Tag: Toys

Antithesis to Barbie: Toys for Little Homemakers



Chloe Kim as a Barbie doll Barbie.com

Just last month, Chloe Kim became the youngest gold medal winner in Olympic women’s snowboarding history at 17 years old. She won first place in the women’s halfpipe event and brought the gold medal from PyeongChang home to the United States.  This achievement was apparently significant enough to raise her status to Barbie-worthy. Kim is now featured as part of the Role Models line of Barbie dolls, alongside other female professionals like conservationist Bindi Irwin, model and body activist Ashley Graham, and historic aviator Amelia Earhart.[1] In bold pink letters on the Role Models page at barbie.mattel.com, one can read the statement “Imagining she can be anything is just the beginning. Actually seeing that she can makes all the difference.” The idea that Barbie can show young girls all they can possibly become is nothing new. Barbie has always set out to teach girls “independence” and “all that [they] could be.”[2] It was a major point for Mattel that the Barbie doll did not “teach [girls] to nurture”[3] or do housework, but rather to pursue careers outside the home and become strong women. But why was there a need or want for a toy to teach children this lesson? Well, that’s because many other toys girls were playing with were painting a much different picture of women’s place in society.

Sears ad, 1965. theatlantic.com

Many a childhood, especially those of the female population, included toys like kitchenware, vacuums, baby dolls and the like. I, for one, played house many times in my day. For nearly a century, toys that simulate or depict domestic chores and housekeeping items, the “rough housework”[4] Barbie didn’t do, have been marketed to American girls. For example, an article by Elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist, wrote an article for The Atlantic that highlights Sears ads from 1925 and 1965 that market domestic tools like brooms and sewing machines and cookware, claiming, “Every little girl likes to play house, to sweep, and to do mother’s work for her.”[5] These types of toys worked to make a young girl into a “little homemaker”[6] rather than “to inspire the limitless potential in every girl” as Mattel claims to do with Barbie.[7]

Betsy Wetsy by Ideal, https://www.flickr.com/photos/wardomatic/2119683684/

Similar to the way toys that simulate housework convey the expectation that women are intended for taking care of the home, babydolls portray the expectation of a woman as also taking care of children. Take the Betsy Wetsy doll by Ideal that M. G. Lord refers to as “clinging, dependent.”[8] One television commercial for Betsy Wetsy opens with a little girl thinking to herself, “When I grow up, I want to be a mommy.” Luckily for her, she “can play mommy right now, with Ideal’s Betsy Wetsy.”[9] This advertisement clearly states that the ideal life a little girl should imagine for herself is that of a mother. With countless other babydolls filling toy store shelves, Betsy Wetsy was only a small piece of this expectation-setting. With the way domestic toys and babydolls portrayed the capabilities and goals of women, it is easy to see where Barbie could swoop in and be the more ambitious alternative.

I certainly fell into the idea of “girls’ toys” and “boys’ toys” growing up. But growing up with a little sister meant pulling my weight in the playhouse and leaving time for the Power Rangers and Polly Pocket to have a picnic after saving the world. It is only now at 21 years old that I have really tried to understand what some of our toys could represent or teach us. Looking at toy vacuums and babydolls as potentially at odds with Barbie dolls instead of all under the umbrella of “girls’ toys” is a new critical lens that I don’t think I could now ignore if I tried. For what it’s worth, my sister, who played with all of these types of toys, is now an aspiring artist that cooks and cleans for herself and does not dote on any freeloading men.

[1] https://barbie.mattel.com/en-us/about/role-models.html (also follow this link for first Barbie Role Models image)

[2] M. G. Lord, Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll (Fredericton, N.B.: Goose Lane Editions, 2004), 9.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Sweet, Elizabeth. “Toys Are More Divided by Gender Now Than They Were 50 Years Ago.” The Atlantic. December 09, 2014. Accessed March 29, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/12/toys-are-more-divided-by-gender-now-than-they-were-50-years-ago/383556/. (also see this source for first Sears ad, 1925)

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://barbie.mattel.com/en-us/about/about-barbie.html

[8] M. G. Lord, Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll (Fredericton, N.B.: Goose Lane Editions, 2004), 9.

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6R9iUdk3EYs


The Downward Fall of Barbie by Angie Indik

Toy popularity tends to by cyclical. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures fgshshand accessories were a phenomenon in the early 1990s. As a former Toys R Us employee (Yes, I worked there that long ago!) I recall it was hard to keep them in stock. Every young boy seemed to want one. Yet, as with all trends, the TMNT craze eventually died out and Toys R Us stopped selling these products. Since 2009, however, the Turtles had a resurgence and the line sold $475 million worldwide in toys between 2009-2013 (Szalai). Furbies were another huge hit in the 1990s, albeit late 90s, where interest eventually died out and then reemerged some years later. There are probably dozens of other examples of popular toys booming, disappearing and then coming back with a vengeance. There is one line of products, however, that never seemed to falter in the 1990s and that was Barbie.

The Barbie dolls and accessories sold consistently well throughout the decade. In fsfhfact, her popularity grew as time went on. The Barbie line was once displayed in one aisle and suddenly these toys took up close to three aisles worth. It consumed half of what was considered the girls section. In order to make room for the fashion icon, the section displaying toy vacuums, brooms and ovens shrunk. The baby doll area was condensed. It might have appeared to be a victory for feminism as toys associated with housework dwindled. As the Barbie section grew at Toys R Us, perhaps it was a reflection of the modern, independent woman. After all, Barbie was not subjected just to home life. She had endless possibilities. She was a doctor, a pilot, an equestrian and the list goes on. Barbie was in demand and there was no stopping her. That is, until recently.

It has been reported that Mattel’s Barbie sales have dropped consistently in the last three years (Kell). One can blame the popularity of Disney’s Frozen toys for causing Barbie’s downward slope. Maybe it was the allure of American Girl dolls that affected Barbie sales as well. I personally do not believe either is true. I simply think people have fallen out of love with Barbie. Judging from my facebook newsfeed, many people are tired of unachievable body standards for women. I find posts complaining about photoshopped  images in fashion magazines or touting how wonderful the tree change girls are. (See http://treechangedolls.tumblr.com/ if you are unfamiliar.) There is this demand that people want realistic images of females whether it is in a magazine or as a doll. So, the idea that a girl can grow up and be a doctor or a pilot is a realistic one. The notion that a girl will become an adult with a sixteen inch waist, not so much. While it looked like the popularity of Barbie in the 1990s was never-ending, it appears even the queen of toys has a shelf life too. Maybe she will have a resurgence just like TMNT or Furby, but I have a feeling she will need a makeover for that. Only time will tell.

Work Cited

Gray, Emma. Photo. “Barbie Body Would Be Pretty Odd Looking in Real Life.” Huffington Post. 13 Apr. 2013. 12 Mar. 2015. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/10/barbie-body-real-life-infographic_n_3057690.html>

Kell, John. “Mattel’s Barbie Sales Down for a Third Consecutive Year.” Forbes. 30 Jan. 2015. 12 Mar. 2015. < http://fortune.com/2015/01/30/mattels-barbie-sales-drop-third-year/>

Szalai Georg.”London Expo: Nickelodeon Touts $474 Million in Retail Sales for Relaunched Turtles Franchise.” The Hollywood Reporter. 18 Oct. 2013.  12 Mar. 2015.   <http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/london-expo-nickelodeon-touts-475-649396>

Vieira, Anthony. Photo. “TMNT Character Design Details: Traditional Turtles and Comical Shredder?”4 Jan. 2014. 12 Mar. 2015.  <http://screenrant.com/tmnt-movie-reboot-character-design-details/>