One day the toy designers at Mattel decide to test a new Barbie Jeep with their target audience. Three lucky girls get to play with the plastic pink automobile at the company headquarters, plus Barbie and Ken and some toy designers looking on. When one little girl puts Barbie in the driver’s seat the other grabs her hand: “No!” she exclaims, “The Daddy drives the car!”
The designers look at each other and shrug. “And they say we’re the problem.”
This anecdote, related by Sherry A. Inness in The Barbie Chronicles is the perfect qualifier for what I’m about to tell you. Toys have an effect on how people see the world. It was made clear in Part I of this study that Barbie is an integrated, significant part of consumer culture, and yet every individual who plays with her brings some of her own bias and experience into the fold.
Researchers across disciplines agree that to a certain extent, toys socialize children and help to form their conception of the social world around them. Because of Barbie’s cultural prominence, she has become a feature of social organization. Many scholars argue that Barbie may have negative effects on the self-images of the (mostly) girls playing with her, and that she enforces gender stereotypes. Others note that she was the first adult fashion doll on the market, whose character was from the start oriented towards individual gratification rather than domestic duties.
Toys canfacilitate or complicate the social reactions between the people playing with them. In The Cute and the Cool, Gary Cross explores the conflict which emerged when Barbie and other “new” toys debuted in the 1950s, confounding parents whose own playthings (and play) were drastically different, making it harder for them to relate to their children’s play. Toys have a social function as a way for people to interact with one another, which characterize their users in the eyes of those around them (i.e. the woman who scolded my mother in the waiting room all those years ago). Because of Barbie’s prominence as a commodity, she fulfills both these social functions. Susan Stern was inspired to make the film Barbie Nation when her daughter suggested they play the “jealousy game” with Barbie—Stern was instructed to pretend her doll was jealous of everything about her daughter’s Barbie, and the suggestion provided an eye-opening insight into her daughter’s mind. The film itself features a couple who connected with each other thanks to their shared passion for depicting Barbie and friends in elaborate S&M scenarios, an example which illustrates how Barbie can facilitate social relations among her owners.
More publicly, a variety of testimonials express that the extent of a girl’s Barbie collection in the late 20th century could ascribe or detract from her status among schoolmates. Sociologist Brian Sutton-Smith claims that toys can become “an identity around which a child organizes his or her actions and concepts of the world.” If this is true, Barbie was a way for middle or lower class people to identify vicariously with the upper class. One woman remembers, “Barbie was affordable to the middle class, but seemed to have everything materially – associating her subconsciously with the upper class.” (Rogers, 65)
Outside of North America, Barbie has become a totem of the American consumerist way of life. A woman growing up in Nicaragua during wartime recalls, “Barbie was a symbol of status...What having a Barbie meant was that the lucky owner’s parents had access to ‘the exterior’... some little girls had access to the precious blonde doll; most didn’t” (Rogers, 64). Thus the physical possession of the doll signalled its owner to her neighbourhood as one of the “haves”. The doll also served a similar function for her owner internally. The same Nicaraguan woman remembers: “the more our Barbies had, the more we had.” Barbie allowed her owner to vicariously live a life of glamourous consumption through her doll. These examples illustrate that Barbie’s place in the culture at large gives her an immaterial social and psychological function.
In contrast, Carol Ockerman examined artistic appropriations of Barbie, and found that artists use defaced or unconventional images of her to repudiate the social order. A simple internet search reveals that Barbie has been used as a canvas on which to depict a variety of social and personal problems, from domestic violence to impossible beauty standards. Outside of North America, where Barbie represents the dominance of consumer culture, she has been appropriated to repudiate it. In 2004, “Alyona Pisklova”a fifteen year old Russian girl swept her nations online voting for a Miss Universe contestant on the platform that a vote for her was a vote against the “Barbification” of society which she defined not only as promoting unnatural beauty standards, but other Western imports coming in from faceless corporations. Pisklova was far ahead of all competition when she was disqualified due to her age.
The widespread criticism of Barbie’s influence on beauty standards reveals more about the people doing the arguing than it does about the doll herself. Perhaps I am not qualified to join this argument because I have always been thin, blonde, and leggy. But it seems to me people pick and choose what parts of Barbie’s body they ought to be angry about, and ignore everything that goes against their viewpoint. We all know about the blonde hair, perfect complexion, big boobs and legs-up-to-here. But how about those shoulders? The classic Barbie doll had shoulders twice as broad as her waist. Her ribcage was twice the circumference of her rear end, which meant her breasts were actually pitiably small. These are not attractive features on a human being. The whistleblowers that go to great pains to elaborate on how unrealistic Barbie’s figure is never seemed to recognize that no one wanted that figure to begin with. Broad shoulders and a barrel chest are not something little girls dream of having, whether they played with Barbie or not. The advertisements one sees on every billboard, bus shelter and tv spot are the far more likely culprits in adolescent girls’ lowered self esteem, because we are actually made to believe those women exist in nature. Those women have the legs, the hair, the rail thin bodies. But they don’t have the broad shoulders or the freakishly long neck. If Barbie was such an aspirational figure for little girls, wouldn’t they grow up wanting those things too?
In an ironic turn of events, Mattel responded to criticism by making their doll’s body more realistic in the early twenty first century –not realistic enough to assuage young girls’ fears that they will never be beautiful, but realistic enough that she now looks like an idealized female figure, and not a well made drag queen, as she had for decades.
In the American gay community, Barbie has actually been referred to as “every drag queen’s dream.” With her broad shoulders and lack of hips, the pre-millennial Barbie resembled a transsexual more than anything else. Gay and trans-gendered people have embraced this comparison, dressing as Barbie at pride parades and carrying signs that read, “Barbie loves you” and “Got Barbie?” Essentially, Barbie helped them situate themselves in a discriminatory culture.
These examples show the many ways in which the Barbie doll has transcended its material status as a commodity. Like most toys, Barbie is an agent of personal socialization and interpersonal relations. However, aggressive marketing and integration into pop culture has expanded her influence from that of a toy, to a form of social organization of gender, and a symbol of American consumer culture. Because she represents a cultural ideal, Barbie has been a focal point around which groups and individuals have organized to alternately reject and co-opt the status quo. This iconic status makes Barbie an atypical commodity, but one which provides insight into the ways consumerism becomes culture.
Gary Cross, The Cute and the Cool: Wondrous Innocence and Modern American Children’s Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Forman-Brunel, Miriam, “Barbie in ‘LIFE’: The Life of Barbie.” The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 2 (2009): 303-311.
Kolmar, Wendy, “Remembering Barbie Nation: An interview with Susan Stern.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 30: ½ (2002): 189-195.
Kuther, Tara L., and Erin McDonald, “Early Adolescents’ Experiences With, and Views of, Barbie.”Adolescence 39:153 (2004): 39-51.
M. G. Lord, Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. New York: Morrow and Co., 1994.
NBC. “Schoolgirl becomes unlikely feminist icon in Russia:15-year-old sweeps online poll for Miss Universe spot in ‘anti-Barbie’protest vote.” Last modified April 15, 2004. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4749107/ns/world_news/.
Ockman, Carol,“Barbie Meets Bougereau,” in The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty, ed. Yona Zeldis McDonough, 75-90. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
Paris, Leslie,“Teen Idol,” in The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty, ed. Yona Zeldis McDonough, 65-74. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.
Mary F. Rogers, Barbie Culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Ltd, 1999.
Stern, Susan. Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour. DVD, 1998. San Francisco, CA: New Day Films, 2003.