Barbie as an Agent of Socialization
Barbie is one of the most iconic women in history, and she is entirely made of plastic. The seemingly perfect, yet anatomically impossible physical standard she places on girls and women can be very devastating. Unfortunately some even go as far as to consider Barbie a heteronormative standard. Additionally Barbie is one of the first (seemingly) realistic dolls little boys and girls compare real women to. Her hourglass figure, perfect skin and long blonde hair are one of a kind. Little girls want to be like Barbie and why not? Not only is Barbie perfect, so are her friends, family and boyfriend, Ken. There’s no such thing as “fat” in Barbie world. Mattel Inc. does not manufacture overweight or curvy versions of the popular doll because that is not the image they want for Barbie. This is problematic because Barbie is one of many agents of socialization that children are exposed to. The toys and dolls children play with are very influential on how they perceive social constructions, such as gender. A child is a very impressionable being from birth through adolescence, therefore the media (s)he is exposed to, including Barbie, is partially responsible for the socialization of said child. Particular aspects of Barbie that are gendered include: her physique, the various professions Mattel Inc. has her pursue and how, and her associate line of bath and beauty products geared toward young women to ensure that Barbie will continue to be a presence in a female’s life.
Barbie is just a doll, but she is one that girls will continue to emulate today and in the future. This is troublesome because the physical standard Barbie sets is so high it cannot be reached. In a demonstration carried out by Casey Tallent, reported on by Sarah Cook (2011), Casey:
“stands on a chair amid a roomful of students…she tells them a life-sized Barbie, proportioned like the doll, would be more than seven feet tall – her height while standing on the chair. She holds her hands out in front of her to show Barbie’s 40’ bust. A circle of pipe cleaners represents Barbie’s 22’ waist. She shows a children’s size 3 shoes, the size of Barbie’s tiny feet. ‘We try to figure out how she can stand up,’ [Casey] said” (p. 28)
The imagery depicted by Cook’s report clearly shows how impossible it is to be Barbie, yet so many girls and women go to extreme measures (such as anorexia or bulimia) in an attempt to do so – certainly a worrisome existence. Any female who manages to attain Barbie’s proportions “would have to walk on all fours to support her upper body weight” (Cook, 2011, p. 28). Additionally Cook (2011) reports that Barbie’s “waist is too small to permit digestion or menstruation” (p. 28), a necessary function for all humans and a normal function for most post-pubescent females, respectively. Despite the negative connotations attached to Barbie, many still believe she is “one of the most successful toys of the 20th century and, arguably, the icon of the American dream” (Kuther & McDonald, 2004, p. 39). Unfortunately creator, Ruth Handler, probably did not consider how negatively girls and women would interpret Barbie’s role. Though one clue why the image of Barbie is so skewed is because she was “modeled after a German doll / cartoon prostitute” (Cook, 2011, p. 28). Most Americans are not aware of this historical fact, and I believe many would find it extremely offensive – consequently (yet theoretically) lowering the doll’s popularity. However her popularity is always on the rise in America: according to the manufacturer, one Barbie doll is sold nearly every three seconds (Kuther & McDonald, 2009, p. 39). Considering how negative of an influence Barbie is on girls, this rate is alarming. Author Miriam Formal Brunell (2009) concludes “Barbie’s ambiguities derived from profound and persistent ambivalences about gender entrenched in American culture and experienced by creator, Ruth Handler” (p. 304). Nearly every American child has had the opportunity to play with or at least see a Barbie doll. Kuther and McDonald conducted a study in (2004) on early adolescences’ views of Barbie, within that study they found “boys and girls alike, reported perceiving Barbie dolls as poor role models for girls. Several of the boys…mentioned that Barbie dolls might negatively influence girls’ body image and health” (p. 49). Adolescents realize the potential for unhealthy effects of exposing children, especially girls, to Barbie, yet little girls are gifted Barbie dolls every year. My question is: when do we forget how negative of an influence Barbie is? Or do we stop caring? Or do we start developing reasons as to why Barbie’s not so bad? I do not and cannot answer these questions for I cannot speak for all of humanity; however in my opinion it seems as if many adults attempt to cloak the negative influences of Barbie by the good ones. Additionally little girls ask for Barbie dolls on their birthday or Christmas because the doll is marketed enormously with a great reputation to back. I have noticed many accentuate the hundreds of professions she has had in an attempt to mask her as a poor role model.
Mattel Inc. (2012) owns the legal rights to Barbie, on their website “Barbie Media” over 130 careers are documented on her “résumé” – “spanning from registered nurse to rock star, veterinarian to aerobics instructor, pilot to police officer” (Careers). One boy in Kuther and McDonald’s (2004) study was reported saying:
“I think Barbie was a good role model for girls even though she was fake. She was pretty, lovable, could do any profession, Even though she was kind of anorexic. Barbie gave girls a chance to imagine things and a chance to be anything they wanted to” (p. 43)
However not all of her “professions” were accompanied by profession-appropriate garb / accessories. Mattel Inc. (2012) markets that Barbie “continues to take on aspirational and culturally relevant roles while also serving as a role model and agent of change for girls” (Careers), but even their language suggests that Barbie is not all that she is cracked up to be. In the 1990s she ran for president, because having her be president could potentially spark a politically motivated uproar. Another of her professions that caused quite a stir was “Architect Barbie.” This face of Barbie particularly struck a nerve with the American Institute of Architects (AIA) because her existence did not “mention that the architecture profession and its 150-year-old association remain plagued by gender parity challenges” (Cary, 2011, p. 1). Posing Barbie in a sundress and blazer with high heeled booties, fake black rimmed glasses, a white construction helmet (to match her dress) and a hot pink tube filled with blueprints is hardly a proper representation of the hard manual labor that goes into becoming and being an architect in real life. However the AIA was in on the production of Architect Barbie, as they partnered with Mattel Inc. on the Barbie dream house design competition. While the AIA was busy with that and sorting out their conflicting ideas of Barbie, Roseanne Haggerty, a middle-aged female community development leader was busy
“launching Community Solutions, an ambitious venture with a goal to provide housing for 100,000 homeless people and families by July 2013. By that time, Architect Barbie will likely have become yet another doll abandoned under the beds of a generation of girls who discover architecture’s glass ceiling isn’t up to code and the AIA and even the media rarely feature female architect role models” (Cary, 2011, p. 1)
The issue here is that girls will emulate Barbie’s version of an architect rather than Roseanne Haggerty, a real life, successful and beautiful female architect. Cary’s account is evidence that Barbie’s professions probably do not inspire little girls – her careers are just costumes sets to dress her up as. The concept of dressing up does not stop with little girls and their Barbie dolls. Barbie’s influence over females continues as she is the face of her own bath and body, and beauty products.
Barbie’s gendered presence throughout a female’s life can impact her greatly, even in adulthood. In other words, Barbie is an agent of socialization for girls. In their study, Kuther and McDonald (2004) warn against the potential dangers:
“some claim that they toy represents the paradigm of adult female beauty to which young girls learn to aspire. It has been argued that Barbie dolls reflect a highly sexualized image and circumscribe girls’ play by emphasizing prescribed roles and patterns of interaction. It is feared that by dramatizing stereotypical feminine roles during play, girls will internalize and later embody such roles” (p. 40)
When considering the data collected from Kuther and McDonald’s study its noticeable that even children are aware that Barbie, as an agent of socialization, is dangerous territory. On one hand, she pursues any career Mattel Inc. can throw at her, has many hobbies and loves animals and humans alike. On the other hand, she is an overly sexualized play toy that marginalizes women and the many careers women (would like to) pursue while simultaneously setting the anatomically impossible physical standard for all females. What makes matters worse is in 2000 Barbie brought her “influence to the personal care industry with the introduction of Barbie Bath & Body and Barbie Cosmetics” (Cooney-Curran, 2000, p. 42) – so now young women can use the same toiletries as Barbie, in an attempt to be just like her. Despite the following and fan base Barbie has, she is nothing like her creator, Ruth Handler. Forman-Brunell (2009) reports:
“neither Barbie nor Lilli – the sex doll she sanitized for American girls – seemed to have much in common with Ruth. While Barbie was a Teutonic titan, Ruth was a short, Jewish woman. Barbie was a shopper; Handler was a workaholic. Barbie was brainless. Handler was brilliant. Though they appeared to have nothing in common, Barbie served as the material manifestation of Ruth’s life-long ambivalence about gender” (p. 309)
In other words, Handler wanted to display the uncertainty about gender, especially the role of the female. She wanted to demonstrate how women are expected to be impossibly perfect. “Life magazine similarly reflected ambivalences about gender in their ambiguous presentation of Barbie at twenty-one” (Forman-Brunell, 2009, p. 307). Handler is not a daft woman for not assuming females would interpret Barbie’s role so negatively; Forman-Brunell (2009) testified to Handler’s brilliance (p. 309). Furthermore Handler designed and put into the world one of the most popular emblems of all-American beauty. She probably assumed the “cleaning up” she did to Lilli was enough to make Barbie a modest role model or girls, but still be a fun play toy. Unfortunately though if that was the case Handler would have assumed wrong.
It is not the fault of creator Ruth Handler for producing one of the most controversial play toys in American history. It is not the fault of manufacturer Mattel Inc. that Barbie’s influence has spread globally. It is not the fault of adult for gifting these dolls to children and it is certainly not the fault of children from misinterpreting Barbie’s role. There is not fault, per say, in this situation which can make it hard to understand. Exterminating Barbie’s will not help the situation because her popularity is too high and there are too many dolls already in the homes of families all over the world. What we all must do is just realize, understand and accept that Barbie is in fact a doll, not a human being, therefore we should not compare ourselves or other human beings to her. First and foremost her physical features are anatomically unattainable. Secondly, it is nearly impossible for the average human to attain as many employment opportunities and succeed at each as easily as Barbie – especially in her “uniforms”. Lastly and most importantly, unlike Barbie, humans are not perfect. Human imperfections account for variance among human lives, personalities and interests – we are perfectly imperfect, a paradox that some people do not understand and occasionally sun. However we all must remember that there is beauty in individuality, more so than any plastic doll.
Did you learn anything new after reading this essay?
What is your opinion on Barbie? Did you have a lot of strong female influences in your life? Were the only "positive" female influences in your life celebrities, or something of the sort? There are many different questions you can ask yourself in order to take a stance on Barbie, as an agent of socialization.
The only question I have is: did you learn anything new about Barbie, Mattel Inc, the media, or gender by reading my essay?
Cary, J. (2011, August 8). 'Architect Barbie' builds a dream home, but her profession needs a makeover. Retrieved from Newspaper Source Plus database.
Cook, S. G. (2011, January). Reconstructing 'Barbie' to resemble today's real women. Women in Higher Education, 20(1), 28.
Forman-Brunell, M. (2009). Barbie in "LIFE": The life of Barbie. The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth, 2(3), 303-311.
Kuther, T., & McDonald, E. (2004). Early adolescents' experiences with, and views of, Barbie. Adolescence, 39(153), 39-51.
Mattel Incorporated. (2012). Barbie careers. Retrieved October 28, 2013, from Barbie website: http://www.barbiemedia.com
© 2013 Brittany Coughlin