Barbie as an Online Tool of Consumer Culture
The appearance of the fashion doll Barbie has visually changed since her earliest incarnations. During the 1950s and 60s, Barbie was originally modeled upon a German ‘adult’ cartoon image with slanted eyes, a highly stylized image, and ‘merry widow’ corset proportions. Today, Barbie looks more like a fun, California girl-next-door, with a tan, platinum hair and a broad, friendly smile. Today’s Barbie looks younger and more accessible. Yet she still exists as an idealized version of womanhood for young girls, even though her image has slightly softened become more girlish. Before Barbie, so-called ‘fashion’ dolls did not exist — dolls usually resembled little girls or babies. Barbie was inspirational and supposedly marketed to children so they could play at what they wanted to become, rather than what their mothers wanted them to become (Bindel 2008). However, many of the same women who played with their first Barbies purchased Barbie dolls for their own little girls, showing their approval of the Barbie image and aesthetic. Even though little girls may ask for Barbie, it is mothers who buy the doll for their children. Barbie is marketed today to both adults and children, because of the appealing ideal of femininity she embodies.
Barbie is often though of being primarily concerned with fashion, cars, and looking attractive in a mature, adult fashion. However, even early Barbies came dressed as nurses and fashion designers, as part of the accessory collections that could be bought for the doll (Buffamonte, 2008). Today, Barbie dolls surf, ride bikes, and engage in other ‘normal’ girl pastimes, as well as works as a professional. Barbie is a ‘half-pipe pixie’ on the ski slopes as well as a pretty veterinarian. On the “Everything girl” Barbie, Mattel-created website, there is a stronger emphasis on girlish images of Barbie than existed in the past. Instead of a haughty fashion doll, Barbie is also a tomboy and a schoolgirl next-door, rather than a contender for being in the pages of Vogue.
The Mattel website as a whole presents an array of different types of Barbies: Barbie the fairy princess and Barbie the computer engineer. Girls can play online games and watch videos of Barbie as a mermaid and watch videos showing Barbie on the slopes. Although the Internet was initially feared as a potential rival for hands-on playthings like Barbie, Mattel has used its websites to extend the world of Barbie online, and capitalized upon its resources. There is a different Barbie for every girl, or a girl can access many different ‘Barbies’ and sides of herself online.
Engagement in the online world can take a variety of forms, as a participant in games, as a spectator of videos, and as a consumer purchasing dolls online. Most of these games are not competitive, however, but involve dressing the Barbie doll or decorating her rooms. Like the doll itself, the games are ornamental in purpose. Also, the online world is also limiting: it not only prescribes a specific type of femininity, but also a specific way of playing with a highly feminine doll. There is an illusion of choice, conveyed through the process of surfing the net: children can even vote on what new doll style will be ‘released’ in the Barbie ‘I can beâ€¦’ series (voters online chose a newscaster and a computer engineer). However, all of the professional images of Barbie are highly feminine and all wear pink, fashionable clothing.
The online world presents an image of choice, but every ‘choice’ is stamped with the current image of Barbie. Barbie is more sporty and professional than previously, but is still demonstrably ‘Barbie’ in a way that prescribes a certain type of play to the child. The presence of an online world can be intensely limiting to a child’s imagination because it subtly controls how the girl ‘should’ play with Barbie. Rather than creating her own storyline, which might be more daring and imaginative, the girl is confined to a relatively ‘pink’ world of pretend. Girls can ‘hang out’ with Barbie and pick a variety of ‘pretend’ clothing and other accessories for the doll’s digital image. Even though this is also true of boy’s toys, unlike boy’s games which involve some participation and action, Barbie’s online games and suggested ways of playing with Barbie are completely passive, and simply involve shopping for more clothes and accessories. The games are often about acquisition, such as creating a new wardrobe or decorating Barbie’s room.
Because of her aerodynamic proportions and the fact that little girls were controversially playing with a ‘sexy’ woman, rather than a baby doll or a child, Barbie has always been a controversial figure. Some have argued that: when “it comes to careers, Barbie is also a brilliant role model. She’s been a doctor, a vet, a paleontologist, an astronaut, a firefighter, a pop singer, a teacher and a film star” (Redmond 2008). However, while all of this is true, it is also true that Mattel has only bowed to those suggestions after pressure from consumers. Barbie is ultimately a product, sold to mothers as well as daughters, and having a girlish doll play at being a Presidential candidate is one way to ‘have it all’ — and to not be particularly threatening to existing sexual standards of how to behave.
Hating and loving Barbie has become such an ingrained part of feminist ideology that it is easy to forget that Barbie was created as a product — not as a message to convey to young girls. Barbie has changed with the times, not because Mattel is trying to orchestrate an ideological shift in the world, but because times have changed since the original conception of the character. “Early on, Barbie was promoted as a teaching aid to help young girls grow up and get their man, by marketers worried that parents might not warm to such a sexualized plaything,” complained one feminist (Bindel 2008). But that was largely because despite the expressed anxieties about Barbie’s sexiness, there was a stress in the wider American culture that a young girl’s ultimate fulfillment was to be a sexualized persona for her husband. Although the 1950s and early 1960s may have had a puritanical element in some respects, the emphasis on young girls wearing dresses like their mothers, playing with baby dolls, and ‘playing’ at being grown-up, with everything from Easy Bake ovens to play plastic kitchens made Barbie a natural extension of such a simulation, and thus an attractive marketing toy to parents and well as children. Today’s consumerism merely uses other, more ideologically palatable means to sell Barbie to modern consumers. The highly feminine Barbie is ‘okay’ now, because she is a vet — the controversy that once erupted when a talking version Barbie complained that ‘math was hard’ taught Mattel to create a new version of the beloved doll has been replaced by savvy, smart professional Barbies — because that is what parents want. Contemporary girls are supposed to want to be feminine and professional, and also know how to manipulate computers — Barbie has obliged, by becoming more active, smarter, and moving part of her world online.
But the use of digital images reduces the likelihood a girl will create her own images and stories for Barbie. What just as significant regarding the modern Barbie is HOW the process of play occurs for today’s children. More and more, all toys have a predetermined story attached to them, to encourage children to play in a certain manner, and to buy accessories and video games attached to the toy. Barbie was always masterful at doing this — I remember many girls in my class wanted a house or a sports car for their Barbie when they were growing up. Now children use online images and videos to understand how to use these accessories. “Most of today’s best-selling toys promote highly-structured play. They’re usually action figures or video games linked to TV programs or movies. They ‘tell’ children how to play and can channel them into merely using the toys to try to imitate what they see on TV or in the movies” (National PTA, 2010).
It is true that girls still often use Barbie in more creative ways than suggested by consumer ideology. “The academic Agnes Nairn has carried out research into how brands are perceived by seven- to 11-year-old schoolchildren, and found that many of the girls see Barbie torture as a legitimate play activity — and think nothing of pulling off her limbs and putting her in the microwave. No other toy provoked such a negative response. ‘Barbies are obviously viewed as disposable. That is why they are destroyed and thrown away,’ says Nairn,” arguing that children are in control of their play and that Barbie’s lack of realism as a figure provokes hostility (Bindel 2009). However, the destruction of Barbies may partially be parental permission: many Barbies are cheap, and disposability of Barbie is part of its salability — children always want the ‘next new thing,’ and the discarded older Barbies are often quickly replaced by newer Barbies. Nairn sees these Barbies as being tortured to destroy the doll’s perfection, but the same children (I have noticed from observing female relatives) may demand a new Barbie, even after treating the old one carelessly.
Additionally, not all Barbies are disposed of. In fact, there is a thriving industry of adults who collect Barbies. These Barbies embody characters from famous old films, new films, or characters from around the world. Even some Barbies marketed at younger girls that are reasonably priced like those of the Twilight series of Barbies, are clearly not disposable. Barbies run the gamut from the cheap to the beautifully coiffured, yet all of them suggest a model of femininity that is similar: adult and girlish at the same time. Even as early as the 1960s, according to the website “Barbie’s Career History,” Barbie was used to embody ‘acceptable’ female occupations for young women, including that of a fashion designer and a nurse in ways that appealed to adults as well as children.
Barbie was supposed to be subversive when first released, but she was always wholesome and all-American in her beauty to some degree, and as beauty and femininity has changed, so has Barbie. But Barbie still has close ties with the movie industry, the fashion industry, and other industries that produce very stereotyped images of femininity. Today’s Barbie is girlish in her embodiment of teenage pleasures like riding bikes and caring for animals, but her marketing as a doll persona resembling famous movie characters suggests she is being marketed to parents as well, not ‘above’ them as is sometimes alleged, because of her sex appeal. A parent can buy a Barbie to collect for herself, and buy an inexpensive fairy princess Barbie for a child. It is Mattel who is truly having it all — both audiences, adult and child, for Barbie.
The pleasure of clothing and accessorizing Barbie, even in her feminist incarnations, drives the Barbie industry, and is reinforced by the online images and ‘games.’ Rather than competitive play, girls learn how to adorn a potential image of themselves as potential women. The purpose is decorative, and now the decoration is more controlled than ever before — girls buy clothes, rather than make clothes for their dolls like they did in previous eras. Barbie’s image may be more empowered on the surface as a professional, but in terms of how girls are learning to play Barbie and play at being women, it is more controlled than ever.
Buffamonte, Christina. “Barbie’s career history.” Good Housekeeping. 2008.
June 23, 2010. http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/family/teens/barbie-dolls-careers
Bindel, Julie. “Con — Barbie: Dumb blonde or diehard feminist?” The Guardian. December 28,
2008. June 23, 2010.
Redmond, Moira. “Con — Barbie: Dumb blonde or diehard feminist?” The Guardian. 2008.
December 18, 2008. June 23, 2010.
“Rethinking children’s play.” National PTA. June 23, 2010.
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