally made out of oil by sweatshop workers. … But we’re caught up in identity politics and losing track of what’s happening, which is the planet is being destroyed right in front of us.”
He adds: "To say the doll is feminist now when the toy is contaminating the environment that the future of all humanity and all life depends on is kind of a colossal and bizarre joke."
A Mattel spokesperson told Yahoo regarding the press release: "This release has nothing to do with Mattel. It is not a product and it is fabricated. This is false and inaccurate information." Later, the spokesperson added, "It’s a hoax. Not sure if Ms. Hannah is really involved or not but this has nothing to do with Mattel."
The Yes Men have been using satirical performance art to raise awareness of harmful corporate behaviors — from unfair labor practices to the wreaking of environmental disasters — for over 20 years. In that time, they’ve skewered everyone from Dow Chemical and McDonald’s to Adidas and Starbucks.
And, long before this week, Mattel.
The fake EcoWarrior Barbies announcement was actually a reprise of a project called the Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO), which, back in 1993, saw Vamos and a team of activists pull off a major stunt in protest of the newly released Teen Talk Barbie, which said, among other objectionably sexist phrases, "Math is hard." In response, the underground team purchased hundreds of the Barbies, along with the same amount of talking G.I. Joe dolls; they then switched the voice boxes and put all the toys back on shelves, with the military doll saying things like "Let’s go shopping!" and Barbie uttering, "Vengeance is mine!" It prompted a flurry of gobsmacked media coverage.
Fast-forward to today, when Barbie might finally have the feminist part right thanks to frequent rebrands and fresh help from Greta Gerwig’s anti-patriarchy lens, but the plastic problem remains, says Hannah.
"I feel like they’re separate issues," the Splash star, who has not seen Barbie but has been arrested over the years for protesting issues from the Keystone XL pipeline to the razing of an urban farm in Los Angeles, tells Yahoo.
"I think it's a great thing, actually, that Mattel is trying to join the modern world, and that they're taking this sort of brave step to focus on changing that narrative of ‘math is hard’ … They took a big chance with a brand that's very important to them," she continues. "But nevertheless, they are a multi-billion-dollar corporation. They have the means to be able to make an impact. They're one of the largest toy companies in the world and toys don't need to be made of something that poisons children, literally, and that gets into our bodies, into our systems, into our landfills, into our waterways, into every part of our life support systems."
Because the company has the means, she adds, "they have the power to be able to say, ‘Not only are we going to change what our brand stands for in terms of the messages [about] body image and self-esteem and feminism, but also, like, the basics of just what the product is made out of."
Hijinks as activism
So why have the Yes Men decided that trickery is the way to make bold statements?
"In one word: fun," Vamos, also a media-arts professor, says. "It’s not the best way to do activism, but it's a way that works for a lot of people, and people like to share things that are fun, so it's highly shareable. And … especially in dire times, it helps to be able to have a laugh while you’re trying to make a difference."
Finding the perfect target, he says, is sometimes a matter of something just "leaping out at you" (as in "math is hard"), while other times it's about "fitting into a campaign that already exists, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce being part of climate-change denial movement," which Yes Men seized upon in 2009.
In this latest case, Vamos and Servin were working with Hannah on a documentary about the original 1993 BLO stunt when Hannah suggested it was a good time to target Barbie once again.
Even though they are impersonating corporations with their hoaxes, the Yes Men have surprisingly been sued only once, by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which wound up dropping the legal action.
"We want to be sued, we welcome it, and that maybe makes them fear us a little bit, because that would be an opportunity to hold them accountable in the court of public opinion," says Vamos. "Going into court when you have the moral high ground, you may not win, … but at least you can make your point along the way." With their spotlighting of Adidas over Cambodian working conditions, for example, "it was clear who's in the right and in the wrong, so if they decided to sue over satire, even if they won, we would get to talk about them, and it would amplify the story."
Also, he stresses, "We aren't breaking the law."
But what's wrong with Barbie?
According to the non-profit global alliance Plastic Pollution Coalition, "Barbie (and all of her plastic 'friends' and accessories) are made with at least five types of fossil fuel-based plastics: polyvinyl chloride (PVC), ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA), acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), and hard vinyl — plus additive chemicals," some linked to "asthma, metabolic disorders, obesity, and other health problems."
And then there's her footprint. "Plastic’s endless and toxic existence fuels serious pollution of our air, land, fresh water, ocean and bodies. This pollution starts when the fossil fuel ingredients used to make plastics are extracted from the Earth and continues on into plastics and chemical production, storage, transportation, and manufacturing. Plastics carry on polluting throughout their use and eventual toxic 'disposal' in landfills, incinerators, or the environment," says the coalition.
Even before Gerwig's movie, nearly 60 million Barbies were sold globally, equivalent to more than 100 sold every minute, "contributing emissions equivalent to burning 381 million gallons of gasoline," noted a recent analysis of toys in the Yale Environment Review.
"It's bigger than Mattel, but it's a good place to start because of all the attention that's on them now, and also because they could lead," says Hannah, pointing to a recent announcement about a shift in materials — something Mattel stressed to Yahoo on Tuesday, saying, "We have long-ago announced our sustainability goals, most notably to achieve 100% recycled, recycled or bio-based plastic materials by 2030 which can be found here."
But unfortunately, Hannah says, "there just is no such thing" as recycling, stressing that "we have to face that the petrochemical industry has promoted recycling because it alleviates their guilt around the fact that it is all going to the landfill. … It was all kind of a scam to make people feel better about using disposable plastics."
Indeed, major environmental organizations including Greenpeace have declared recycling to be "a dead-end street," and extensive reporting has called it out as a "myth."
Says Vamos on recycling: "All it means is that you’re using things that have been used before, but it’s still plastic waste. It just kicks the can down the road a little bit. It doesn’t solve the problem at all."
Instead, stresses the campaign, companies must stop making harmful products in the first place — Vamos believes a "wartime approach," such as when the U.S. shut down car production during World War II in favor of focusing all resources on the war effort, is what's called for.
To that end, a centerpiece of the BLO's prank was that Barbies would now be made out of 100% biodegradable matter — like mushroom mycelium (used more and more in shoes and bags as a vegan alternative to leather), algae and seaweed.
Is that even possible?
Yes, Vamos claims, though "it would take a tremendous effort to get up to scale," and it would be expensive. "But what better time than now, when their stock price went up and they’re in the position to actually do it?"
Jokes aside, Hannah says there is no choice but to dig deep to find hope and join the effort to force change.
"The easiest and most basic thing to do is stop doing damage. Do I have hope that we will do it? All I know is that you can be nihilistic about it, or you can keep fighting for people to wake up and do something. And I think you really don't have a choice, you know? It's like … do I commit suicide or do I just keep trying to make my life better?"
As far as the upshot of this week's hoax, Hannah says, "I really do hope that Mattel takes this as a hint of what their next step should be and that they should do it as soon as humanly possible, because there are ways of making things out of other materials that already exist. It would be great if they would say: 'You know, that's a great idea. We might as well be the world's leaders in this and be the first and show the way forward.' It would be beautiful."