Evolution of Barbie in Society

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Since 1959, the iconic Barbie doll has been one of the most popular toys worldwide. It has been the global symbol of a certain kind of American beauty for many generations and has been formed by the broader social climate of what is believed as the ideal female. The doll still circulates in our society today and has evolved to fit the needs of society. Sure, there have been a few missteps along the way, but Barbie has been beloved by generations of girls and boys. She doesn’t just exist in the world; she participates and evolves with it. To Americans, Barbie dolls have become a way of life and continue to shape the lives of many. Does the idea of Barbie really have the power to influence identity and behavior? Looking back, I believe Barbie has unconsciously influenced me to perceive beauty and identity in a different way, so I am curious to look at the big picture and investigate the discourses that portray social and cultural resonance. Throughout this writing, I will be discussing how the perception of Barbie has transformed throughout the years by larger social narratives, and how the doll communicates certain discourses of behavior and identity. The doll was created about sixty years ago and has progressed in her identity, social status, and cultural symbolic power. I will also be exploring the history of Barbie as both a commodity and a cultural icon.

The first Barbie doll was created by Ruth Handler and has been used by children to play make-believe, imagine roles as college students, athletes, and adults with successful careers. However, it was originally designed to represent that a woman has choices. “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that, through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices” (Handler, 1994). This idea, that women could determine their own destiny, was unheard of in the 1950s. Did society back then view Barbie similar to how Handler viewed it? The 1950s was in many ways a period of conformity with the traditional gender roles. Both men and women followed strict gender roles and complied with society’s expectations, much like Barbie. The doll was created for the children growing up during this time because they were only exposed to the stereotypical gender roles (women were housewives and men were the breadwinners for their family). Girls did not grow up believing that they could pursue any profession they desired. Needless to say, young girls in this society desperately needed a change, and Barbie was created for this exact reason. Except somewhere along the way, the purpose was conceivably distorted. Perhaps, the controversy surrounding the potential of Barbie is highly contingent on moral and emotional discourse.

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Discourses circulate around Barbie’s representation to serve different purposes and points to the process by which she becomes a cultural icon. Thus, we must focus on the historical background that suggests the discourse shines a light on what Barbie reveals about our culture. The first barbie was designed to mimic the appearance of 1950’s glamour stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. She had pencil-thin legs, flawless skin, the perfect hourglass waist, blond hair and blue eyes. The Barbie doll had many different styles and clothes. Since women in this time period were expected to look like the ‘girl-next-door’, they did not get to completely express themselves through their appearance. Barbie made it possible for women to dress the doll as they pleased and imagine a life with no boundaries. Women saw the unorthodox and more revealing clothing, which was not socially acceptable to wear during this period, and began to question why they couldn’t wear the same. The young girls were obsessed with the doll and envied her lifestyle. Ruth Handler created a story that came with the doll. Barbie was said to be a ‘Teenage Fashion Model’ in 1959, but soon broke boundaries in male-dominated fields. It comes as no surprise to me, that young girls wanted to be just like the doll, because it seems as though the creator was very strategic throughout this phenomenon. The doll gave these first-generation Barbie consumers exactly what it needed at the time, the ability to dream outside the realm of social expectations. The problem is that the consumers had no idea what the doll was capable of. It rapidly impacted the lives of millions of girls in a materialistic way.

When the Ken doll was introduced a few years after Barbie, the idea of women breaking the molds of society was shifted in a way. The discourse that is detached with earlier images of the doll as a fashion model, athlete, and a college student, fails to acknowledge that Barbie once appeared in a wedding dress alongside Ken. This image leads to a disagreement in her former representation as a single woman. He was introduced to the market as Barbie doll’s boyfriend and had a built figure, dressed in a red bathing suit with blonde hair and blue eyes. He was designed to be the ‘perfect man’ that any women would be lucky to have. Since both dolls have a certain appearance, children might begin to cultivate false expectations of what they should look like. Girls potentially desired to look like Barbie and have a boyfriend who looked like Ken. And for boys, they anticipated finding a girlfriend comparable to Barbie. Consequently, the myth that women must look like the Barbie doll in order to be attractive begins to form and circulate within the generations to come. Can this cause young children to develop an unhealthy form of sexuality? If Ken is attracted to Barbie, then all males must be attracted to the same appearance, right? This is when we see a rise in societal beauty standards, and those principles only flourish.

Soon after the demand for Barbie was sky high, Ruth decided to introduce a new version of the doll in the early 1960s. The new additions that came with the doll was a diet book, a scale that only went up to 110 pounds, and a sign that said, ‘How to lose weight? Don’t eat’ (Slumber, 1). This popular discourse has constituted an expansive array of questions of representation. Naturally, Americans became skeptical of the doll, in the rise of young consumers. Barbie began to have a profound personality of her own, despite the original intention to allow young girls to create their own personalities for the doll. It was not just a toy anymore; it started to give false expectations of what women should look like, which can potentially be very damaging to the media. Even though this new version was taken off the market soon after it was released, its affects still linger in society. Mattel company argued the criticism was misplaced: “It’s all about choices. Barbie had careers at a time when women were restricted to being just housewives. Ironically, our critics are the very people who should embrace us” (Dickson, 2019). The company has always claimed that Barbie does not have any influence on how girls view their body, but is this claim accurate?

Researchers began to conduct experiments and tests to see if the doll actually effected how body image is viewed and, ultimately, if it communicates certain discourses of identity and behavior. “The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness reported that 70 million people worldwide suffer from eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. About 90 percent of those with eating disorders are young woman between the ages of 12 and 25. During this survey, the women stated that they played with Barbies shortly before they were diagnosed at a young age” (‘Barbie and Body Image’, 2). Why were young girls being influenced so heavily by this plastic toy? The youth has always had high risk of being influenced by what they see and hear. Conceivably, they take much more from the Barbie experience than one can even imagine. They are constantly processing and analyzing information in their heads. Barbie’s image, and the discourse about her representation, seem to have directed countless girls on the path of low self-image and poor mental health.

Barbie has been one of the first major symbols of what a body image should look like, and this idea has translated into my life. In my own experience with Barbie dolls, I have realized that the discourses involved have unconsciously influenced me to perceive beauty and identity in a different way. I played with Barbies at a young age, just like most young girls, and I aspired to be like her. With her long, blonde hair and stylish wardrobe that fit perfectly on her slim figure, I was in awe of her. As a child, I was misled to believe beauty came with certain standards, and ultimately, was looking like Barbie. I wasn’t as confident with myself as a whole because I did not obtain any features that were similar to Barbie’s. It was almost impossible to refrain from measuring myself against Barbies idealized perfection. I would often imagine what it would be like to look like the doll, have her amazing fashion sense, and live in her ‘dreamhouse’. Such factors might have influenced my self-esteem and the way I perceived beauty.

Within the social and political conflict of the 1960s and 1970s, Barbie’s image, and the discourse about her representation, took shape and changed. If young girls grow up seeing the image of Barbie, they are ideally taught that beauty is having a thin body, blonde hair and blue eyes. “As a doll with which young girls could emulate an ideal womanhood, Barbie quickly became an object of cultural criticism” (Tulinski, 2017). The discourse surrounding her status was nationally acknowledged as having a significant sway in American history. The ideal body image of has always played a big role in the early ages. Around the time the Barbie doll hit the market, the feminist movement was unfolding. Women did not want to be confined and restricted within a certain role, which brings forth questions on Barbie’s endurance. How did Barbie ‘survive’ this social change with the sense that her marketed image confines Barbie to a limited range of identities? The doll’s consistency of changing representation has significantly aided its endurance. However, society’s body image expectations never completely disappeared. Discourse persisted throughout the 20th century, leaving its mark on today’s society.

So, how has Barbie changed over time to maintain the interests of a wider audience and how has this effort assisted her in achieving an iconic status? Mattel Company received years of criticism and struggled to boost sales because Barbie’s looks did not reflect her diverse audience. In the year 2016, a fashion designer featured plus-size models in his show during New York Fashion Week. That same year, with the rise of beauty taking all shapes and sizes, toy manufacturing company Mattel decided to debut a line of ethnically diverse dolls including three new body types, seven skin tones, twenty-two eye colors and twenty-four hairstyles (Howard, 2018). The idea of these dolls is surrounded by discourse that offers Barbie a sense of personhood, which was built up by her ethnic consumers. She was able to appeal to new consumers because her appearance changed. Appearing in likeness to the young children that played with the doll, gave Barbie a new, realistic identity. Her a sense of personhood is displayed by the many facets of her social identity, such as her new ethnically diverse appearance.

Though Barbie continues to adapt through cultural changes and reveal new dimensions of her identity, there was a lack of advertising for these new dolls. Most people did not even know about the new doll. Perhaps Mattel intended for this result? Considering it was a huge risk to introduce these new dolls, it appears very likely that they were envisioned to be overlooked. Even though the new product failed to affect consumers positively, it still goes to show how drastically our social world has changed throughout the years. This was the first time we saw revisions to the idea that women need to be thin in order to be beautiful. “It was society that made Barbie – literally and figuratively. Her world was destined to evolve, like ours” (BillyBoy, 1987). More and more people are breaking the molds of societal expectations while exerting self-confidence. We have become more accepting of all shapes and sizes.

American beauty ideals have evolved drastically because people are more likely to be influenced through the media. With some still upholding the thin image, others are breaking away from this idea. In 2007, the show ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians’ aired its first episode. We saw their figures onscreen that disregard the notorious Barbie appearance. The media shifted to idolizing curvaceous bodies such as Kim Kardashian West, Beyoncé and Christina Hendricks. Their looks have become iconic today and is fueling a movement that promotes body acceptance.

So, would this be the end for Barbie dolls since we have new cultural icons in the media? Considering Barbie is known to adapt and change to comply with societal expectations, it is expected that Mattel would conform to these prevailing attitudes. Predictably, Mattel introduced a line of celebrity Barbie dolls that include singers, actors, and even athletes, that all have a significant place in contemporary society. Some mimic the appearance of Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, and even Diana Ross. Mattel had hopes to stay relevant and honor contemporary and historical role models. Unfortunately for Kardashian fans, they still have yet to appear in a line of Barbie dolls. However, I recently saw on Twitter that Kim Kardashian West has her own prototype from Mattel. Even though we have experienced a change in standards, some celebrities still appear to encourage Barbie dolls. Kylie Jenner, a large influencer in the media, recently transformed into a real-life Barbie doll for Halloween. Needless to say, Barbie continues to stay relevant throughout the 60 years of her existence.

Barbie has without a doubt impacted many lives and is viewed as a cultural icon. The historical background of Barbie proposes the discourse shines a light on what Barbie reveals about our culture. It shows where we have come from, where we are, and where we are going in terms of the social world. Barbie fueled the unrealistic expectations of what women should look like. Even though our society today is much more accepting and embraces all body types, the effects of the doll still linger, and I don’t think we will ever be able to escape it.

It was very interesting for me to investigate this topic. As it has played a role in my life, it has also left its mark on society for six decades, and I personally believe that Barbie will remain in contemporary society for many more years to come. She hasn’t failed to stay relevant as she is continuously molding and evolving to fit in society. I assume her controversial identity and representation will continue to progress. The ideals of Barbie endure a conflictual and collective process of consideration among the social factors involving the doll, the consumer, and the creator. In whatever way you choose to view and interpret the nature of Barbie, I believe her nature is that of a constantly reworked object, that has revealed evidence about social life as a whole.

Works Cited

  1. Bellis, Mary. “Biography of Ruth Handler, Inventor of Barbie Dolls”. ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 6 May 2019, http://thoughtco.com/history-of-barbie-dolls-1991344
  2. “Bleeding Blue & White”. Bleeding Blue White, 8 Dec. 2013, http://sites.psu.edu/jyh5445/2013/12/08/brainwashed-by-barbie-what-a-doll/
  3. Dockterman, Eliana. “Barbie Has a New Body Cover Story”. Time, Time, 2019, http://time.com/barbie-new-body-cover-story/
  4. Holland, Brynn. “Barbie Through the Ages”. History.com, A&E Television Networks, 29 Jan. 2016, https://www.history.com/news/barbie-through-the-ages
  5. Howard, Jacqueline. “The Ever-Changing 'Ideal' of Female Beauty”. CNN, Cable News Network, 9 Mar. 2018, http://cnn.com/2018/03/07/health/body-image-history-of-beauty-explainer-intl/index.html
  6. Masunaga, Samantha. “How Barbie Has Transformed Over the Years”. Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 28 Jan. 2016, https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-barbie-timeline-20160128-story.html
  7. Propheta, Danielle. “The Incredible Story of the Real Human Barbie”. DirectExpose, 24 July 2019, http://directexpose.com/real-human-barbie-lives/
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Evolution of Barbie in Society. (2023, September 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 14, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/evolution-of-barbie-in-society/
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