The Vagenda

Barbie Girls

So much has been said about feminism and Barbie that I can’t believe I’m even going there. There is seriously enough material out there to write a thesis (and many have.) It’s sort of like when you come home drunk, go on Wikipedia, and realise the next morning that you spent four and half hours reading about the history of the British Royal Family or dinosaurs (same thing?) There are simply not enough hours in the day to learn all this stuff.

I’m sure there are actually academics out there specialising in Barbie, and they probably spend 99.99999999% of the time arguing with other academics about whether or not Barbie is an oppressive force for evil or a feminist icon (clue: it’s the former). Feminists have famously had a lot of beef with Barbie. Betty Frieden described her as a “vacuous bimbo”, and in 1989 an awesome group of laydees called the Barbie Liberation Front went and switched all the Teen Talk Barbie voiceboxes with those of the Talking Joe G.I Joe doll. This resulted in a large batch of G.I Joe’s announcing “Math is hard” and “I love shopping”, in squawky Californian falsetto, while Teen Talk Barbie’s perfect blowjob lips boomed out “Vengeance is mine!” Needless to say, a lot of confused parents and children and a massive amount of publicity is the result. 

If you’re reading this, chances are you have beef with Barbie. If you don’t, go and read the excellent Natasha Walter’s “Living Dolls” or this Guardian article and get back to me. I’m not your mum, I don’t have time to explain this shit to you. 

Seriously, though. Being the irritatingly liberal spawn of liberal parents meant that I never had a Barbie. I wasn’t allowed one. That’s not to say that I escaped the tyranny of gendered playthings, however, obsessed as I was at one point with Care Bears and My Little Ponies (whom I used to send it to battle against a veritable army of  inaccurate Dinosaurs, caring not, at age six, that the temporal gulf between the Triassic and Cretaceous periods meant they couldn’t actually be friends) That didn’t mean that I didn’t want a Barbie, mind you. My friend Lauren had the Barbie mansion and the horse and carriage and about ten million of the things, and, well, I hated her for it. But it was ok because she had a consistently snotty noise. Deprivation can sometimes have the wrong effect, BTW-  the first single I bought, aged ten, was Barbie Girl by Aqua, which tortured my parents with by playing on a loop for a full six months (VENGEANCE IS MINE!)


Being relatively inexperienced in the Barbie sphere, I put the question to twitter, with hilarious and often alarming results. Seems a lot of you out there used to torture your Barbies, or even, in one perturbing case, made all the other toys gang up on her, shave her head, and call her a collaborator. Others lived in utopian harmony with Action Man, trolls, and goblins running garages and cafes together. There were also many cases of Barbie roleplaying involving lesbianism and group sex. It seems that kids are freaky deaky no matter which toys you give them (or perhaps it’s just our readers?) and most of them, Barbie or not, will turn out okay in the end, hopefully. 

Whether you choose to give your child a doll which encapsulates a reductive feminine stereotype or not, there’s no denying that Barbies have become more heavily sexualised and pinkified in recent years. If you don’t believe me, go to the Toy museum in Prague, which is where all these pictures are from (there is also a wonderfully incongruous Polar Bear placed haphazardly amongst a First World War Battle Scene). It’s an often quoted maxim that Barbies would be unable to stand up if they were blown up to lifesize proportions, and I don’t know whether this is true or not, but the metal stand rammed up the posterior of the one in the Toy Museum that I made my boyfriend stand next to implies not. 

Barbie was originally based on a German porn cartoon, and it certainly seems she’s living up to that role nowadays. While in the days of yore you could buy a “college degree Barbie” or an ‘astronaut Barbie’, now your options seem more limited- it’s basically princess or dominatrix. If you take a look at the Frisky’s top Feminist-Friendly Barbies, you can’t help noticing that ‘Palaeontologist Barbie’ is still, despite her degree and awesome dinosaur-related job, basically a sexy girl in shorts. Yet the Barbie problem has taken on a new dimension in recent years which far surpasses the debate as to whether or not you should give a tacky blonde plastic doll to your daughter because, chances are, your daughters are going to grow up wanting to BE a tacky blonde plastic doll . And that, ladybros, is a far bigger problem than the Barbie Liberation Front could ever have imagined. 


9 thoughts on “Barbie Girls

  1. “you can’t help noticing that ‘Palaeontologist Barbie’ is still, despite her degree and awesome dinosaur-related job, basically a sexy girl in shorts”

    modelled after Dr. Ellie Sattler in Jurassic Park ?? I wonder if dolls give children the messages that adults attribute to them or merely fit into creative play ?

  2. the ‘physical proportions of barbie’ has always been a weak one. the form of toys are often grossly exaggerated, for example my little ponies or cabbage patch kids. children play with toys as a way to exercise their imagination and creativity. i never considered the size and appearance of a barbie as a child because i perceived it as a toy, not an idol.
    a lot of emphasis is also put on barbie. why is the boy’s equivalent, the action man, not criticised in the same way for promoting ‘violent’ behaviour and fighting?

  3. Loved this article. I am a feminist (my friends call me a raging feminist because I tend to point out sexism at supposed inconvenient times)but I loved Barbies as a child. My Barbies were either having babies, marrying each other or having sex.

  4. This is a great article, but I think the “I don’t have time to teach this shit to you” gives a slightly bad impression. Some people reading Vagenda might be making their first foray into feminist ideas and, whilst it’s a good idea to say something along the lines of “go off and read these useful articles”, an implied impatience with other people’s ignorance can never be a good thing. There has to be time to explain the basics of feminism, otherwise how will anyone ‘new’ to the whole caboodle ever learn?

    That aside, loved the article. Very good point at the end – in the past idealisations of women’s appearance (as epitomised in Barbie) may have been as emotionally damaging as it is now, but the difference is that now people have the ability to physically change themselves to fit into that stereotype…

    For my own Barbie-related anecdote, I a) thought it was boring that they were almost all blonde and b) found their skinniness quite irritating. One day (I think I was about six) I said to my Mum, “look, I’ve made her look real!” and showed her a Barbie-doll with a load of tissue paper stuck up its dress to make it look pregnant.

    I also had a Ken doll which had a ‘beard’ that you ‘shaved’ off with warm water (I think it was something to do with the heat). I’m not sure what it says about the designers that they thought little girls needed to learn how to shave plastic men…

  5. Having agreed with most of what you’ve said, I still own my Barbies ( I don’t actually play with them anymore) and all of their clothes and their lounge and kitchen and bedroom that I collected over the years. I loved them, in fact, my favourite was the one with a removable pregnant stomach and tiny baby. The one thing that annoyed me about that doll was that it was called Midge, and still to this day I boggle at who thought that was a good name for a pregnant Barbie doll!? I played with them for hours on end along with my life size baby dolls whom I loved unconditionally (and still own). And my point is that this never affected my strident feminism that has sparked at an unusually young age. Playing with those dolls never made me want to look like them or be like them, their appearance meant nothing to me most of the time, I was just using them as mini models for how, at under 10 years old, I believed life should be. Trust me, we had dramatic births, my one and only action man (handed down from my dad) cheating on all of them, murders, coffee mornings, sleepovers, you name it. There was absolutely no evilness from the stereotypical feminine dolls whatsoever in my play.

  6. I was a pretty militant feminist as a child. Well in so far as a kid can be – I violently rejected pink, barbie, and make-up until I was at least around 13.

    In fact, until recently the words “no barbies aloud” could be seen still scrawled on my bedroom door in permanent marker.

    Of course, relatives still used to give me barbies. I tortured them relentlessly, throwing them, bleaching them, and rinsing them in heaviy soapy water until their hair became a white sticky matted mess. I took their clothes and re-sized them to fit my enormous collection of troll dolls, which I loved.

    Barbies could be sort of lovable though if you pulled off their heads and drew a tiny face on the little neck ball. Then they might be allowed to play with the trolls.

  7. When we label girly things as “bad” we need to be careful we’re not labeling femininity as “bad”. By attaching so much weight to a color or toy we teach girls that they should be ashamed of liking them and ashamed of being “too girly” and subsequently ashamed of being a girl.

    Children do not think the same way as adults. Barbies are plastic toys that kids like to dress up and play pretend with. The narratives they develop are based on the narratives they are exposed to. I think that where most mother’s are working mothers now, we’ll see a lot of “employed Barbies” because that is the narrative that seems natural to that child. I’m sure stepford-y households will have little girls playing with Barbie in super traditional ways, but a child raised in a more feminist-aware house will develop narratives with their Barbies that reflect that. This is why all of my “Barbie moms” also had a career (usually insurance salesperson or doctor), it seemed as natural for Barbie to have a relationship with Ken as it did for Barbie to have another relationship with another Barbie. Sometimes I’d pretend all of my Barbies were in college together. Sometimes I’d pretend they were in the Olympics. When my favorite Barbie lost her arm and I just explained to people that it had to be amputated after a bad car accident, and she was a gymnast. I didn’t have these ideas about the “perfect body” as a kid. I didn’t notice that supposedly Barbie represented that.

    I do not think that any toy that facilitates pretend play is the problem. The doll becomes a projection of what the child wants it to be. Grown-ups don’t think like that. We see huge breasts, unnaturally small waists, and freakishly long legs. That is not what kids see. Yes I do recommend trying to expose your child to a variety of colors, but not at the expense of pink. Pink need not carry the weight it does. Let it just be a color. The problem is with the stories children see and hear on TV, in movies, in magazines, from relatives, friends, etc. When a child is watching TV, it stifles their ability to engage in creative play. They start copying the stories they see, rather than making up their own. That is where they get their gendered ideology from.

    Barbie is not an oppressive force of evil. Barbie is not a feminist icon. Barbie is a plastic toy. Barbie will be whatever your child wants Barbie to be, and if you are bothered by the narratives your child is using with Barbie, unless your child is schizophrenic, Barbie did not tell them that was “the” acceptable way to play, your child is picking it up from somewhere else.

  8. I didn’t like Barbies as a child. I much preferred the He-Man sword that flashed and made noise when you smacked your sister with it.

    However, I grew up to be a sexy blonde chemist who flouted safety regulations by wearing short dresses in the lab – because I tried wearing a jumper and jeans every day and found it oppressive. I’ve since switched to the corporate world and I love being able to express myself with what I wear (within boundaries) since I don’t need my clothes to be quite so practical anymore.

    Wearing a pink dress at a client’s office feels like far more of a statement than a trouser suit. For me, it says that I can wear very girly clothes AND be damn good at my job in a male-dominated role and industry. I think that’s the message that needs to be put across now – that you don’t need to act like the men to get ahead.

    It looks like Mattel are aiming for that ideal, but are hobbled by their failure to realise that female astronauts don’t wear pink space suits. Or maybe I’m just not cynical enough yet.