So my daughter recently had a Hen’s party where the theme was Barbie in a Barbie’s World.
Barbie is the most famous doll in the world. She’s been played with, studied, celebrated and criticised for over 50 years.
Her fans – many of whom were at the party – love her. But she is a dolly that causes distress as well as devotion.
All the guests took to the theme enthusiastically as the following pictures reflect.
I came along as a Women’s Liberation Barbie complete with placard and leaflets.
Here is what the leaflet said:
Training Girls to Hate Their Bodies Since 1959
Barbie’s a piece of curved plastic that has managed to achieve icon status by decades of clever marketing.
Queen of Sex-Role Stereotyping
Barbie is anatomically ridiculous and horribly over-sexed – she has enormous boobs, tiny waist, boyish, non-existent bottom and impossibly long legs. She is totally unrealistic - too top heavy and too small-footed to stand upright.
This doll perpetuates a fantasy of womanhood that ordinary girls and women can never, ever live in the real world.
“She has a non-functional body with nipple free breasts that are more than twice the circumference of her minute waist. Legs twice as long as her torso and feet so tiny she cannot stand on them. She is unlikely to be effective in her career roles as astronaut, vet or stewardess.” Germaine Greer.
Yet considered a perfectly perfect role model for little girls to grow into.
Throughout the 1960s Barbie’s careers were in stereotypical work roles for women – teachers, nurses, stewardesses. But in 1973 with the onset of Women’s Liberation Barbie moved with the times and became a surgeon.
This outfit was a
scrub dress that fell to the middle of her thigh with no pants on underneath.
She may well have been kicked out of the operating theatre with this on! In
1987 the surgeon Barbie wore a pink!
sheath that did fall below the knees, but over it a silky, slightly
see-thru white “doctor’s coat. This doll was sold with a fancy dress for
fabulous night-time activities.
|1973 Surgeon Barbie|
When she became an astronaut she looked more like an aerobics instructor in her form-fitting outfit, than a real woman astronaut. Barbie-style “beauty” – i.e. exaggerated body features - is a central characteristic of being an astronaut or any other career she role-plays.
But mostly the Barbies on sale in mass outlet stores are the pretty Cinderella types waiting for Prince Charming – or Ken as the case may be.
Barbie encourages consumerism. There is always another outfit to buy for the dolly. She teaches girls at an early age to observe and mimic fashion and the super-skinny emaciated models who market the outfits and accessories.
Heidi Klum says she wants to “look as good as Barbie when she is 50.”
Women’s dislike of their own real bodies is excellent for business
My main gripe I wanted to make about Barbie is that the doll is a hugely influential cultural transmitter of an ideal about the female body that damages girls and women.
Barbie's ridiculous non-functional body lies about real girls and women’s bodies. Barbie dolls perpetuates a fantasy of womanhood that serves many kinds of businesses very well (for example, cosmetic surgeons, the fashion and dieting industries).
The Barbie devotees at our Party said to me “But she’s just a doll”!
Yet all the research tells us that media and other cultural icons make a huge impact on young people.
Dolls aren’t just dolls. When children play with dollies, they project their imagination and dreams onto them at the same time learning how to mimic adult behaviour.
They most certainly internalise the painfully thin body shape of their dolls.
To say she is ‘just a doll” and that her body shape doesn’t cause harm is a nonsense.
Her stick-like figure and endless wardrobes have become an ideal image of womenhood that is wildly unrealistic, yet serves to teach young girls that there is always another outfit, another accessory, another “look” to strive for.
The medium of Barbie has become her message.
Barbie is one of the nails in the coffin of massive societal issues such as anorexia and dislike of our female selves. Supermodels have embodied the Barbie look since the 1960s. Thin is still hot. Emaciated anorexic models dominate the fashion scene and Barbie is the Queen of them all.
Naomi Wolf says “The harm of these images is not that they exist, but that they proliferate at the expense of most other images and stories of female heroines. If the icon of the anorexic fashion model were one flat image out of a full spectrum in which young girls could find a thousand wild and tantalizing visions of possible futures, that icon would not have the power to hurt them.”
And there are not other kinds of dollies for little girls to play with – Barbie and her look-alikes reign supreme in the mass market as aspirational role models for girl children.
“Barbie has always represented the fact that a woman has choices.” (Ruth Handler, inventor of Barbie)
But I would argue the choices have always been severely qualified by Barbie’s Look.
Appearance is all with Barbie.
Sure Barbie became president before Hilary Clinton ran for the office.
Barbies don’t declare that women are as qualified as men no matter what they look like. The Policewoman Barbie had the uniform but also an evening gown in the same package.
Obviously you need to look a certain way – i.e. pretty, preferably blond - to be who you wanna be. When Barbie enters the “male” arena, her clothing still keeps her in her female “place”.
Early into the 1990s, Mattel’s Career Collection had a tag line that states “Girls can do anything.” (originally a feminist expression de-fanged by capitalism; capitalism is so good at adapting to criticism, re-packaging and commodifying it as quickly as possible.)
And mostly the Barbies on sale in mass outlet stores are the pretty Cinderella types waiting for Prince Charming – or Ken as the case may be.
Barbie was created by Ruth Handler who was born in 1916 in Colorado USA.
Ruth was a self-proclaimed tomboy , confident and ambitious. “I didn’t like dolls and never played with them.”
She was co-founder of the company Mattel when she was mother to 2 children Ken and Barbara.
Ruth noticed her daughter’s play habits and found she and her friends lost interest in their baby dolls at a young age. Baby dolls made up the bulk of dolls that were available to girls during the 1950s (Motherhood was considered the major career option for women then).
The other type of doll available was the “glamour doll”. These sexy dolls were encouraging girls to buy and learn how to use beauty products – eg “ Miss Revlon” or “Coty Girl” .
However what young girls played with were adult paper dolls. Girls (including myself) spent hours changing their outfits and putting them into different scenarios, making the flimsy paper dolls into real people.
Ruth Handler turned these paper versions into a 3D version. She thought of her Barbie as a teenage fashion model and her wardrobe played a crucial role in her concept. She found her prototype in a German comic strip – Bild-Lilli (who happened to be a prostitute).
Bild Lili was an adult doll who was a social fashionista, certainly not a doll for children, nevertheless Handler found the plastic manufacturer who could mould the new vinyl and launched her version of this doll - Barbie - in the 1959 Toy Fair in New York. The doll had breasts, curves, painted on makeup and a couture wardrobe.
Ruth knew the parents would object to her doll’s figure (she had breasts!) but she cleverly marketed the doll as a ‘real person’ and marketed their product directly to children instead of parents and toy store buyers.
The doll hit the zeitgeist - suddenly Barbie was a hit. Countless young girls started playing with the doll, acting out their dreams about the future and what it meant to be a girl.
The classic story of how cultural sex- stereotypes are made.
Barbie became every girl’s most glamourous best friend.
With her vast wardrobe and different looks - Barbie could become anything a child wanted her to be – an astronaut, a vet, a ballet dancer.
She has dressed for more than 120 careers, was an independent candidate for US President 4 times, an Olympic gold medallist and has represented 50 different nationalities.
In America girls between the ages of 3 and 6 own an average of 12 Barbies. 90% of girls between ages of 3 and 10 own at least one doll. Somewhere in the world according to Mattel, a Barbie doll is purchased every 3 seconds.
A doll of great power!
But is this power for the good? Barbie has been called “The American Dream” Just because our children love the dream and grow into adults who reproduce and then train another generation of girls to love and consume the dream – does this make it ok?
Do we want to go on reproducing this American Dream anymore when so much of it is so obviously a nightmare?
Children need dollies to play with to love and to learn from. But it makes me sick that this mass produced ultra-thin Barbie idea goes on dominating the doll scene! I want a feminist dolly to love, who’s got a real girl’s body with real feet that stand on the ground and real curves where curves oughta be.
Thanks to the book;-
The Good The Bad and the Barbie
A Doll’s History and Her Impact on Us By Tanya Lee Stone. 2010
|Military Industrial Complex Barbie & Cowgirl Barbie|