Posts Tagged ‘Barbie’

Barbie and class separation

The most striking thing about the reading to me was the implication that the all-American girl was naturally a member of the white middle class. By her very creation, Barbie was a testament to class separation — the true representation of America could not be indicative of a lower class. There is an assumption that America must rise above the image of the poor in order to  maintain a higher moral standard. Barbie represented this as a transformation of Bild Lilli.

 “She took Lilli, whom Ryan described as a ‘hooker or an actress between performances,’ and recast her as the wholesome all-American girl. Handler knew her market; if one character trait distinguishes the American middle class, both today and in 1959, it is an obsession with respectability. This is not to say the middle class is indifferent to sex, but that it defines itself in contrast to the classes below it by its display of public propriety.”
According to this, there is a physical representation of a higher moral standard, which is directly related to class. Because Barbie was a toy for young children, and was supposed to represent a role model, she had to adhere to those standards. For many, she represents an image unattainable — not because of her body image, but because her perfectly manicured nails, designer clothes, oversized house, and ostentatious car are not the standard that many children can live up to.

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Barbie as Muse

Barbie is an icchanel1on of modern femininity. That’s kind of indisputable. She reflects the way mainstream American culture prefers women to look, from her impossible proportions to her perpetually smiling face. Not only has she inspired artists to create original works, but, she also provides fertile ground for re-imagining existing pieces. The same allure of the “impossible creature” that Carol Peligian talked about in the Forbes reading applies here. Art is full of impossible women whose anatomy has been altered to better conform to an artistic ideal. Barbie always has something of the mythical la_joconde_leonard_de_vinci1muse about her.

French artist Jocelyne Grivaud created a series of images, in honor of Barbie’s 50th anniversary in 2009, in which Barbie replaced the subject in famous works of art. Some, like a portrait of Chanel, are an easy fit. Barbie and fashion go hand in hand. Others, like the Mona Lisa, require a little more work on the part of the viewer to unpack. Suddenly, the iconic subtle smile is pink lipsticked and facing you head on. Is the fact that Barbie faces the viewer a subversion of a convention in which female subjects invite the gaze of a male audience, but never confront them directly? Or does Barbie’s beauty queen smile reflect the limited range of expression a woman can perform and still be beautiful? Barbie is always smiling, and there’s nothing knowing or secretive about it. It’s not for her, it’s for you–the viewer, the consumer.

In the recreation of Manet’s Olympia, the tension between the original expression and Barbie’s static one is again an important element in the piece. Grivaud describes Barbie’s smile as innocent, in contrast to the bold expression of the model in the original. Here, Barbie’s smile manages to undo any of the subversion intended from the original piece, itself referring back to Titian’s Venus of Urbino. With her smile, Barbie relinquishes claim to her own sexuality, and the implication of innocence is that Barbie is being sexualized, rather than sexual. Here, using Barbie undoes the work of the original.barbie_olympia1

Grivaud’s pieces show a pretty clearly the changes in ideals of female beauty over the years, but I think more importantly, they showcase Barbie’s limits as a representation of womanhood, even compared to portraits painted by men in eras before women had access to the same platforms of self-expression they would achieve in later years. Barbie doesn’t allow for nuance. There’s definitely a relationship here between the ‘feminism according to Cosmo” that Rand writes about, and the flat way that Barbie inhabits art. Barbie has the problem of existing in a society where feminism isn’t a dominant discourse, but where “empowerment” is a buzzword for anything having to do with women. She has to appeal to the idea that girls can do anything while still glossing over the fact that, were she real, Barbie wouldn’t have the same earning potential as Ken. So what we get are the contradictions showcased in Girvaud’s art. Barbie can’t hold up these paintings on her own. Barbie, on her own, isn’t supposed to be a complex character with an inner life. Casting her as the subject in a painting causes us to confront that, and when we confront the illusion, it falls apart.

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Can Barbie Win?

So, I have been grappling with the Barbie phenomenon and trying to dissect the tension between inclusivity and exclusivity. On one side, Mattel has created numerous lines of dolls that attempt to include both racial diversity and also some differences in aesthetic cosmetic appearance (like the Barbie with tattoos for example) in order to give the consumers the option to choose dolls that more closely resemble their own skin color, aesthetic preference, etc. I think the notion is a good one, Barbie wants to promote acceptance by diversifying their product, and I am sure there are consumers in the marketplace who appreciate having an array of options at their disposal. However, isn’t there always going to be someone left out? Right after I asked myself this question, I thought about the US Census, and how there are a bevy of ethnic options and then an “other” category. I tried imagining what the census would look like if all the “others” were listed, and then compared that to the rows and rows of Barbies it would take to fulfill each “other” category. The answer, plainly, is no–Barbie will never be able to rectify this problem. Okay…then what? There doesn’t seem to be a culturally sensitive way to tell someone “sorry we just don’t have a Barbie that matches the description you are asking for.” So, theoretically, someone will always be upset with Barbie, which directly correlates back to the tension Lord discusses, how while one mother offers Barbie as their daughter’s first doll, another mother will label Barbie as off limits and on and on and on. The bottom line is, financially Barbie will be just fine no matter how many people decide to “boycott” the doll due to the sexual standards, body image standards, and in some ways still racial standards it sets. But, as we have come back to again and again in this class, its important to acknowledge who gets left out in these icons. In Barbies case, a whole lot of groups of women get left out, as American’s we have the power to choose if that is okay or not, and judging by where our country puts its dollar, we are still unequivocally content with the dividing lines Barbie draws.

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It’s obvious what the issues with Barbie are. She perpetuates an unattainable beauty standard, influencing impressionable, young girls globally. Barbie also maintains sexism against women with her stereotypically female careers. What I want to talk about is how white she is. Launched in 1959, it would be eight years until an African American version were released in 1967, but only “Colored Francie’s” skin was darker, her facial features were still Caucasian. In 1968, the popularly adopted “official African American Barbie” named Christie was released with more genuine African American features. Then, 20 years later in 1988, Teresa, a Hispanic Barbie, was released.

BARBIE® 2015 Birthday Wishes® Doll – Hispanic

Mattel has been applauded for their efforts of including ethnically correct African American features in their doll line, but you would never be able to tell that Teresa is in the least bit Hispanic. Mattel now has 27 versions of their African American doll, varying in shades of skin, facial features and names, but major retailers like Target and Walmart have been cited for variations in pricing between identical versions of Caucasian and African American Barbies. Teresa stands along side her only variation, a new Barbie labeled on Mattel’s website as “BARBIE® 2015 Birthday Wishes® Doll – Hispanic.

BARBIE® Fashionistas® Teresa&® Doll

The progress of racial inclusion is incredibly slow at Mattel. Where are the 27 versions of Hispanic dolls? Where are any Asian dolls? As the widely accepted American icon of current, feminine beauty standards, Barbie excludes the representation of a significant part of modern America. Therefore, Barbie devalues those women as Americans because they don’t fit the mold of the ideal American woman: white, sometimes black, barely Hispanic.

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Pin-Up Barbie


As I began reading “Forever Barbie” I started thinking about her shape and connection with the time period in America – post WWII. Instantly I thought of a pin-up. To me Barbie resembled the idealized woman during the war. She was every man’s fantasy.  She with every man at war. So when I read that Barbie was based off of “Bild Lilli” a life size doll for men, it all made sense. I have my reservations about Barbie just like anyone else. I’m actually shocked by my sudden praise for her. She is not a realistic role model for girls, especially her figure, but I do think she has her positives. Lord states, “She taught us independence. Barbie was her own woman.” If one thinks of her origins, Barbie is a symbol of sexual revolution for woman. One can argue that pin-ups and as a result Barbie is a symbol of male dominance and hypersexualization – men seeing women only as sexual objects, but pin-ups and Barbie can be empowering. The fact is Barbie emerged one year before “the Pill” was offered to woman and four years before Betty Friedan addressed “The problem with no name” in her book The Feminine Mystique. It was the beginning of women celebrating their sexuality, chasing their dreams, and taking charge of their happiness and lives. I believe that in giving girls Barbies, we must teach young girls the unrealistic nature of her figure, but we must also teach young girls the positive thing she symbolizes – independence.


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Plus Sized Barbie

This post plays off of tropes seen in some of the other posts about Lammily. In this case, the image displays a plus-sized doll and attempts to show the hypocrisy of American society. While Americans are supportive of the idea of a more realistically-sized doll, once they see the doll they complain that she has too many chins or is too overweight. In other words, it seems that Americans feel they should want a more realistic figure than Barbie, however they are still reigned in by deep biases about how women should look in American society.

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I am writing the third post about the Lammily doll, but hopefully this one is different!  Lammily was created by using the average 19 year old woman’s body measurements.  The video attached shows second graders being handed the Lammily doll for the first time.  The kids also have the recognizable barbie doll and are asked to make comparisons.  Here are some comments:

“She looks like my sister. From the side she really looks like her.”

“I don’t have other dolls like this. It looks real.”

“She’s like a real person.”

Of course these comments contribute to the discussion about body image and the potential problems of Barbie’s unattainable proportions.

The second graders are then asked to comment about the jobs that Lammily and Barbie might have.  The responses for Lammily are: swimmer, teacher, a computer job, and pilot.  According to the kids, Barbie’s job would be fashion store, model, make-up artist, cook.  One girl laughs and says, “It doesn’t look like she’d do any job.”   I find these responses interesting as they tap in to an additional discussion of whether women, perhaps more so “attractive” women, are seen as unable to do important and serious jobs.

The children are then asked to mention the differences between the two dolls. Several children say “wider”, and “a little bit fatter” when describing Lammily.  One girl says “Her [Barbie} belly is so in, like..”(the child sucks in her stomach hard), before saying, “and this one [Lammily] is like nice, and, like, the perfect size.”  So second graders seem to have realistic expectations about body image.  She liked the way the average 19 year old looked.  At some point however, girls and teenagers often become body conscious with an emphasis on being thin.

One boy says, “This one [Barbie] is so fashion-y, and then she thinks she’s better than everybody else!” A girl says that Lammily “has a smile on her face, and um, she looks like she would help somebody if they get hurt.”

The kids then all say that they’d prefer to take the Lammily doll home over Barbie.  It seems that 7 and 8 year olds overwhelmingly have positive views towards Lammily and negative views towards Barbie.

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