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After 50 Years, What is Barbie's Impact on Girls and Women?

By March 9, 2009

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If Barbie were real, she'd be eligible for AARP membership today.

On this, her 50th birthday, she doesn't appear to be ready for retirement yet. Like a true survivor, she's outwitted, outlasted, and outplayed every other doll over the decades including Tammy, Dawn, Beautiful Crissy (with beautiful hair that grows), and even contemporary competitors Bratz. It's hard to believe, but 1 billion Barbies have been sold since her inception.

After 50 years of playing with Barbie, what have we learned? Now that many of us are mothers and grandmothers with daughters and granddaughters of our own, do we feel any differently about this diminutive piece of molded plastic? How can a child's plaything - which stands just under 12 inches tall - loom so large in our culture and society? Has she really influenced women in a negative way as her many critics claim?

As the world celebrates Barbie's 50th birthday, here's a look at why we have a love-hate relationship with the iconic figure:

  • A comparison of real women vs. Barbie
    According to Boston University student K. Wysocki:
    "Barbie's neck is twice as long as the average human's which would make it impossible to hold up her head....Barbie's legs are 50% longer than her arms, whereas the average woman's legs are only 20% longer than her arms....If a woman had the same measurements as Barbie, she would not have enough body fat to menstruate (and obviously to have children)."
  • How a cartoon prostitute was the inspiration for Barbie
    TIME magazine reports:
    "In 1956, Ruth Handler, an American businesswoman, was vacationing in Switzerland when she came across Bild Lilli, a doll that, unlike popular baby dolls at the time, had long, shapely legs and wore heavy makeup. Lilli, in fact, was based on a prostitute in a postwar German cartoon, but Handler was inspired. She bought three Lilli dolls, returned to California and in 1959 created the world's first Barbie doll."
  • What the Barbie image means to women of color
    From Kyra, the blogger behind Black Threads:
    "[W]hen I worked as a marketing strategist for Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments....I had a heated discussion about Barbie ornaments at work with my then manager....To deal with my anger, I came home and worked through my feelings by designing and stitching this quilt here. Black Barbie Quilt is based on the original Barbie doll. In the background I've painted repetitiously, 'Black Barbie has no name.' Appliqued is 'Barbie, America's Doll was never intended for me.' This quilt has been exhibited at the American Folk Art Museum ('Talking Quilts') in New York and, more recently at the Fenimore Art Museum.

    What does Barbie mean to an African American woman or a young black girl?"

  • Barbie from a women's studies perspective
    Bethany Brendon, writing for Highlander, the student newspaper of the University of California at Riverside, notes:
    "Women's studies professor Christine Gaily agrees with the negative opinions of Barbie dolls. 'Barbie has had, decidedly, I think, a very negative impact on the self-esteem of young girls, because nobody is shaped like her unless they go through endless plastic surgeries.'

    Gaily also believes that Barbie promotes young girls to aim for gender-defined roles, with Barbie being a veterinarian but never a surgeon. 'It is hardly the kind of plaything that you really want to encourage girls to play with.'...

    Barbie dolls have always existed with the same type of small, bird-like features....This similarity, even among Barbies of different races, is something Women's Studies professor Piya Chatterjee points out. 'I think the questions of race, and racialization of Barbie is really important to think about.'

    Chatterjee notes that even Barbies of different races, such as Indian Barbie and African-American Barbie, have 'Caucasian' features and bodies."

For more on Barbie:
Boomers Remember the Barbie Doll

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Comments

March 11, 2009 at 12:57 am
(1) scintillatingSkua says:

Barbie makes me barf.

January 26, 2010 at 10:00 am
(2) Anna says:

Actually, Barbie was a surgeon early on, in 1973. She had a lot of roles that weren’t gender specific, like an astronaut, and a firefighter. She had a bunch.

http://www.forbes.com/2009/03/05/barbie-careers-jobs-business_resume_slide_5.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbie's_careers

October 22, 2010 at 2:29 pm
(3) cat says:

I love Barbies and myself look a little bit like a Barbie. I’m tall, have nice long legs, a long neck, I am thin with curves and I have of course long blonde hair. As a little girl I told my mum that I want a black Barbie doll too – so Barbie definitely didn’t teach me to be a rasist -_-’ . I don’t think Barbie has had a negative impact on women at all. Barbie promoted females like no one else, she was beautiful, happy, succesful. Doesn’t every woman want to be like that? I’m sorry but I don’t see what “other more appropriate” chubby baby dolls achieve, to me they’re plain scary. Barbie is a great thing to aspire to and a lot of fun to play with.

April 19, 2011 at 6:57 pm
(4) Veronica says:

I got Barbie on my fifth birthday in 1974. She was dressed in an aqua swimsuit and had long blonde hair. I don’t remember what I did with it, but I was never negatively affected by it. Barbie does do more than be just a pretty face (even if many of her careers have been woman-oriented, e.g., fashion designer, elementary school teacher). When I decided to donate a Barbie doll this past Christmas to Toys for Tots, I made sure that the one I chose would not be in a traditional career. To that end, I bypassed the bikini-clad Barbies and especially the ones in wedding dresses. I don’t think we should be pushing bridal Barbie dolls to girls; that tells them that finding a man and being married is the most important thing in life. That shouldn’t be pushed on them when they’re not even ready for it. I want girls to imagine that they can be more than bikini models or brides, and Barbie does have that mosaic of careers from which they can choose.

March 22, 2012 at 4:07 pm
(5) Beth says:

I believe barbie has a bad affect on girls. I remember when I was in kindergarten all the girls would bring their barbies and by middle school only white girls were apart of the cool group. Since i had an older brother i was into manly things such as fencing, football and video games along with being a nerd and watching things such as lord of the rings and playing yu gi yo and pokemon. Since i was a different race and had brown hair and green eyes i always felt ugly around those girls who had blond hair and blue eyes because they acted prettier than me. They laughed at my wavy hair and the fact i had muscles instead of being thin. by high school i started standing up to them and forgot all about what they had to say about me, now i m in law school at Harvard and i saw them at our high school reunion, all they’re doing is being soccer moms and getting married.

March 22, 2012 at 4:07 pm
(6) Beth says:

I believe barbie has a bad affect on girls. I remember when I was in kindergarten all the girls would bring their barbies and by middle school only white girls were apart of the cool group. Since i had an older brother i was into manly things such as fencing, football and video games along with being a nerd and watching things such as lord of the rings and playing yu gi yo and pokemon. Since i was a different race and had brown hair and green eyes i always felt ugly around those girls who had blond hair and blue eyes because they acted prettier than me. They laughed at my wavy hair and the fact i had muscles instead of being thin. by high school i started standing up to them and forgot all about what they had to say about me, now i m in law school at Harvard and i saw them at our high school reunion, all they’re doing is being soccer moms and getting married.

October 4, 2012 at 12:17 pm
(7) Sheena says:

I don’t think that barbie effects all women the same, when I was a child I loved my Barbie sometimes j would undress them and throw there clothes around but Barbie never made me feel ugly even though I have brown hair and brown eyes. It wasn’t until I got older and someone told me that Barbie was something negivitve but she is a women who has it all and she’s in her fifties and doesn’t seem to be stopping. Barbie was a toy I loved and thought nothing was wrong with it until other people began pointing out things to me such as “she’s skinny” “she wears pink which is a sexist color” and she doesn’t have the right proportions however if Martel changed her measurements and made Barbie CEO of Mattel women would still find something about her sexist. In marketing no matter what you do someone isn’t going to like it Barbie.

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