Tag: Ken

In the Dollhouse: Subversive Barbie (and Gay Ken) by Morgan O’Donnell

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” [1] 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 [2]. 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 [3].

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,” [4] 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. [5] 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.

  1. 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.
  2. Ibid, 236.
  3. Ibid, 240.
  4. “In The Dollhouse.” Dina Goldstein. https://www.dinagoldstein.com/in-the-dollhouse/.
  5. 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.

Bridal Barbie and her Matrimonial Delusions by Laura E. Trzaska

wedding1Is 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.Bride

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.

Barbie—Hurtful or Helpful? – Deja Sloan

BarbiesFor 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


Engineering Barbie by Ali McCarron

The first thing that came to mind in preparing this blog was the internet uproar from a few months ago regarding the 2010 Barbie book, I Can Be…A Computer Engineer. The controversy arose when a journalist for Gizmodo, Pamela Ribon, published an article dissecting the book, entitled “Barbie F*cks It Up Again,” on November 18, 2014.

First of all, I definitely recommend reading the article, as it is a hilarious take on a horrifically troubling book for young, predominantly female, readers. To give a brief summary, I Can Be…A Computer Engineer starts out promising. Barbie’s story begins while she works on her laptop, designing a game intended to teach children how computers work. Barbie in a typically male-dominated STEM career, which seems like it will lead to a super-cool, ‘Woo! Feminism!’ ‘We can do it!’ type book for young readers, but it fails completely on every following page. After explaining her plan to her sister, Skipper, Barbie laughs off her compliments and requests to play the game, explaining that she’ll “need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!” Suddenly, catastrophe strikes! Barbie’s computer crashes, and she subsequently crashes Skipper’s by putting her virus infested flash drive into her laptop. How ever will Barbie fix the laptops? Enlisting the help of Steven and Brian, of course, as Barbie is completely helpless. The story concludes with everyone praising Barbie for her amazing skills as a computer engineer, even though she was unable to do anything without the help of the males, illustrating the common view that there is no need for females in STEM profession.

On November 19, 2014, the Barbie Facebook page released a statement on the matter, writing:

The Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer book was published in 2010. Since that time we have reworked our Barbie books. The portrayal of Barbie in this specific story doesn’t reflect the Brand’s vision for what Barbie stands for. We believe girls should be empowered to understand that anything is possible and believe they live in a world without limits. We apologize that this book didn’t reflect that belief. All Barbie titles moving forward will be written to inspire girl’s imaginations and portray an empowered Barbie character.

This statement peaked my curiosity on the developments made to Barbie books since 2010 – you know, ages ago, when misogyny was a thing…

I went to the Random House Kids website, which publish all Barbie Books through several different subsidiary publishing labels. While I was not able to read all of the books published within the past several years, I was able to read a brief summary of them, and through my brief undertaking, I was extremely disappointed. Barbie within the literary world is both very similar and extremely different than the Barbie created in 1959.

While the articles we read in class depicted Barbie as a grown adult modeled after the “Bild Lilli,” a “sort of three-dimensional pinup,” the Barbie portrayed in books from 2004 to the present, show a teen Barbie in high school, who, disconcertingly, owns her own Dreamhouse with her younger sister Skipper, and the occasional friend, or a teen princess Barbie (Lord 7-8). The two main series of books in production in 2014 and 2015 are Barbie in Princess Power and Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse. The Princess Power series appears the most promising, as it depicts Barbie as a modern day princess with powers that allow her to “save the day,” but Life in the Dreamhouse highly values domesticity, with titles like “Cupcake Challenge!” “Barbie Loves Parties!” and “Dream Closet”. However, there is one book in the series that focuses on Barbie’s independence – in “Licensed to Drive” Barbie receives her drivers’ license and gains mobility and the responsibility of driving Skipper and her friends around the town.

Other books published within the past two years include: Hair-tastic!, Pretty Ponies, On the Runway, Sleepover Fun!, Dream Closet, and Pop Star Dreams. The I Can Be… series that sparked the 2014 controversy is continued to be published, but the “Computer Engineer” edition has been removed. Other I Can Be… professions include: gymnast, dance star, movie star, artist, pastry chef, cheerleader, and ballerina. There are some more education-focused professions, such as “baby doctor,” “pet vet,” and teacher, however most of the focus seems to be on “women’s jobs,” including those in the arts and even teacher. To me, the most impressive of all the I Can Be… works is the I Can Be…President, in which Barbie runs for class president, with the help of her female friend. It seems the most empowering of all the books, without a male savior to help Barbie out when things become difficult.

I found it interesting that in the second phase of Barbie, Pearson and Mullens note the building up of Ken as a character in his own right, with the “macho Ken” role beginning in 1963, Barbie began to retreat into the domestic (238). In the new Barbie books, Ken is never present as a main character, and, from what I found, usually is not present at all. In most books, Barbie actually seems to be pretty into “girl power,” always hanging out with her sister and her friends. This is what makes the turn toward “female roles” so baffling to me. There is no strong male lead to take on the high-powered roles, so they are just in limbo, in a world with a whole lot of dancers and performers, but no scientists, lawyers, or mathematicians.

Maybe I am looking too deeply into this. Maybe it is actually a feminist move to say, “You know what? I don’t want to be a scientist, I want to hang out with my pony, and that’s completely okay!” But I can’t help to think of all of the interesting, “non-girly” aspirations that many young girls have that are not being represented in this market.

Or, conversely, perhaps the depictions of Barbie in these books actually align with Pearson and Mullins’ framework of Barbie’s development and regression throughout time as an indicator of the social mores of our society at the time. As Lord explains, “Barbie [is] a toy designed by women for women to teach women what – for better or worse – is expected of them by society,” and, although disappointing, maybe our society is stagnant in a misogynistic ideology, developing, but only insofar as moving from domestic women’s roles to “women’s jobs” within the broader workforce.

Barbie. “The Barbie I Can Be A Computer Engineer book…” Facebook. 19 Nov. 2014. [12 Mar. 2015 <https://www.facebook.com/BarbieNAD/posts/362944293876701>]

Ribon, Pamela. “Barbie F*cks It Up Again.” Gizmodo. Ed. Annalee Newitz. N.p., 18 Nov. 2014. Web. 12 Mar. 2015.