Life in plastic, it’s fantastic. At least it is according to “Barbie Girl,” the 1997 hit from pop group Aqua. The song, for those who are unfamiliar, includes startling PG-13 lyrics such as “You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere,” and “I’m a blond bimbo girl in a fantasy world.” In 2002, Barbie’s manufacturer, Mattel, sued MCA Records for allegedly violating the Barbie trademark and turning Barbie into a bimbo sex object. The case was eventually dropped, but Barbie’s image was being increasingly criticized, not only by Danish-Norwegian eurodance pop groups, but also skeptical mothers and women’s rights advocates who questioned the impact the doll’s image has on little girls.
In one of my classes this semester, we read and analyzed a piece by Canadian writer Marni Jackson, titled Gals and Dolls: The Moral Value of “Bad” Toys.
The core of the article examines the role of Barbie, and instead of incriminating Barbie as a sexist, demeaning image against women, the author suggests that the idea of sexism through Barbie is something that adults influence, and not necessarily the ideas that cross through children. Children use toys, such as Barbie dolls, to act out and express their ideas and feelings as they grow up and learn the ways of the world. Barbie’s first and foremost important career, in my opinion, has and always will be play therapist.
When I was young, I was an avid Barbie enthusiast. I had a lot of fun creating different scenarios to play out with Barbie (and her associates) as my actresses. If I had a bad day at school, I could rewrite a better script and pretend it never happened. From cutting her hair to hand sewing new outfits for the doll, I kept myself busy as a kid. If Barbie influenced a negative body image to my subconscious, I was never aware of it.
In her article, published in 1991, Jackson points out that Barbie, despite adversity, has stood strong on plastic legs since the moment she was assembled in her factory, limb by limb. Why? Because girls like her.
“But little girls are not pushovers. They know what they like and they like Barbie. Now 31 years old (but ever ageless and firm of chin), Barbie has triumphed over pedagogy, to the tune of over $500 million annually. 98 percent of Canadian girls aged four to ten have a Barbie—or four—in their bedrooms. Like Coca-Cola, she has insinuated her hourglass, bottle-shaped self into 67 countries around the world.”
Jackson also challenges the idea of things being good or bad, and how everything is a matter of perception. The concept of good toys or bad toys really depends on whose lens you’re looking through—a little girl with a cleaner slate may have a completely different view on Barbie than her adult counterpart, who is well aware of all the body image struggles women face daily. Of course, as with many complex issues such as women and body image, the problem is multi-faceted and could never be nailed down to a single factor, like playing with a doll with an unreasonable waistline.
In an anecdote about a pair of purple “girl” rubber boots, Jackson asks if, somehow, little girls are quickly privy to an imbalance of the sexes in the world, and feel the need for concrete, gender identification as a result.
“Girls’ sense of pink and blueness also seems more acute,” writes Jackson, “more precious, although I base this only on the fact that I bought my son some plain but purplish boots that year. They didn’t bother him until he came home one day and announced he couldn’t wear them because they were “girls’ boots.” Who had decreed this? “The girls in my room.”
The other day, while scrolling though the deep dark sidebar of related YouTube videos, I came across a channel called the Checkout that discusses consumer issues, and I watched a segment on gendered marketing. Even though it’s an Australian channel, they examine many North American products such as Barbie and Lego.
Manufacturers divide their products, whether it’s toys for kids or soap for adults, to be gender-specific. For example, “Lego Friends” targeted at girls, tripled the amount of girls using Lego and scored the company a 25 percent increase in global revenue. When Dove started selling men’s products, they realized they needed to compensate for their “girly” logo, so they added Men +Care in capital letters and coloured the background a “masculine” shade of grey.
Maybe Jackson is right with her instinct that girls’ sense of pink is more acute than boys’ need for gender identity, although both sexes, at any age, seem to like being told which product is suitable for them.
I’m happy that playing with Barbie never triggered me to become a maxed out credit card shopaholic, and I’m equally content that I’ve never had a boyfriend who drove a tank instead of car, even if I can’t promise I’m impermeable to gender marketing whilst browsing the toiletries aisle.