Are we really just Barbie girls in a Barbie world?

(Originally published on Forge Press)

Shiny blonde hair, plump pink lips and legs for miles. Barbie has been the ‘It Girl’ since 1959, but what does she really mean for the future of womanhood?

“Let’s go shopping!” “Math is hard!” These aren’t exactly statements we want young girls to believe. However in 1968 Barbie muttered these as her very first words to every child that idolised her. Despite statements like this and the general stereotype that Barbie is a classic dumb blonde, her career ventures are something we can all aspire to. She may not be who first springs to mind when you think of feminist icons, when it comes to careers Barbie is truly ahead of the game.

Debuting in only a zebra-stripe swimsuit, gold hoops and an eyeliner flick that puts all of ours to shame, Barbie Millicent Roberts (to give her her full name) started as a replica of the Californian golden-age bikini beauties. However, over decades her career prospects have smashed through the metaphorical glass ceiling. Barbie has turned her perfect plastic hand to basically everything. From dentist to figure skater, it’s fair to say her CV is pretty jam-packed. Despite having held over 150 careers, her life hasn’t been full of career empowering moments, instead she’s received harsh criticism throughout her lifetime.

At only 11 and a half inches tall, critics have slated her for promoting unrealistic ideals for women, such as negative body image. Up until last year Barbie was nearly always the same blonde with the impossibly tiny waist, perky boobs and teeny tiny arched feet. A scientific study once determined that when converted on a human scale, her frame lacked the body fat necessary for a woman to menstruate.

Despite this, Barbie has been a role model over the years as her careers have got more progressive and grown with society. Astronaut Barbie landed on the moon four years before Neil Armstrong, and in the 1980s, CEO Barbie arrived in the boardroom just as women broke into the C-suite. After years as a flight attendant for different airlines, Barbie finally made the career leap to pilot in 1999. It’s clear that Barbie is nothing but persistent. She’s run for president a total of five times, first in 1992, 14 years before Hillary Clinton became the first female to lead a major US party’s presidential ticket.

Dr Emily R. Aguiló-Pérez, Sociology lecturer at Penn State University and researcher of all things Barbie, has devoted years to Barbie’s career choices and what they mean for the young girls that play with her.

“Her career changes are interesting because she originated as a teen supermodel. That was her career and as a result for the first years her identity centered on fashion. In 1965 Barbie became an astronaut, which was very progressive at the time.”

Dr Aguiló-Pérez found that girls and women didn’t always assign Barbie dolls to the same career she had. Rather, they would make their own stories about whom Barbie was and often she was someone completely different from what the box described.

“Girls explored different careers rather than ‘conventional’ ones thanks to the Barbie Empire. In one piece of research, two sisters enjoyed interacting with a book where Barbie shows different careers to aspire to and explained what each job was. The girls sometimes incorporated those careers into their play with the dolls because they use them to imitate what ‘real’ people do. One of the girls wanted to become a fashion designer, so played her Barbie in that role, encouraging her to draw out designs and later on start her own clothing line.”

Barbie’s realistic makeover scored her the number two spot on Time Magazine’s list of ‘Most Inspirational Fictional Characters of 2016’. She’s set to continue along her path described by Mattel as “taking on aspirational and culturally relevant roles while also serving as a role model and agent of change for girls”. Long story cut short, she’s on her way to empowering young girls to be whoever they want.

Following two years of declining global Barbie sales, and with girls increasingly turning to other toys like Disney’s Frozen dolls, electronic toys and tablets, Mattel changed its marketing strategy to sell their dolls as more than just a pretty face and to highlight that any woman, as the ad campaigns say, can “Be Anything”.

Barbie’s worldwide sales increased 15.8 per cent by September last year, showing that little girls want more ‘realness’ rather than a doll focused on looks. She may not always have been the world’s best idol for body image or self-love, but her work ethic and career mind-set is undoubtedly something that young girls should aspire to be. The concept of Barbie empowerment goes so much further than who is in the box. It’s about dreaming your fantasy life and going after it.


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