Is Barbie a Feminist Icon (surely not…)?

Feminist Blogs / Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

The Barbie doll is a controversial topic. So to add to that, what if I said that I think Barbie could be viewed as a feminist icon?

The original Barbie was created by a woman called Ruth Handler, she wanted to make a doll for her daughter that could serve as an adult role model for her, as at the time (1951), most dolls were based on children or infants. From the moment Barbie was first put on the shelves, controversy followed her everywhere. The most distinct argument for Barbie being damaging to young children is down to her body image. She is tall, has a small waist, big boobs and (stereotypically) long blonde hair and blue eyes. If this is the role model that Handler wanted to create then surely the doll is implying that all women should look like Barbie, they should all fit a mould, and if they don’t then somehow they fail at womanhood (?).

If Barbie were a real woman then she would be severely underweight. If put into proportion of a real human, she would weigh 110 lbs and be 5ft 9 inches tall- making her BMI 16.2 (18.5 – 24.9 is considered a healthy BMI). Therefore is Barbie putting across an unrealistic image to young girls of what the ‘perfect’ woman should look like? If she is then she could be adding to the increasing influx of self-esteem related issues and a rise in eating disorders among young people, with the average age of those suffering from eating disorders getting younger each year.

Then again, it could be argued that Barbie looks most like a woman than other dolls. Take Bratz for example, their bodies seem to be way more disproportionate than Barbie’s, their makeup could be viewed as too ‘heavy’ for their target audience along with their ‘inappropriate’ clothes.


Image result for bratz dolls


I think that that it’s way too simplistic to blame Barbie alone for something so complicated like the way girls think about their weight. Yes, Barbie could contribute a thought or an opinion but studies have shown that girls are more influenced by things closer to home like their mother’s attitudes. Eating disorders and self-esteem related issue are complex; there are a whole range of factors that influence them and they can’t be put down to one causative mechanism.

Barbie is widely criticised for being a ‘girls toy’, the ‘pink toy’ – boys are frowned upon or given weird looks if they’re seen to be playing with one. This could just be reinforcing the gender stereotype of what toys boys and girls are ‘allowed’ to play with and the colours attached to them. Just have a look at the iconic scene in Friends where Ross is horrified to see his son Ben playing with a Barbie doll:


If it’s true, and Barbie has the power to influence and encourage girls to be girls and boys to be boys then hopefully, Barbie is also a keen player in enforcing female empowerment; maybe we’re spending too much time talking about her looks and not enough time talking about the 150 careers that she’s had. Her jobs haven’t really included your normal 9-5 office job, but have seen her be a surfer or a veterinarian; thus showing young girls that they can grow up to break through the glass ceiling. Barbie has not only taken on these jobs but based on the luxury cars and houses she can seem to afford, she has been successful in them and hasn’t been dependent on Ken (her male doll counterpart) for her income; hopefully putting the record straight for young girls to show that they don’t need a man to rely on for financial stability and can make their own success.

I can understand how on face value Barbie looks like an ‘unfeminist’ toy that reinforces the gender stereotypes that we’re trying so hard to escape from. But once I researched the topic I was surprised to see how many feminists disagreed with that view. I now believe that Barbie has become a feminist icon, she is in a new line of toys that are more inclusive and who represent a wider array of views and individuals. She could still work on improving her unrealistic body image for general women though…


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