July 21, 2023

For better and for worse: Feminist scholars weigh in on Barbie’s legacy

In advance of the hit movie, UCalgary experts explore whether iconic doll’s impact on culture has been positive or negative
2023 Barbie The Movie Doll Pink Western Outfit.
2023 Barbie The Movie Doll Pink Western Outfit. Mattel, Inc.

From her earliest days, when she landed on store shelves in 1959, the iconic Barbie doll has been a controversial toy.

Eternal criticism has centred around the unachievable body image Barbie epitomizes, ingraining unhealthy societal notions as to the idealized female body which the little girls who love her can never live up to. 

But Barbie’s defenders will argue the doll has had more of a positive influence over the decades. Barbie has been everything from a doctor and a rock star to an astronaut and the president. There’s nothing she can’t do, perhaps encouraging young girls to defy any patriarchal limitations they come across in life.

Trailers and advance press indicate that the much buzzed-about Barbie movie, which hits theatres today (July 21), will be a satirical feminist take on the Barbie universe. Starring the perfectly cast Margot Robbie, perhaps the closest a human being can come to resembling the classic doll, the movie is directed by Greta Gerwig, who made her mark with the films Lady Bird and Little Women.

Trailers feature the music of the Indigo Girls, one of the original bands of the feminist-themed Lilith Fair music festivals in the ‘90s. We see Barbie leave Barbie Land for the real world, where she is promptly sexually harassed at the beach (responding by decking the offending male). There’s a corporate board room full of white males, where a panicked Will Ferrell rants comedically about putting Barbie “back in the box.”

Given the feminist bent of the movie, we put the question of Barbie’s legacy to a few of UCalgary’s prominent feminist voices from a range of disciplines. Has Barbie’s influence been more positive or negative, culturally? Here's what they had to say (quotes edited for length).

Jessalynn Keller

Jessalynn Keller.

Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Dr. Jessalynn Keller, PhD, associate professor, Department of Communication, Media and Film, Faculty of Arts 

“I don’t see Barbie as either a bad or a good role model,” says Keller, who counts feminist theory and girls’ media and cultures among her fields of research. “I view her as a sort of playful, flexible fantasy who’s negotiated in a variety of ways.

“Young people will approach Barbie a lot differently than we as adults will, often in a very creative way that’s sometimes quite queer and camp, too. Kids won’t necessarily hold a Barbie and think, this is how I must play with her. They will adapt and modify her, cut her hair, and paint it with makeup, dress her in punk costumes. Or they might just pull her head off!

“Yes, the original Barbie has been rightly critiqued for the impossible dimensions of her body. Those criticisms are valid and important. It’s great that we’re now seeing a diversity of body types in the Barbie line. I was in a Toys “R” Us the other day and there’s even a Barbie in a wheelchair.

“For the most part though, I don’t think Barbie lovers are engaging with her as a blueprint for their own lives, but rather, as a lighthearted fantasy figure.”

Shelly Russell-Mayhew

Shelly Russell-Mayhew.

Dr. Shelly Russell-Mayhew, PhD, professor and associate dean, research, Werklund School of Education

“There’s lots evidence to suggest that Barbie’s appearance focus can be detrimental to a child’s developing relationship with their body,” says Russell-Mayhew, who leads Werklund’s Body Image Research Lab.

“We know that if Barbie were real, she would have impossible physical dimensions. She would break in half if she bent over because her bust is too large to be supported by the size of her waist, not to mention her tiny, perpetually pointed feet. And she doesn’t have enough fat on her body to menstruate.

“For this image to be the standard of beauty is problematic, because it sets an impossible and unhealthy ideal.”

While she acknowledges the Mattel toy company’s efforts to create a diversity of body types and ethnic backgrounds in the Barbie universe, Russell-Mayhew doesn’t see it as negating the troubling aspects of the toy’s influence.

“No matter how much Mattel tries to introduce this inclusivity into the Barbie line, when people hear the word Barbie it’s still the original that comes to mind, the tall, impossibly thin blonde.”

Barbie’s ambitious career choices can only go so far as well, says Russell-Mayhew. “It’s great that Barbie has had all these glamorous power careers, but the focus is never on what Barbie does. It’s how good she looks doing it. The emphasis is on the costume changes and doing her hair. More time is invested preparing her to look beautiful doing the jobs than actually working those jobs.

“Barbie remains ornamental, and that message is a problem.”

Ayesha Malhotra

Ayesha Malhotra.

Brandie Sunley for Haskayne School of Business

Dr. Ayesha Malhotra, PhD, associate professor (teaching), Haskayne School of Business

In Malhotra’s view, Barbie has served as a liberating figure historically. “Barbie helped girls evolve from the conservatism of the 1950s,” she says.

“In the fifties, girls were expected to build their lives as homemakers, and the dolls they played with were mostly babies. Then along came Barbie, who was this attractive, adult power figure who could be whatever she wanted to be. She could be an astronaut and go the moon. Barbie helped girls transition to a more empowered status.”

However, the unrealistic body issues always dogged the doll and by the 2000s this had become a major detriment, says Malhotra. Mothers were rejecting the iconic brand and by 2014, sales of the Barbie line had plunged dramatically. Mattel implemented a strategy to make Barbie more relevant, introducing the different body types and ethnicities to the Barbie universe.

Malhotra sees the Barbie movie as the biggest step yet in that transition.

“The movie focuses on the classic Barbie, the blonde, stereotypically beautiful version that has become so iconic, but at the same time it’s going to be tackling these big questions about the Barbie identity — the character’s own existential crisis, if you will. She finds herself in the real world while struggling with her identity and all her contradictions.

“It feels like an engagement with stakeholders who like Barbie, but also those who don’t.”

She adds: “It’s super marketing genius, creating Barbie content which appears to engage with both her classic femininity, her world of pink, and her need to go beyond her boundaries. It’s created so much buzz.”

Rebecca Sullivan

Rebecca Sullivan.

Dr. Rebecca Sullivan, PhD, professor, Department of English, Faculty of Arts

“Barbie has been identified, rightly enough, as a toy which essentially trained young girls into unreasonable expectations of beauty, thinness, whiteness, and effortless accomplishment,” says Sullivan, a professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist media.

“But here’s the thing, we liked playing with Barbies. Burgeoning feminists like me delighted in her bouclé fur coat, snazzy convertible, and the endless possibilities of the dream house!”

As feminist theory and politics developed, ever more creative and playful concepts of gender and sexual fluidity were embraced, says Sullivan. “We made Barbie feminist, sort of, and over the years Mattel sort of responded.

“Racially diverse Barbies, who were still, for the most part, dangerously thin, and Barbies in wheelchairs joined high-achieving Barbie doctors, scientists, hockey players, and one of my personal favourites, the Legally Blonde lawyer Barbie.”

Has this been a watering down or a co-opting of feminism? Sullivan doesn’t think so.

“I see it as a defiant re-engagement of the feminine within feminist. Femininity itself has been defined by the patriarchy as passive, superficial, irrational, and consumerist. This double bind of criticizing feminism for being unfeminine while criticizing femininity for not being feminist enough has restricted the imaginative possibilities of gender itself.

“Greta Gerwig’s Barbie may in fact be the feminist role model of our times. Barbie for president!”

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