From Barbie’s first appearance on store shelves in 1959, her “chief association was with high fashion” (Pearson & Mullins, 230). Creator Ruth Handler ensured that her original fashion choices were inspired by “Paris fashion shows” (230) and epitomized modern style. Evidently, Barbie was concerned with image from the outset, embodying a marketable version of beauty and culture with every subsequent version of herself. According to archaeologists Marlys Pearson and Paul Mulllins, “Barbie never was designed to be a cipher that could accommodate a vast range of social possibilities or experiences” (256). She was more like a piece of art which produced a clear-cut vision of middle-class womanhood, aiming to achieve mass social appeal.
If we think of Barbie in this way, her cultural missteps become a little easier to bear. For instance, during the late 1960s, Mattel, Inc. made certain that Barbie was absent from any counter-cultural protest or drug-ridden commune. Instead she was busy enjoying “Lunch on the Terrace,” (1966) or a “Music Center Matinee” (1966) (Pearson & Mullins, 244). Although commentators have criticized this era of Barbie for glossing over important historical moments, the doll’s core mission wasn’t to comment on cultural turmoil; it was to be a toy, a beautiful, fashion-forward, profitable toy. The ideas embedded in counter-culture were inherently radical, and Barbie’s brand needed to appeal to a mainstream audience.
A more modern example of Mattel’s questionable Barbie releases was its “Great Eras Collection,” which appeared on shelves from 1993 to 1997 (Milnor 215). The series depicted Barbie as versions of prominent women throughout world history, including Egyptian Queen Barbie and Chinese Empress Barbie (215). Egyptian Queen Barbie wears an “intricately detailed golden headdress with turquoise beading reflect[ing] that she is indeed Egyptian royalty” (“The Great Eras Collection”). Her dress is bold, bright blue, and shiny; again, fashion is a main concern for the doll. Chinese Empress Barbie is equally as stunning. Her costume is highly detailed, featuring faux jade beads and dragon stitchings. On Barbie’s website, Empress Barbie is described as capturing “… the authentic look and feel of the Qing dynasty” (“The Great Eras Collection”). Each of these versions offers a prime example of Mattel concerning itself mostly with Barbie’s looks. In each doll’s description, Barbie’s clothes are the only thing discussed. Her actual historical role is absent entirely, underscoring the argument that Barbie is, in reality, not a teaching tool; she is an attractive commodity.
In its most recent campaign, however, Mattel has allowed Barbie to encourage her consumers with the mantra “You can be anything” (“You Can Be Anything”). Ads feature young girls filling in the “you can be” blank with words like “President,” “Doctor,” “Ballerina,” and “Game Developer” (“You Can Be Anything”). Although Mattel has encouraged young girls to use Barbie as a tool for personal growth and imagination in the past, this campaign actively promotes the idea that young girls can look to Barbie to show them what’s possible. Barbie now embodies virtually anything, so you can too. This evidence contradicts the notion that Barbie is purely a pretty face to be bought and sold. This campaign, likely demanded by a feminist turn in the toy market, may complicate things for Mattel. Now that Barbie is an active role model, rather than just a fashion model, Mattel will need to be even more careful about what its brand promotes.
Milnor, Kristina. “Barbie as Grecian Goddess and Egyptian Queen: Ancient Women’s History by Mattel.” Helios 32.2 (2005): 215. JSTOR. Web. 23 Mar. 2016.
Pearson, Marlys, and Paul R. Mullins. “Domesticating Barbie: An Archaeology of Barbie Material Culture and Domestic Ideology.”International Journal of Historical Archaeology 3.4 (1999): 225-59. Web.
“The Great Eras® Collection.” The Great Eras® Collection. Barbie.com. Web. 23 Mar. 2016. “You Can Be Anything.” Barbie.com. Mattel, Inc. Web. 23 Mar. 2016.