Barbie Girl: Stilettos in the Real World

Barbie GirlA permanent smile, sparkly pink stilettos, and platinum blonde hair – she’s perfection you can hold in your hand, and she goes by the name Barbie.  Little girls love her, women envy her, and feminists hate her. Everyone’s favorite childhood doll, who has been a fashion icon since the decade of poodle skirts and ponytails, circulates more controversy and evokes more emotion than an amendment on the House Floor. When the issue of Barbie’s flawless skin and shape arises, feminists often accuse her of objectifying women and indoctrinating little girls with the message of female perfection, overlooking the incriminating evidence that Barbie is actually a female icon to be celebrated. Rather than being a pushover, Barbie joins the mission for women’s equality by engaging in real world dilemmas and career paths. Surgeon? Check. Professional Basketball Player? Check. Motorcycler? Check. Anything Ken can do, Barbie can do better. With honorable ambition and unworldly achievement, Barbie is just as much about success as any other woman in the feminist movement, proving that you can be a doll in a man’s world. Although most feminists fail to see how Barbie could ever join their ranks in the move for equality, it only takes a brief glimpse at her popularity, achievements, fashion, and image to realize that Barbie’s not just a fashion icon; she’s a powerful female icon who is all about girl power.

 As an icon of fashion and femininity, Barbie Doll’s popularity cannot be ignored. According to Ravitz (2009) in a CNN news report, ninety-percent of American girls between the age of three and ten own at least one Barbie doll. McDonough, author of The Barbie Chronicles, put it this way, “According to Smithsonian magazine, if you queued up every one of the leggy dolls sold in its first thirty years – arrayed end to end from her lush tresses to her notoriously arched feet – you could circumnavigate the globe four times”. Quite literally, Barbie’s popularity has spread across the globe with sales in one hundred and fifty different countries. This world-wide popularity is partially due to her unique status and novel beginnings. In the 1950s, when Barbie debuted, grown-up dolls were no were to be seen. Little girls were stuck with the portrayal of motherhood, cradling baby dolls for fun. As Mrs. Handler explained in an interview with the New York Times, “Every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of her future.” Undoubtedly, there is something attractive about Barbie. It is more than her hair or her shape or her clothes. It is the fact that this doll could encourages children to live their dreams.  A little girl can play with a liberated woman, one that can travel the world, fly to the moon, or run for president. Because of Barbie, little girls are no longer confined to the role of motherhood. In a way, Barbie’s popularity sparks a beautiful story of controversial beginnings, endless possibilities, and countless aspirations. Sounds a little like the story of women’s rights, doesn’t it?

Proven by her bounding ambitions, Barbie is clearly no dumb blonde. Boasting of Barbie’s numerous careers, her “I can be” play line gives little girls the aspiration to be whatever they want to be. From news reporter to zoo keeper, Barbie  tweeted on her very own Twitter site, “My motto is: if you can dream it, you can be it”. Remember, however, it wasn’t always this way. Barbie was originally designed to be a teenage fashion doll.  Like any teenager, her biggest outings were school days and date nights. When Teen Talk Barbie hit the shelves, her chipper remark “math is hard” could be heard at the push of a button. In a whirlwind, Barbie was dubbed as a bad role model, feeling the pressure to do great things. Realizing that Barbie doll couldn’t settle the matter with a report card, Mattel took the dolls off the shelves and replaced the sound chip, instantly raising Barbie’s IQ. From that moment on, Barbie decided to become a working woman. With over 150 careers and counting, Barbie’s résumé now lists everything from an astronaut to a surgeon. From UNICEF Ambassador to Candystripe volunteer, Barbie has also engaged in philanthropic work, aspiring to be all she can be.  In a fictional Forbes Magazine interview conducted by Broeks, Barbie spills what she’s most proud of, “at any moment in history being a reflection of fashion, culture, and aspiration.”  While critics still argue that she’s too feminine to be a role model, Barbie insists that even smart girls can wear stilettos.

What’s wrong with high heels anyway? Girls are girls. They can wear pink and lace and frills and still be just as intelligent as their counterpart in suit and tie. But “Barbie-haters” continue to look for dirty little secrets hidden in her closet full of clothes, trying to prove that this teenage fashion model objectifies women, degrades women’s beauty, and sets physical standards too high.  In my opinion, saying that you have to dress a certain way to be a feminist is just as off kilter as saying you have to dress a certain way to be a woman. Why does Barbie have to dress masculine to be as successful as a man? Besides, not all Barbie outfits are “girly”. When she’s a soccer player, a race car driver, or an army soldier she doesn’t exactly wear a skirt. Because Barbie’s outfits are a reflection of her career and her culture, Barbie’s style has evolved with the era. Handler so poignantly explained, “As the interests of girls changed, as well as the world around them, so did Barbie. Barbie doll reflected the fashions and attitudes of the times, regardless of the era. Always in step with the current styles…” From bouffant and legwarmers to bellbottoms and belly-shirts, Barbie style has always been a reflection of our culture. If we don’t like what we see when we look at Barbie, the chances are that we won’t like what we see when we look at the world around us. Barbie’s outfits don’t tell little girls how to play with her, they give little girls the power to dress and design and create and make Barbie who they wants her to be. Growing up, I played with dolls who were sporty, dolls who were fashionable, dolls who were girly and dolls who were tomboys. The outfits Barbie’s wore didn’t tell me how I had to play with her.  If anything, her sense of fashion told me that a woman can do a man’s job and still be attractive. Women can wear pink and still be taken seriously.

So if the clothes don’t objectify women, feminists argue that Barbie’s unrealistic ideals must. Believing that Barbie’s perfect shape only encourages the message that women are all body, Jewish author Jessel contends, “There is nothing about her that even remotely suggests spirituality and internality. She is representative of a culture that objectifies women.” In other words, Barbie’s beauty is only skin-deep. Furthermore, her large bust and tiny waist are just a marketing strategy to sell the doll, and little girls are the ones paying the price. They are the ones whose minds are being warped by the underlying messages. And, to a certain extent, I agree. According to Kershaw, mathematicians calculated that a 5-foot-6 Barbie would measure 39-21-33, standards hardly achievable in reality. Unrealistic bodily proportions like this could lead to low self-esteem, anorexia, and maybe even bulimia. Is this what we want our girls to think? As a response to this question, Mattel recently changed Barbie’s figure in the 20th century, shrinking her breasts and expanding her waist line. However, the irony is that, regardless of what we may believe about Barbie’s negative effect on self-image, she doesn’t seem to be affecting children as much as we may think. Just look at the facts. Despite Barbie’s model-like figure, the obesity rate is still increasing. In the last thirty years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that the percentage of overweight children six to eleven more than quadrupled. The numbers went from 4% to 18.8%. So when feminists rant about Barbie’s unrealistic ideals and brainwashing standards, I just role my eyes. Barbie isn’t affecting children as much as they’d like to think. She’s not trying to chain little girl’s down to a stereo-typical ideal of beauty. That would contradict who she is because Barbie is all about girl power.

Barbie’s role is to give the girl the power to decide just who she is. M.G. Lord makes a similar argument in his book Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll when he says, “the doll functions like a Rorschach test–people project wildly dissimilar and often opposing fantasies on it. Barbie may be a universally recognized image, but what she represents in a child’s inner life can be as personal as a fingerprint.” Your interpretation of the doll is subjective, often relying on your personal experience. As Lord coins, “Barbie is us.” Barbie wasn’t designed to tell the little girl who she is but let the little girl decide who she could be. Ruth Handler said it herself, “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.” Little girls project their futures on the doll, but they don’t confuse what is real with what is not. Her plastic face never ages. She always smiles. She only has one emotion. Her hair doesn’t grow back when you cut it. She isn’t real. And her standard of beauty isn’t real either. Most little girls are smart enough to realize this. At least I was. And for those who aren’t, it is a parents’ responsibility to teach their children about outward appearance… not a doll. But at the same time we know that Barbie is not just a doll. And even though we know we can’t look just like her, and frankly we wouldn’t want to look just like her, there is still something that inspires us about this childhood toy.

Why has the number one girl toy held such an appeal throughout generations? She gives us the power. As the ultimate feminist icon, Barbie Doll is not just a doll… she is a doll that defines every generation. She’s a doll that defines women. She’s a doll that women aspire to be because she exemplifies the feminist mindset all the while being beautiful. While feminists often insist that in order to be equal to men we have to act like men and dress like men, Barbie insists that we can be successful like men and still be women. We can wear a pant suit and still wear lipstick. We can be an astronaut and still own a pair of stilettos. In other words, Barbie’s message to young girls and women alike is that we can embrace both our femininity and our power at the same time. As an icon of feminity, Barbie is all about girl power.


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