Barbie is perhaps the most complex and most discussed children’s toy in American history. The doll’s social and cultural symbolism has been endlessly picked apart since Mattel first introduced Barbie in 1959. Pearson and Mullins write that Mattel has tried to “structure the meaning of Barbie in very distinct ways which reproduce particular versions of domesticity”  through her careers and housework, clothing, and accessories in various reproductions of the doll throughout history.
Her relationship status also plays into the image of domesticity she presents. Barbie was originally a young, single professional until Mattel gave into intense consumer demand and created Ken in 1961 as a “subservient male doll” with the sole purpose of being Barbie’s escort . Throughout the Sixties Ken’s wardrobe, career options, and overall role in the Barbie world expanded; simultaneously, Barbie’s domesticity increased and she was placed in more subordinate labor positions while Ken’s activities displayed his influence over and masculine independence from Barbie .
In my mind I relate the gender dynamics in Barbie and Ken’s relationship, as analyzed by Pearson and Mullins, to the (utterly disgusting and sexist) phrase “a woman’s place is in the home/kitchen.” One clear function of Barbie is the message she conveys about how society views women, and based on her track record, one could say that a dominant message is that women should beautify themselves, take care of housework, and do other forms of labor in service to men. Photographer Dina Goldstein presented a subversive take on Barbie and Ken’s picture perfect home life with her 2012 photographic series In the Dollhouse.
Goldstein employed two actors to portray incredibly doll-like, life-sized versions of Barbie and Ken. The story takes place within the pink walls of the couple’s dollhouse and follows them as Ken, “who has been trapped in an imposed marriage for over three decades,”  discovers his gay sexuality, while Barbie’s gradual insecurity over it turns into a mental breakdown that ends with her cutting off all her hair in a last-ditch effort to be what he wants.
In an interview for The Huffington Post in 2013, Goldstein said that she drew inspiration for the project from observing her two daughters role-play with the dolls. She personally sees Barbie as representative of “the concept that Beauty is Power and necessary to attain happiness” and to attract a partner. But when Ken expresses his individuality as a gay man, the value of beauty is stripped away and nothing Barbie is or does can make him stay.  I find In the Dollhouse to be a genius subversion of Barbie’s symbolism. Not only does it toy with the longtime allusion to her beloved boyfriend being gay (Earring Magic Ken, anyone?), but it is also a play on the concepts of domesticity and nurturing that have been such a central part of the Barbie myth — and the female myth.
Traditional gender roles place pressure on women to be the ideal homemakers and girlfriends or wives for the sake of the men’s satisfaction and benefit. In Goldstein’s photo series, Barbie does everything right, from keeping up an outer appearance of beauty to cooking dinner for Ken, only to fail and lose him…in the end she is left with nothing but an empty facade of the life she thought she knew, the life she spent trying to satisfy Ken.
To me, this ties in well with the correlation between the Ken doll’s growing roles and Barbie’s limiting roles during the Sixties. With Mattel’s introduction of Ken and his soaring popularity over the years, Barbie, who was once the star of her own show, was reduced to the nurturing, submissive girlfriend in certain scenarios and iterations.
Women bear the physical and emotional labor of creating and maintaining a perfect world in the home and in their relationships, and Goldstein’s Barbie photo series goes where Mattel won’t dare to: it shows the foolish nature of these expectations and the reality that is waiting to be exposed.
- Pearson, Marlys, and Paul R. Mullins. “Domesticating Barbie: An Archaeology of Barbie Material Culture and Domestic Ideology.” 228-29. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 3, no. 4 (December 1999). http://www.jstor.org/stable/20852937.
- Ibid, 236.
- Ibid, 240.
- “In The Dollhouse.” Dina Goldstein. https://www.dinagoldstein.com/in-the-dollhouse/.
- Rudolph, Christopher. “Dina Goldstein, Photographer, Shares ‘In The Dollhouse,’ Barbie Discovering Ken’s Gay Affair (PHOTOS).” The Huffington Post. May 16, 2013. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/16/dina-goldstein-in-the-dollhouse-barbie-ken-gay_n_3279824.html.