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Barbie at Her Core

Like many precocious middle schoolers in the old days of 2017, I would spend a lot of free time reading questionable fanfiction on Wattpad. Now, I don’t remember the name (or I actively chose to block it out) but there were a few pieces in which the writers would make a female character seem like she “was not like other girls” by having her wear a T-shirt with the words “Death to Barbie”. As a child reading that, I was shocked. Why would anyone want Barbie to die? Why did this person hate her so much? What is so wrong with her? 

Now, it seems like nobody can get enough of Barbie. After photos of Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling dressed as Barbie and Ken for Greta Gerwig’s much-anticipated movie were released, guys, gals, and nonbinary pals switched out their usual color palettes for the doll’s signature hot pink. The trailers for the movie showcased Barbieland, a campy-looking playhouse-esque world where even the oval office is pink. Twitter feeds are flooded with “she’s everything, he’s just Ken” memes. Margot Robbie will henceforth be seen as Barbie herself. Everything we hated about Barbie, her pink clothes and made-up look, are now what we love about her. But why did we hate her so much in the first place? 

The  first trailer for the movie depicts little girls haphazardly playing with baby dolls until a giant Barbie (Robbie) steps into the scene. After seeing this tall, beautiful new figure, the little girls go feral and smash those baby dolls to bits. As adorable and kind of silly as this scene appears, it’s actually based on some truth. Before Barbie, little girls were typically pushed to play with baby or toddler dolls. These dolls were something that the girls could pretend were their own children and take care of them. Basically, it was “practice” for motherhood and the trailer shows these girls, who must only be around 4-6 years old, already as tired, bored mothers mechanically rocking baby dolls to sleep. In an article from Insider, Susan Shapiro writes “Ruth Handler realized that many little girls simply didn’t want to play ‘mommy’”. Unlike the baby dolls whose play was limited to maternal duties, Barbie could be dressed up, drive her own car, and go places by herself. Baby dolls required little girls to be mothers, but Barbie asked them to be her best friend. But all was not well in the dreamhouse. As we all know, when little girls get older they get more insecure. 

TW: Mention of Eating Disorders and related topics

One particularly problematic doll had a diet book that simply said the words “DON’T EAT” in very visible letters and a scale that touted Barbie’s weight as being 110 pounds.

Suddenly, Barbie went from a girl’s best friend to her worst nightmare. Barbie was seen as a symbol of unrealistic beauty standards and everyone, including Gloria Steinem, condemned the doll as any kind of role model. This isn’t without some merit though, Meera Navlakha writes for Mashable that  “A 2016 study conducted in Australia found that exposure to Barbie had the potential to encourage young girls to internalize seeing thin bodies as an ideal”. There’s also the fact that Barbie was always a thin, blonde, white woman. While the doll Christy was released in the 1960s, she was just a “friend of Barbie” not Barbie. In response, Mattel, the company that manufactures Barbie dolls, began releasing dolls with a wider range of body types, skin tones, and hairstyles. Each of these dolls would be Barbies in its own right. In another article from Mashable, Natasha Pinon writes, “Thanks to these changes, more and more young kids looking to play with Barbie might end up with a doll that actually looks like them.”

While these changes are significant, by focusing on Barbie’s body and appearance we dismiss her accomplishments. Barbie is a happily unmarried woman who has had many careers, including ones in traditionally male-dominated fields. According to Charlotte Alter for Time Magazine, “Barbie has worked every second of every day since she was invented in 1959...Sure, she started off as a teen fashion model, but quickly worked her way up to fashion editor, then decided…to get her doctorate in astrophysics so that she could be an astronaut by 1965”. Barbie did start out as an alternative for little girls who were tired of playing mother to their baby dolls, and her impressive resume served to encourage young girls to pursue multiple career paths. Susan Shapiro writes about Barbie’s influence on herself stating,  “I also learned you could wear a hot bathing suit and lipstick while having multiple professions”

For so long, Barbie has been seen as a symbol of toxic femininity, but the recent Barbiecore trend celebrates the way that she has maintained her all-pink wardrobe while winning a Nobel Prize in physics. It’s not just women embracing this trend, men and nonbinary/gender non-conforming persons are also channeling their inner Barbie too. In the same article, Meera Navlakha writes, “The aesthetic crusade urges people to embody the feminine and find joy in its playfulness– regardless of gender, race, or any other categories used by society to define a person”.

Written By J.D. Valdepenas

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