Malibu Barbie. Superstar Barbie. Pilot Barbie. Sweetheart Barbie. The list goes on for miles. For a toy that was created in 1959, she sure has stuck around for a while. First created by Ruth Handler and manufactured by Mattel, the company has sold over a billion of the toys which makes it their most profitable line. Despite the love the public has for the blonde bombshell (and family), however, Barbie has also been involved in many, many controversies.
The doll is popular all over the world, which has inevitably led to some deserved negative feedback surfacing. Namely about her appearance. When you create a toy with a slim figure, ‘perfect’ proportions and flawless skin, it doesn’t really come as a surprise that children that play with it have lower self-esteem and increased desires to always be skinnier. Barbie has a completely unrealistic body, unattainable for the vast majority of us who can’t afford hundreds of plastic surgery operations. For the impressionable children who see Barbie as somewhat of a role model, this doesn’t cross their minds. Not only is Barbie impossibly proportioned, the vast majority of the dolls produced under the Barbie name are white. Whilst Barbara Roberts is white, Mattel does create many other dolls that are not Barbara Roberts and these other dolls have a bad habit of being almost carbon copies of her. When Mattel does manage to create barbies of other races, they are predominantly African-American and also priced at a higher price than the white versions of the very same doll. It isn’t entirely clear whether this is due to Mattel pricing the barbies of colour higher or the stores selling them at a higher price, either way it’s not okay.
But what if Barbie isn’t quite as bad as she initially seems? Now I’m not saying that her practically perfect body or the fact that barbies are predominately white are completely irrelevant points in this conversation, but maybe it’s time to look past her appearance and focus on the other message that she promotes: “Be who you wanna be”. Barbie has been taking male-dominant jobs for her entire lifespan, ‘Astronaut Barbie’ came out two years after Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space and twenty-six years before Helen Sharman became the first British woman in the first British woman in space. ‘Surgeon Barbie’ came out when only 10% of doctors were female. There hasn’t been a female US president yet, but there has been a ‘President Barbie’. It’s also important to note that the entire reason ‘President Barbie’ was created was because the people in the ‘Whitehouse Project’ suggested it to Mattel. Mattel listened, giving Barbie yet another job that continues to inspire all that love her. Not only does she promote her slogan by taking on all of these jobs, she’s remained feminine whilst doing so.
Many forms of media seem to despise even the idea of a ‘girly girl’ taking on ‘manly’ jobs and succeeding - women need to have a very traumatic backstory to be a powerful character, they need to have short hair and only wear masculine clothing if they want to be anything that isn’t a model or princess. Barbie, however, shows kids that they’re allowed to be feminine and successful, they’re allowed to have pride in their appearance and be powerful, they’re allowed to wear dresses and makeup and be feminists.
For a toy marketed at young children, it’s important that Barbie is the best role model she can be. And whilst there are some very important points Mattel needs to work on, not everything about Barbie is bad. Even her movies are fun forms of entertainment despite the occasionally terrifying animation. Barbie isn’t perfect, not by a long shot, but neither is society.
We all have a long way to go, and expecting a toy to be further ahead in progress than society is a bit too optimistic. At least Mattel is accepting constructive criticism! So maybe before we rise up to cancel the toy, once and for all, we should think. Would you rather have a toy (company) that listens to constructive criticism and evolves as we do, or one that stays stuck in 1959?