For over half a century, it has been almost impossible to grow up in American society and not encounter Barbie. Mattel’s creation of Barbie has revolutionized toys, and has had a huge impact on the world. Despite her enormous success, it seems society is divided about her. Is she a feminist Icon? Is she helping the cause, or only adding to the docile female stereotype? The sad truth is, in this society there is no simple answer, and no chance of Barbie getting off easy.
So far this semester we have studied how icons are born of their time. Therefore, it makes sense that the first Barbie released in 1959 reflects the narrow beauty standards of the time, and features the original Barbie as a thin white woman in a one piece swim suit with blonde hair and pin-up themed make-up. Considering 1950s society, she fit in perfectly as the face of American toys and as role models for young girls.
Mattel supporters praise Barbie and her ability to change with the times. But many argue that although Barbie tries to shape shift enough to represent all women, she still has a way of making those who do not fit the original Barbie hopelessly feel like the “Other.” The first Black Barbie doll was released in 1967. Her name—Francie. On the surface, it seems like a positive step by Mattel to appeal to a larger audience and show another shade of beauty and success. However, upon digging deeper I found that may not be the case.
Between Barbie’s initial release in 1959 and Francie’s release in 1967, Barbie had made friends, met her boyfriend, Ken, had a little sister and numerous jobs. As Barbie gained popularity, consumers found out she was of German ancestry and in the midst of the civil rights movement in the United States, this raised the question of whether or not Barbie, and the German ancestor, the Bild Lilli doll, were white supremacists. As a response, Mattel released Francie, and many argue that it was a cheap attempt to show that Barbie having one nonwhite friend who kept her from being racist (because that’s all it takes, right?).
For many minority girls looking for representation of their own beauty at the time, this seemed like a breakthrough. Finally, they too had a Barbie too look up too. But how much did Francie actually have in common with the African American community? Unfortunately, not much. Though she was produced with a lot more melanin, Francie lacked Black features and looked more like a painted Barbie than anything else. Mattel also failed to acknowledge the difference in hair texture, which resulted in straight haired Francie. It wasn’t until 1968 that another black Barbie doll, Christie, was released with a different head mold and more African American features, such as Curly hair and fuller lips. Many people argue that the public made too big of a deal about Francie’s inaccurate representation of Black women. But was it blown way out of proportion?
Growing up, I had a collection of about six Barbie dolls that ranged in skin tone, but nothing else. I loved to play with them in the bath tub or pool, but often wondered why if they were meant to be like me…Why doesn’t their hair curl up in the water too? Why do they have the same face as the white Barbie? Are my lips too big? Should I keep my hair this straight at all time too? Is this what I’m supposed to look like? Reflecting on thoughts like this that I had as a child validated the public’s outrage of the white washed Barbie.
The other problem with Barbie is that even when she tries to expand her horizon and include more people of color, she’s trapped in the paradox of making them all feel like the “Other.” Blonde-haired blue-eyed Barbie is the standard, and every other shade of the doll is an attempt to include others, while keeping Barbie in her spotlight. Toy stores often have extravagant displays of Barbies, failing to realize that plastering the packaging with the world “Black” may be harmful. It makes it seem like the Black version or Barbie is just another set of accessories, much like Doctor Barbie or Beach Barbie.
The Black Barbie is not the only one made to feel like an other. Mattel has released many secondary Barbies to try to appeal to our culturally diverse nation. There are Asian, Hispanic, and Even Native American Barbie dolls. However, these too have questionable effects. Sure its nice to see color on the Barbie shelves, but a lot of times Mattel makes a huge profit off stereotyped Barbie dolls. For example, the Native American Barbie dolls Mattel has created never specify which tribe they originate from, and often have very stereotypical narratives. Not only do these dolls help feed into the stereotype of native peoples being “one with nature,” but they also contribute to romanticizing historical relationships between Europeans and native Americans which help desensitized children to the genocide the actually took place. Even in Barbie books, the native Barbies are readily willing to accept the settlers, and divided by ‘savage’ and ‘wise’. In addition, Babries of other ethnicities are featured in not so accurate way too. Mexican Barbies in big, pink Fiesta dresses with accompanying Chihuahuas. Asian Barbies with no specific country of origin, but Japanese cherry blossoms and “traditional” Chinese make up don’t help the cause. But then on the other side it can be argued that this is simple a form of celebrating diversity and other cultures. But if that is the case, why can’t Native American Barbies hold down office jobs like white Barbie? Why must their culture be so heavily emphasized? That only contributes to the idea of Other, which in Barbie’s case seems a lot like a chance for white people to see and make money off of fake diversity, but continue to stereotype through material culture (Shwartz).
I guess it would be hard for any woman as big as Barbie to please everyone, but are her attempts to please helpful or hurtful? She tries to include friends of color, but they are seen as secondary. She tries to “celebrate” other cultures, but often ends up stereotyping. She has held multiple careers, but is still body shamed for being “too” pretty, and unrealistic. There are two sides to every argument, however I personally believe that the criticisms Barbie has faced for years regarding other looks, lack of diversity, and even in some case, slut shaming, make Barbie closer to coming a role model for women. In society, women are constantly judged and criticized for just being human. And much like Barbie, we continue to exist and trail blaze despite our imperfections. I believe that all’s well that end’s well, so in my mind through al her controversies, Barbie is a positive contribution to our society.
Maureen T. Schwartz, “Native American Barbie: The Marketing of Euro-American Desires.” American Studies (2005) 46:3/4:301-332