Rethinking Barbie

She’s one sixth the size of a human and packs both a powerful economic and sociological punch. Mention her name and everyone in the room has an opinion. She’s been accused of adding to the growing epidemic of anorexia and warping both male and female expectations of body image. Yet, every young girl in America longs to own her, dress her and play with her hair. Her name is Barbie and she’s 38 years old this year.

My first Barbie came into my life two weeks ago. I’m a bit older than the target market for this product, about 35 years older, to be exact. I could not remember playing with Barbie as a child, so I asked my parents if I had and they confirmed that I had not. So, I went to the toy store and bought myself a Tropical Barbie (with a tan, sun bleached hair and teeny, weeny floral bikini). I figured if I was going to take a stand, I had best possess an example of the plastic princess who has caused such an uproar.

It seems to me that the discussion of Barbie is polarized. People tend to be either Pro-Barbie or Anti-Barbie. I believe our discussion must be broader than that. The literature to date has failed to take into serious consideration a couple of key groups: these are those women who played with Barbie as a child, who are now mothers themselves, and the children playing with Barbie today.

When I look at women my age, I do not see a group of women warped by Barbie, but a group of women who believe in the power to create a life for themselves. And regarding children of today, we have clearly devalued the role of imagination and the ways in which Barbie broadens, not narrows, play opportunities.

A quick review of most of the literature concerning Barbie focuses on the ways in which Barbie is insufficient or problematic. The articles I read included a look at the self-serving way Mattel has marketed ethnic Barbies (Ducille), the fact that Barbie’s body type is likely to occur only in one in one hundred thousand women (Norton), a discussion of the fiasco that occurred on a college campus when Barbie was included on a poster that celebrated “Women In Action” (Chamberlain) and a satirical lament by a writer who was still looking for Jewish Barbie (Lieberman).

By far, the most interesting and definitive treatise on Barbie is M.G. Lord’s Forever Barbie , anBarbie again and again overview of the history of Mattel and the marketing of Barbie, as well as a look at how Barbie aficionados operate today. Here we learn that Barbie was created by Ruth Handler, who based her loosely on a sexy (even sleazy) German doll named Lilli originally marketed to men. We learn about the ways Mattel has changed its marketing over the last 38 years, noting some clear successes and some very entertaining failures. Remember “Growing Up Skipper,” who developed quite a nice chest when you twisted her arm or “Earring Magic Ken,” who wore a lavender vest, an earring in his left ear and a ring pendant? Lord also focuses on the ways in which Mattel has worked to become inclusive and diversified in it’s marketing attempts. The German doll Lilli bears a striking similarity to Barbie.

Overall, Lord’s book is entertaining and packed with great information about Barbie’s evolution, with definite insight into the phenomenon that is Barbie. My objection to Lord’s approach is that she buries Barbie’s positive attributes.

Like most feminists, I have been less than enthusiastic Barbie. When asked to purchase Barbies for my nieces, I have wondered if this was really the best gift to give them. Would I be contributing to their eventual battles with bulimia? I also do not have any children, so will never be confronted with the possible psychological damage that I may impart by allowing or denying Barbie mania to take hold. Therefore, my analysis depends in part on conversations with my friends and family about what Barbie means to them.

However, after my fifth trip in two years to the fuchsia Barbie temple of Toy’s ‘R’ Us, I began to notice something I had not noticed before. Barbie has many, many- choices in life, in both career and leisure Well-dressed Barbieactivities. I discussed this with a friend Laura and she shared that one summer she and her sister had taken their Barbies (in the ’60s version of a Barbie motorhome) on a tour of the United States, planned out and executed in the back yard. Each of their Barbies also had detailed educational and job experiences, as well as social histories. Another friend said that she and her friends created entire communities where all the Barbies took on new names, with some Barbies married, some not, some had careers, some did not, some were mothers and some not. In other words, a fairly accurate reflection of the world.

I recognized that was the first thing right with Barbie. Barbie is an adult doll, not a baby doll. She may, in fact, be the first adult doll. And, what an opportunity for a young girl to exercise her imagination! A baby doll only offers a child the opportunity to mother it. And, even though today’s baby dolls do everything from eating and drinking to excreting, even chewing when we’d rather they not, you cannot create a complex social history for a baby doll. Offering our daughters the opportunity to play at mothering is certainly an acceptable choice, but it’s only one option. Barbie, on the other hand, allows a young woman to dream about all the possibilities open to her. Barbie can be a doctor, an astronaut, a banker or lawyer, a flight attendant, a fashion designer, a nurse, a gymnast, a horse-woman, a whale trainer, a veterinarian, a personal trainer, an Arctic explorer, a teacher, a circus star, a nightclub singer and now, a member of the Star Trek crew. As a longtime fan of all things Star Trek, I must admit I just purchased the Star Trek Ken and Barbie, brought out for the 30th anniversary of the original series. Because the show first aired in the 1960’s, when miniskirts were in style, Barbie wears a very short-skirted red uniform and sports a close approximation of the Yeoman Rand hair style and color. However, the people at Mattel are not fools, and the back of the box points out that Barbie’s red uniform means she is a member of the ship’s engineering section and a Lieutenant. Alas, Ken wears a gold uniform and is a member of the Command division.

Star Trek BarbieI’m itching to take Ken and Barbie out of the box and create a little cross-dressing exhibition, to see how Barbie looks in gold. But, as any Barbie collector will tell you, Barbies must be NRFB, or “never removed from box to” retain their value. Which leaves me no alternative other than to buy a set I can play with. Which is exactly what many Barbie collectors do. There are few limits to the career choices you can role-play with Barbie. And this is key, I think. My seven year old niece tells me that Barbie is pretty, but that she really likes to play “camping out” and “going on vacation” with her Barbies. This is a accurate reflection of my brother’s life. He and his family travel frequently, often camping out. So, my niece creates this world from her experience for her Barbie.

Barbie once moreMarketing Barbie as an independent woman was very intentional on Mattel’s part. Lord points out that one of the earliest Barbies, first sold in 1960, was “Busy Gal” Barbie, who wore a red linen suit and carried a sketch pad that said “Barbie Fashion Designer.” Her creators, Handler and Charlotte Johnson (who designed early Barbie fashions) were working women and therefore, Barbie has always worked, from the very beginning. Kudos to Mattel for never backing down on that. Nothing sold in the Barbie line suggests that being a housewife is the only career option available for Barbie.

Mattel has also upheld Barbie’s independence by never allowing her to become a mother. Handler felt that would compromise Barbie’s image of free adult womanhood. This is not to be construed as an anti-motherhood message, as Barbie is allowed to exhibit her maternal instincts by baby-sitting and caring for her three younger siblings, Skipper (a preteen), Stacie (about 8 years old), and Kelly, (perhaps three or four years old). There are an infinite variety of baby dolls available to young girls for the role-playing of motherhood. Letting Barbie stay independent is a positive message and again, I congratulate Mattel for that decision.

Barbie also appears to be financially independent. She owns her own sports car, Corvette, Mustang, motorhome, quad (an ATV), speedboat, horses and houses. She seems to enjoy a high standard of living (and while that is admittedly a problem for those young women who cannot aspire to own these things) it’s nice to provide a role model to our daughters with the message that a man not need provide expensive toys for us. We can, if we choose to, purchase them ourselves.

A look at Barbie’s leisure activities offer another opportunity for girls to imagine themselves in many different scenarios. Let’s face it, this doll has a far more exciting life than most of us. She skis, surfs, rollerblades, rides horseback, plays volleyball, scuba dives, dances, ice skates, goes mountain biking, does gymnastics and in general, stays active.

These activities all send the message that physical exertion is healthy and appropriate. I would like to see Mattel continue to expand these opportunities. Perhaps there’s room for a Tae kwon do Barbie, or Softball Barbie (following Dot Richardson’s example) or even Iditarod Barbie. Why not?

When Barbie is not working or being physically active, she goes to the movies, gives dinner parties, takes her pet to the vet, gets her hair done, does the banking, has cookouts, does the shopping, babysits and even makes her own clothes, with the new CD-ROM designer software.

A third point in Barbie’s favor is that Ken plays a minor part in her life. Ken dolls come in several outfits, but really he’s just there if Barbie happens to want go on a date. She does not stand around waiting for Ken to show up, (regardless of that recent car commercial). Barbie’s life is about friends, female friends. Barbie can be found doing all of the things I mentioned earlier and I admit it, even shopping, with her female pals. It’s a social world in which a young woman learns to think in terms of directing her own life without waiting for a man to lean on. Barbie’s female friends are more important than waiting around for Ken and that’s a good lesson for young women.

Asian Barbie Also, Barbie is multinational, not ethnocentric. She can be found wearing a wide variety of clothing from all over the world. At an FAO Schwartz store recently, I found Barbie in French, Ghanian, Indian (not Native American), Norwegian, Russian, Mexican and Japanese traditional dress. There’s been considerable discussion about the way in which Mattel chooses the clothing the global Barbie’s wear, with concern that it is often stereotypical. While there may be some truth to this, it is more significant that Barbie in native dress may arouse the interest of a young woman to take a global view of her world and that’s certainly a good thing.

I know that this may be hard for my feminist sisters to swallow, but Barbie is here to stay. Perhaps the best thing for us to do would be to lobby Mattel to make Barbie more realistic in her measurements, fix those silly arched feet and continue to expand both the career choices for Barbie (Naturalist Barbie with khakis and binoculars, Telemarketer Barbie with headset and cubicle, Firefighter Barbie with yellow firegear and Dalmatian, Waitress Barbie with order pad and shirt from TGIFriday’s), as well as her leisure activities. How about Parachute Barbie or Motorcycle Barbie or Bowling Barbie? The possibilities are endless and that’s the point.

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