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.