The Great Barbie Debate: 1959 to 2016

By Dakota Divinity

  Good Housekeeping

Good Housekeeping

Barbie was introduced in 1959, as a creation of Ruth Handler and her husband Elliott. Ruth however, was the one who originally came up with the concept. Her inspiration came from her daughter Barbara, Barbie’s namesake. As Handler spent time watching Barbara play with paper dolls, she noticed that her child often enjoyed giving them adult roles and responsibilities. At the time, most children's toy dolls were representations of infants, rather than adults. Infant dolls reinforced gender stereotypes in young girls, sending the message through play that they would one day grow up to become good wives and mothers. Handler wanted to break these very stereotypes, and suggested the idea of an adult-bodied, yet functional doll to her husband Elliot, a co-founder of the Mattel toy company. Elliot was at first unenthusiastic about the idea, as were Mattel's directors.

After a trip to Germany with her daughter, Ruth’s inspiration for Barbie’s future image was solidified after coming across a doll in a Swiss shop named Lilli, who she then bought three of for daughter Barbara. Created as a comic-strip character in the Hamburg newspaper Bild-Zeitung, the Bild Lilli doll became so popular that she was immortalized in plastic and sold as an adult novelty, rather than for the children’s market, like her Mattel descendant. According to Robin Gerber, the author of Barbie and Ruth, “Lilli dolls could be bought in tobacco shops, bars and adult-themed toy stores,” she writes. “Men got Lilli dolls as gag gifts at bachelor parties, put them on their car dashboard, dangled them from the rear view mirror, or gave them to girlfriends as a suggestive keepsake.” Although the inspiration behind Barbie’s original look, Lilli as an adult-marketed doll had her own originality regarding appearance. According to M.G. Lord, the author of Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, Lilli was “just shy of a foot tall, with bulging breasts and a platinum-blonde ponytail, made up for a night on the town with red puckered lips and blue eye shadow. Although Barbie’s curvy proportions are modeled after Lilli’s, the German doll’s heavy makeup and suggestively arched eyebrows didn’t carry over to the American version. Interestingly enough, after Barbie’s production, Lilli was taken off the market.

  Photo Credit: Messy Nessy Chic

Photo Credit: Messy Nessy Chic

If you were to ask me as a small child to describe Barbie to you, my response would have been simple in its description. Barbie was inescapable and was the complete opposite to my introverted, bowl-cut, chubby five year old self. Barbie was blonde, totally popular, thin, and seemingly experienced in a multitude of careers that we all could envy. I mean, come on! This girl has done everything from being a fashion model, anthropologist, astronaut, UNICEF ambassador, and even a presidential candidate, light-years before Hillary Clinton even ran! The girl has goals and aspirations that never seem out of arm’s reach. She’s a go-getter who has it all, from the car to the Malibu vacation, to the perfectly cotton candy pink dream house with the three car garage attached. Goals, right? Even better, there has even been proven benefits to exposure to Barbie dolls, as discussed by the website Bucket Of Toys. One benefit is that when a child is playing with a Barbie doll, it helps to improve their creativity and clothes/colors combinations skills because there are so many outfits, shoes, accessories, and play sets that they can mix and match. During a group play, this can improve  their interaction skills through allowing them children to share the ideas behind their decisions for dressing up their dolls. A second benefit includes role playing, and how it provides children with a better understanding of the certain aspects about the real world outside of his or her controlled environment.

While Barbie’s were given to me to as a distraction from bothering my then sleeping baby brother, I clearly remember observing her as an independent individual, able to take care of herself. This thought likely can be credited to never having been introduced to a Ken doll. To me, he just wasn’t interesting enough to include in Barbie’s world, because I saw men who represented Ken on television everyday. Barbie though, I thought broke the mold and was fascinating because of it. She could be a different person, any day of the week.

Some would beg to differ over Barbie breaking the mold, however. Now bringing appearance into the spotlight and offering a critic of the doll, Barbie critics suggest that through Mattel’s depiction of Barbie, the doll was sending an anti-feminist message to young girls. As reported by Pennsylvania State University, after the Barbie doll officially became popular, “Ruth and her staff decided to introduce a new version of the doll, ‘Slumber Party Barbie.’ This doll came with a set that included a diet book, a scale, a hairbrush, and a sign that said, ‘How to lose weight? Don’t eat.’ In addition, the scale only went up to 110 pounds, which is way below a woman’s average weight in America.  Consequently, this was the first time that Barbie was not just a toy, and it raised a lot of concern and problems in America. Quickly, this specific doll was taken off of the market, but its legacy lingered on for seven years.”

After Mattel’s first mishap with Slumber Party Barbie, people began to see that the effects of Barbie may run deeper than imagined. A survey conducted by Willett Survey in 2006 continued to defend negative effects still coming into public consciousness, in particular, how Barbie’s weight affected young girls. The survey addressed three questions: First, do images of Barbie have an immediate negative impact on girls’ body image? Second, does exposure to images of a doll with more realistic body proportions result in the same detrimental effects? Third, is the impact of exposure to Barbie images age-related so that effects differ depending on school-year group? As concluded by Willett, “The present findings suggest that Barbie dolls’ ultrathin body proportions provide an aspirational role model for very young girls that causes body dissatisfaction. Girls today are swamped by ultrathin ideals not only in the form of dolls but also in comics, cartoons, TV, and advertising along with all the associated merchandising, but Barbie appears to occupy a strong and special role in girls’ developing body image, so that exposure to images of Barbie doll leads to detrimental effects, at least when girls are young enough to identify with Barbie doll.” Redbook Magazine also, suggests that Barbie does more harm than good. Redbook argues that, “When people focus on Barbie's body, they're subtly telling their kids that they should be concerned with women's bodies over their achievements and abilities.” From this view, this is body policing and body shaming all rolled into one.

As of 2016, the debate has continued even further, with Mattel unveiling new Barbie dolls in three new body shapes -- petite, tall and curvy -- with seven options of skin tone. The new body types have the potential to impact both girls’ and boys' expectations of body image, says Florence Williams, a visiting scholar at George Washington University's public health school and author of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. "Kids are just bombarded with images that are really just not true to nature," she says. "It can potentially damage your self-esteem or limit your world view." She adds that it's important for young boys to understand women's bodies come in all shapes and sizes because "they grow up expecting girls' bodies to look a certain way."

DakotaBarbie3.jpg
  USA Today

USA Today

However, updated Barbie is still continuing to receive hate. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, regardless of Barbie’s change, she is still a “mean girl” at heart; “Whether we're talking about looks, hobbies or taste in clothes, houses, cars, men, purses and a myriad other accessories, conventionality has always occupied the entirety of Barbie's wheelhouse. It’s a conventionality that's imbued with a taunting, almost hostile quality: Barbie, and her stuff, in effect tells us "it sucks to be you." Maybe that's why, unlike most children's dolls, Barbie isn't a source of comfort as much as an object of antagonism.”

So, what do you think? Are either new or old Barbie a positive model for young girls and should toys even be put on such a high pedestal and idolized in the first place? Do you have any suggestions as to how Barbie should be represented in the future? Sound off in the comment section below!