A Doll's House:
Barbie Revisited

by Alison Gates


May 2002


Ruby (short, of course, for "rubenesque," )
is part of an ad campaign for The Body Shop.


The woman who invented the Barbie Doll, Ruth Handler, died last week. Type the words, “Barbie Doll” into Google and you’ll get over 206,000 matches.  I think nothing could quite say it better: Barbie is the most popular girl in school. I once spent hours imagining with my stock of Barbie dolls, and upon reflection, I don’t think all of it was as harmful as some other feminists may have you believe.  As a realistic child I never expected to be like Barbie when I grew up, and lo and behold, I’m not.  I’ve always been mystified by claims that Barbie could make a girl do or think anything, since with Barbie, the girl pretty much always gets to call the shots.  She hit the scene in 1959 as a “teen model,” and went on to an endless list of other, even more respectable, careers, though, much to my chagrin, not MY career. In the end, I find there is much to defend in this much maligned, infinitely loved 11.5 inch high inanimate dynamo. 

Inanimate dynamo. With Barbie, oxymorons seem fitting as her world is full of paradoxes.  She’s a doll for little girls, but grown men own Barbie Dolls by the thousands and Mrs. Handler claimed to have based the toy on a sexy little German thing she picked up in Switzerland while on vacation. No one really wanted Mrs. Handler to turn this racy little exotic dancer into a toy for their daughters, but she did it anyway, creating perhaps the first controversy in the life of this highly controversial character. Barbie has no nipples, no snatch, and her mouth doesn’t open except to smile through perfect clenched teeth, yet, she’s seen as a bimbo. 

Perhaps it’s because she can’t wear flats. Even in her whorish heels, she has reached the pinnacles of achievement in a variety of fields, miraculously, without noticeably going to school. If you carefully avoid looking at Barbie’s feet, she can be the ultimate symbol of feminine freedom.  She never wears a bra, she drives her own car, owns several homes (at least one with a pool) and makes all her own money.  She does what she wants, or rather, and more importantly, she does whatever her girl owner wants to do.  She is obviously a loyal and good friend, cousin, and sister.  Sure, she’s a little materialistic, but she has no active relationship with her parents and her consumerism may be masking some sort of elemental loss…and she’s obviously got some over-achiever tendencies.  Everyone knows by now she was an astronaut, has been a nurse and a doctor on several occasions, has been an airline pilot as well as a flight attendant, plays all sports, walks dogs, and entertains better than Martha Stewart. Her lack of a known alma-mater seems to indicate she is a student of life, yet, she bears no gritty patina of street wisdom.

Negative female stereotypes are one thing that usually pops up when talking about Barbie in the learned circles, but as a college professor with a predominately female student body in my courses, I have to wonder if it wouldn’t be better if more girls were like Barbie.  That is to say, women who achieve but never marry.  I have a student now who is planning her wedding.  All her female classmates look on enviously as she pulls out the pictures of the very Mattel sorts of fashions made nowadays for bridesmaids and brides.  The envy is not just among those who are yet to get engaged, but it’s also obvious in the two women in the class who are themselves already married.  Barbie could not have made it more clear: weddings are fun, marriage is the end of play.

Barbie is always a bride, but never has she actually been anyone’s wife. Sure, you can say well, Ken was always the groom, but in fact, they never married, no matter how many times she was trotted down the aisle on a daily basis, Barbie never came out of any box, new or old, as someone’s wife.  She is always a single girl.  Whatever Barbie does, she does as an independent entity, unless it’s girl’s night out.  Barbie has lots of female friends, whether or not there ever was a Sorority Sister Barbie or a Women’s Studies Barbie.  She’s a member of a multicultural collective of over-dressed females wherein there is one guy allowed per skin color. Check out who hangs at the Dream House: nine girl dollies and one Ken.  What is Ken doing?  He’s stopping in to pick up his date. He may be back in a few minutes with a different name if he’s needed to take another girl doll off to one of those romantic evenings for which she’s perpetually dressed.  He doesn’t live there.  He doesn’t sleep there.  Barbie’s bed is always a twin if made by Mattel, but even if one substituted an encyclopedia like we always did, it was not so Barbie could cuddle up with her loving husband and make plastic babies.  If you’ll notice, there are no spare bedrooms in the Dream House, and certainly no nursery.

Can we blame her family of origin for this?  Maybe: On a recent trip to Target, I noticed that one of Barbie’s parents is apparently still having children, even though the most famous of daughters is over 40 years old.  I could, in the anti-biologically correct world of Barbie conclude that her mother may still be procreating, but there are signs this is a man’s doing. So I blame the absent father.  Every few years Barbie’s “little sister” is introduced.  Now, we all know the perennially pre-pubescent Skipper who has been around for decades (her maturing self, “Growing Skipper,” discontinued sometime in the late 70’s) but who are these little baby-type dollies that we now find vacuum-sealed with their ubiquitous sister?  My personal theory is that Barbie’s father is a runaround who has made his daughter shy constantly from creating a family of her own. She is something of the commitment-phobe, Barbie.  Hence, she spends all maternal energy on her side-jobs as a dog-walker, babysitter, and horse trainer, and nests in her townhouse, decorating in colors only a girl could love. 

I think most Barbies are sexually active, though, especially those who live in households with GI Joe.  And not just because Joe is so much hotter than Ken, but because peoples’ horrible brothers (who own the Joes) usually enjoy seducing Barbie, especially if she’s already naked.  Perhaps this is the true origin of her bad reputation.  Barbie actually spends a lot of time naked for a girl who’s such a famed clothes-horse.  And she’s pretty sexy even to people who should know better.  My friend Patrick told me once he’d had his first sexual experience with a naked Barbie. He claims at the time he was at a neighbor’s house, and young though he was, he touched Barbie’s breasts and got his first hard-on.  I have been around little boys enough to know this was probably not the first boner little Pat had had, but it’s quite likely that it’s the first one he remembers having, and therefore, also probably one of the most memorable in a lifetime of stiffies.  He told me this at my friend Katie’s 26th birthday party. She’d just blown out the candles on a cake shaped like Barbie in her princess garb, and he’d just discovered a bottle of tequila sitting totally unguarded and vulnerable on top of the fridge.  As he took a swig off the bottle and grabbed a piece of cake I noted that Patrick, though once seduced by Barbie’s wiles, now dates women who bear strong resemblance to the wife in that hippy-dippy set of dolls known in the 70’s as the Sunshine family. Barbie simply cannot be so entirely wholesome, which is probably why Pepsi noticed how easy it would be to transform Britney Spears into a Barbie lookalike.

Even in a Sunshine world, a doll can fall victim of many minor assaults, and Barbie seems especially prone to falling into the wrong hands, or mouths.  The value of a vintage Barbie is rated by whether or not she’s suffered mostly from “bite marks and pin-pricks,” and whether or not her hair has been hacked off.  I know our Barbies were often gnawed by our beloved dog Alfie, one blonde Twist and Turn (or, “TNT” as the websites call them) belonging to my sister Shelley was so maimed that we dressed her in boots for many years to hide the fact that she was missing an entire foot, and the leg below the knee was unmistakably chewed.  Likewise a dark brunette Skipper, who originally was owned by my sister Julie, never wore a swimsuit after Alfie ate her right hip.  For the uninitiated, the fact that pin-pricks would be an issue might seem odd. No voodoo was involved, it’s just that a ball-head sewing pin or a map-tack is the idea tool to use as an earring for the always well-accessorized doll.  At some point, Mattel started outfitting Barbie with faux-diamond studs, but I am pretty sure this did not deter some owners from prying out the factory models and replacing them with something less fancy.  Aside from Martha Stewart, there just aren’t that many K-Mart shoppers who wear diamonds for gardening, and Barbie, guessing from her personal “style” comes from the bourgeoisie middle class.  Even her designer haute couture of choice is Bob Mackie.  She’s a no-holds-barred glamour-girl, that’s for sure.

Politically, the Right seems to have claimed our blondest American.  The photo I found of President 2000 Barbie was captioned to the effect of, “This Barbie was a big hit at the GOP National Convention.”  Well, she’s old enough to run for president of the USA, and she’s certainly able to raise the campaign dollars, but since President 2000 Barbie looks so darn like a young Hillary Rodham Clinton I am not at all sure she’d get the Republican vote, even if we are talking about a party who regularly supports the empty-headed.  Also, Barbie is an animal-lover who drives a car that runs on alternative energy sources and had her portrait done, like Jackie O and Marilyn Monroe, by Andy Warhol.  If she’s not a Democrat, she still runs in circles I’d call pretty alternative for a Republican.  Add that to the fact that she’s been a rock star and a princess, and you’ve got a very controversial candidate. No one could claim that she isn’t a patriot though.  She has served in all branches of our armed forces, and has even been sold dressed as George Washington (which for some reason really disturbed my sister Shelley, who admits to regularly hiding her daughters’ Barbie dolls in the bottom of the toy box to keep them from picking up what she sees as negative female stereotypes. Just another Barbie paradox.)

The issue of identity is the central problem with determining the answer to our question.  Barbie, good or bad?  Of course it all depends on what your own definitions of good and bad are.  If Barbie is bad because her figure is impossible for the average woman to achieve, does that make all the actresses we so admire in Hollywood bad?  After all, their figures are sculpted through constant monitoring by nutritionists and trainers – Halle Barry would not look like that if she were a secretary at Prudential Insurance.  Is Halle Barry bad? Do we shield our daughters from wanting to be like Halle Barry?  Probably not, since she’s the first woman of color to win an Oscar, and she has a social conscience, and can on occasion wear flats.  But do we really want Barbie to be more like us?  Or is it the other way around?  And if we want to be more like a doll, I think the problem is really more with us than it is with Barbie.  Whoever she is, she’s happy to be herself.  And therein lies the ultimate quality of a good role model.

Alison Gates is an art professor at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay.
She can be reached at aligates@hotmail.com.


Body Image

Facts from Marie Claire magazine, January 1998:

How does the average woman compare to a mannequin and a Barbie doll?

The average woman is 5'4", a size 12. She has a 37" bust, a 29" waist and 40" hips.

A mannequin is 6', a size 6. She has a 34" bust, a 23" waist and 34" hips.
Mannequin image

A Barbie doll is 7'2". She has a 40" bust, a 22" waist and 36" hips. To see Barbie go to Barbie.com. Barbie is a product of Mattel Inc.

More Facts

A Barbie doll's neck is twice the length of a normal human's neck.

If a woman had the same measurements as a mannequin, she wouldn't have enough body fat to menstruate.

The "typical model" weighs 20% less than the average woman.

60% of American women wear a size 12 or larger.