If you are a female then Barbie entered your world when imagination and playtime consumed you. The name of this popular doll has been said so many times throughout women’s life that it automatically makes them reminisce about their childhood. It reminds them of the good times they had playing with Barbie, the time they cut off her hair then regretted it later, and the Barbie play-dates with their friends. However, to some cynical women, the memories they have might be disappointing ones of how they did not grow up to be as skinny and pretty as Barbie is. The classical argument regarding Barbie is that she is degrading and detrimental to the young female’s later view of herself. On the contrary, if examined closer it is apparent that Barbie is empowering and gives women the feeling of self worth.
That feeling began in 1959 when Barbie was debuted in the New York Toy Fair by toy manufacturer Mattel. The creator of Barbie and part owner of Mattel, Ruth Handler, says, “Every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of herself in the future” (D’Amato 14). Barbie was the gateway doll for this type of self-expression. Handler came up with the idea of Barbie after watching her daughter cast aside her baby dolls in preference to paper dolls that she tirelessly attempted to keep upright and standing (D’Amato 14). Barbie was modeled after adults and allowed young girls to interact and imagine what it was like in the “grown-up” world. In the 50 years that Barbie has been around she has had a multitude of careers ranging anywhere from teenage fashion model to astronaut. The success of Barbie has been demonstrated by her ability to sell out instantly when she was first introduced and to maintain a top seller to this day.
As one would expect of a top seller, Barbie has found her way on to the front page of many contemporary publications. Papers have been graced with headlines as soft and fluffy as “Barbie and Ken’s Break Up after 43 Years” to the hard and serious headlines reading “Eating Disorders Linked to Barbie.” That’s not all she’s been in the news for: Articles run about the plethora of famous designers such as Vera Wang who have designed outfits for Barbie. Life magazine and People magazine have also done articles dedicated solely to Barbie.
Life magazine, which normally does exposés on famous people, having written an article about Barbie, shows the larger than life reality that Mattel has created for her. According to D’Amato they make Barbie “a real person”(59). D’Amato also thinks that’s why when girls find themselves referring to Barbie they use pronouns such as her and she (14). Through advertising, Mattel was able to give her a life-like persona. On the backs of Barbie’s packaging the manufacturer wrote little biographies that explained the story behind the Barbie in the box. Movies, books, cartoons, comics, coloring books, and commercials promote Barbie as a real person. This made Barbie become even more of a role model to her main consumers: young girls.
Since her main consumers are young girls that are easily influenced, is Barbie a negative or positive role model? Some might argue that she epitomizes the stereotypical male desire of women. With her large breasts and tiny waist she is every man’s dream. Her body dimensions are physically dangerous for women. Nancy Cook, a professor of sociology at Brock University, states, “ Barbie’s chest, waist, and hip measurements come out as 32”-17”-28,” clinically anorexic to say the least.” This illustrates how Barbie has the effect to make young girls feel as if their bodies are not good enough and that they need to be skinnier to be pretty. If they want to be like Barbie, does that mean they have to look like her also?
This want for the perfect “Barbie” body has led many young women to have eating disorders and to develop a serious dissatisfaction with their bodies. Susan Douglas, author of Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work is Done, states, “[it leads girls to the want of] conforming to the Barbie aesthetic of femininity”(164). This means that girls think, in order to be feminine, they must look like Barbie. False expectations lead women to dieting and plastic surgery. They undergo the plastic surgery, which is a dangerous procedure just to look a certain way that Barbie and the media has trained them is beautiful.
Can you really blame Barbie, though, for all the problems that women see in themselves? Is she really the culprit or is this just people’s way of pointing the finger of blame at someone else but themselves? The fact that millions of young girls play with Barbie does not necessarily mean that Barbie caused them to not like their body image. Just like with anything some people are going to take things too far and that is what women that get work done to look just like Barbie are doing. They are taking things overboard.
Okay, sure it is easy to blame Barbie for eating disorders because she is so blatantly ill proportioned, but do little girls not also play with other dolls? Some dolls such as Groovy Girls, which are soft, shapeless, crazy haired dolls, demonstrate the teenage years also just like Barbie. Does this mean that little girls want to grow up looking like a Groovy Girl? No, young girls are not so obsessed with appearance and how others think they should look; they are happy looking just the way they are. Mrs. Lueth, a teacher at South Fort Myers High School, remembers being more interested in the clothes that Barbie wore than what Barbie’s proportions were. It is doubtful that a single doll could have that much influence over a child’s perception of beauty that it would cause them to hate their body.
On the contrary to what people often believe, Barbie did wield a great amount of influence over young girls in that she was such an empowering role model. Barbie broke through the barrier of what the woman’s role in society was. In the last 50 years she has had 180 careers. Mattel’s designer of the ethnic Barbie doll line, Deborah Mitchell, says, “Barbie allows little girls to dream”(Bekwitz 48). Barbie inspires young girls to aspire to be anything and that it is possible for women to make it in the male dominated society that these young girls currently live in. The Mattel campaign for Barbie was, “We girls can do anything, right Barbie”(D’Amato 75)? This ad shows how Barbie is used and portrayed as a role model by the people that market her for Mattel.
An even more impressive quality of Barbie than her plethora of careers is that Barbie is also able to support herself financially. According to Byron Lars, a noted designer, Barbie epitomized everything that women wanted to be and she was rich by her own effort and intelligence (D’Amato 39). She showed young girls that they didn’t need a man to support them and that they could support themselves and be perfectly happy. Cook argued that, “ . . . her apparent independent wealth can make for a very different reading of Barbie than that of a Bimbo . . . . She owns a Ferrari and does not have a husband, she must be doing something right.” It is true, people never hear Barbie and Ken’s dream house or Barbie and Ken’s yacht; people always hear just Barbie’s. This backs up the claim that Barbie is an independent woman and relies on no man. She may have boyfriends, but they are never central to her life and she is always more focused on her current career. It also gave her more time to do the thing that she enjoyed the most, which was shopping for herself.
Another aspect of Barbie that makes her such a positive role model for women is that she is sold in many different nationalities. Deborah Mitchell says, “ Now ethnic Barbie lovers will be able to dream in their own image” (Bekwitz 48). Her line of ethnic Barbie dolls gave young girls the chance to actually be able to relate to the dolls they were playing with. These new ethnic dolls have the same careers as the white Barbie does and shows young girls that they have equal opportunity to have the same careers as people of other races. Not only do young ethnic girls see that they can have the same careers as white people, they also see that they are as beautiful as other races. For so long in American history people of color were not viewed as being as pretty as white people and with the new line of Barbie that was changed.
Her ethnicity is not the only thing that changed as the decades went by. Barbie’s proportions also changed. Abigail Jones, author of “ Barbie Turns 50: The Ultimate Career Woman” says, “ Barbie entered the 21st century with a wider waist, smaller bust, and softer features.” Mattel was probably trying to appease the public because of so much criticism over the years with Barbie’s proportions. This positive change to Barbie makes her even more of a role model and more relatable for young girls.
So this leaves the question, does Barbie make girls dislike their bodies or is she a positive role model? Taking a close look, it is easy to see that yes she may have flaws, but she is still a very strong role model that young girls can look up to and aspire to be like. It is not so much an argument of is she is a good role model or not it is more of a question of if her great qualities outweigh her flaws? It is clear to see that they do.