Marge Piercy 1973
“Barbie Doll” appears in Piercy’s 1973 collection, To Be of Use. By using the iconic image of the Barbie doll as a kind of straw “man,” Piercy implicitly criticizes the ways in which women are socialized into stereotypical feminine behavior. Written as a fairy-tale of sorts, “Barbie Doll” suggests that the enormous social pressures on women to conform to particular ways of looking and behaving are ultimately destructive. Her ironic tone barely conceals a simmering rage at prescribed gender roles that eat away at women’s self-confidence and wreak havoc on their self-image. Piercy suggests that corporate America, embodied by Barbie’s maker, Mattel Toys, participates in our patriarchal system by perpetuating gender stereotypes. The Barbie doll, one of the best-selling “toys” of all time, has become an icon of U.S. culture for the way it idealizes the female body. For more than 40 years parents have been buying the doll, along with Barbie’s companion, Ken, for their daughters, who attempt to emulate Barbie’s appearance and the values that that appearance embodies. Indeed, in some segments of society, the term “Barbie Doll” itself has become a term of derision, signifying an attractive, but vapid, blonde who will do what she is told. Piercy skewers this image, implying that it is inherently destructive. Piercy’s poem has been reprinted a number of times. Its accessibility and clearly defined—yet not simplistic—stance toward its subject make it one of her more popular pieces.
A feminist activist as well as a poet, novelist, essayist, and playwright, Piercy melds the personal and the political in her writing. She writes frequently about women’s issues, particularly the ways in which women have been made to feel inferior, both about their minds and their bodies. Born to working-class parents Robert Douglas and Bert Bedoyna (Bunnin) Piercy in Detroit, Michigan in 1936, Piercy began writing—both poetry and fiction—when she was fifteen. Her early literary influences include Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and the Romantic poets Byron, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, but Piercy learned about storytelling through listening to the women in her family, especially her mother, her Aunt Ruth, and her maternal grandmother, Hannah, who gave Piercy her Hebrew name, Marah. Piercy received a full fellowship to the University of Michigan, where she co-edited the literary magazine her senior year and also won a prestigious Hopwood Award for her poetry. After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she entered Northwestern University, from which she graduated with an M.A. in 1962.
Piercy’s grandfather was a union organizer who was murdered while organizing bakery workers. Piercy too has fashioned an overtly political life for herself. An active member of Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s, she helped organize protests against U.S. involvement in Vietnam and for civil rights for all Americans. Her involvement in the women’s movement, however, has come to define her writing. By infusing her poetry, fiction, and essays with autobiographical elements, Piercy gives her writing an urgency and edge frequently lacking in so much contemporary poetry. Her description of the girlchild in “Barbie Doll” is a not-so-thinly-veiled reference to herself. Piercy, however, did not sacrifice herself to patriarchy’s image of what an “ideal” woman should be; rather, she made herself into a crusader for women’s rights. The majority of her novels, most of which contain autobiographical material, address some aspect of recuperating women’s identity from the snares of a society that does not have women’s interests at heart. The author of numerous novels, poetry collections, essays, and plays, Piercy writes full time and occasionally teaches workshops. Her writing has appeared in more than 150 anthologies and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. She lives with her third husband, writer and publisher Ira Wood, and five cats in Wellfleet on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
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- Marge Piercy has her own website: http://www.capecod.net/~tmpiercy/index.html
- A compilation of essays about the Barbie doll’s cultural significance can be found at this website: http://www.dolliedish.com/barbie/onbarbie.html
- For another point of view on how Barbie has been marketed, examine Mattel’s own website for Barbie: http://www.barbie.com/
- In 1976 Watershed Tapes released a cassette of Piercy reading her poems, At the Core.
The title of this poem refers to Mattel’s Barbie Doll, a popular toy for young girls. The original Barbie—tall, shapely, with blonde hair and blue eyes—debuted in 1959 at the American Toy Fair in New York City. Mattel has manufactured a variety of “Barbies” since then—everything from Action Adventure Barbie, to “Mod” Barbie, to Francie, an African-American “Barbie.” The poem begins in a fairy-tale vein, the archaic term “girl-child” being used to underscore the mythic quality of the story. The dolls, stove, iron and lipstick are all traditional playthings for young girls, but they are also markers of an identity in the making, the things that young girls grow to idenitfy with their own social roles. The doll presents an idealized image of the body, and stove and irons tell them what kind of work is expected of them as adults. Lipstick, perhaps the most sexualized cosmetic for women, signals to young girls that they will be valued for their physical appearance.
The “magic of puberty” introduces the theme of growth. It is a magical time because the body changes rapidly. Girls begin to menstruate and their bodies change. Piercy uses the term ironically here, as she is also referring to the pain that comes with puberty. Adolescents become more aware of one another as sexual and social beings and are frequently cruel towards one another. The “girlchild” is told she has “a great big nose and fat legs” even though she is smart, healthy and strong. The latter descriptors, however, are seen as being positive only for males, not females. Being good with one’s hands (manual dexterity) is a conventional male trait. Similarly, while having an “abundant sexual drive” for boys might be seen as “sowing oats” or being a “real” man, for girls it is often considered aggressive or the mark of a “whore.”
The girl was made to feel guilty for who she was, for her intelligence and abilities, and also for not being slim and “beautiful.” She apologized to everyone for not being the person they wanted her to be, but all they could see was her body and how it did not match their idea of what a woman should look like. They tried to help her be more of an idealized woman by suggesting how to compensate for her unfeminine qualities. It is important to understand that for Piercy the “girlchild” is “everygirl,” not some poetic character with no relation to the real world. Children are socialized through family, culture, and education from the day they are born. Piercy is symbolically examining the process of how children come to inhabit their gendered identities and the destructive consequences of those processes for women.
Fan belts wear out because of overuse. Fan belts are also commodities—things—like Barbie dolls themselves and, Piercy suggests, like women. This simile is interesting because it uses an image we associate with cars, and cars are a symbol of masculinity in American culture. Her “good nature,” that part of her that sought to accommodate others, has been so exploited that she can no longer continue. She “offers up” (a gesture of sacrifice) her nose and legs, the symbols of her oppression, but to whom we do not know: presumably patriarchal power itself.
These lines are laden with irony. The very person that the girlchild could never be is the person “appearing” in her casket, after a makeover by the undertaker. “A turned-up putty nose” and “a pink and white nightie” are features of Barbie-doll-like beauty and femininity. It is ironic that the very people (“everyone”) who could not appreciate the girl-child for who she was in life, now admire the person she is made to be in death. In Piercy’s fable, it is society (not the girl) that achieves consummation, for it has made the girlchild into what it wanted. “Consummation” is a term used to describe completion or fulfillment. The last line of the poem echoes the happy ending of fairy-tales. In this case, of course, Piercy is saying that because of women’s subservient position in society, it is often difficult for their lives to have happy endings.
“Barbie Doll” symbolically describes the inherently destructive nature of patriarchy. A system of social organization in which male prerogative is the ruling principle, patriarchy demands women’s obedience to men. Historically, this obedience has been externally manifest through law; for example, until the twentieth century women had been denied voting privileges in the United States. But patriarchy also exhibits its power through the shaping of mind and self-image. A “good” woman is one who conforms to patriarchal expectations: she is feminine, domestic, pretty, and accommodating. When you are not these things, as the girlchild in Piercy’s poem is not, you will be punished. Society will shun you, you will be judged a freak, and your own strengths (e.g., the girlchild’s physical strength and intelligence) will appear to you as shortcomings because you will not be recognized for them. Piercy’s poem presents a girl of many talents who is worn down by an image of herself created by others which she could not, literally, live up to. In an act of “self” sacrifice, she cut off her nose and legs, those parts of her which did not conform to how a “beautiful” woman should look. This act of mutilation echoes the mutilation other women endure in tyrannically patriarchal societies. In parts of lower equatorial Africa, for example, young girls are forced to have “clitorectomies,” procedures which medically remove the clitoris. This deprives the woman of sexual pleasure, and is a constant reminder that her only value is as a child-bearing machine for the man who will own her. In the West, eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia are consequences women suffer in attempting to conform to the ideal of the Barbie body. In “Barbie Doll” the girlchild fulfills the patriarchal prescription for obedience by destroying herself.
Topics for Further Study
- What was Barbie’s first date with Ken like? Write a short story about this from a 1960s Barbie’s point of view, then do the same for a 1970s Barbie and a 1990s Barbie. What do your stories tell you about how you think of these decades?
- Make a list of all the toys you can remember playing with as a child. Write an essay on how these toys contribute to a child’s sense of himor herself as a boy or a girl.
- Interview an equal number of men and women, asking them what they consider to be their own most appealing attributes, and what they consider to be the most appealing attributes in a mate. Write an essay describing what similarities and differences you find and what this tells you about how we see ourselves in terms of our gender identity and how others see us.
- Write a poem called “G.I. Joe” about a “boychild’s” socialization.
She perpetuates patriarchal power in death by being transformed into someone she could not be in life.
“Barbie Doll” speaks to the destructive influences of rigid sex roles in modern society, and how women, especially, have been socialized into making their bodies and behavior conform to those roles. We see this socialization at work when the “girlchild” is “presented dolls that did pee-pee / and miniature GE stoves and irons / and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy.” Taught from early childhood that a woman should be pretty, intellectually passive, and domestic, the girlchild is apologetic for being none of these. Society, however, offers her compensatory strategies: she is urged to “play coy, / exhorted to come on hearty, / exercise, diet, smile, and wheedle.” This was too much for the girlchild and, as a result of her inability to please those who want her to be someone else, she grows to loathe herself and finally destroys herself in an act of sacrifice, “cut[ting] off her nose and her legs / and offer[ing] them up.” The irony of the last lines of the poem, when the undertaker constructs a woman the girlchild could never be, suggests that societal expectations for sex roles transcend death itself and that, fight as they may against such repressive stereotyping, women will always lose. The moral of Piercy’s parable is in the reader’s response. The lesson is contained in the audience’s outrage at the ways in which women have been (and continue to be) forced to conform to an ideal of femininity—often in ways antithetical to who they are as human beings. Piercy would have her readers take their rage at the poem’s last line as a spur to action.
A narrative poem written in free verse [verse having irregular meter, or rhythm that is not metrical], “Barbie Doll” can be read as a parable of what often happens to women in a patriarchal society. Parables are short narratives with a moral. Well-known parables are found in religious texts such as the Bible. The moral of Piercy’s poem also functions as a warning: it urges readers to be aware of the ways in which society shapes our (gendered) identities and urges women not to compare themselves to idealized notions of feminine beauty or behavior.
Piercy’s diction is occasionally archaic. That is, she uses words and grammatical constructions which we would not use today, for example “girl-child,” “that did pee-pee”, etc. By weaving these archaisms into a story told in contemporary language, the speaker achieves an effect of timelessness, suggesting that the instance of modern women modeling themselves after Barbie dolls is only the latest in the history of women’s oppression.
Piercy employs irony to drive her point home. Irony, which comes from the Greek word “eiron,” refers to the way in which a speaker “hides” or in some way understates what she really means. The end of Piercy’s poem is ironic because the only thing that is consummated is the “girlchild’s” death. When the speaker wishes “every woman a happy ending,” she is actually expressing disgust at what has happened to the girlchild and what regularly happens to women who have been socialized to make men’s desires their own.
In her essay, “Through the Cracks: Growing Up in the Fifties,” originally published in Partisan Review and later reprinted in Part-Colored Blocks for a Quilt, Marge Piercy describes the social pressures exerted on women to conform in mid-twentieth century America, claiming that those who did not were labeled “sick.” Piercy writes, “If you wanted something you couldn’t have easily or that other people did not want or wouldn’t admit to wanting, if you were angry, if you were different, strange, psychic, emotional, intellectual, political, double-jointed: you were sick, sick, sick.” Commenting on the demands to physically conform, she notes that women’s clothes were meant to accentuate breasts and hips while simultaneously “squashing” any parts of the body, such as the stomach, which might stick out. Piercy’s mother bought her a girdle when she was twelve years old, telling her that she “was now a woman.” Images of restraint are common in Piercy’s writing about her childhood and adolescence, as is her anger at the pain such restraint caused. “Women must accustom themselves to a constant state of minor pain, binding themselves in a parody of the real body to be constantly ‘attractive’ …. We didn’t have bodies then, we had shapes. We were the poor stuff from which this equipment carved the feminine.” Piercy’s anger at the ways in which ideas of beauty destroyed women’s self-confidence and enslaved them to male desire is evident in the cynical and bitter irony of “Barbie Doll,” which symbolically tells the story of a woman who could not resist, or accommodate, society’s demands. Of late 1950s America, Piercy says that “Even the notion of acceptable beauty was exceedingly limited and marred a whole generation of women who grew up knowing it (training in self-hatred) and a whole generation of men who felt they were entitled to it, and any actual woman not resembling the few idols was very second best: or Everyman has the right to the exclusive possession of Marilyn Monroe.”
In 1959 when Piercy was twenty-three years old, Mattel created and sold the first Barbie doll. Named after Barbara, the daughter of the founders of Mattel Toys (Ruth and Elliot Handler), Barbie was the first doll with an adult body to appear in America. She was a doll of idealized proportions but with no genitals or nipples. This allowed the doll to be feminine and sexual but non-offensive at the same time. The Handlers claimed they got the idea while watching their growing daughter begin to imitate adult conversation and behavior. They wanted to give their daughter (and potential consumers)
Compare & Contrast
- 1959: Mattel Toys introduces the first Barbie Doll.
- 1966: Francie, Barbie’s “mod” cousin, is introduced in a polka-dotted top and gingham bikini bottom.
- 1967: African-American Francie “Barbie” is introduced.
- 1976: Barbie is given a place in “America’s Time Capsule” at the nation’s bicentennial celebration.
- 1971: Discarding any submissive undertones, Barbie’s eyes, once adverted in a side-glance, now look straight ahead.
- 1975: During the Winter Olympics, Barbie is marketed abroad as the athlete of the year, appearing as a swimmer, skier, and skater, with a gold medal draped around her neck.
- 1982: “Punk” Barbie is released.
- 1985: “Day to Night” Barbie, Mattel’s version of the yuppie lifestyle, is released. She has everything from modern office equipment (a tiny calculator) to an evening gown designed for the night out on the town.
- 1986: “Astronaut” Barbie is released.
- 1988: “Dr. Barbie” is released.
- 1990: Mattel sponsors the “Barbie Summit” in New York City. Thirty-nine children from around the world meet and discuss world hunger, environmental degradation, and war and peace.
- 1995: “Karaoke” Barbie is released.
- 1993: Barbie sales reach $1 billion in 1993. She and related products account for 34 percent of Mattel’s overall sales.
- 1997: Mattel announces plans to give Barbie a more realistic figure and tone down the makeup. The new Barbie will reportedly have a wider waist, slimmer hips and a smaller bustline, and will be phased in gradually.
a doll that would represent the teenager she and other children would become. Special attention was given to Barbie’s outfits, which were designed to appeal simultaneously to a young girl’s idea of teenage independence and fun and a parent’s idea of wholesomeness. The original Barbie had a tennis dress, a bathing suit, a ballerina outfit, a wedding dress, and a football game outfit, encompassing all of the (gendered) roles of a conventional suburban, middle-class American life. By playing with Barbie, young girls learned what was expected of them. They were given the illusion of freedom, of inventing themselves through the many Barbie costumes. As the country changed in the 1960s, however, so did Barbie. Her facial features were softened, along with her skin tone, and she was given a new hairstyle—a bubblecut—to reflect the changing times. In the 1970s Barbie changed yet again. Now Barbie’s bright blue eyes looked directly ahead, signaling an assertive, confident woman who makes her own decisions. The sexual revolution and women’s liberation helped to create a new image of what girls could be. Barbie has continued to “evolve” along with society. Mattel has put out a number of different Barbies to reflect those changes. Their stable of dolls has included Betsy Ross Barbie (to commemorate the bicentennial) Twist and Turn Barbie, Color Magic Barbie, Action Adventure Barbie, Francie (an African-American Barbie), and a host of other Barbies meant to reflect the changing values of American society and the opportunities available to women.
Perhaps the real mark of “Barbie Doll’s” reception has been the numerous times it has been reprinted and anthologized. Appearing in 1973, at the crest of feminism’s second wave, “Barbie Doll” embodied the rage many women felt at being sexually objectified and treated as second-class citizens. The poem remains popular in large part because it continues to represent women’s experience.
Most of the criticism and reviews of Piercy’s poetry have underscored its politically committed nature. Leapfrog Press has built a website (http://www.capecod.net/~tmpiercy/over.htm) excerpting reviews of Piercy’s poetry. Erica Jong calls Piercy “one of the most important writers of our time who has redefined the meaning of the female consciousness in literature and in so doing has begun to redefine the meaning of literature.” Writing in the Washington Post on Piercy’s Selected Poems, poet and critic Carolyn Kizer says “Marge Piercy is my idea of the very model of a modern major feminist. There is a deal of sheer, toe-curling pleasure to be gained from reading this robust, protean and hilarious woman’s selected poems … her earthiness, her wonderful physicalness.” “Barbie Doll” has also been reprinted in a number of classroom anthologies, and teacher Robert Perrin has written an essay on using the poem to acquaint his students with gender issues.
Chris Semansky’s most recent collection of poems, Blindsided, has been published by 26 Books of Portland, Oregon and nominated for an Oregon Book Award. In the following essay, Semansky examines Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll” as a symbolic story about women’s socialization in a patriarchal world.
Marge Piercy’s poem, “Barbie Doll,” is a mythic rendering of the destructive ways in which women have been socialized into thinking of their bodies and behavior in relation to a patriarchal ideal. This ideal, represented by Mattel’s popular Barbie doll, is a thin yet curvy body, with symmetrical, perfect facial features. The girlchild in Piercy’s “Barbie Doll” sacrifices her own gifts to fulfill the social dictates of patriarchy, a system of social organization based on male privilege. The doll is symbolic of the ways that women themselves have been “plasticized,” turned into creatures who have been riven of their humanity.
After the Barbie doll came out in 1959 many women literally attempted to emulate her look. This was virtually impossible, since Barbie’s body measures the human equivalent of 39-18-33. However, one woman, Cindy Jackson, founder of the Cosmetic Surgery Network, has dedicated her life to trying to achieve a “Barbie look,” putting herself through more than twenty operations. It is not only Barbie’s body that young girls aspire to but Barbie’s life as well. The original Barbie came with a tennis outfit and bathing suit, as well as a wedding dress. She embodied the ideals and values of a middle-class suburban housewife who spent her days at the country club and her afternoons cooking dinner for her husband. To become a Barbie doll is for many girls and young women a dream. For Marge Piercy it is a nightmare. Her poem is a frontal assault on the socialization (for Piercy, “Barbie-ization”) of young girls.
The process of constructing an identity based on gender and the consequences of this construction for women are popular subjects in the sociology of gender. The Dictionary of Sociology lists four primary features: 1) women are ascribed specific feminine personalities and a “gender identity” through socialization; 2) women are often secluded from public activities in industrial societies by their relegation to the private domain of the home; 3) women are allocated to inferior and typically degrading productive activities; 4) women are subjected to stereotypical ideologies which define women as weak and emotionally dependent on men.
Socialization is the process through which human beings learn how to be in the world. They internalize rules—some spoken, some unspoken— and these rules come to form a part of the image we develop about ourselves. “Barbie Doll” addresses the various stages of socialization: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. The girlchild is presented with toys—presumably by her family— which help to set expectations for what her interests and behavior should be. Dolls, stoves, irons, and lipstick are all conventional things that little girls, especially in the West, are given to clue them in to societal expectations. This is not an intentional or necessarily coercive process but one which adults themselves have gone through and have come to believe is “natural.” That is, they believe that little girls will enjoy pretending to be a homemaker or a Barbie doll because these are desires with which little girls are born.
The domestic realm has long been a space relegated to women. It is expected that they cook, clean, bear children, and take care of their men, who work and provide for the family. The public realm, the realm of politics, business, war, and large-scale decision-making, belongs to men. Academia, until recently, has also been a male province, as women were not valued for their intelligence. If women taught at all, it was elementary school where teaching was considered closer to baby-sitting, something in which women were considered well-versed. That the girlchild, when she reached adolescence, “tested intelligent” suggests that she was doomed, for such a quality is not valued by a society which considers “smarts” to be the mark of a strong male. Intelligent women present a threat to male power. Similarly, a woman who is good with her hands (“manual dexterity”) or who has “abundant sexual drive” is considered to be unfeminine, as these qualities are also normally associated with maleness and masculinity.
Because she did not conform to social expectations, Piercy’s girlchild did not “consummate” the process of socialization. Because she could not “play coy, / … come on hearty, / exercise, diet, smile and wheedle,” the girlchild suffered intense emotional conflict, which eventually resulted in her taking her own life. The poem is not clear as to the girlchild’s emotional state when she “cut off her nose and legs.” We can read the statement that “Her good nature wore out / like a fan belt” to mean that she became angry and killed herself in disgust, or we can read the lines to mean that she was exhausted with constantly trying to be something that she was not. She did not, however, make it to adulthood, which means she failed to pass on the expectations that she herself could not meet. The only way that society could ensure that future generations would grow into the gender roles that the girlchild did not would be if the girlchild were not around to be a negative role model. When she did “offer” herself up, the undertaker, symbolically representing the destructive power of patriarchal desire, was ready to transform her, to have her conform to the gendered role she could not inhabit during her life.
Piercy’s poem symbolizes what happens to young women in real life. In her essay “klaus barbie, and other dolls i’d like to see” from the anthology Adios, Barbie: Young Women Write about Body Image and Identity, Susan Jane Gilman writes that “We urban, Jewish, Black, Asian and Latina girls … realize that if you didn’t look like Barbie, you didn’t fit in. You were less beautiful, less valuable, less worthy. If you didn’t look like Barbie, companies would discontinue you. You simply couldn’t compete.” Piercy herself, an urban Jewish woman and a burgeoning intellectual, did not fit in. Before she became politically active in the 1960s Piercy was a part of the Barbie-ized culture of
“Because she did not conform to social expectations, Piercy’s girlchild did not ‘consummate’ the process of socialization. Because she could not ‘play coy, / … come on hearty, / exercise, diet, smile and wheedle, ’ the girlchild suffered intense emotional conflict, which eventually resulted in her taking her own life.”
1950s America. It was not just men who controlled women, though. Male desire permeated society. Piercy writes that “Women policed each other in the fifties with a special frenzy, being totally convinced nothing but death and madness lay outside the nuclear family and the baby-doll-mommy roles. How could we have believed that when we saw the toll of death and madness inside the roles?” These roles began to expand in the 1960s as more opportunities developed for women. Rising female employment offered women economic possibilities, and the sexual revolution gave them “permission” to seek sexual satisfaction outside the bounds of marriage. Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 block-buster book, Sex and the Single Girl, described the “new woman” as a sexy, financially independent, upwardly mobile professional who made her own decisions, and Betty Friedan’s 1963 The Feminine Mystique argued strongly for equal rights for women. In 1964 Congress passed Title VII, which banned gender discrimination in employment and helped create the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency which addresses issues of gender equality and discrimination in the workplace. Piercy herself embodied America’s cultural changes, as she divorced her first husband partly because he did not take her writing seriously and held conventional notions of how a wife should behave.
What Do I Read Next?
- Barbie Unbound: A Parody of the Barbie Obsession, by Sarah Strohmeyer and Geoff Hansen (photographer), treats the Barbie doll as a contemporary American woman and spoofs her. She assumes roles including Safe-Sex Barbie, Barbie Antoinette, Anita Hill Barbie, Marie Curie Barbie, and in honor of her upcoming 40th anniversary, Hot Flash Barbie, who comes complete with tiny estrogen supplements.
- Published in 1997 by Orchises Press, Denise Duhamel’s collection of poems, Kinky, treats Barbie as a “real” character, asking and answering questions such as: What if Barbie were in therapy? What if she were a religious fanatic? Do you know why Barbie and Ken don’t dress in underwear?
- Richard Peabody and Lucinda Ebersole’s Mondo Barbie collects poems and stories about this American icon, many of which are from Barbie’s own point of view.
- Early Grrrl: The Early Poems of Marge Piercy, was published in 1999 by Leapfrog Press and contains many of the poems that helped launch Piercy’s career as both feminist-activist and writer.
- Adios, Barbie, edited by Ophira Edut, collects first-person accounts of young women reflecting on the relationship between body image and race, ethnicity, and sexuality.
As a result of the changes in American society, gender roles for women have expanded greatly since the 1950s. These changes have been tracked by the Barbie doll, which literally has had scores of incarnations, including Francie the African-American Barbie, and “Punk” Barbie, a 1980s doll. More recently Mattel has announced plans to give Barbie a makeover. She will have a “less graduated profile,” in response to children’s interest in more realism in their toys.
Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2000.
Alice Van Wart
Alice Van Wart is a writer and teaches literature and writing in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Toronto. She has published two books of poetry and has written articles on modern and contemporary literature.
In her essay “Rethinking the Seventies: Women Writers and Violence,” Elaine Showalter says women writers in the 1970s were experiencing the beginning of an exciting new phase where they “seemed at last able to express anger and passion, to confront their own raging emotions….” Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll” is a highly polished and ironic poem that perfectly demonstrates Showalter’s thesis. In “Barbie Doll,” Piercy scathingly condemns contemporary expectations placed on women concerning their appearance. The view she expresses in the poem is a feminist one, consistent with the political views she expresses in her numerous poetry collections, novels, and essays, particularly those views that condemn society’s attitudes towards women.
“Barbie Doll” tells the story of a girl who grows up to find out she does not look quite as she should. Because she wants the approval of others she attempts to compensate for her imperfections in other areas. She soon grows tired of her efforts and in desperation chops off the offending parts of her body, taking her life as she does. In the hands of the undertaker, however, she finally achieves what she could not in life: perfection and hence approval.
The apt title given to the poem points to the central and controlling device of irony and the symbolic associations between the doll and the women in the poem. The Barbie Doll, more than being a favorite with adolescent girls, is a cultural icon of femininity that carries with it complex associations of ideal beauty and desirability. Piercy wishes to expose the destructiveness behind such ideals by showing the extent to which many women will go to achieve them.
Told through the third person point of view in four stanzas of free verse, the poem delineates the far-reaching consequences of a women’s concern with her appearance as measured by an external ideal. The use of the third person point of view reinforces the increasing sense of alienation and self-loathing the woman in the poem experiences towards herself because she does not conform to this ideal. In the first stanza, Piercy shows the early indoctrination of young girls into feminine stereotypes. The second stanza conveys society’s concern with women’s appearance, in general, while the third stanza shows the extent to which women will go to conform to an ideal. The fourth stanza provides a concluding ironic twist showing how the woman in the poem achieves in death what she could not in life.
In the first line of the first stanza the poet introduces the subject of her poem as the “girlchild.” Distinguishing her only by gender serves to objectify her, and the fact that she is “born as usual” suggests there is nothing out of the ordinary about the birth of this girl. The enjambment between lines one and two, however, clarifies that “as usual” also means she is greeted into the world as girls usually are with presents of “dolls that did pee-pee / and miniature GE stove and irons / and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy”. The images of “dolls,” “stoves,” “irons,” serve to show the early indoctrination of girls into the woman’s world of motherhood and domesticity, while the image of “wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy” begins her introduction into the guileful art of femininity.
In the fourth line the poem’s focus shifts from childhood to “the magic of puberty.” The use of the word “magic” to describe this period of the girl’s life suggests the powerful and extraordinary nature of the emotional and hormonal changes that transform her from a girl into a young woman capable of bearing children. However, the magic of puberty is destroyed for her when a classmate tells her she has “a great big nose and fat legs.”
In the second stanza the young woman has become so preoccupied with her imperfections that she is unable to see her positive qualities. Although she is “healthy, tested intelligent / possessed strong arms and a back” and even possesses “abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity,” she is so conditioned to be over-concerned with her appearance that these positive qualities fail to have any value. Because she only sees her imperfections and believes she has no value because of them, she goes “to and fro apologizing.” So obsessed is she with her imperfections that she begins to believe that what “everyone saw” when they looked at her was “a fat nose on thick legs.”
By collapsing the images of “a great big nose and fat legs” into the comic image of “a fat nose on thick legs,” Piercy uses synecdoche [a figure of speech in which the part stands for the whole, or the whole stands for the part], to draw attention
“As an artifice of desire that measures itself against an impossible ideal, the female body requires endless maintenance to shape it for public acceptance and idealization, and this woman fails to shape herself into the image of what is desirable. Eventually she tires of her efforts and breaks down.”
both to her use of irony and to the sad fact that the young woman can only see herself in the terms of some artificial ideal.
In the third stanza the woman is “advised to play coy / exhorted to come on hearty / exercise, diet, smile and wheedle.” She is pressured into trying to mold herself into what she is not and to compensate for her shortcomings. The verbs “advised” and “exhorted” suggest the insistence placed on the woman to please others, particularly men, while the advice to “play coy” and to “come on hearty” point to the artificial means women are encouraged to use to make themselves desirable.
As an artifice of desire that measures itself against an impossible ideal, the female body requires endless maintenance to shape it for public acceptance and idealization, and this woman fails to shape herself into the image of what is desirable. Eventually she tires of her efforts and breaks down. As the poet puts it, her “‘good nature’ wore out / like a fan belt.”
The poet’s use of simile [a figure of speech comparing two unlike things, often introduced by “like” or “as”] shows the extent to which the woman has accepted society’s objectification of her body. Like the fan belt in a car that wears out and is discarded, the woman wears herself out in her attempts to perfect herself. Her body becomes an alien thing. Because of its imperfections it has no value, “so she cut off her nose and her legs / and offered them up.” Since she is the sum of her imperfect parts, “a fat nose on thick legs,” by offering them up she is in fact sacrificing her life. The image of the woman cutting off parts of her body points to a growing popularity among women of using cosmetic surgery to perfect their appearances. More generally, it also suggests the history of abuse that women have inflicted on themselves in the name of beauty.
In the final stanza the woman lies in a casket made up for public display. Her face has been “painted on” by the undertaker’s “cosmetics” and her “putty” nose has been “turned up.” She lies on “satin” dressed “in a pink and white nightie.” Everyone who comes to see her says, “Doesn’t she look pretty?” Ironically, she achieves “consummation at last.” “Consummation” in this context means literally to complete through perfection. The woman achieves in life what she could not in death.
The last two lines of the poem move beyond ironic expression and are rich in implication and scathing in intent. Piercy satirizes the traditional ending to many conventional fairy tales that conclude with the female protagonist living happily ever after with the consummation of marriage. Piercy subverts the traditional implication of sexual consummation to consummation in death. By sacrificing herself the woman finally receives the approval she had always wanted from others. The last line moves from the specific woman to women in general as Piercy concludes her poem: “to every woman a happy ending.” The irony is clear. The woman lying in her casket is made up to look just like a Barbie doll; even her nose has been turned up. The woman, however, no longer bears any resemblance to the person she was. She is made-up and false, and, just like a Barbie doll, lifeless and perfect.
In “Barbie Doll,” Piercy has found the perfect vehicle to express her anger and to criticize both women and the society they live in. By equating the woman in the poem with the image of the Barbie Doll and by using irony as a controlling device within the poem, the poet shows both the insidious way in which women are objectified as well as their own cooperative part in the process.
Source: Alice Van Wart, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2000.
Abercrombie, Nicholas, Stephen Hill and Bryan S. Turner, eds., Dictionary of Sociology, London: Penguin, 1984.
Doherty, Patricia, Marge Piercy: An Annotated Bibliography, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Duhamel, Denise, Kinky, Alexandria, VA: Orchises Press, 1997.
Edut, Ophira, ed., Adios, Barbie, Seattle: Seal Press, 1998.
Peabody, Richard and Lucinda Ebersole, eds., Mondo Barbie, New York: St. Martins Press, 1993.
Perrin, Robert, “‘Barbie Doll’ and ‘G.I. Joe’: Exploring Issues of Gender,” English Journal, Vol. 88, January, 1999, pp. 83-86.
Piercy, Marge, The Twelve-Spoked Wheel Flashing, New York: Knopf, 1978.
Shands, Kerstin W., The Repair of the World: The Novels of Marge Piercy, Wesport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1994.
Showalter, Elaine, “The Femininst Critical Revolution,” in Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature, and Theory, New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.
Strohmeyer, Sarah, Barbie Unbound: A Parody of the Barbie Obsession, Norwich, VT: New Victoria Publishers, 1997.
Walker, Sue, ed., Critical Essays on Marge Piercy, Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishers, 2000.
Lord, M.G., Forever Barbie, William Morrow and Co.: New York, 1994.
Lord’s examination of Barbie’s historical impact on U.S. culture and consumer society is the most complete published thus far. Lord provides a detailed examination of Barbie’s “roots” and traces her changes through the latter half of the twentieth century.
McDonough, Yona Zeldis, ed., The Barbie Chronicles, New York: Touchstone Books, 1999.
This anthology collects essays and poems about the plastic icon at the 40th anniversary of her creation. The best essays in this collection discuss Barbie as seen through the lenses of sexuality, gender, and race.
This collection of interviews, essays, and reviews provides a first-hand account of Piercy’s involvement with the women’s movement and her views on her own, as well as others’, poetry.
Varaste, Christopher, Face of the American Dream: Barbie Doll 1959-1971, Grantsville, MD: Hobby House Press, 1999.
This book is a fresh look at the early Barbie dolls as “time capsules of the past” that mirror popular culture. The fashion trends, make-up and hairstyles of the 60s are embodied in photographs of vintage Barbie dolls. Actual advertisements for beauty products are shown to document the fashionable trends of the period. The author points out the revolutionizing influences on the fashions and selects dolls that perfectly embody the various styles, giving us a first hand look at the changing American Dream.
Barbie, the 11-1/2 inch, full-figured plastic doll from Mattel, Inc., is among the most popular toys ever invented; by 1998 Mattel estimated that the average American girl between the ages of 3 and 11 owned ten Barbie dolls. Precisely because it is so popular, the Barbie doll has become more than just a toy: it has become a central figure in American debates about women's relationship to fashion, their independence in the workplace, their dependence on men, and their body image. Satirized by musicians and comedians, criticized by feminist scholars, and embraced by young children throughout the world, the Barbie doll exists both as a physical toy and an image of femininity. The physical attributes of the doll—its shape and its beauty—along with the myriad costumes and props available to it have been tied to some of the most fundamental questions about what makes a woman successful and what are the appropriate roles for women in American society.
The Barbie doll's creator, Ruth Handler, was inspired when she noticed her daughter creating imaginative teenage or adult lives for her paper dolls. Handler investigated whether there was an opportunity to produce a doll in the likeness of an adult for the toy market. She was well positioned to do so, for she and her husband Elliot ran Mattel, Inc., which they had founded with Harold Matson in 1945 to manufacture plastic picture frames. By the end of World War II, Mattel had found its niche in toy manufacturing with the Ukedoodle, a plastic ukelele. When Handler introduced her idea, many of her colleagues were skeptical. She kept the idea in the back of her mind, however. During a trip to Switzerland, Ruth encountered the Lilli doll and realized that she had found the kind of toy she had hoped to produce at Mattel.
Created in 1952, the Lilli doll was based on a comic character from the German publication Bild Zeitung and was an 111/2 inch, platinum-ponytailed, heavily made-up, full-figured doll, with high heels for feet. The Lilli doll had not been intended for children, but as an adult toy complete with tight sweaters and racy lingerie. Ruth Handler was not interested in the history of the doll's marketing, but rather in the doll's adult shape. Unable to produce a similar doll in the United States cost effectively, Mattel soon discovered a manufacturing source in Japan.
The Barbie doll was introduced at a unique time in history: a time when the luxury of fashionable attire had become available to more women, when roles for women were beginning to change dramatically, when the term "teenager" had emerged as a definition of the distinct period between childhood and adult life, and when teenagers had been embraced by television and movie producers as a viable target market. Mattel capitalized on these trends in American culture when it introduced the Barbie doll in 1959 as a teenage fashion model.
As a fashion toy, the Barbie doll seemed especially well suited to the era in which it was introduced. When Christian Dior introduced his New Look in 1947, he changed women's fashion from the utilitarian style demanded by shortages during World War II to an extravagant style that celebrated the voluptuousness of the female form. With the dramatic change in styles, high fashion soon gained popular interest. By the early 1950s, designers had broadened their clientele by licensing designs to department stores. In addition, beauty and fashion were featured on the first nationally televised Miss America Pageant in 1954. The Barbie doll, with its fashionable accessories, was one of the first dolls to present young girls with an opportunity to participate in the emerging world of fashion. Meticulously crafted outfits that mimicked the most desirable fashions of the time could be purchased for the doll. By 1961, the Barbie doll had become the best-selling fashion doll of all time.
Just as the fashions for the Barbie doll were new to the toy market, so was the age of the doll. Mattel's decision to market the Barbie doll as a teenager in 1959 made sense when juxtaposed against themes resonating in popular culture. Teenagers were just emerging as a distinct and interesting social group, as evidenced by the attention directed toward them. At least eight movies with the word "teenage" in the title were released between 1956 and 1961, including Teenage Rebel (1956), Teenage Bad Girl (1957), Teenagers from Outer Space (1959), and Teenage Millionaire (1961). During these same years, the Little Miss America pageant debuted, Teenbeat magazine began publication for a teenage readership, and teen idols like Fabian and Frankie Avalon made youthful audiences swoon. The Barbie doll fit well into the emerging social scene made popular by such trends. Marketed without parents, the Barbie doll allowed children to imagine the teenage world as independent from the adult world of family. Though by 1961, Barbie did have a little sister in the Skipper doll, the role of a sibling did not impose any limiting family responsibilities on the Barbie doll. Early on, the Barbie doll could be a prom date for the Ken doll (introduced in 1961 after much consumer demand) or outfitted for a sock hop. Unlike real teenagers though, the Barbie doll possessed a fully developed figure.
Though the teenage identity for the Barbie doll has persisted in some of Mattel's marketing into the late 1990s, shortly after the doll's introduction Mattel also marketed the doll as a young adult capable of pursuing a career. Indeed, Handler had imagined a three-dimensional doll that children could use to imagine their grown-up lives. The Barbie doll did not portray traditional young adulthood, however. Introduced during a period when most women stayed home to raise families, Mattel offered extravagant wedding dresses for the Barbie doll, but never marketed the Ken doll as a spouse. Children were left to choose the marital status of the doll. With no set family responsibilities, the Barbie doll was the first doll to allow young girls to imagine an unrestricted, single adult life. Mattel soon marketed Barbie as a nurse, an airline stewardess, and a graduate. The career choices for the doll captured a developing trend in American culture: the increase in female independence. As career opportunities for women broadened in the 1960s and 1970s, the Barbie doll fit well into the flux of American society. Within a decade of the doll's introduction, the career costumes available to the Barbie doll multiplied rapidly, faster at first than actual opportunities for women. The Barbie doll could be an astronaut (1965), a surgeon (1973), an Olympic athlete (1975), a veterinarian, a reporter, a doctor (1985), a UNICEF Ambassador (1989), a marine corps sergeant, presidential candidate (1992), a police officer (1993), and paleontologist (1997), to name a few.
As women embraced their new freedoms in the workplace, they also began to fear the effects of these freedoms on the family and femininity in general. Concerns about how a woman could balance the demands of a career and family became some of the most hotly debated topics in American society. Women's roles in popular television shows illustrated the debates. The stay-at-home mothers found in the characters of Harriet Nelson (The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, 1952-1966) and June Cleaver (Leave It to Beaver, 1957-1963) were replaced in the 1970s by the career women represented by Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda. The 1980s featured the single mother Murphy Brown, and the 1990s presented the successful lawyer Ally McBeal, a character who spent much of her time considering how difficult women's choices about career and family really are. Articles discussing the benefits of devoting oneself to a family or balancing a satisfying career with child rearing abounded in magazines like Working Mother, Parenting, and Parents.
In addition, as women grappled with their new roles in society, they began to question the role of physical beauty in their lives. In the 1950s, "the commodification of one's look became the basis of success," according to author Wini Breines in Young, White and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties. But by the 1960s and early 1970s, the basis of success was no longer beauty. During these decades, women began to enter (and finish) college in greater numbers. As these educated women pursued careers outside the home and postponed marriage and childbirth they began to challenge the role of conventional beauty in a woman's life: some burned their bras, others discarded their makeup, others stopped shaving their legs, and others began to wear pants to work. With the triumph of feminism, America no longer had a set ideal of beauty.
The Barbie doll had become was the doll of choice for little girls to use to imagine their own lives as adults. Just as critics worried about whether toy guns or the violence in popular television shows would make children violent, they began to wonder if (and how) the now ubiquitous Barbie doll influenced children's ideas about womanhood. The doll's characteristics mirrored many aspects of the debates about modern womanhood—it could have any career a child imagined, it could remain single or marry, and it was conventionally beautiful.
Regarding the Barbie doll as a toy to envision an adult life, young mothers, struggling to balance careers and parenthood, wondered if the independent Barbie doll oversimplified the choices available to young women. Without family ties, the doll seemed to deny girls practice at the difficult balancing act their mothers attempted daily. But supporters of the Barbie doll reasoned that just as children could decide whether the Barbie doll would "marry" they could also decide whether the Barbie doll would "have children." That Mattel did not define the doll as a mother or spouse was a gift of imaginative freedom for girls.
As women began to rethink the role of beauty in their lives some became conflicted about how a modern woman should shape or adorn herself to be attractive to the opposite sex and worried that if women obsessed over their looks they would neglect their minds. The Barbie doll, with its attractive face, silky hair, shapely body, and myriad beauty accessories, came under attack as promoting an obsession with "good" looks. Unlike the doll's family ties and career, children could not change the doll's physical attributes. Critics of the doll used the term "Barbie" to describe a beautiful but empty-headed woman. The former Baywatch actress Pamela Lee Anderson personified the struggle women had with regard to beauty and intellect. Anderson, who had dyed her hair blond and enhanced her breasts, resembled a living Barbie doll during her rise to fame. After achieving some success, she made news in 1999 when she removed her breast implants in order to be taken more seriously, according to some sources. Similarly, in the popular television show Ally McBeal, the character Georgia, with her shapely body and flowing blond hair, becomes so frustrated by people referring to her as "Barbie" that she cuts off her hair. Despite the negative connotation of the term "Barbie," some women find the type of beauty represented by the Barbie doll a source of female power and advocate the use of female beauty as an essential tool for success. Some have gone to extremes; a woman named Cindy Jackson, for instance, has had more than 20 operations and has spent approximately $55,000 to mold herself into the image of the Barbie doll. Regardless of the critics' arguments or the extreme cases, however, the number of articles in women and teen's magazines dedicated to beauty issues attest to the continuing cultural obsession with physical beauty.
For many, beauty and fashion are indelibly linked. With regard to fashion, the Barbie doll has been consistently in style. From the first Barbie dolls, Mattel took care to dress them in detailed, fashionable attire. In the early years, Barbie doll fashions reflected French designs, but as fashion trends shifted to other areas, the attire for the Barbie doll mimicked the changes. In the early 1970s, for example, the Barbie doll wore Mod clothes akin to those popularized by fashion model Twiggy. And throughout the years, gowns and glamorous accessories for gala events have always been available to the Barbie doll. Some observers note that the fashions of the Barbie doll trace fashion trends perfectly since 1959. While critics complain about the use of waifish runway models who do not represent "average" female bodies, they also complain about the Barbie doll's size. Some have criticized the dimensions of the Barbie doll as portraying an unattainable ideal of the female shape. Various magazines have reported the dimensions the Barbie doll would have if she were life-sized (39-18-33) and have noted that a real woman with Barbie doll dimensions would be unable to menstruate. Charlotte Johnson, the Barbie doll's first dress designer, explained to M.G. Lord in Forever Barbie that the doll was not intended to reflect a female figure realistically, but rather to portray a flattering shape underneath fashionable clothes. According to Lord, Johnson "understood scale: When you put human-scale fabric on an object that is one-sixth human size, a multi-layered cloth waistband is going to protrude like a truck tire around a human tummy…. Because fabric of a proportionally diminished gauge could not be woven on existing looms, something else had to be pared down—and that something was Barbie's figure."
Despite the practical reasons for the dimensions of the Barbie doll, the unrealistic dimensions of the doll have brought the strongest criticism regarding the doll's encouragement of an obsession with weight and looks. In one instance, the Barbie doll's accessories supported the criticism. The 1965 "Slumber Party" outfit for the Barbie doll came complete with a bathroom scale set to 110 pounds and a book titled How to Lose Weight containing the advice: "Don't Eat." The Ken doll accessories, on the other hand, included a pastry and a glass of milk. Convinced of the ill effects of playthings with negative images on children, Cathy Meredig of High Self Esteem Toys developed a more realistically proportioned doll in 1991. She believed that "if we have enough children playing with a responsibly proportioned doll that we can raise a generation of girls that feels comfortable with the way they look," according to the Washington Post. Her "Happy To Be Me" doll, which looked frumpy and had uneven hair plugs, did not sell well, however. The Barbie doll was introduced with a modified figure in 1999.
Throughout the years, the Barbie doll has had several competitors, but none have been able to compete with the glamour or the comprehensiveness offered by the Barbie doll and its accessories. The Barbie doll offers children an imaginary world of individual success and, as witnessed by the pink aisle in most toy stores, an amazing array of props to fulfill children's fantasies. By the early 1980s, the Barbie doll also offered these "opportunities" to many diverse ethnicities, becoming available in a variety of ethnic and racial varieties. Although sometimes criticized for promoting excessive consumerism, the Barbie doll and its plethora of accessories offer more choices for children to play out their own fantasies than any other toy on the market.
While some wish to blame the Barbie doll for encouraging young girls to criticize their own physical attributes, to fashion themselves as "Boy Toys," or to shop excessively, others see the doll as a blank slate on which children can create their own realities. For many the Barbie doll dramatizes the conflicting but abundant possibilities for women. And perhaps because there are so many possibilities for women at the end of the twentieth century, the Barbie doll—fueled by Mattel's "Be Anything" campaign—continues to be popular. By the end of the twentieth century, Mattel sold the doll in more than 150 countries and, according to the company, two Barbie dolls are sold worldwide every second.
Boy, Billy. Barbie: Her Life and Times. New York, Crown, 1987.
Barbie Millicent Roberts. Preface by Valerie Steele. Photographs by David Levinthal. New York, Pantheon, 1998.
Breines, Wini. Young, White and Miserable: Growing Up Female in the Fifties. Boston, Beacon Press, 1992.
Handler, Ruth, with Jacqueline Shannon. Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story. Stamford, Longmeadow, 1994.
Kirkham, Pat, editor. The Gendered Object. Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1996.
Lawrence, Cynthia. Barbie's New York Summer. New York, Random House, 1962.
Lord, M.G. Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. New York, William Morrow, 1994.
Riddick, Kristin. "Barbie: The Image of Us All" http://wsrv.clas.virginia.edu/~tsawyer/barbie/barb.html. May 1999.
Roberts, Roxanne. "At Last a Hipper Doll: Barbie May Face Ample Competition." Washington Post. August 13, 1991, D01.
Tosa, Marco. Barbie: Four Decades of Fashion, Fantasy, and Fun. New York, Abrams, 1998.
Weiss, Michael J. "Barbie: Life in Plastic, It's Fantastic … " http://www.discovery.com/area/shoulda/shoulda970922/shoulda.html. May 1999.
In 1959 the world of toys changed forever with the introduction of the Barbie (full name Barbara Millicent Roberts) doll at the American International Toy Fair in New York City. The doll proved to be popular with both children and adult collectors, and by 2000 annual sales of Barbie-related products reached $1.9 billion. In the same year Mattel was the fourth largest clothing manufacturer, and from 1959 to 1990 more than two thousand different styles and colors of shoes were available for Barbie. The average American girl owns ten Barbie dolls, and the dolls are sold worldwide. Every second two dolls are sold somewhere in the world (I, Doll 1996). In addition to sales of the dolls (Barbie, her friends, and her family members), a massive wardrobe, and various accessories, there have been Barbie television shows and films, games, video games, computer systems, and Web sites.
Adult collectors are numerous, buying and selling various generations of Barbie dolls, clothing, and accessories. For adults there are collectors' sites on the Internet, conventions, stores, and auctions.
The Barbie doll has maintained its popularity as a result of the regular updating of its hair, wardrobe, and accessories. For each generation since 1959 Barbie has served as a symbol of American popular culture. As both a doll and an icon Barbie is both loved and hated.
THE ORIGIN OF BARBIE
Created by Ruth Handler (1916–2002), the cofounder of the Mattel toy company, Barbie was the result of a convergence of two experiences. During a trip to Europe, Handler saw the Lili doll. A popular item in Germany among adult men, Lili was a young sexy single woman, often described as quasi-pornographic, who was sold dressed in lingerie or swimsuits. The Lili doll was an offshoot of a comic of the same name published in the newspaper Die Bild-Zeitung. Within a few years and with a few modifications, that doll intended for an adult male audience in Germany became one of the most popular toys for girls.
Handler's sighting of the Lili doll was fortuitous. She had wished her daughter could have a doll that was not an infant or a toddler but the type of young woman her daughter could become. Until that time the toy industry had offered dolls that encouraged girls to play "mother"; the dolls were babies or young children. Dolls representing adults were typically paper dolls. Handler wanted a three-dimensional doll with which her daughter could create a make-believe world of a teen or young adult woman, including the ability to dress the doll. Barbie was a doll that would allow young girls to utilize their imagination in regard to their future possibilities, to be more than mothers in playtime. Barbie was named for Handler's daughter, Barbara.
In addition to being the first mass-produced young-adult doll, Barbie represented a shift in the traditional marketing of toys. Rather than advertising to parents as the purchasers of their children's toys, Mattel focused its marketing effort on children and used television advertising to a great extent. As a result the company created a significant demand for its product.
THE EVOLUTION OF BARBIE
Barbie has evolved over time. A multitude of siblings and friends have been sold by Mattel, along with houses, cars, a recreational vehicle, and a wardrobe representing a plethora of careers. The basic body shape has not changed, however. If the doll were expanded to five feet ten inches in height, its measurements would be thirty-nine inches (bust), twenty-three inches (waist), and thirty-three inches (hips), and it would weigh 110 pounds.
Although Barbie had no eye color in 1959, within two years her eyes became and have remained blue. Although Barbie's eyes were set askance in the 1959 model, they focused farther forward and became wider over time. By the 1990s Barbie had become a doe-eyed innocent. The shape of Barbie's nose—small and upturned at the end—has not changed. She did not speak until 1967, the same year she was able to twist and turn (she was able to bend even more by the 1970s). Barbie smiled for the first time in 1971, the same year she first appeared with a tan. Although the hairstyle has changed to reflect the fashion of the day, she has remained a blonde since the 1960s.
Barbie's friends (by 1996 more than three dozen had been issued) reflect social change. Although her friends look a great deal like Barbie in body shape and general features, her friendship base became more diverse in 1967 with the introduction of the first African-American friend, "Colored Francie." That doll simply utilized the white features of the Francie doll with darker skin tones. In response to criticism, Mattel introduced Chrissy within a year. Chrissy's features more accurately represented her African heritage. Later additional African-American dolls were issued, as were Asian and Latina dolls (Miko in 1987, Teresa in 1988, and Nikki in 1989). In 1996 Mattel issued Becky, a paraplegic in a wheelchair. Unfortunately, Barbie's Dreamhouse remained inaccessible to Becky until the company redesigned the house in 2000.
BARBIE: FEMINIST IDEAL OR HARMFUL ROLE MODEL?
Some would argue that Barbie is and continues to be a positive toy for young girls. From this perspective Barbie represents a strong image of young womanhood. Each Barbie set revolves around an activity, a theme, or a career. Barbie has been an astronaut, a stewardess, and a ballerina. She also has been a veterinarian and in 1992 became a presidential candidate. Barbie has represented feminist aspirations for women as independent wage earners with positions equivalent to those of men. Girls who play with Barbie can imagine themselves as young adults pursuing those careers. Mirroring the increasing presence of women in the workforce, Barbie's career roles have evolved over time. Whereas she was outfitted as a nurse in 1961 (with Ken serving as the doctor), she was a physician in her own right by 1973.
Barbie represents more than career aspirations for young women. She is a single independent woman with many friends and a romantic interest (Ken, named for Handler's son, first appeared in 1961). Barbie has her own house and car, travels widely, and enjoys what appears to be a very busy social life. Her fashion tastes are impeccable, reflecting the latest styles from Hollywood and leading fashion designers.
Barbie also celebrates the athletic contribution of women, something that could encourage girls to see physical activity as normal for women. To this end Barbie has been a member of the World Cup women's soccer team and an Olympic champion swimmer. An advertising jingle from television commercials in the 1970s included the line "we girls can do anything" (I, Doll 1996).
Criticisms of Barbie focus on the body image the doll presents to girls. Because Barbie's proportions are replicated on the figures of her friends, for many feminists the dolls represent an impossible beauty standard. Because millions of girls play with the dolls as an example of young womanhood, they may believe that Barbie's good life (her friends, careers, and clothing) is connected with her appearance and size. Although Barbie is only one part of a young girl's exposure to the beauty ideal in popular culture, her ubiquitous image has a great impact on the development of body image ideas in young girls.
There is a general focus on appearance that detracts from the advances Barbie has made in her career path. Barbie's outfits, which correspond to her various careers, tend to focus on her physical appearance rather than her occupation. There are tight clothes, a short skirt on the business executive Barbie, and tight belts or sashes added to apparel (such as the sash added to the medical scrubs) that serve no practical purpose. Also, the focus on cos-metics and fashion downplays the significance of Barbie's career achievements.
In 1992 a Barbie doll line was equipped with a recorded voice. While Barbie extolled the typically female pursuit of consumerism ("Let's Go Shopping!"), she also exclaimed, "Math class is tough!" The American Association of University Women (AAUW) protested, fearing that this would enlarge the math and science gap experienced by girls in the American public school system. Taking the AAUW protest a step farther, a clandestine group known as the Barbie Liberation Organization (BLO) highlighted the gendered stereotypes reinforced by children's toys. The BLO purchased talking Barbie dolls, switched the voice track with that of G.I. Joe action figures, and returned the toys to the store. The toys were resold to consumers, who found their G.I. Joe dolls asking, "Will we ever have enough clothes?" and Barbie shouting, "Eat lead, Cobra!"
Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour. 2003. Directed by Susan Stern. San Francisco, CA: El Rio Productions.
I, Doll: The Unauthorized Biography of America's Sweetheart. 1996. Directed by Tula Asselanis. New York: Women Make Movies.
Lord, M. G. 1994. Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. New York: Morrow and Co.
McDonough, Yona Zeldis, ed. 1999. The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Julie L. Thomas
The origins of Barbie–the most popular doll in the world in the last half of the twentieth century–can be traced to Lilli, originally a Das Bild comic strip character of a saucy blonde, later produced as a pornographic doll popular among bachelors in postwar Germany. While on a trip to Europe, Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler discovered Lilli, the prototypical doll she believed would enable girls like her daughter, Barbie, to imagine their future selves in roles other than that of mothers. (Baby dolls dominated the postwar American toy market.) Male designers at Mattel modified the German sex toy into a teenage doll they encoded with the prevailing feminine ideals of both purity and prurience and a consumer culture ethos. The eleven-and-a-half inch Barbie doll and her extensive miniaturized haute couture wardrobe were marketed to stimulate consumer desire among America's youngest shoppers. In turn these shoppers proceeded to make Barbie the most successful product in the history of the toy industry.
Although one billion Barbie dolls had been sold by the early twenty-first century, the doll was not immediately popular with consumers and social critics. Controversy developed shortly after the doll's marketing debut in 1959 at the New York Toy Fair. Mattel's claims about the doll's "educational value" did not convince many mothers at the time who detested the doll's exalted femininity and scandalous sexuality. Barbie's seductive figure, suggestive look, and provocative wardrobe designed to attract the attention of men like her boyfriend Ken led feminists to condemn the doll for its sexual objectification of women. Social critics denounced the doll's materialism–as exemplified by her lavish lifestyle and shopping sprees–and the slavish consumerism it fostered in daughters of hard-working breadwinners. Although Barbie changed with the times from fashion model to career woman, many still pointed to the preoccupation with body image in girls whose beauty ideal was defined by Barbie's unrealistic physique. (She would be ten feet tall if she were real.) On the other hand, scholars and others have shown that girls and boys, children as well as adults, play with Barbie dolls in ways that contest gendered norms.
As a quintessential icon of American femininity, the Barbie doll has served as the focus of countless satirical artistic works, many of which, like The Distorted $arbie website, Mattel has tried to censor. A Barbie doll starred in Superstar (1987), a movie by Todd Haynes that traced the anorexic life and death of singer Karen Carpenter. The iconic Barbie has been printed on faux prayer cards and has been crucified on the cross. In 1993, the Barbie Liberation Organization switched the voice boxes of three hundred Barbies with those of G.I. Joes, leading the Barbies to bellow, "Eat lead, Cobra! Vengeance is mine!" and the perky G.I. Joes to chirp: "Let's go shopping!"
By the early twenty-first century the average American girl between the ages of three and eleven was said to own ten Barbie dolls (purchased at a rate of two Barbies every second). However, a high-priced market developed for the dolls among adult collectors. Among the numerous collectors and dealers who specialized in Barbie dolls, the Barbie Hall of Fame in Palo Alto, California, with its ten thousand Barbies, was the largest collection in the world.
See also: Girlhood; Toys; Theories of Play.
Boy, Billy. 1987. Barbie: Her Life and Times. New York: Crown.
Lord, M. G. 1994. Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. New York: William Morrow.
McDonough, Yona Zeldis, ed. 1999. The Barbie Chronicles: A Living Doll Turns Forty. New York: Touchstone.
Since the Mattel corporation introduced Barbie in 1959, the doll's relation to fashion, sex, femininity, and cultural values has been a subject of spin control, change, and controversy.
Early official accounts of Barbie's beginnings emphasized the desire of Ruth Handler, Mattel's cofounder, to produce a three-dimensional version of the paper fashion dolls her daughter, Barbara, loved. But Barbie's body actually originated elsewhere: with a German character named Lilli, who appeared in cartoon and doll form primarily as a sexpot plaything for adult men. Mattel bought all the rights and patents required to remove Lilli from that context of meaning and turned her into Barbie, the "shapely teenage Fashion Model!" announced in early catalogs.
Changes followed soon after the doll's launch, as Mattel worked to gear Barbie's persona to sales and supplementary products. In a 1961 television ad, Barbie, although still described as a fashion model, had acquired a school life, a boyfriend, and outfits for activities ranging from school lunches to frat parties: "Think of the fun you'll have taking Barbie and Ken on dates, dressing each one just right." The ad's invitation to "see where the romance will lead" illustrated Barbie's dreamy future by showing her in a wedding dress, a costume that would recur in many subsequent versions. Other outfits to come included the latest in formal wear, casual attire, sports gear, and lingerie. Many fashions were modeled after the work of contemporary designers. Sometimes Mattel enlisted designers directly, especially for the high-end offerings later created to cash in on the ever-increasing traffic in Barbie collectibles. Like designer Bob Mackie's 1991 "Limited Edition Platinum Barbie," these sometimes sold for up to several hundred dollars each.
Careers and Colors
Over the years, too, Barbie saw expanding options in one type of costume that would generate praise, humor, doubt, and derision: the career outfit. In the early 1960s, Barbie's career identities were primarily traditionally female, like nurse; largely unattainable, like astronaut; or both, like ballerina. Barbie had less work, ironically, during the burgeoning of popular feminism in the 1970s.
Her career life took off in the mid-1980s, however, with the Day-to-Night Barbie line. Its first incarnation presented Barbie as an executive, whose pink suit could be transformed into evening wear. She came with the slogan "We Girls Can Do Anything," a catchphrase relevant also to the range of careers that Barbie adopted into the 1990s, which included doctor, veterinarian, UNICEF ambassador, rock star, rap musician, teacher, chef, Marine Corps sergeant, and professional basketball player for the WNBA.
Besides addressing concerns about whether a girl with few apparent interests other than fashion, fun, and spending a vast amount of cash on clothes, cars (like the Barbie Ferrari), and real estate (like the famed Barbie Dream House) provided a good role model, career Barbies suited an important change in Mattel's marketing strategy. Initially, Mattel wanted consumers to supplement their first Barbie with outfits, accessories, and other characters such as Ken and Midge, Barbie's close yet distinctly
unglamorous friend. In fact, the promotion for the 1967 Twist 'N Turn Barbie even offered a trade-in deal. Later, promotions became geared to the purchase of multiple Barbies. In 1992, for example, a Barbie owner interested in the rapper outfit had to buy Rappin' Rockin' Barbie, or four of them to get each of the different boom boxes. Another trend sponsored by Mattel that catered simultaneously to sales and social consciousness was the increase in Barbies of color and Barbies representing countries outside the United States. Changing statistics about how many Barbies the "average child" owns suggest Mattel's success at shifting multiple acquisitions to Barbie herself, with the number climbing from seven to ten over the course of the 1990s.
With Barbie's popularity has come increasing controversy, both about Barbie's (unrecyclable) plastic body and about the flesh to which it does, or does not, refer. To a number of critics, Barbie represents shallow feminism, focused primarily on individual success and fulfillment, and Barbie's world looks like diversity lite, peopled by innumerable white, blond Barbies, unquestionably front and center, and a much smaller number of Barbies who look like white Barbies with skin and hair dye jobs. Detractors have advanced other arguments as well: that Mattel's restriction of Barbie's dating life to boys adds yet another set of cultural narratives guiding young people to see heterosexuality as the desired, perhaps required, norm; that Barbie's impossible-to-attain proportions contribute to cultural ideals of beauty that invite self-loathing and unhealthy eating practices; and that Barbie promotes an undue focus on looks in general. Why give a girl Soccer Barbie (1999) instead of a soccer ball?
Yet as other commentators have noted, Barbie has generated a lot of play far from Mattel's official sponsorship. Mattel's WNBA Barbie may not emerge from the box with the characteristic butch flair displayed by many of her charming human counterparts, but in the hands and minds of many consumers, Barbie has been butched out, turned out, fixed up with diverse sex mates, and, of course, undressed; for a doll whose wardrobe forms the centerpiece of her reputation, she spends quite a lot of time naked. Then again, for some critics, this is Mattel's fault, too. People who like to imagine children as innocent of sexual desires have accused the company of turning their children's minds to sex with its bigbreasted adult doll. Others, conversely, have mourned what Mattel couldn't do: inspire femininity in their daughters or distaste in insufficiently truck-minded sons.
Object of Attention
From all these diverse uses and assessments of Barbie, one certainty emerges. Barbie remains an object of attention, fascination, and, of course, purchase. Whatever her influence has been—and surely it has varied among individuals and over time—she has successfully convinced many of her importance as a symbol of femininity, as a catalyst for fantasy, and as a marker and agent of cultural values.
BillyBoy. Barbie: Her Life and Times. New York: Crown Publishers, 1987. Excellent source of fashion study and illustrations.
Du Cille, Ann. Skin Trade. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996. Critical issues including race.
Lord, M. G. Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. New York: Morrow and Company, 1994. History.
Rand, Erica. Barbie's Queer Accessories. Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press, 1995. History, consumers, subversions.
The Barbie doll is the best selling fashion doll of all time. By 1998, Mattel Inc., the producer of the doll, estimated that the average American girl between the ages of three and eleven owned ten Barbie dolls. More than just a toy, the Barbie doll has become an American cultural icon (a symbol of American culture).
The Barbie doll's status as an icon stems from its use as a model for young girls' real life hopes and dreams for their own adult lives. Debates rage over whether or not the doll is an appropriate role model for girls in discussions about women's relationship to fashion, their independence in the workplace, their interactions with men, and their body image. The doll has been made fun of by musicians and comedians and criticized by feminist scholars. But despite any controversy, children throughout America and the world have embraced the doll.
The Barbie doll's creator, Ruth Handler (1916–2002), developed the doll after noticing her daughter, Barbara, creating imaginative teenage and adult lives for her paper dolls. Backed by Mattel, the successful toy company Ruth ran with her husband Elliot, Ruth introduced the first Barbie doll at the 1959 New York Toy Fair. It was the first American doll sold as a "teenage fashion model."
The emphasis on fashion and the "age" of the doll were unique to the toy world at the time. The Barbie doll celebrated high fashion and offered young girls an opportunity to participate in the emerging world of fashion that was being covered by women's magazines. Mattel offered finely sewn outfits that copied the most desirable fashions of the time. Unlike baby dolls, the 111⁄2-inch Barbie doll had full breasts, a tiny waist, and curvy hips. The fashionable outfits draped beautifully over the doll's curves, but some critics worried that young girls who played with the doll would develop unrealistic images about how their own bodies should look. The controversy over this issue has not faded over the more than forty years of the doll's history.
While the teenage fashion model identity for the Barbie doll remains, the doll has also been marketed as an adult capable of pursuing a career. Introduced during a period when most women stayed home to raise families, Mattel offered glamorous wedding dresses for the Barbie doll, but it also created dolls and accessories to allow young girls to imagine an adult life separate from raising a family. In the 1960s, children could dress Barbie as a doctor, a nurse, and an airline flight attendant. Within a decade of the doll's introduction, the career costumes available for the Barbie doll multiplied rapidly, faster at first than actual opportunities for women did. When the first men walked in space in 1965, Mattel introduced Barbie Astronaut, long before women were able to join the U.S. space program. The Barbie doll could also be a surgeon (1973); an Olympic athlete (1975); a veterinarian, a reporter; a United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) ambassador (1989); an army, air force, navy, or marine corps recruit (1989, 1990, 1991, 1992); a police officer (1993); a paleontologist (1997); and a presidential candidate (2000), to name a few.
The pink aisle in most toy stores provides an immediate example of the choices a Barbie doll offers children to play out their individual fantasies. Although sometimes criticized for promoting excessive purchasing, the Barbie doll and its many accessories offer more choices for children than does any other toy on the market.
Though the first Barbie dolls were all Caucasian, by the early 1980s, the Barbie doll was also offered in a growing variety of ethnicities, beginning with black and Hispanic Barbie dolls. The Dolls of the World Collection included over fifty countries by 2001.
While some critics wish to blame the Barbie doll for encouraging young girls to criticize their own physical attributes, to obsess about making themselves appealing to men, or to shop excessively, others see the doll as a blank slate on which children can create their own realities. For many, the Barbie doll dramatizes the conflicting but abundant possibilities for women. Perhaps because there are so many possibilities for American women at the end of the twentieth century, the Barbie doll—fueled by Mattel's "Be Anything" campaign—continues to be popular. Mattel sold the doll in more than 150 countries by the end of the twentieth century. According to Mattel, two Barbie dolls are sold worldwide every second.
For More Information
Barbie Millicent Roberts. Preface by Valerie Steele. Photographs by David Levinthal. New York: Pantheon, 1998.
Barbie.com.http://www.barbie.com (accessed February 26, 2002).
Boy, Billy. Barbie!: Her Life and Times, and the New Theater of Fashion. New York: Crown, 1987.
Handler, Ruth, with Jacqueline Shannon. Dream Doll: The Ruth HandlerStory. Stamford, CT: Longmeadow, 1994.
Lord, M. G. Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. New York: William Morrow, 1994.
Riddick, Kristin. Barbie: The Image of Us All.http://wsrv.clas.virginia.edu/~tsawyer/barbie/barb.html (accessed February 26, 2002).
Tosa, Marco. Barbie: Four Decades of Fashion, Fantasy, and Fun. New York: Abrams, 1998.
During the 1950s Ruth Handler, one of the owners of the Mattel Toy Company, noticed her daughter putting dresses on her paper dolls and got the idea for making a three-dimensional fashion doll that girls could dress and undress. Mattel introduced their new doll, named Barbie after Ruth Handler's daughter, at the 1959 American Toy Fair in New York City. Barbie was popular with girls right away, though some parents worried that she looked too sexy for a child's toy. The first Barbie came wearing a black and white striped bathing suit. Soon, dozens of outfits were available for her, including a bridal gown, tennis dress, and ballerina costume. Although Barbie was marketed as a "teenage fashion model," she had many of the clothes of the ideal 1950s housewife, such as a crisp party apron for cooking and entertaining, and a fashionable Paris gown. Within the next few years, Mattel introduced Ken, Barbie's boyfriend; Midge, her best friend; and Skipper, her little sister. Each had a variety of fashionable outfits.
Barbie's image has changed frequently over the years, in an effort to keep up with changing clothing styles and the changing image of womanhood. During the 1960s she wore stylish designer suits like those worn by First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy (1929–1994), as well as miniskirts and white go-go boots. During the 1970s the clothes for "Barbie and Ken Superstars" fit right in with the glitz and glamour of the decade. By the 1980s women's liberation had affected society's view of women, and girls could choose from a wide variety of careers for Barbie, such as doctor, police officer, or astronaut, all with appropriate outfits. The eighties also saw the introduction of ethnic Barbies, such as Black, Latin, and Asian Barbie dolls. Feminists grew angry with Barbie again in the 1990s when "Teen Talk" Barbie said things like, "Math is tough," which seemingly insulted the intelligence of a woman.
Even Barbie's face and body have changed with the styles. The first Barbie dolls had heavily made-up eyes that looked to the side, but by 1961 she had a more natural look, and her big, blue eyes looked straight out. Early Barbie dolls had feet molded in permanent tiptoes for wearing high heels, but by the 1980s a Barbie with more natural feet was available. Many people had criticized Barbie's figure as being impossible for a real woman, so in 1999 Mattel introduced a doll with a more realistic shape. Like the changes in her fashions, these changes reflected the changing look of women through the decades, evolving from the made-up and glamorous look of the 1950s to the more natural look of the 1990s.
BARBIE DOLL. Perhaps the most famous name in doll-making history, Barbie has delighted children since 1959, and has become a magnet for doll collectors. The brainchild of Ruth and Elliot Handler, Barbie was modeled after a German doll, Lilli, a shapely, pretty fashion doll first made in 1955. Made of molded plastic with her hair pulled back into a ponytail, she was available in either 11.5-inch or 7-inch heights.
The idea for Barbie originated when Ruth Handler, part owner of the Mattel company with her husband Elliot and family friend Harold Mattson, noticed that her daughter, Barbara, enjoyed playing with adult female dolls more than with baby dolls. She decided, therefore, to create a doll that would allow young girls to envision what they might become as they grew older.
Her creation, named in honor of daughter Barbara and backed by Mattel, debuted at the American Toy Fair in New York City in 1959. Although Mattel had been hesitant to risk producing the Barbie doll, Barbie set a new sales record for Mattel after the first year on the market. At a cost of three dollars each, Mattel sold 351,000 dolls during the first year of production, and within ten years, the public had purchased $500 million worth of Barbie products.
The first Barbie featured a ponytail hairstyle, black and white zebra-striped bathing suit, open-toed shoes, sunglasses, and earrings, and also featured various accessories and clothing styles created by the fashion designer Charlotte Johnson. Over the years, Barbie has been joined by family and friends, beginning with boyfriend Ken, named after the Handler's son, Kenneth, in 1961; sister Skipper in 1965; and Becky, Barbie's friend, in a wheelchair, in 1997.
Over the years, Barbie has undergone various cosmetic alterations, including a change to reflect criticism that Barbie reinforced sexism by representing a young woman with questionable intelligence and a sculpted physique. Over the years, Barbie has appeared as a doctor, UNICEF volunteer, athlete, and businesswoman, and has enjoyed universal appeal as a collector's item.
Melillo, Marcie. The Ultimate Barbie Doll Book. Iola, Wis.: Krause Publications, 1996.
Valenti, Keni. Barbie Dolls. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1999.
See alsoToys and Games .