Is Barbie to Blame for the destruction of marriage? The American Psycological Association confirms that today “about 40 to 50 percent of married couples in the United States divorce” (APA, Marriage and Divorce). Little girls across the United States dream about Barbie finally tying the knot with her tried and true boyfriend, Ken. I’m arguing however, that that this power duo isn’t well prepared for everything that comes with the pretty white dress and gold rings.
First of all, before we talk about what marriage means, and what the consequences of failure are, let’s examine the “perfect” All-American” couple. Barbie and her can-do attitude are going places. She’s starting on her way to a healthy body image, and a challenging, prestigious career in the STEM fields… far from her days of homemaker or simple fashion model. She has an extensive library of girlfriends (but also maybe a multiple personality disorder). Ken on the other hand, seems to be lacking in everything but looks. He doesn’t have and buddies to hang out with for “guys night.” There’s no man cave in Barbie’s perfectly pink dream house, and frankly, she’s just too darn busy to give him the attention he needs.
This scenario is a little funny to think about, but is there merit to it? Girls learn how to nurture their relationships with their friends by playing Barbies with them, but the boys aren’t interested. Maybe it’s because their role in her life is pretty lack-luster, and they don’t really want to imagine themselves as a Ken character, because frankly, life sucks for him. According to Lord’s “Forever Barbie” Ken is nothing but another one of Barbie’s accessories (p 11).
The culture of Barbie may be great for friendly relationships, 5 stars on that front, but what is it teaching girls about romantic relationships and marriage? It could be that this neglectful beauty blinds them to the fact that real relationships require an equal partnership. Barbie appears to me to be rather self-centered, and Ken looks like he is nothing more than her hunky assistant. Another issue is that while Barbie has continued to evolve over time, Ken really hasn’t changed, yet there isn’t much of an outcry to diversify and update the Ken collection. Why? Probably because boys don’t respond to Ken and don’t like to play with Barbie and Ken dolls, since they don’t want to be pushed around by some shoe-happy Malibu princess. While Barbie is absolutely an icon of the “all-American girl” Ken is not an icon of American boys.
Ken gives girls an unrealistic expectation of men, just as Barbie of the past gave girls unrealistic expectations of their bodies. If girls learn to expect a “trophy husband” the way Barbie uses her Ken, it’s setting them up to fail in the world of dating and marriage. I’d like to see them engineer a new line of Ken dolls that are more realistic, and have them marketed towards boys. This was boys will be able to communicate a little better on the Barbie front, and they will relate more to Ken. There should also be stories or games that force a “teamwork” theme between Barbie and Ken, in which Barbie isn’t the center of attention, nor does Ken need to “save-the-day”. This would introduce an idea of an equal partnership, and plant a little seed with young girls that relationships require working together.
In her article, “Native American Barbie: The Marketing of Euro-American Desires” Schwarz states that “Toys as a form of material culture are everywhere a source of cultural data” (p3). This silly idea of why Barbie and Ken would make a terrible married couple, at first sounds childish, but it reflects some truthfully troubling things about our society. Most little girls dream about their wedding day from a young age, especially when they have a Barbie to dress up in a little white gown. The current relationship between Ken and Barbie is ill prepared to serve as a model of what a successful marriage would look like. It’s time for Ken to change, and for both him and Barbie to learn the give-and-take of a real world relationship. If they don’t, it’s going to make the concept of marriage more difficult to understand and more likely to further deteriorate.
American Psychological Association (2016). Marriage and Divorce. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/topics/divorce/
Lord, M.G. (2004) Forever Barbie. New York: William Morrow and Company Inc.
Schwarz, Maureen Trudelle (2005) Native American Barbie: The Marketing of Euro-American Desires. Mid-America American Studies Association.