Life in Plastic
Although Mattel claims it invented the Barbie doll so preteens could exercise their imagination, the toy company is often accused of discouraging girls from thinking beyond consumerism and regressive gender roles. The parade of Barbie accessories has been relentless—outfits, convertibles, pools, even a boyfriend, Ken. When critics and parents alike cottoned to the price tag attached to Barbie’s world, many of them asked, is life in plastic really all that fun?
If you converted Barbie’s proportions into a life-size doll (or woman), she’d be a five-foot-nine surgically enhanced anorexic, with a 39-inch bust and an 18-inch waist, and weigh in at 110 pounds. Oh, and she’d likely have been the victim of considerable foot binding, since she’d have to balance those pneumatic curves on size-three stilettos. The word Barbie has become shorthand for unrealistic ideals about body image and gender stereotypes. Even her promising start as a single career gal (in fashion, naturally) was cut short when boyfriend Ken was introduced in 1961. Although his body is equally absurd—the average man would need to add 11 inches to his chest to match Ken’s proportions—this doll prompts fewer discussions about gender stereotypes. Perhaps this is because Ken never managed to inspire millions of kids to grow up and be like him, even when he was outfitted for tough-guy careers, such as cowboy, pilot or athlete. Instead, boys were drawn to hypermasculine G.I. Joe, who, if rumors are to be believed, even stole Barbie’s heart. In 2004 the golden-haired doll allegedly threw Ken over for the man with the Kung Fu Grip.
In 1993 Earring Magic Ken became one of the best-selling Ken dolls of all time—but not because Mattel successfully made Ken “cooler,” per its stated aim. It was because the gay community snapped up all the new dolls, which sported a lavender mesh shirt-and-vest combo, an earring (in the left ear) and a Ken-proportioned cock ring dangling on a chain around the neck. Despite appearances, Mattel explicitly denied that Ken had come out of the closet: “We’re not in the business of putting cock rings into the hands of little girls.” (Yes, the toymaker actually said that.) Commentators claimed the mainstream had finally begun to adopt queer culture, comparing Earring Magic Ken to the post–civil rights launch of African American Barbie dolls. The latter reference turned out to foreshadow Mattel’s next PR blunder—a cross-promotion with Nabisco that saw the 1997 launch of Oreo Fun Barbie, an African American doll wearing an outfit printed with cookies and the word Oreo. Once again, Mattel failed at reading contemporary culture, and a backlash erupted when it was pointed out that Oreo is a pejorative term for black people who are “white” on the inside.
As far as offensive gender stereotypes go, Barbie’s unrealistic body size is famously problematic, but her innumerable accessories may actually be worse offenders. Barbie Baby-Sits, introduced in 1963, came with a Barbie-scale book titled How to Lose Weight, the back cover of which read simply, “Don’t Eat!” Barbie was still taking this sage advice in 1965, when Slumber Party Barbie included the same book, as well as a scale set permanently at 110. And although Barbie has occasionally moonlighted as an astronaut or a doctor, her jobs have mainly been in fashion, child care, education or nursing—acceptable postwar work for women.
Barbie’s final problem, from a women’s studies perspective, is her compulsive consumerism, which reinforces the idea that women can’t manage money and have poor impulse control at the mall. When Aqua, a Danish pop band, satirized these aspects of the plastic doll in its 1997 song and video “Barbie Girl,” Mattel didn’t take kindly to the suggestion that Barbie is just a shallow party girl obsessed with looks and material possessions. Mattel sued the band, but after several court skirmishes the parties came to terms. Today Mattel uses a modified version of the song to sell Barbies.
Among the many controversial Barbies over the years, Mattel’s Teen Talk Barbie, introduced in 1992, ranks pretty high. The talking doll had 270 possible phrases that indicated her usual interests (clothes shopping, pizza parties, finding out who was crushing on whom) and an inability to make sums. “Math class is tough,” opines Teen Talk Barbie. Various organizations quickly denounced the toy, citing ample evidence that girls—who for years were stereotyped as lacking natural aptitude for math and sciences—were often discouraged in those areas as a result of systematic discrimination. A year after the doll’s release, the Barbie Liberation Organization, a culture-jamming activist group, performed “corrective surgery” on select G.I. Joes and Teen Talk Barbies—namely, swapping their voice boxes. The BLO then “reverse shoplifted” the sabotaged dolls by returning them to shelves, where they were bought by unsuspecting parents. Barbie barked, “Dead men tell no lies,” while G.I. Joe developed an interest in shopping. Although one child development expert decried it as a “terrorist act directed against children,” the Adbusters generation regarded the stunt as squarely aimed political critique.
Teen Talk Barbie’s difficulty with math became notorious thanks to highly publicized protests by the Barbie Liberation Organization and the American Association of University Women. The doll’s dingbat pronouncements sparked discussions about prescriptive gender roles and Barbie as a potent symbol of age-old gender stereotypes, such as women being compulsive shoppers and inherently bad at math and science. But Teen Talk Barbie was truly immortalized when The Simpsons featured her in 1994—albeit in the guise of a talking “Malibu Stacy” doll that spouts such phrases as “Let’s buy makeup so the boys will like us,” “Don’t ask me, I’m just a girl!” and “Thinking gives you wrinkles.” Outraged, Lisa Simpson tracks down Stacy Lovell, Malibu Stacy’s creator. Like the BLO, the two go straight for the voice box when they develop the Lisa Lionheart doll, which proclaims, “Trust in yourself and you can achieve anything” and “When I get married I’m keeping my own name.” The doll is a failure, but when one girl adopts it, Lisa declares the enterprise worth all the effort. Lovell, who financed the venture, agrees: “Yes. Particularly if that little girl happens to pay $46,000 for that doll.”
Marriage was always on Barbie’s docket, and some of the earliest accessory kits included veils and white wedding gowns. But despite Barbie’s marriage-mindedness, for more than 50 years she has failed to get Ken to commit. Perhaps he was too busy exploring his Superstar, Sugar Daddy and Earring Magic identities, but whatever the reason, Barbie and Ken finally hit the rocks in 2004. Although they said they were still good friends, rumor had it that Ken’s reluctance to marry was to blame. This jibes with Danish pop band Aqua’s take on the relationship in its song “Barbie Girl,” in which Ken takes Barbie for a joyride. “Come jump in, bimbo friend,” the lyrics propose. “Let us do it again. Hit the town, fool around, let’s go party.” Barbie appears to be more or less a sport, inviting Ken to undress her everywhere and touch her here and there. In return she wants Ken to say “I’m always yours,” which he never does. But Mattel’s Barbie may still have a shot at committed monogamy. She and Ken reconciled on Valentine’s Day 2011, with their devoted fans hoping for a happy ending to their long, stiff-limbed romance.
Barbie may seem like the ultimate manifestation of American postwar consumerism, but she’s actually a European import. The Bild Lilli doll, a proto-Barbie, debuted in 1955 in Germany, where she was sold in bars and tobacco shops as a novelty gift. The doll was based on a sexist cartoon whose heroine was a dim, promiscuous gold digger. Lilli eventually became a children’s toy, which Ruth Handler, cofounder of Mattel, happened upon while vacationing in Switzerland. Handler later said she had been advocating for a toy doll with adult proportions prior to her discovery of Lilli ever since she’d seen preteens playing with paper dolls and pretending the toys were grown-ups. Handler’s best intentions notwithstanding, children came to use Barbie dolls to enact sexual fantasies and scenarios. Dance-pop band Aqua makes this explicit in its song “Barbie Girl,” with such lyrics as “You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere” and “Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky panky.” While Mattel didn’t appreciate Aqua underlining the Barbie sex-toy subtext, the song was a hit, especially with people who remembered their own grade school Barbie sex games.