Does the Barbie of the Past Represent the Barbie of Today? by William Kowalik

Thinking about Barbie for most people would conjure up the image of a ridiculously slender and un-proportional fashionable doll that lives in a pink mansion, drives a pink car and can do anything! Barbie as a children’s toy for girls (and boys) could be seen as a heroic inspirational figure that can inspire kids to do whatever they set their minds to. President Barbie? You can be President too! Perhaps Barbie…if she were real would be the most multitalented person, trying her hand at every career imaginable…or simply indecisive. Maybe she just hasn’t found the right one yet. That’s up for you to decide.

Barbie started off as a fashionable, independent career woman. Her relationship with domesticity has fluctuated with the changing tastes of the times over her fifty-seven year life (Pearson and Mullins 229). Although earlier on “Handler turned down a vacuum company’s offer to make a Barbie sized vacuum because Barbie didn’t do what Charlotte Johnson termed ‘rough housework’” (Lord 10). As the tumultuous Sixties pushed forward, the image of Barbie as an independent career woman changed to become more like Barbie the housewife. Ken, her boyfriend/husband/male-counterpart arrived on the scene at this time. M.G. Lord says of the original Barbie, “Barbie taught girls what was expected of women, and women in the fifties would have been a failure without a male consort” (Lord 11). By the late 1960’s Barbie began to return to work outside the home. In 1973, Barbie as a career woman returned, although quite clearly subservient to make coworkers and bosses, as evidenced by “Barbie the Stewardess” and “Ken the Pilot” (Pearson and Mullins 249).

Could one argue that the Barbie “brand” of today is so different today than when she was created? While I’m sure a convincing argument in favor of that could be made, Barbie in 1959 and Barbie in 2016 present a very similar idea, young women can do what they want with their lives and proudly and confidently do so. Putting aside the problematic nature of body image that Barbie has traditionally presented, it seems that she is a good role model, encouraging positive play that stimulates imagination and possibilities. The Barbie website appropriately sums up this vision well: “With more than 150 careers on her resume– from registered nurse to rock star, veterinarian to aerobics instructor, pilot to police officer– Barbie continues to take on aspirational and culturally relevant roles while also serving as a role model and agent of change for girls. She first broke the “plastic ceiling” in the 1960s when, as an astronaut, she went to the moon… four years before Neil Armstrong. In the 1980s she took to the boardroom as “Day to Night” CEO Barbie, just as women began to break into the C-suite. And in the 1990s, she ran for President, before any female candidate ever made it onto the presidential ballot” (“Barbie Careers”). Although the need for pushing this might seem irrelevant today when so many women do work, it is the image of “What’s Cookin? And “Leisure Hours” Barbie that seems irrelevant (Pearson and Mullins 238). Particularly in STEM fields, men still greatly outnumber women. This still leaves the opportunity for Barbie to continue to be a role model. “”Well before 1963, when Betty Friedan defined the ‘problem that has no name,’ a significant number of women were defying the Feminine Mystique and forging a place for themselves in the male-dominated workforce. Barbie was created in the image of these women…Consequently, the doll had revolutionary from the outset by even tacitly acknowledging women’s and power in a wide range of settings” (Pearson and Mullins 256).

Barbie has always been a sign of the times. Her careers, matched outfits, and lifestyle have all been representative of the time in which they were created. “Barbie is a direct reflection of the cultural impulses that formed us” (Lord 17). Barbie today might have an iPhone. A few of the dolls set to be released this spring, show the dolls in Yoga poses, it appears they’re health conscious. Another significant different is the introduction of different sizes: “Original”, “Tall”, “Petite”, and “Curvy”—for the first time making Barbie proportions at least somewhat like real women (“Barbie”). So can you say that the Barbie of the past represents the Barbie of today? Or is the Barbie of today something completely different. I’d say that while yes they have differences, but Barbie is still Barbie. That hasn’t changed. From her first progressive career choices in the 60’s, she’s always led the way for young girls to follow their dreams especially with the current branding “You Can Be Anything”.

Lord, M. G. Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. New York: William Morrow, (2004) Print.

Peason, Marlys, and Paul Mullins. “Domesticating Barbie: An Archaeology of Barbie Material Culture and Domestic Ideology.” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 3.4 (1999): 225-59. Print.

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