The Trouble With Barbie

Barbie may be one of the most culturally iconic toys available to girls today. She is tall, thin, blonde, white…oh wait, that’s exactly the trouble with her! Barbie represents a single particular (heterosexual) feminine ideal, but unfortunately it is the single particular feminine ideal so revered in our culture yet so impossibly unattainable. There are very few brunette Barbies, let alone Barbies of color, and certainly no dolls of varying shapes and sizes.

The trouble with Barbie is literally more than (plastic) skin deep. Barbie comes in themed sets or packages. What these sets are – and perhaps more importantly, are not – defines what Barbie does, who she is, and transitively, what defines this feminine ideal. Through Barbie’s history she has been many things – a beach-goer, a corvette driver, a bride, a career woman, and even president.

Indeed, there are many reasonably progressive things Barbie has been, including all kinds of traditionally masculine careers. Sometimes she is even made in darker plastic (although most dolls who differ in hair color or ethnicity are Friends of Barbie). Existence is not the same as access, however. Most of these dolls belong to special collections and are more expensive and less available than Barbie in a bikini. If you go to your nearest toy store, you will find beach Barbie, perhaps ballet Barbie, maybe even the gainfully employed petsitter and babysitter Barbie. She will be white and she will be blonde.

The trouble with Barbie has become one of the obsessions of my own research. Why is she so popular? Does astronaut Barbie make little girls want to be astronauts? Does it matter if astronaut Barbie even exists when she is comparatively more expensive and not available at my local big box store?

It is a true statement that less stereotyped career Barbies are difficult to come by. It is a true statement that Barbies of color, let alone employed Barbies of color, are also difficult to come by. I’ve tried to use career Barbies to teach about and expand interest in various careers as it is also a true statement that many, many little girls love Barbie. But, what I’ve found is that even astronaut Barbie reinforces girls’ interests in girly things without also inspiring them to become astronauts themselves.

So is Barbie good or evil? The research scientist in me says this (overly simple) question isn’t quite resolved. After all, we can ask girls to play with astronaut Barbie all we want, but what happens in the privacy of girls’ own homes and imaginations? The sensible person in me, however, says Barbie is sufficiently, deeply problematic to embolden the search for gender-fair alternatives.

2 thoughts on “The Trouble With Barbie

  1. I like your blog! I remember my “Asian” Barbie. I’m not sure if it was supposed to be an Asian one or some kind of ethnic or tropical Barbie. I think I wanted it because I liked the idea of a Barbie that looked like me, but I knew even back then that she was a phony Asian Barbie. The only “Asian” thing about her was her jet black hair and slightly slanted brown eyes. She looked more like a mix of all races. And, yep she was a Friend of Barbie (maybe a friend of a friend :), so in my mind she was just a sidekick and not as important. Poor ethnic/minority/tropical/non-white Barbie 🙂

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