I‘m not ashamed to admit that for the better part of my childhood, I was a Barbie person. While some kids had a corner for their molded-to-perfection dream house or a chest overflowing with fluorescent pink miniskirts, I had an entire room dedicated to the world of Barbie. I lost hours, days even, inventing and reinventing the lives of my dolls, and I can safely say that I’m not alone.
Grossing $1.9 billion annually, the consumer’s dollar has voted. Barbie has yet to be replaced, but it hasn’t been for lack of trying. For decades, feminist groups have charged the doll with crimes of fostering unfair expectations for young girls in a male-centric world.
Sure, Barbie’s taken on the roles of cheerleader and flight attendant more than once, but she’s also held five different positions in the U.S. military, performed surgery and even ran for president in 1992. If the modern feminist movement champions had a choice, Barbie should be its queen. According to Lenore Wright, a writer and philosopher at Baylor University, Barbie can be seen as “the symbol of female emancipation because she works and does not have to depend on men for her wealth and possessions,” but this empowering perspective is rarely the common one.
No toy is perfect, but Barbie is one of the few that has vigorously maintained its popular appeal – and for more than her diverse career paths. Any one of the thousands of bubbly faces at a Barbie collectors’ convention can tell you that the power of Barbie is anything but tame.
After naming a Barbie after herself as a kid, Wright came to an enlightening realization: “I could become one of them, and they could be extensions of me. I began thinking in rudimentary ways about self-identity.”
Barbie serves as a measure of comparison, and whether it’s a realistic one or not is irrelevant in the minds of children trying to make sense of their lives. What other toy instantaneously summons up a comprehensive society upon opening the box? Simply put, Barbie is an exception to the rule.
Unfortunately, not everyone agrees. The Barbie Liberation Organization – yes, it’s an actual group – has been a long-time opponent of Mattel’s shining star. In 1989, the group went so far as to replace the voice boxes in 300 talking Barbie dolls to supplant cheery shopping slogans with their feminist agenda, including the phrase “Dead men tell no lies.” Maybe I’m being too sensitive, but that seems a bit extreme.
Activist groups aside, my biggest Barbie pet peeve comes from the creator itself. The innumerable attempts at calculating Barbie’s exact measurements have generated little agreement among professionals, but her size sparks frequent and fervent debate nonetheless. Some claim that her delicate feet would never support the weight of her body, and others put her measurements at an unnatural 38-18-34. Regardless, nothing about Barbie’s appearance inherently dictates her personality or her lifestyle. The same could be said of Wonder Woman or Scully from TV’s “The X-Files,” but Barbie typically receives all the blame.
So in 1997, Mattel decided it was time for a change and proposed to give Barbie a “fresh” makeover in order to create a more realistic image. Barbie’s revamped style – including an expanded waistline and reduced cup size – dropped her a few notches down my list of nostalgic favorites. (I won’t even mention the quandary of one billion fashions that no longer fit Barbie’s drastically modified frame.)
Let’s be clear about something: Barbie isn’t supposed to be real. She’s a doll, and the people playing with her are more than aware of that fact. Not only am I disappointed in the company for bending to the will of the “progressively minded,” but who are they to determine what the normal body standards should be for young girls? Within the doll’s alterations is an implied responsibility to depict the ideal woman, a role that Mattel should never have been forced to take on.
Not to say that Barbie is an innocent victim of feminist harassment. It’s undeniable that the Malibu-Barbie image is less than role-model material: sexually inviting beachwear, a glossy smile permanently painted on her face and a carefully bent elbow awaiting the arm of her surf-dude sweetheart, Ken – Barbie does have her moments of pronounced superficiality. And though recent years have given rise to a racially diverse Barbie gang, the collection isn’t exactly an accurate depiction of the American melting pot. But accepting valid criticism is far different than representing the downfall of the nation’s youth, of which Barbie deserves to be exonerated.
The anti-Barbie battle is generally one of unfounded adult fears and the desperate need to pinpoint an object of blame. For many, Barbie has become the elusive answer to questions of body image insecurity and the housewife mentality, but a children’s toy can hardly be rendered accountable. The likelihood of Barbie turning the next generation of youngsters into credit-card dependent chicks is about as probable as the Teletubbies turning them gay.
She’s a toy-store goddess. Get over it already.
– Hartmann can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.