In The News
Barbie has come a long way from her origins as a German depiction of a sex worker. This week Mattel introduced a new campaign with multiple body types, skin tones, and hairstyles. Yvonne Roberts runs through the various criticisms of the Barbie doll in this weekend’s Guardian, and asks: will Barbie ever really grow up and become a laudable child’s toy?
Barbie’s horizons have always been limited to preening, nurturing and fashion. In 2014, the results of a study of a group of girls ran counter to the Barbie slogan, “You can be anything.” In the study, girls who played with Barbie, irrespective of whether she was dressed as a fashion model or a doctor, imagined themselves in fewer occupations than boys.
Roberts’s article cites studies on children’s destruction of Barbies as a rite of passage, the rejection of impossible images; she also asserts that, if Mattel wanted to put their money where their mouth is, they would “perhaps have launched a ‘non-binary’ Barbie, complete with unisex wardrobe and a set of tools.”
Further Reading on JSTOR
Mattel has developed many incarnations of diverse Barbies, from those with a range of skin colors and ethnicities to the new “petite, tall, and curvy” body shapes. Elizabeth Chin’s article in American Anthropologist explores representation alongside the introduction of the Shani line, three new skin tones with modified facial features, in the 1990s:
[The] assertion that it is children’s relationships with things rather than people that is most critically important for their sense of self is utterly startling, and yet utterly in line with a consumerist ethic. This understanding fits in well with the emergence of an industry ready to supply the things kids need in order to have a “positive self image” but neatly sidesteps the question of fundamental social, political, and historical issues that also impinge on children’s experiences and hence their perceptions of themselves as people in the world.
Bookending Chin’s article, are experiences with black children who wonder why there are no Barbies who are pregnant or abused. Chin’s article is worth a read in its entirety, both for the breadth of issues raised and the profound anecdotes shared.
Focusing on Barbie’s array of accessories over the years, Marlys Pearson and Paul R. Mullins ask whether the material symbols of Barbie’s life predict, control, or reflect dominant culture in America. They cover her start as a “career girl,” decades of domestic bliss, and years as a carefree socialite (but came too early, alas, to cover her short-lived career as a videogame designer). They describe Mattel’s move away from homemaking accouterments in the 1980s towards a more aspirational lifestyle (cruises, resorts) as a response to feminist critiques of the time.
Barbie was also an astronaut (but dressed in ruffled spacesuits and galaxy-print gowns), and a dentist (but this was for a marketing collaboration with Crest toothpaste). She even got a military uniform during the Persian Gulf War—but no gun.
Speaking of camouflage, Wendy Varney compares GI Joe (which came out five years after Barbie was introduced) and his narratives (the Cold War; action heroics; a Bond-like rotation of enemies) to those of Barbie (dates; shopping; brand crossover). A wider look at boys’ toys, from Transformers to Men of Steel, reveals a similarly reductive and dehumanizing effect on male children, who are pushed to be emotionless and mechanical—and, of course, always ready for war.
Varley summarizes the issues with all children’s-toy representations, regardless of how many “progressive” steps have been taken in the past few years:
Children are especially poorly resourced to understand the political economies of the entertainment world into which they have been introduced for motives established by corporations…. Even if children do not play precisely with toys as they are encouraged to do by all the promotional accouterments, under the circumstances of the coordinated production and consumption spheres, and with assistance from other socializing apparatus, toys … are likely to regenerate many of the attitudes that have given rise to their peculiar shape.