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Being Barbie: An Unrealistic Ideal and a Feminist Icon

Barbie is a plastic children's doll created by Ruth Handler of Mattel, Inc.
Barbie is a plastic children's doll created by Ruth Handler of Mattel, Inc. By Nayeli Cardozo
By Claire S. Elliott, Contributing Writer

On April 4, the new movie trailer for “Barbie” dropped, and internet mayhem ensued. Starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, the movie sets out to explore what happens when plastic children’s doll and global icon Barbie has an existential crisis and must leave Barbie Land. The film is written by Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, the director of “Little Women” and both director and writer of “Lady Bird.” Gerwig is directing “Barbie” with Harvard graduate David J. Heyman ’83 and Margot Robbie as the primary producers.

Part of the excitement around the “Barbie” movie arises not only from the stellar cast, but also from the controversy surrounding Barbie herself. The plastic doll, created by Ruth Handler of Mattel, Inc., received great criticism after her release. Both feminists and conservatives disliked her for her oversexualized and unrealistic body, based on an eroticized German doll called Bild Lilli. Over time, more versions of Barbie have evolved to counter these objections. For instance, after her initial launch, Mattel added babysitting accessories for Barbie in order to make her appear more motherly. More recently, Barbies are available in “Petite,” “Athletic,” “Curvy,” and “Original” sizes with a variety of skin colors.

Barbie, like any insanely popular consumer good, can both cement cultural ideals and reflect their changes. However, Barbie is for children, not adult consumers. While some standards may help young girls, many certainly harm them. The most damaging consequences arise from the body expectations that Barbie reinforces.

According to Margo Maine, a clinical psychologist and founder of the National Eating Disorders Association, in her book “Body Wars: Making Peace with Women's Bodies (An Activist's Guide), ” Barbie would be 5’9”, wear a size three shoe size, and have 39”-18”-33” measurements. In the “Slumber Party Barbie” kit, she came with a bathroom scale permanently reading 110 lbs. “Babysitter Barbie,” on the other hand, carried a book called “How to Lose Weight.” Inside the book were the words: Don’t Eat. In fact, at her current weight and height, Barbie would have a body mass index of 16.2, making her severely underweight and likely anorexic.

Research by Developmental Psychology, a peer-reviewed academic journal, revealed that girls from ages three to eight who were given the “original Barbie” had lower self-esteem and more body image issues than girls who had no Barbie at all. While such expectations can fade with time when girls become women and realize that the Barbie body is entirely unrealistic and unattainable for anyone, those standards often imperceptibly linger.

Although Barbie can be seen as a feminist figure for young girls, her commercial success may be correlated with her thinness. In a study by Jennifer A. Harriger in 2010, preschool girls were presented with game pieces that were thin, average-weight, and fat to be their avatars in a game. The results reveal that there is a statistically significant preference for thin body types as young as the age of three.

Worse yet, the girls’ inclinations are not necessarily wrong. It is easier for women to succeed when they are thin. Jennifer Shinall, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt’s Law School, found that overweight and obese women are less likely to get personal interaction occupations, and even when they do, they are paid 5 percent less than their thinner female counterparts.

These painful statistics are not Barbie’s fault. Blaming her for America’s social problems would just be blaming another female figure for standards she did not create. Nevertheless, despite Mattel’s attempts to diversify body type and race within their dolls, Barbie still reflects and enforces those harmful ideals.

Perhaps what is more interesting than the development of Barbie over time is the evolution of women’s relationships with Barbie. According to the same study by Developmental Psychology, girls of older age groups tend to torture Barbie rather than play with her. Such aggression includes hitting Barbie against walls, decapitating her, and burning her in a “humorous” and “rebellious” manner.

Sometimes, this anger dissipates and Barbie is long forgotten. Other times, Barbie regains her position as a sexually forward fashion idol. The toy has more recently inspired a “Barbiecore” movement — celebrities such as Kylie Jenner, Megan Fox, and Hailey Bieber have dressed in all pink to emulate the doll. The trend has gained popularity since photos from the “Barbie” movie have been released.

Many of the celebrities participating in the Barbiecore trend somewhat resemble Barbies: They are often thin, gorgeous, and white. However, the Barbiecore movement has also empowered people of different races, body types, and genders. Other celebrities have aimed to embody Barbie long before Margot Robbie’s role. Nicki Minaj, in particular, was the Barbiecore icon of the 2010s. Who can forget “Black Barbies,” “Barbie Tingz,” and the entire “The Pinkprint” album? In each song, Minaj celebrates her personal, professional, and sexual power with no submission or apology. She reclaims Barbie, and, as a result, redefines the meaning of Barbie — anyone can be Barbie, as long as they are confident, economically independent, and dressed in pink.

Gerwig’s new movie seems to strive for a similarly empowering message. Actresses like Issa Rae, Emma Macney, and Nicole Coughland play the president,a Nobel Prize winner in physics, and a diplomat respectively alongside Robbie as Barbie on screen. Ryan Gosling as Ken is also more than just the absurdly chiseled himbo; Simu Lu and Kinsley Ben Adir become Barbie’s boyfriend’s accessories, providing a more diverse representation of Ken besides the blond-haired, blue-eyed male doll. Even fans can partake in the excitement; anyone can visit to photoshop themselves into the fantastic Barbie poster.

The trailer for “Barbie” seems to imply that more body diversity will be incorporated into Barbie Land: Although the trailer doesn’t indicate that cellulite will appear in Barbie Land, it does suggest that lacking cellulite does not make Barbie’s life satisfying or successful. Living in a perfect body in a perfect world does not mean that she is perfect, or perfectly happy. Why else would the plastic beauty leave Barbie Land in an “existential crisis?”

Robbie, who has recently played other blond, female characters on the big screen such as Harley Quinn and Tonya Harding, said in a 2020 interview with “The Hollywood Reporter” that the new Barbie was “the thing you didn’t know you wanted.”

Hopefully, the movie, which is set to release on July 21, will upend girls’ expectations and allow those who have grown up with Barbie to discover a more empowering purpose.

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