Real Girls: Barbies, Role Models, and Play
Theoretically we are all receptive to the idea that we should raise imaginative children who explore the world and creatively daydream about who they are and can become. We all realize that such daydreaming and imagination are what happen as children play, so adults typically try to find toys that provide rich possibilities for play. There are myriad reasons particular toys are favored by many kids—the overwhelmingly weight of marketing, the sway of popular culture, and the impression of other kids all matter–, but the most popular toys provide a breadth of play possibilities, revolve around compelling symbolism, and accommodate the unpredictable creativity of children.
The practical challenge with toys is that most parents are not especially enthusiastic to encourage their own children to push the envelope on moral codes, dominant ideologies, and proscribed gender, social, and political roles. Yet children use toys to literally play with their own sense of selfhood, crafting and testing their class, sexuality, ethnicity, gender, materiality, and every other possible dimension of self as they become social animals sharing the creative dimensions of play. Anybody with the ethnographic experience of parenting realizes that kids know that all rules are made up and imposed by adults; those dominant rules may cast the world in terms a kid finds disinteresting (or even disempowering), so play often repudiates imposed rules. Yet for plenty of parents and moral ideologues, manufacturers and thoughtful adults need to monitor and perhaps control the “play possibilities” provided by various toys so that playing with those toys will produce particular types of desirable adults.
Barbie presents an especially rich range of play possibilities: Barbie is a bodily form that materializes gender and sexuality, dimensions of selfhood that even the youngest children recognize, but that creative window provokes widespread adult anxiety. Many apprehensive adults caution that Barbie does not provide a “realistic” role model, which may refer to her embrace of consumption, her relationships with men, or her physical form. That complaint is worth taking seriously, but it risks misunderstanding the richness of play, which is not necessarily goal-directed and often actively avoids “reality”; and it hazards misunderstanding the breadth of factors alongside toys that shape how we view gender, sexuality, and any other dimensions of selfhood. A truly “realistic” toy, much like a television show true to the pace of everyday life, would simply be boring, but toys that hyperbolize some recognizable dimensions of the real world—like Barbie’s bodily form—provide more interesting frameworks for play.
Many of the criticisms of Barbie and how it frames children’s play revolve around the distorted bodily form of the doll and Barbie’s breast-to-hips ratio. Those critics may feel vindicated by the startling appearance of Ukranian model Valeria Lukyanova, who has reshaped her body to resemble Barbie (in her telling, the radical makeover was effected completely through one breast surgery, a liquid diet, and extensive gym trips). Lukyanova first drew attention in April 2012 when Jezebel remarked on the Ukranian’s distinctively artificial, doll-like look and a series of online observers fixed on the model’s “inauthenticity.” Lukyanova seems to draw particular ire for her proud pronouncements that she is a “living doll,” with her own web page describing her as the “real life Barbie doll of Russia.” Lukyanova exclaims that “I’m happy I seem unreal.”
This may be nothing more than one person’s odd appeal for media attention to support her career lecturing on New Age spirituality, but Lukyanova is not alone adopting the guise of a doll. Forbes ridiculed the spate of Ukranian women modeling themselves on the beauty ideals of dolls, calling it a “Barbie doll syndrome” in which women reveal or perhaps try to attain “impossible standards of beauty.” The Kyiv Post reported on Lukyanova and friend Olga Oleynik as well as Anastasiya Shpagina, who wears dense anime-style makeup, and there are enough of these “human dolls” that EXpose Barbie takes illuminating these people as its central mission.
The apparent wave of Ukranian women imitating doll aesthetics follows in a line of women who have sculpted their bodies with the same goal, and Cindy Jackson is perhaps the best-known of those figures. Jackson’s book Living Doll details Jackson’s quest to fashion herself in the image of Barbie, because “Through Barbie I could glimpse an alternative destiny.” Sarah Burge likewise has physically modeled herself on Barbie with the intervention of over 100 surgical procedures, and when “she married husband Tony three years ago, she dressed as a Barbie.” For many horrified observers, this is not self-empowerment—which is certainly how Jackson and Burge present their extensive surgeries–but instead a dismaying alienation to one’s own body. Perhaps even more unsettling is a surgical “vaginal rejuvenation” procedure referred to as “the Barbie” in some quarters that is a radical labiaplasty removing the entire labia minor. While the dismay over plastic surgery focuses on women’s cosmetic surgery, American Justin Jedlica has spent over $100,000 fashioning himself into a likeness of Ken.
It is difficult to fathom precisely how a toy like Barbie shapes any given child’s vision of themselves, but certainly Barbie has had a profound influence on how we see beauty and gender. The sort of uncertainties about beauty and sexuality that challenge many adolescents probably do not fuel the overdone cosmetic surgery careers of caricatures like Valeria Lukyanova, but clearly some people have significantly unsettling anxieties about their bodies and selves that can be fanned by Barbie symbolism. Nevertheless, Barbie sometimes looms as an easy target that is sloppily used to refer to a broad range of ideologies embedded in the discourses that socialize children. In November, 2000, for instance, Time’s Amy Dickinson took aim on Barbie when she noted that “Women my age know whom to blame for our own self-loathing, eating disorders and distorted body image: Barbie.” The reality, of course, is more complicated and reaches into the heart of a patriarchal society whose ideological values are reproduced by Barbie and a universe of discourses and material things.
In Mattel’s earliest testing with parents the company found that parents were apprehensive of presenting their children with the breasty adult toy. In a marketplace flooded with infantilized baby dolls, Barbie broke radically with the norm and encouraged children to envision adult womanhood. To negotiate parents’ concerns about the sexualized implications of Barbie, Mattel has long argued that Barbie demonstrates how to be a well-disciplined adult woman in control of her own destiny, and advertisements have always coached kids to take aim on their parents by “selling” the doll based on that positive adult role model status. Mattel hired Ernest Dichtler to conduct testing on the doll to gauge how it would be received, and Dichtler suggested Mattel must “convince Mom that Barbie will make a `poised little lady’ out of her raffish, unkempt, possibly boyish child. … Remind Mom what she believes deep down but dare not express: Better her daughter should appeal to a man in a sleazy way than be unable to attract one at all.” Dichtler’s advice seems somewhat at odds with itself, advocating style and adult agency even as it preyed on parents’ anxiety that a daughter might need to wield their sexuality to secure some of their ambitions. The very first Barbie ad appealed expressly to girls with a focus on fashion consumption and the suggestion that girls should imagine they will one day be “beautiful like you.”
It is notoriously difficult to assess how much any single toy shapes how adults later view themselves, so studies of Barbie cannot provide much clarity without simultaneously examining a whole range of other elements. In 2004, for instance, Tara L. Kuther and Erin McDonald conducted a study of Barbie based on interviews with sixth-grade through eight-grade boys and girls and concluded that most girls consider Barbie’s body “unrealistic”: “The girls viewed Barbie as the image of perfection, and perhaps too perfect, yet she defines physical beauty.” Yet what might actually constitute “realism” or “perfection” is unclear, and what may be most interesting is that children believe some sort of idealized authenticity can be secured. Kuther and McDonald expressed genuine surprise at the number of children who related stories of what they referred to as “torture-related play,” which included cutting the dolls’ hair, painting them, or removing limbs. Casting this as “torture” risks sounding unintentionally judgmental, and such creative modification of toys in general and Barbies in particular is likely familiar to any parent. Anybody who has surveyed boxes of Barbies being sold at flea markets will realize that secondhand Barbies exhibit a wide range of creative hair styles, magic marker tattoos, and horrific injuries received in Barbie camper fires. Kuther and McDonald suggest that such “torture-related play may reflect girls’ ambivalence about their female status and the societal notions of femininity and beauty,” but all societal norms inspire some ambivalence, so the deeper question is specifically what about gender and sexual norms inspires apprehension among the children playing with Barbies and how does Barbie fan (or quell) such apprehensions.
In a 2000 study in Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, Jacqueline Reid‐Walsh and Claudia Mitchell argue that children play with Barbie in a vast range of non-sanctioned ways, an argument also made by Erica Rand’s Barbie’s Queer Accessories. Reid-Walsh and Mitchell do not dispute that children may receive problematic messages from Barbie discourses, but they also argue that for many children playing with the doll was a positive experience. Rather than polarize Barbie’s meaning in play, they advocate for a position that acknowledges the ideological incorporation performed by the doll while acknowledging the ways the doll provides an empowering imagination of women’s ambitions. In her founding moments, Barbie was certainly politically forward-thinking in some critical and empowering ways for at least one generation of children. For instance, Barbie initially did no housework, a reflection of founder Ruth Handler’s ambition to have Barbie model lofty ambitions for a young, professional working woman. Through 1963 39 additional outfits and over 36 fashion Paks were introduced for Barbie, and with the exception of the 1963 “Barbie Baby-Sits” outfit Barbie did not do any conventional domestic labor. In 1965, though, several new outfits including “Barbie Learns to Cook” were introduced. In 1970 a girl raised a sign at the Women’s Strike for Equality reading “I am Not a Barbie Doll,” reflecting underlying tensions with the play options and gender constructions Mattel was providing. Barbie remains effective in the face of such protests because she ambitiously invokes some traditional and comfortably familiar notion of gender roles even as she embraces the ambitions of women. Yet Barbie was at least in her earliest years posing a genuine alternative for many women, and even in her more conservative moments some children have turned the doll to progressive ends.
Barbie’s corporeal form, fascination with fashion and aesthetics, and embrace of consumption present some genuine dilemmas, but the focus on toys that might somehow produce a “real girl” risks appearing to endorse a conventional and universal notion of womanhood. Whatever notion of womanhood Valeria Lukyanova is aspiring to reproduce is itself an ideological ideal that is only socially dangerous if it becomes a mass expectation, and given the visibility of models with genetically distinctive bodies we should be wary of the way such aesthetics impact children. Nevertheless, play does not seek especially strategic goals as much as it experiments with possibilities, and a sufficiently creative kid can reconfigure even the most ideologically stultifying Barbie play situations and wreak the creativity that Kuther and McDonald somewhat unfortunately referred to as ”torture play.”
“Real” beauty or womanhood is at best an ideological ambiguity, and toys are perhaps less about clear role model testing as they are about the creativity of assessing societal norms. Productive play seems to include some creative rejections of certain social mores, and in fact many adults chafe against many of those same codes and recognize those against which we cannot push. The invocation of an ideal descended from a plastic toy is ludicrous, and in the hands of even a creative child the “Barbie ideal” is slightly unsettling: understandably, we worry that some children cannot critically assess such public shows of gender and sexuality. Barbie is by no means a “blank slate” onto which a child can imagine anything, but the individual reception of Barbie meanings and broader toy symbolism is rooted profoundly in how parents and adults acknowledge the fluidity of gendered norms and resist a universe of disempowering gender symbolism.
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Tara L. Kuther and Erin McDonald
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Marlys J. Pearson and Paul R. Mullins
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Jacqueline Reid‐Walsh and Claudia Mitchell
2000 “Just a Doll”?: “Liberating” Accounts of Barbie‐Play. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 22(2):175-190. Subscription access.