Barbie: A phenomenon in children’s toys since 1959, and now in 2023, a blockbuster film projected to be among one of the highest-grossing films of all time.
According to Insider, by 2009, Barbie had sold over 1 billion dolls. The brand was a household name, but with great influence comes great power, and Barbie is no different. Throughout the years, there has been unceasing debate on whether or not Barbie is a positive influence on society and the lives of young girls.
Barbie dolls have been continuously scrutinized for setting unrealistic body standards, inciting over-sexualization, and promoting a lack of diversity, but are these issues truly as prominent as some may claim, or is the controversy steeped in the rejection of femininity?
Katie Martell, author, speaker, and marketing consultant with a special interest in feminism, commented on the topic via email. “Barbie as a brand in 2023 is different than Barbie through the decades – but it’s not detached from its history. Like most things in life, Barbie has been both helpful and detrimental to this movement toward equality for women… the unrealistic body image of the dolls in years past are harmful to a culture of eating disorders and self esteem challenges among women.“
Alongside concerns of body-related issues, Barbie is commonly critiqued for being over-sexualized. While the original Barbie dolls were based off of Bild Lilli – a German doll, often used as an gag gift for adults – the Mattel mission statement of the Barbie brand is to “inspire the limitless potential in every girl.” The brand’s justification for this mission statement is that Barbie has limitless potential because of the varying careers Barbie portrays.
Victoria Ramirez, a Vanguard student and former consumer of Barbie dolls stated, “I don’t think Barbie is over-sexualized. I honestly don’t think it matters because I know personally when I played with Barbies, I was never thinking about Barbie’s body. That’s not the goal of Barbie.”
From doctor to designer, the doll has an impressive resume meant to inspire young girls, not over-sexualize them. Martell concurred, stating that Barbie has been able to touch topics like “women’s treatment and experience in the workplace” with their Barbie professional line and in their recent film.
One of the other commitments of the Barbie brand is diversity. Though there had been dolls portraying women of color in the Barbie line, the first official black and Latina Barbies debuted in 1980.
“The historic lack of diversity the brand faced at one point harm[s] the [feminist] movement by creating unrealistic expectations and beliefs about normalcy. But, more recently, Barbie as a brand has recognized its place of influence and taken steps to address that responsibility. The brand is evolving,” stated Martell.
The expansion of Barbie’s diversity continued in 2016 when the brand released Barbies in a variety of body types. Ramirez stated, “Nowadays, there are all kinds of Barbies. That kind of representation is empowering.”
Despite these advances, some take issue with Barbie in a slightly different way: the representation of femininity. Branded with glitter, dresses, and all-things-pink at the forefront, it is no secret that Barbie is considered a ‘girly’ toy. This discourse focuses on whether the brand, by advertising stereotypically feminine attributes, stifles the expression of girls and pushes gender roles upon them.
Martell commented on the branding of Barbie, stating, “The dolls ramp up ideals of hyperfemininity among impressionable children forming their ideas about the world… telling them what it means to be a woman in an incredibly limiting way.”
In contrast to Martell’s critique, some Barbie supporters find little issue in the stereotypical feminine qualities that Barbie exemplifies. Ramirez expressed, “Growing up, I don’t think Barbie informed my perspective on femininity because I wasn’t really thinking about femininity then. To me, they were just girl toys that were available. They were cute.”
In a society where women are pushed to exhibit less of their femininity in order to be taken seriously, especially in the workplace, Barbie subverts all expectations. Instead of traditionally feminine attributes being seen as a weakness, they are proudly showcased as apart of Barbie’s character.
The success of the doll contributed massively to the anticipation of the Barbie live-action film which premiered in July of 2023, receiving generally positive feedback, especially on the feminist front.
“It highlighted how much the patriarchy is still present in the real world and how much the world still revolves around men, even if there is more equality,” Ramirez stated. “Just because laws change and culture is shifting doesn’t mean there aren’t still implications of that today.”
The official Barbie movie website showcases their philanthropy project: The Barbie Dream Gap Project. Through this, Mattel has donated over $2 million to non-profits focused on promoting education and leadership to young girls.
Regardless of Mattel’s activism, some, like Martell, cannot identify Barbie as feminist. “Barbie as a brand cannot be a feminist ally. It has found its place in the global psyche through a history of misrepresenting the real experience of women – how we look, how we are to be valued and perceived, and what ideals society should hold as sacred related to women.”
Nonetheless, for girls who grew up enjoying feminine toys, Barbie is a source of representation. The brand exemplifies a very stereotypical depiction of women, but this is not entirely negative. Celebrating femininity does not diminish the other qualities women have. Barbie is a figurehead, showing girls they can embrace and be comfortable in their femininity while still being successful in their professional lives.