Is it sexist? Barbie

Barbie has been the favourite target of feminists for quite some time. My own mother hated those dolls with such a passion, she went through great length to convince me and my sister that other toys were much cooler than Barbie. She was actually right, btw. Though my mother was against it, I eventually did own a Barbie, but I preferred playing with my other dolls and Lego. I was always the happiest whenever I could go creative and build something, and a Barbie was, at least back then, not the most creative toy out there by a long shot.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that Barbie is a very successful but also controversial toy. But how damaging is it really?

I actually had a hard time to find an answer to this question. There is the basic problem that Barbie is a pink isle product, but being marketed gender-specific is not a problem unique to Barbie. While being part of this mechanism is a mark against the toy, it doesn’t deserve special hatred or accusations of being responsible for a system which is way older than Barbie. In the end, every doll is in the pink isle, and I guess Barbie deserves some credit for not existing in order to condition girls that having a baby to care for is something great and rewarding. It looses the credit, though, for presenting an unreachable beauty ideal.

But then, so does He-man and more or less every human-shaped action figure geared towards boys. So, if we keep discussing Barbie’s influence on girls, shouldn’t we focus just as much on toys encouraging toxic masculinity in boys? After all, sexism is to a large part rooted in who men see women, and not just in how women see themselves. Though this is no excuse for Barbie. This just means that there might be a need to broaden the conversation. Still, in the “is Barbie so much worse than other toys” question, I am inclined to give a “no” if the discussion stops by the way Barbie looks.

But there is also the question what Barbie represents. Some people would claim that the Barbie of today represents a modern woman, who can be everything she wants, from a doctor over a scientist to an astronaut. But there is no denying it: The office or the lab is not Barbie’s natural habitat so to speak. A Barbie belongs first and foremost in a dream house. And if you have ever examined one of those dream houses, you might have noticed that such a dream house is way more likely to contain a vanity table than an office.

Not that there aren’t any offices. But let’s examine those offices on a very specific example:


This is actually an older toy. How do I know this? Because I know the Barbie featured in it. In fact, I have said Barbie stored away in a protective plastic box. So yes, the best hit for an office Barbie is a version which is decades old, and which was sold separately from the Barbie which was supposed to inhabit it. But when I saw this, I was finally able to put a finger on what bothered me about the various job related Barbies. Do you see the advertising on the package? What it emphasises is that the office is “beautiful”. Oh, and it actually is not just an office, but also a glamorous bedroom with, what else, a vanity.

Now, let’s imagine this would be a boy’s toy. What would be advertised on the package? Most likely it would emphasis various gadgets which can be used. Not that they would sell an office to boys in the first place, too boring, they would get a builder complete with machinery to use or an astronaut with a rocket. But you can bet that it would be all about that you can actually move the cars around, press buttons and in general do a lot of stuff with it. In short, the figure is the avatar for the player so that he can pretend to be a builder or an astronaut. But with a Barbie most of the time it is not about actually being a builder or an astronaut, it is about dressing up like one. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s take a look at the Barbie above. Do you know what its biggest selling point was? I’ll give you a hint:


That is right, the main thing you are supposed to do with this Barbie is to dress her up for an after work party by taking off the jacket and the hat, turning the skirt inside out, using the scarf as a belt and exchanging the shoes for another pair. Because that’s what is in the suitcase, shoes. Even the calculator is only there to pose with it. And the office you can buy for her is only a backdrop, too.

And here lies the actual problem with Barbie. Not in the body image or her being the ultimate girl’s toy, but in the emphasis on superficial features. It is nearly never about actually being someone who has a job, it is just about looking that part. Astronaut Barbie doesn’t come with a rocket, it comes with a fashionable Astronauts suit and nothing else.

So yes, this time around my verdict is that Barbie is sexist. But don’t worry, Barbie fans, I don’t think that she is a lost cause. I at least found some newer Barbies which come with proper lab or doctor equipment. They are still the exception, but if they become the rule, Barbie could turn into a positive role model. Free her from the Dream house, free her from the vanity and allow Barbie to be whatever a girl could want to be. But as long as Barbie is only about dressing up, it is suggesting to little girls that appearance is everything. And that is not a lesson they should learn, like, ever.

Sorry, it has been a while. I just have been very, very busy, but I’ll try to get back to a more regular posting schedule. If you have any suggestions for characters or topics I should tackle, feel free to drop me a line. Otherwise I will most likely continue an old series of mine.



20 thoughts on “Is it sexist? Barbie

  1. Based on all of that, how did you fee about the Amy Schumer Barbie movie that was going to happen until she recently had to pull out due to scheduling difficulties. I gather they are still making the movie, but it might not be the same. The original was to star Schumer as Barbie, and was co-written by her and her sister. It obviously would have addressed the “Is Barbie sexist?” question head-on.

    • From what I heard about the movie, it was mostly about addressing someone being “too fat” to fit into the Barbie world – and I honestly feel that the body in itself is the smaller problem with Barbie. Don’t get me wrong, it is a problem, but in the end a movie along this line makes the same mistake Mattel does, making Barbie all about appearances. If they really want to make a Barbie movie, they should do a story about “Barbie” starting a new job and turning up perfectly dressed, just to realize that her dress or her looks won’t really bring her success unless she buckles down and works for her success – and how rewarding it actually is to focus on her accomplishments instead of her looks. Or do it the other way around, with Barbie being judged by her appearance only instead of being respected for her abilities. “Legally Blond” was a better modern take on Barbie without ever intending to be one.

      Thanks for dropping by!

      • I was just thinking “say, Legally Blonde was kind of a secret Barbie movie” and then you said it. I agree about there being two obvious routes for them to take.

      • Well, a good thing that you kind of reminded me of the movie…I should tackle it next time around, I had Elle Woods on my list for quite some time, but she never quite fit in.

  2. Glad to see a post from you again!

    I don’t know about Barbie being sexist or not, but I did enjoy your article and the points you bring up about the main reason Barbie existed was to dress her up. I kinda feel Barbie is like Mary Tyler Moore. I don’t know if you’re familiar with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but her character, Mary Richards, was one of the first female characters in US sitcom history to play the “modern woman”, i.e. a career woman who is not defined by her relationship with a man or whatnot. But, the character did keep certain “girlish” qualities such as always dressing fashionably and keeping slim and whatnot. Even the actress herself never identified as a feminist as she disagreed with certain things that Gloria Steinem and feminists were saying at the time. So I kinda look at Barbie in the same manner: she’s a “feminist” in that she show she can be a career woman just as good as any man, but still keeps a fashion sense because that’s her character and who she is. It’s like Daphne Blake in Scooby-Doo being a fashionable person; that’s just who she is. Even if she were to get a PhD, I’m sure she would still dress fashionably. And I don’t really see a problem with both aspects being portrayed concurrently. But, that’s just me.

    I know that Amy Schumer has dropped out of playing Barbie in the upcoming planned film, but how did you feel about her being cast in the first place? I feel the filmmakers were trying to go with a non-Barbie type person to play the character to break the mold, so to speak?

    • Mary Tyler Moore is important because the character actually developed during the show and the message that a career woman is not necessarily “non-feminine” was important back then.
      I have never seen any movie with Amy Schumer, so I have no opinion whatsoever about her acting ability, except that Amy Schumer movies are apparently always more about Amy Schumer than whatever else they are about. And like I mentioned above, I think focussing on the Barbie look is not the right way too go, the fact that it is a doll which encourages to be superficial is more important in my eyes.

  3. I never played with Barbie dolls, so there’s not much for me to say other than that I see your argument here.
    For a future discussion, I’d like to hear your thoughts on gay characters in Disney, namely whether or not several Disney villains are actually gay stereotypes and how they should handle an LBGT Disney princess, if they actually do it.

    • They won’t. The so called “gay moment” in Beauty and the Beast caused an r-rating in Russia and they had to cut out a scene in other countries. It is simply bad for business. They might try to get some crap past the radar, but not more than they already have.

      • There was also a demand for a black Disney Princess and yet Princess and the Frog was bogged down by controversy and was at best a modest success. Disney will delve into the gay character option when they think that they have a good story and can get away with it, not just on the US, but also the world market. Russia and China are both huge.

  4. What an interesting reflexion. Barbie is a very controversial character. I have a friend who’s fully on the “Barbie shows a girl she can be anything she wants” side of the fence. I think you made some good points refuting that, though. For my part, I realize Barbie is problematic, but I find her charming. And some of the movies starring her I’ve seen are quite good. Plus, she’s kind of fascinating because she’s embodies everything that is off-limits to boys, everything that is “unmasculine”, if you get my drift. I do remember playing with my cousin’s Barbies when I was little, but not so often.

    Have you seen the “Beauty and the Beast” live-action yet? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. I had pretty mixed feelings about it.

    • Honestly, when I started the article I thought I would end up writing a defence for Barbie, but then I started to research the different career barbies and for one, I was kind of shocked that this office Barbie from way back is STILL the best example of one and two, it was just very noticeable what those Barbies were NOT about.

      Nope…you know how I feel about those remakes. And they showed the original only at one day, and that was sadly my birthday, around the same time I had my house full of guests, so I couldn’t go. Anyway, I’ll most likely tackle Beauty and the Beast this December or the year after. Until then I guess I’ll have watched it….

      • Huh, I disn’t know they were showing the original in Germany. Funnily enough, I saw the remake during my travel to the US, on the day it was released. I’m too big a fan of the original to miss it, even though I knew it would kind of leave me cold. Oh well, looking forward to December, once again (I’m beginning to realize it’s the best time of the year in every way) Happy late birthday, btw.

  5. I have to say that you can make your Barbie do whatever you want her to do. Your imagination should be the only limit. If you want her to be a successful career woman, go ahead. If you want her to just be about her beauty and her dream house, go ahead. And who says that she can’t have it all? Because yet again, nothings stops you from giving her what you want in your imagination,

  6. I prefer American Girl dolls but Barbies are only hurtful in a vacuum where no parenting or other influences are there to answer questions about womens careers or ambitions. It’s just a toy and little girls can imagine whatever they want her to be. I actually enjoy most of the Barbie movies as well. The animation can be rough but they are often well written with good songs. When you get into Bratz dolls I get more nervous than Barbie but I really dont see the harm when part of overall playtime

    • That is assuming that there is parenting and other influences. I think as a parent one should be aware of the implications. And as I said in the end, I am not advocating to take Barbie off the shelves, just to switch the emphasis a little bit. Dress-up is fine, but there should be more to it aht that.

      I don’t mind the Barbie movies….they are basically inoffensive. And it helps that they do promote kindness and charity and other ideals I feel are worthwhile to instil in our children. They are pretty much like the Tinkerbell movies.

      • Fair enough but if there is no parenting or other influences than the child has much more problems than Barbies. I just think we over think things like this sometimes. We worry about all these influences and pressures when just a nudge here or discussion there it is fine.
        However I do appreciate the nuances of your argument and that you arent for some kind of radical change or judgemental like some are

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