If the holidays can be counted on for one thing – regardless of region or cultural moment – it’s turning back the clock for a month or so, and offering up brightly-wrapped nostalgia. Nostalgia literally means the “pain from an old wound,” but today its connotations include both sentimentality and irreverence for the past. The holiday season often brings back memories of childhood, as children are uniquely centered throughout the pervasive traditions of Christmas. From gingerbread worlds to flying reindeer, the activities and mythologies of Christmas are playful and childlike. And, of course, there are those festive reliquaries of personal meaning, significant to children and adults alike: toys.
Toys themselves spark nostalgia in all their meanings, and can serve as useful markers of the zeitgeist. In thinking about this year’s holiday season, and thinking back to my past few decades of Christmases, it’s striking to see how the iconographic toys that still permeate our pop culture have aged. Toys have so much to do with identity, and evolving discourses on gender, appearance, and social position also mean we have fresh eyes with which to regard some of those Christmas classics.
For girls in this country – and in this century – there are a few inescapable case studies for comparing “then” to “now.” All these toys were originally designed by women, though they still exist in a world that is fundamentally not designed by women. There’s the hyper-femme and highly-debated world of My Little Pony, there’s the newly-re-politicized propagandist realm of American Girl Dolls, and there’s the boss bimbo herself: Barbie.
So, let’s look at Barbie.
Barbie is easy to criticize. It’s far more challenging and exciting to seek her redemption. While in some ways a symbol for all things sexist, in a roundabout way, she is liberated. She is the main character; she is happy. While uplifting her as a thriving woman (self-actualized and complete without her male counterpart), there is still a compelling case to be made for “can’t we aim higher?” And when considering Barbie’s role in shaping the self-images of little girls – or of any child really – for the past 60+ years, there is an urgent case to be made for “we must aim higher.” So, who is Barbie really; is Barbie friend or foe? Perhaps she is the thing we may not ever accept: Barbie is both.
Even her origin story is checkered. From one angle it’s a feminist triumph, from another, its a continuation of patriarchal thinking.
Even her origin story is checkered. From one angle it’s a feminist triumph, from another, its a continuation of patriarchal thinking. In 1959, Ruth Handler introduced the Barbie doll, which suggests a rare moment of a woman controlling the female image in what would become American popular media. If this “idealized” doll was based on a woman’s ideal, then the male gaze had not laid claim, a revolutionary idea anywhere in the design world. Barbie’s look was, however, almost directly lifted from male illustrator’s cartoons about a fictional call girl Bild Lilli who was made into a doll in 1955. As Wikipedia affirms, Ruth based her Barbie doll design on the Bild Lilli doll!
Despite this fallback on the male-eroticized, restrictive feminine norms of a blonde, hyper-thin body, Ruth’s Barbie did change the American – and by extension the global – doll game for good. Rather than baby dolls which pushed maternal role play onto children, or china dolls which were expensive and inaccessible to the masses, Barbie sent a new social message. A young, active woman (depicted first in a bathing costume, immediately casting her in a role other than devoted wife, mother, or antique), Barbie was stylish and initially unsmiling. She encouraged a more modular role play in which children could imagine their adult lives – with and without an extended social circle – and increasingly, a set of fractal futures as Barbie came to occupy just about every profession imaginable.
That was Barbie’s sole appeal for me – and my peers – decades later. This girl could simply move, both physically and creatively. She was on the go and while she was eventually given a permanent smile and viewer eye contact, she really was un-impacted by the patriarchy. But that was the case only theoretically in child’s play; in the real world, Barbie became a gold standard of perversely-unrealistic beauty (and therefore identity) standards.
A blatant and dystopian artifact from Barbie’s nascent world? Her 1965 lurid pink bathroom scale!
A blatant and dystopian artifact from Barbie’s nascent world was her 1965 lurid pink bathroom scale. It’s troubling enough to think that a scale was considered a must-build for her dreamhouse before a sink, a coffee cup, or even a book to play with. (Barbie’s 1962 dream house has a cardboard box with the front painted as a set of encyclopedias.) More disturbing still: the scale was permanently set at 110 lb.
After the 1950s and 60s, as Barbie became famous, the Mattel Company grinded forward with one or two progressive changes a decade. 1968 brought us Barbie’s Black friend Christie. By 1980, non-white dolls could be named Barbie – no longer merely a sidekick – her actual identity was proclaimed on each pristine new box. In 1985, Barbie became a CEO (still something of a moonshot for women in corporate America). And she has been running for president every election year since 1992. The progress has been gradual and perhaps unremarkable. Still, Barbie has evolved, and has been laying claim to more and more children’s hearts as she slowly catches up to the times.
At the turn of and into this century, Barbie’s symbolism has deepened still, as pop culture and art history alike revisit female identity and more specifically, hyper femininity and its great potential. Aqua’s 1997 hit song “Barbie Girl,” the Toy Story franchise portraying Barbie’s advanced intellect and martial arts skill (compared to Ken’s milquetoast cowardice), and the highly-stylized new Greta Gerwig film Barbie (upcoming in 2023) all point at a new layer of self-awareness and affectionate satire. There is power in the pink; there is a refusal to equate female empowerment with defeminization. As we have entered the “age of the bimbo” – especially on TikTok – Barbie’s unapologetic girliness has helped solidify the idea that “girls [truly] can do it all.”
There is power in the pink; there is a refusal to equate female empowerment with defeminization.
Artists and cultural leaders today still engage with Barbie as a source for unpacking feminist ideas. It’s not a perfect experiment. A great example of this attempt is the 2018 meme hit: Art Activist Barbie. Art Activist Barbie (aka AAB) is a project created by educator and activist Sarah Williamson, who began posing Barbie dolls holding picket signs in front of artworks in museums to highlight sexism and injustice in art history. Williamson’s premise is promising, and some pithy points are made. In one of the project’s images, Art Activist Barbie stands in a museum wearing a painter’s smock, gesturing toward an easel scrawled with “where are all the female artists?” This question recalls the pivotal 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Female Artists” by the pioneering feminist art historian Linda Nochlin.
Other picket signs like “refuse to be the muse,” and AAB’s ongoing distaste for female nudes draws an important connection: both Barbie and the legacy of female art models preceding her deeply objectify the female body. This idea that women “have to be naked to get into the Met Museum” (Guerilla Girls, 1989) has tremendous traction to this day, however, this disgruntlement is a smaller piece of a much larger issue in art and culture. While female bodies are objectified in classic art styles, female viewers still possess the agency to analyze the images and see themselves, just as children analyze and explore their own identities through Barbie. And nudity doesn’t inherently strip a female subject of her humanity. A deeper blow to the sense of self is erasure. Take it from an Art Activist Barbie clearly born after 1980: “everyone is so white in galleries.”
After an entire history of significance, yet a new frontier for Barbie dawns.
After an entire history of significance, yet a new frontier for Barbie dawns. She is now so recognizable as to enter the pop art and fine art lexicon as a motif, not unlike the Campbell’s soup can. To flag her in an artwork is to claim that the work is underpinned by a large statement about expectation and freedom in relation to femininity.
If you are in New York this season, visit 95 Horatio Street and see our girl in a setting that renders her nearly an abstract material in an installation. On view through March 2023, Martine Gutierrez’s 2021 photographic work Supremacy shows the artist pinned down to a pink fur rug, set upon by an army of Barbie dolls a la Gulliver’s Travels. At once playful and sinister, this work exemplifies the impact of Barbie. As the dolls creep over Gutierrez’s body, comically splayed out in matching lingerie, they tell a paradoxical story. They are an oppressive force restricting female freedom, and the very vehicle for embracing and exploring that feminine identity into the future.
© Allison Green (12/16/22) – Special for FF2 Media ®
LEARN MORE/ DO MORE
EDITOR’S NOTE: FF2 is proud to post Alli Green’s three-part series on toys. This is part one on “Boss Bimbo” Barbie. Follow link to read part two on American Girls Dolls. Part three on My Little Pony will be coming soon.
Note that FF2 loves the Guerilla Girls! Click HERE to read a tribute by Katherine Factor which includes a photo of FF2 EIC Jan Lisa Huttner arm-in-arm with “Kathe Kollwitz.”
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured photo: Courtesy of Mattel, Inc.
Middle photo: “Barbie bathroom scale set at 110 lbs” by CarrieBee is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
Bottom photo: “Barbie” by horantheworld is licensed under CC BY 2.0.