The Barbie Doll

The Barbie Doll is a toy fashion doll that was made by the company Mattell in 1959, and which has played a major role in the lives of many people throughout the world for a long period in history. It was created by a woman named Ruth Handler, and was inspired by a German doll named Bild Lili. When I was a child I remember being obsessed with playing with my Barbies, and with buying them new accessories, clothes, and play houses to create fantasy lives for them when I played. For me, Barbies were always my toy of choice, but I was given one from when I was very young whereas my brother was given action figures and Thomas the Tank Engine toys. Barbie Dolls have played a major part in the gender studies movement, because they seem to work as a symbol for the feminine construct that we have placed girls and women in society for centuries.

There have been many different theories in society about gender constructs and what has worked to create them within our culture and every culture in the world. There are many different models of the Barbie Doll, and in their early days many of them had traditionally “female” backgrounds and fictional lives. However, because it is inherent in the toy that one uses it however they see fit, and that they can create a life for the doll in whichever way they want to, the Barbie Doll can be conceptualized differently for different people. Somebody in China may view the doll as a whole differently than somebody in Sweden. Young girls and boys around the globe might have different perceptions of the toy, some might chop off its hair and treat it as a toy to take power over, and some might bathe it and groom it and cherish it as a prized possession.

It is odd for me to think about how playing with Barbie Dolls may have impacted my growth as a woman. I don’t ever remember feeling like I was being put in a bubble as a little girl while I played with my dolls, I simply felt like I was having fun with them. I was given a book for my birthday one year that was called “The Ultimate Barbie Doll Book” that was a complete collection and identification guide of Barbies throughout history and the world. It showed me that Barbie Dolls were something entirely different to me than they were to other people in other countries. From their clothes to their hair, they differed in cultural representations of the people who the creators were attempting to sell to, yet they all seemed to share common facial structures. Perhaps this is the Westernization that has spread on a global scale and impacted beauty standards and the way people see others and themselves.

The idea of the Ken doll has a role to play in the beauty standards of the doll franchise as a whole too. There are people throughout the world who have based their own value and worth on their looks, and many have compared themselves to this doll, who has unrealistic body proportions, (like a large chest, microscopic waist, and disproportionately long legs), and this is a true shame. People have undergone cosmetic surgery to become a human version of the Barbie Doll, which on a deeper level just works to symbolize beauty culture as a whole. Something that is inherently fake, a doll, is still representative of how women feel that they need to look and what they should be working to achieve in order to be considered beautiful.

The Barbie Doll was created because the creator Ruth saw that her daughter was playing with dolls that looked like infants, which most did at the time, and giving them adult characteristics. She recognized this gap in the toy market and decided to create an adult doll. I remember reading in my Barbie book a section on the development of the doll, and that at the time they were popular among adults as well as children. I think that when analyzing this situation it is interesting and important to think about it one level deeper, and take a look into the desire for play and fantasy in human beings. We feel an urge to escape our realities in one form or another, and with these dolls people could entertain their fantasies.

The doll herself, Barbie, has a fictional bibliography. I think that it is interesting to explore the life that was created for Barbie. Barbie and her boyfriend the Ken doll supposedly have an on-off relationship, according to the company Mattel who released a statement in 2004 announcing her breakup with Ken and her new boyfriend and male companion doll Blaine, an Australian surfer. This whole idea is crazy and a bit bizarre to me, when you really take a step back and explore it. Mattel has created an entire life for this doll, just so that then people and children will purchase the dolls and create lives of their own for them.

Another level of this entire subject to consider is the product itself in terms of material. There have been studies claiming that the doll has been created with plastics that have leaked toxic chemicals, causing it to be dangerous for children to play with. Children playing with toys seems innocent on the surface, but it is only after evaluating each level below the surface that one begins to see the situation for what it is. There are psychological levels to it, there are physical levels to it, and there are metaphysical levels to it as well. People each have their own ways to conceptualize the doll, and these have been constructed by their cultures, their personal backgrounds and history, and also their societies. For me, the doll was always a symbol of my childhood and of positivity, however I understand that that is not what it represents for many others in the world.

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One thought on “The Barbie Doll

  1. I love that your discussion of the doll explores many facets of its history, its social implications, and the impact it has on gender and identity formation. Barbie dolls were also a huge part of my life when I was a little girl and I didn’t recognize the way in which they affected my development as a woman until way later. Growing up, I was a tomboy, I wore my hair short and I refused to wear dresses. I liked to style my barbies that way too. I used to cut off all their hair. At some point I acquired a Ken doll and I remember wondering why there was so much less “play” possible with Ken. His knees and elbows couldn’t bend like my Barbies’, his hair way plastic and immobile unlike Barbie’s. While Ken’s aesthetic likely resembled me far more than Barbie’s, what I enjoyed about doll play was the potential for constant transformation, which I realize now is extremely problematic. Barbie was far more susceptible to external transformation, whereas Ken just was the way he was; unmoving, unchanging. From an early age, this communicates to girls that their looks and their bodies are not 100% their’s to control; rather, that they are to remain flexible and adaptable to external expectations. While the Ken doll also instills destructive male beauty standards, the rigidity with which Ken is constructed in comparison to Barbie hints at a larger conception of the male body as one that is less receptive to outside pressures.

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