Anyway, I was allowed a Sindy doll. She was British – as were we. Sindy was less extreme than Barbie. She was younger – she looked like a mid-teenager. Her waist was less thin, her breasts smaller and less pointy, she didn’t have permanent makeup and her feet were not arched in a permanent stiletto pose bound to cause bunions. And she wasn’t blonde, she was brunette with straight hair, like me. Altogether more attainable.
And I was never much of a “doll” girl anyway – I would much rather have ridden my bike or climbed a tree. But it stuck with me, this early comment about Barbie. And over the years as Barbie has become more and more ubiquitous for little girls (as has the colour pink), I wonder what we are telling them.
1. Barbie is an exaggerated view of femininity. No surprises there, from here exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics, permanent makeup, and plethora of clothing and accessories, the abundance of pink in various shades. Only one brand of femininity here, girls. (And there are models whose speciality is to have a flat expressionless facade like a doll – a non-interactive, compliant and malleable partner.)
2. Barbie is heterosexual. While the doll itself might not explicitly tell you this, the fan magazines are full of stories of Barbie and her friends dating or preparing for dating. (Barbie does not seem to have any messy breakups or bad dates. More unrealistic expectations!) Nothing wrong with Barbie being hetero, but again, it is a one-note song.
3. Barbie has had a series of careers which over the years have become increasingly less traditional. Having started as a fashion model, ballerina and Flight Stewardess, she moved into: astronaut (1965, 1985, 1994), nurse (1961), plastic surgeon (!!) (1973) and doctor (1988), serial presidential candidate but somehow never actually president (1992, 2004, 2008, 2012), various military roles since 1991 (coincidentally timed to fit with Gulf Wars I & II and the war in Afghanistan), police officer (1993), Canadian Mountie (2005), Firefighter (1995) and perhaps the high point, Computer Engineer (2010). However, these careers in Barbie-world really only meant a different wardrobe, as every career woman knows……
4. Of course there are the obvious unrealistic body-image issues. Not much to add there, it speaks for itself. And the very westernised homogenous view of beauty – although Mattel did allow the doll to be adapted for the Japanese market – and sales rocketed. And before you think that these early images do not affect impressionable minds, think of those rather strange women who have multiple plastic surgeries to try to look like Barbie. Of course these are the extremes and one wonders what they were told to make them think a Barbie facade would improve their lot in life.
4. Consumerist culture. To quote from A reader in promoting public health: challenge and controversy, “to buy a Barbie is to lust after the Barbie accessories – that pair of sandals and matching handbag, the canopy bed, or country camper. Both conspicuous consumer and a consumable item herself…” All in pink.
I am sure many of my friends were raised with Barbies and were not damaged by the experience. But as an icon of modern western society and an indicator of an acceptable view of women and something that we place before young girls as a role model toy in their formative years…..well, lets hope they are out climbing trees as well.
There is quite a body of literature on deconstructing the meaning of Barbie, so if you are interested, Google is your friend.
Meanwhile, have a look at this site which recreates famous art pieces using Barbie as the model.