With the release of the much-anticipated Barbie movie, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, it is time to look into the history of this surprisingly subversive doll.
Text: Sophia Widrig
Image: Andreas Lorrain
Hitting the markets in 1959, Barbie was created by Ruth Handler, who found inspiration from the German Lilli doll. For the first time, young girls were no longer given a baby doll to already begin training for their implied future of motherhood, but were given a role model instead. A grown woman with moveable appendages, personifying careers that remained unattainable for real women at the time, and in some cases, are still. Barbie showed these girls that “You Can Be Anything”, right on the front of the box. Representing over two hundred careers, Barbie even became president of the United States in the 1990s. This presented young American girls with the concept of a female president, an idea which is yet to become a reality.
Independence and confidence
With over a billion dolls sold, Barbie has been promoting independence and confidence for young girls for over sixty years. While she embodies a traditional ‘feminine’ ideal, she is simultaneously dismantling this understanding of a ‘feminine woman’ and a ‘career woman’ as two mutually exclusive identities. She maintains her interests in fashion and beauty whilst working in traditionally male-dominated fields. To invalidate the feminist inherent within Barbie because of her extensive wardrobe of pink clothes, is to reinforce the antiquated understanding of traditional masculinity as synonymous with strong and successful. Barbie rejects the villainizing of characters viewed as ‘too feminine’ and therefore not feminist. By doing so, she deconstructs these misconceptions by representing an intelligent, steadfast, and successful woman who maintains her sexuality and expression through these forms.
Barbie also works to dismantle the ‘dumb blonde’ trope which is continuously promoted in Hollywood, most visibly with Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, whose character even notes “I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it”. This stereotype is further perpetuated in more recent films such as Mean Girls and Clueless, all of which reinforces the outdated view of blondes being inherently vain and foolish. This insinuation goes beyond hair color and continues to exclude women from traditionally male-dominated fields.
The sky is the limit for this blonde Barbie doll, flying high above social limitations, and representing women as pilots and even as astronauts in the 1980s. However, the history of Barbie as a revolutionary figure is full of caveats. Barbie has often been criticized for portraying unrealistic beauty standards and encouraging consumerism, all of which are valid lenses through which she can be viewed. Barbie’s absurd figure no doubt leaves an impression on the malleable self-esteem of the young girls playing with her. No matter how scissor-happy one gets during the homemade barber sessions, the miniature waist, large breasts, and pointed feet always leave the strongest impression.
The lack of racial diversity is another way in which the dolls have fallen short in inspiring the multitude of young girls who view Barbie’s plastic wardrobe with the potential for the roles which they could one day embody. In 1968, the first African American doll Christie was released, alongside a Latina doll. The limitations of these representations as well as the role they play as Barbie’s friend – not the main character themselves – is not only impeding the role of women of color in the Barbie dream world, but in the real world as well. To this day, the creators have released more than forty international dolls. Following heavy scrutiny in 2016 that Barbie does not represent the modern woman, they released a series of new dolls coming with four different body types, twenty-two eye colors and seven different skin tones. Working to move beyond the traditional able-bodied and slim-figured blonde Barbie, the creators continue to represent what the future may hold for those holding her.
Thus, the history of the Barbie doll is twofold. Whilst her story is laden with feminism, empowerment and often revolutionizing ideas, it is also full of caveats and reinforcing antiquated notions. This seemingly benign piece of plastic simultaneously challenges the traditional role of women in society and the ‘dumb blonde’ trope whilst also promoting unrealistic and unhealthy beauty standards. Although she may embody a variety of roles, the Barbie dream world can be criticized for its lack of diversity. The lenses through which Barbie can be viewed are as extensive as her CV and it is essential to recognize this multiplicity as she evolves and the latest film hits the screens this summer.