Barbie: Mind over Mattel?

Olivia Retter writes of the bold female aspirations behind her childhood Barbie

Photo: flickr

Barbie was a childhood friend. A sizeable collection of doll-related paraphernalia lies under a pile of dust in my parents’ house. ‘Beach Barbie’ was a favourite, accompanied by ‘witch Barbie’ and a special edition fairy Barbie with real wings who was a real hit one Christmas. I dressed them in matching Sailor Moon dresses and spent hours using household appliances to build the optimal dream-house.

Post-childhood, my perception of Barbie shifted. She became a concept rather than a playmate. I frequently scrolled past viral tumblr posts about a real-life Barbie having to “walk on all fours”. I realised that, as a mid-height white girl with blonde hair, I had simply accepted her as my doll-sized equivalent. I saw Barbie as the average, relatable woman. I now noticed how similar her fairy-wings were to those worn by Victoria’s Secret Angels.

This summer I visited the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, which hosted the first exhibition dedicated to Mattel’s iconic creation in a French museum. I ascended the temporarily magenta-toned steps, unsure of what to expect.

The mainstream criticisms of Barbie were brought to the forefront as I entered the exhibition. Mass-produced renditions of her familiar blonde, plastic figure lined the walls.The problems with Barbie resonate far beyond the doll herself. Mainstream media is far from diverse. It is not difficult to feel that failure to emulate Barbie’s life-size equivalents entails failure to meet the norm.

A section of the exhibition was dedicated to fashion, and seemed somewhat ironic. Miniature Barbie designs by Dior, Armani and Oscar de la Renta appeared alongside pieces from Jeremy Scott’s life size Barbie-themed collection for Moschino. The items of clothing were pieces of art, but ones which emphasised the prominence of fashion’s typically Barbie-esque muse.

The exhibition made sure to highlight the social progress that has been made. Earlier this year a redesigned Barbie appeared on the cover of Time. She now comes in ‘curvy’, ‘tall’, and ‘petite’, as well as ‘original’. She comes in eight different skin colours. She has hair colours other than blonde. A step in the right direction, but a small one.

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The aspect that most surprised me was how far removed Barbie’s ultimate impact seemed from the intentions of her creator. I was drawn to a selection of 1950s baby dolls dressed in what appeared to be period costume, leading up to a floor-to-ceiling black and white photograph of Ruth Handler, a founder of Mattel and the driving force behind the invention of Barbie. Bored of paper dolls and plastic babies, Handler was determined to manufacture a young woman for girls to play with, who would represent their aspirations for their future lives. She convinced Mattel’s all-male group of directors to help make her dream creation a reality.

At the time of her launch in 1959, Barbie was a stark contrast to typical female roles. Barbie lived independently of any family setting, far removed from any depictions of wives and mothers. In the years that have elapsed since her creation, she has had over 150 different jobs. The exhibition made a point of emphasising that in 1965 Barbie was the first American to reach the moon, beating Neil Armstrong by three years. Who knows—perhaps she has an Oxford degree too.

The nod to Ken was notably small. He is aptly captioned “a necessary accessory in order to create romantic stories, and not a dominant or decision-making masculine figure”. A humorous addition to the story was the more recent introduction of ‘Blaine’, Ken’s romantic rival. His purpose was to encourage Ken to modernise and up his game to meet Barbie’s high standards.

By contrast, an entire wall displayed Barbie’s network of family and friends, the majority female. The message was clear: Barbie is ambitious, successful, and loved. Handler clearly hoped this would spark confidence in Barbie’s young owners that they would too be ambitious, successful and loved.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can see that many children and adult women cannot see themselves in the image of Barbie like I did as a child. But the value of Hander’s message, and the aspirations she dreamt nearly 60 years ago resonate with my adult self. Barbie is no mere blank canvas.