Perfect hair. Shapely legs. Faultless breasts. An hourglass torso…



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“Perfect hair. Shapely legs. Faultless breasts. An hourglass torso…”1 What’s not to love?

An examination of Barbie’s role in perpetuating socially violent Western cultural ideals by transposing them onto young girls
Barbie is ubiquitous in Western culture. Fully 99% of 3-10 year old girls in the United States own at least one Barbie doll.2 She is sold in over 140 countries and is, by some measures, the most popular toy on the planet. Her effect is multidimensional and significant, both as a symbol emblematic of Western cultural ideals and as a purveyor of them. Numerous interviews have been conducted in the last twenty years in an attempt to assess just what sort of effect this “dazzling, adorable...icon of femininity” has had on women who grew up playing with her and what sort of effect she continues to have on young girls today.3 All of the issues that I will discuss in this paper are multifaceted. Barbie is certainly not single-handedly responsible for the unrealistic body image that many girls struggle with today. Nor does her significance overshadow that of relationships, especially mother-daughter ones, in the development of a healthy self-esteem. Nevertheless, the iconic image of Barbie, her omnipresence, and her potent desirability undoubtedly help to inculcate in young, impressionable minds what it means to be successful, what it means to be sexy, what it means to be beautiful. Barbie and the empire over which she resides is not uniformly bad, yet many of the ideals that she represents do, in fact, perpetuate the structure of symbolic violence under which women, from 4 years old well into adulthood, struggle to attain “perfection.”

The problem most often brought up with respect to Barbie is her unhealthy, unattainable, body type. In fact, if Barbie were a real person, she would have a waist 39% smaller than the average anorexic patient and would be incapable of menstruation for lack of body fat.4 Considering these startling measurements alongside the fact that nearly every girl in the United States owns a Barbie doll, it’s not hard to imagine that these dolls have a tangible effect on girls’ self-esteem. Western society’s obsession with thinness worsened in the 1950s, a decade during which the American public was introduced to both Barbie and new life-size store mannequins that “began to be made with the appearance of 10 percent body fat.”5 These mannequins continue to model the clothes that women buy, and perpetuate unhealthy ideals by continuing to make extreme thinness glamorous and desirable. A miniature mannequin herself, Barbie begins to instill such ideals in young girls so that when they are adults they are primed to desire thinness. One incident that highlights this notion is the 1965 “Slumber Party Barbie,” which came complete with a scale set permanently to 110 pounds and a book entitled “How to Lose Weight,” whose advice to girls was “Don’t Eat.”6 Although this doll is no longer on the market, it is very telling that she ever existed—her advice undoubtedly planted the seeds for years of disappointing struggles with weight and self-esteem.

Attempts have been made in recent years to market a Barbie-like doll that has a healthier body type. For instance, in 2002, the Elle doll was released. Elle is a doll built with more “realistic” body proportions than Barbie (U.S. size 16) and was endorsed by the American Dietetic Association for promoting a healthy body image in girls.7 Unfortunately, this doll costs approximately $100, making her inaccessible to the average consumer. Even before Elle, there was the “Happy to be Me” Doll, which was marketed in the early nineties by High Self-Esteem Toys in part due to the fact that, according to Christopher Athas, the vice president of the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, it is not uncommon for American girls to start dieting at eight years old.8 Despite the hype over the idea of a healthier Barbie equivalent, sales of this doll were entirely unsuccessful.9 The fact is that Barbie has staying power, in part due to her strict adherence to the status quo of marketable Western beauty standards. These beauty standards comprise the violent social structure under which women in Western society constantly struggle with their body image and self-esteem.

A 2006 study conducted on girls aged 5-8 examined whether short-term exposure to Barbie would make them want to be thin. This experiment divided the girls up based on their age and from each age group divided them into three groups: a Barbie group, an Elle group and a control group. The girls were read a story about a shopping trip and told to flip through images that accompanied the tale. These images were of Barbie, Elle, or scenery. After being primed with these images, the girls were asked to color in the silhouette of one of seven girls whose size they felt was most proximate to their body type. Then they were asked to color in the silhouettes of both a girl who had their ideal body type and a woman who was closest to their ideal future body type. Significantly, the girls aged 5½ to 7½ who had just looked at pictures of Barbie had a thinner ideal body type for themselves than those girls of the same age who looked at Elle or at the control.10 Interestingly, the older girls (7½ to 8½ years of age) were much more affected by the images that they had been primed with than the younger girls had been in determining their ideal future weight. Those girls who had been exposed to Elle wanted “more extreme thinness” in adulthood than those who had been exposed to either Barbie or the control.11 This result is startling because it seems to indicate that the older girls had already internalized the idea that thinness is ideal—therefore, looking at Barbie did not change their ideal body type. Yet Elle, a more full-figured doll, defied this ideal and presumably made the girls apprehensive about their own body size and inspired a desire for a smaller figure in the future.12

If girls can be affected by such short-term priming, then who’s to say that Barbie doesn’t have a greater affect on girls who spend a childhood playing with her?13 Western culture has an obsession with thinness; commercials, print ads, and billboards all present images that reinforce the idea that for women, thin is good and fat is undesirable, unattractive and indicative of laziness or flawed character. In fact, thinness seems to be, for women in our society, “a prerequisite for success”.14 These ideals are transmitted to women of all ages, and it begins in childhood, perhaps with Barbie. In fact, 80% of all American women are dissatisfied with their bodies, and eating disorders including anorexia and bulimia have been increasing manifold among teenage girls since 1930.15 In fact, 90% of White girls polled asserted that they were “discontent with their bodies,” and 70% of Black girls said the same thing.16 It is frightening to consider the fact that these girls, who have not even begun their physical development into womanhood, already genuinely fear the possibility of weight gain. They are fearful of maturation because they will never fit into the fantasy world that they lived in during their youth. With these concerns constantly asserting themselves in the back of young girls’ minds, how can we expect them to be content with their bodies? Moreover, how can we expect them to excel in other areas of life?

Nevertheless, for all the negative ideals that Barbie represents, she also has certain positive characteristics that promote independence and self-sufficiency. In fact, before Barbie, the only type of doll available for young girls was the baby doll.17 Baby dolls are meant to foster maternal instincts in girls and prepare them for motherhood. Although this instinct is not inherently harmful, I nevertheless feel that access to an adult doll that had no children, no husband, and a plethora of careers made for a new type of role model for young girls. In fact, Barbie has been released in careers ranging from police officer to paleontologist, doctor to astronaut, teacher to lifeguard. I think that it is very significant that this doll has such an independent lifestyle, because it reminds girls of the varied options available to them in the world. It is significant that Barbie never married Ken and that she never had any children. Her life is entirely her own; such strong affirmations of independence defy gendered stereotypes.

Nevertheless, for all the times that Barbie is released in a career role, she is released in a role entirely centered on appearances. Regardless of their race or ethnicity, Barbie and her friends appear time and again in roles that emphasize their “femininity” and charms, their hair and their makeup. In fact, the single-most sought-after and popular feature of the Barbie doll is her hair, as is evidenced by the fact that the bestselling Barbie doll of all time was 1992’s Totally Hair Barbie, which had 10½ inches of hair (and an 11½ inch body).18 Although it is not a bad thing that little girls like to play with their dolls’ hair, it is nevertheless significant that appearances have taken center stage in this fantasy world because all too often appearances also take center stage in the reality of modern Western culture, as is shown in Helga Dittmar’s "The Costs of Consumer Culture and the "Cage Within": The Impact of the Material "Good Life" and "Body Perfect" Ideals on Individuals' Identity and Well-Being."

Even in stories from her book series, Barbie’s looks remain the focus. For instance, in the book Very Busy Barbie, Barbie is a finalist in a competition to be a spokesmodel for a fashion company. On her way to the final interview, she notices that the old woman who lives next door has fallen and needs to go to the hospital. Barbie decides to be late for her interview to take care of the elderly woman and as a result gets hired as the spokesmodel because, as the director says, “Not only are you beautiful Barbie, but you are a caring person.”19 The fact that even in the Barbie fantasy world, beauty comes first, character second, is all-too-apparent with this remark. Moreover, even when Barbie performs careers that require high levels of education or training she reflects 1950s-era femininity in that her legs are molded such that she constantly has to wear high heels. Furthermore, on Barbie’s official website there is a video that shows her designers talking about what the steps are in designing and releasing a new Barbie doll.1 All of their comments focus on her appearance and her role as “an icon, a fashion diva.” In fact, Barbie can never be freed of this focus on materialism and appearances; her makeup is permanent so that she can never have a natural face. This fact implicitly teaches girls that makeup is a necessity for attractiveness. Furthermore, Barbie teaches, conventional attractiveness is a necessity for success. Both of these lessons perpetuate the system of social violence under which these girls have only just begun to live.

Materialism is another ideal reinforced by Barbie that perpetuates this system. For instance, Barbie has “an Austin Healy, a red Ferrari, a Classy Corvette, a white Porsche, a pink Mustang, and a red Jaguar. She also had a ten-speed bike, a 4 x 4, and a Beach Bus, which looks like a van combined with a small camper.”20 She has numerous houses, a horse, dogs, cats, birds, a giraffe and the list goes on. When a girl plays with Barbie she no longer needs to fantasize about such extreme wealth, because Barbie embodies it. Yet Barbie also teaches girls that there is no limit to the amount of stuff one can own, and this lesson is problematic because in reality most people are not multi-millionaires. Moreover, Barbie’s appearances are very indicative of her social class. For instance, her perpetual tan and her perfectly blonde hair suggest bi-weekly dye job touch-ups and frequent visits to her local tanning salon. Her smooth legs and perfectly toned body imply trips to a gym, perhaps with a personal trainer. To look remotely like Barbie, a woman must work at her appearance in ways that are usually quite expensive. Therefore, Barbie represents an unattainable standard of beauty for people who cannot afford such a glamorous lifestyle while paradoxically making them believe that this type of lifestyle is possible, perhaps even normal.

In addition to perpetuating the structure of social violence that encourages women to diet and be materialistic, Barbie bolsters a racial hierarchy of social violence. In fact, Barbie’s positive attributes do not generally accrue to her racially or ethnically distinct friends, like Teresa. Teresa is Barbie’s Hispanic friend who appeared in stores in 1988.21 Teresa was Barbie’s perennial sidekick—she was available in, according to J. Michael Auustyniak, 21 versions by 1996, not one of which included a “career or job, school or learning, marriage or family” theme. Instead, Teresa only came in outfits or themes that portrayed her as a “sex-object, athlete, shopper, [or] Barbie wannabe.”22 Teresa was never sold with her own theme or identity, which reinforced the idea of a racial hierarchy, with the White, blonde, blue-eyed Barbie in the starring role. Since nearly every little girl in the United States plays with Barbie or her friends, it is critical to note that these girls are being told – subliminally, implicitly – that whiteness is inherently better, more desirable, and more closely associated with success.

There are many other instances in which the Barbie empire reinforces a racial hierarchy, perhaps none more telling than the Doctor Barbie. When Mattel came out with Doctor Barbie in 1988, she only came in a White version. There was, however, the option of purchasing Nurse Whitney, who was Black. In 1994, a Black Doctor Barbie was finally released, and she and the White Doctor Barbie were packaged with baby patients who were put in boxes at random and could be White, Black or Hispanic. That Mattel thought to include a Hispanic patient but not a Hispanic doctor is indicative of a complicity with the racial stereotypes and prejudices that Western society fosters. Moreover, these dolls do not even acknowledge the existence of the East Asian-American, Middle Eastern-American or South Asian-American girls who buy and play with them and may benefit from the opportunity to play with a doll that looks like them and is a doctor.

Nevertheless, evidence shows that Mattel is simply playing to the market when it chooses to focus attention on the White, blonde Barbie. In the 1940s, psychologist Dr. Kenneth Clark conducted an experiment to see what Black children’s preferences were between a White and a Black baby doll. The children nearly unanimously preferred to play with the White dolls because they were “good” and “pretty,” while the Black dolls were “bad” and “ugly.” Moreover, when asked to color in a silhouette drawing to their likeness, the children routinely chose colors that were lighter than their skin tones such as white or yellow.23 In 2007, a 17-year-old high school student performed this same experiment and got very similar results.2 These experiments underscore the devastating impact that racial hierarchies have even on very young children. That these kids already believe that White is better than Black underscores the reality of extreme social violence due to racial hierarchies that Black people face begins at a very young age.

Clearly one could not blame Barbie entirely for the social violence that minority children face. Yet Barbie does not fight this structure, she perpetuates it. Barbie is the star. She is successful and independent and unique, so girls admire her and want to be her. She is also blonde, blue-eyed and White. She fits neatly into the package that Western adult society has determined to mean “beauty” in its most quintessential form. It is good that Barbie now has friends of different ethnicities, even with different facial molds so that they look slightly more representative. Yet changes could still be made on the part of Mattel—efforts to refocus young girls’ attention on dolls that are not just blonde and blue-eyed. Just because Barbie is the original does not mean that she should always be in the spotlight. As Erica Rand points out, the fact that the blonde, blue-eyed Barbie remains in the spotlight in Barbie novels, comics and children’s books, reinforces the fact that “not any girl can be like Barbie but that any girl can be Barbie’s friend.”24

Barbie is undeniably iconic—concerned mothers, sociologists, and enthusiastic collectors alike debate her looks, her message, and her legacy. One thing is irrefutable: that Barbie has proven more than capable of preserving her role in the toy market. Therefore, unless something changes, girls will continue to be bombarded with images that will inspire them to want to be thinner, taller, wealthier, perhaps even Whiter. There is no denying that Barbie has played a tangible role in the implantation of Western beauty ideals in young girls for decades. At this rate, soon there will no longer be a generation of American girls that did not grow up playing with this doll. Therefore, although one could not presume that Barbie is single-handedly responsible for the perpetuation of unattainable, socially violent Western cultural ideals, the fact that she has played such a major role in this culture for a half-century means that a cause and effect relationship would be hard to discern. In other words, Barbie is as much a symbol of socially violent Western cultural ideals as she is a purveyor of them. She, more than any other toy, has worked to implant in young girls the ideals of Western culture that they will face for the rest of their lives. She perpetuates an unreal standard of measurement for both beauty and success and as such, is a dangerous proponent of social violence in the West.



1 To watch this video, go to: http://barbiestyle.barbie.com/history.aspx

2 I highly recommend viewing this experiment, go to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0BxFRu_SOw

1 Rogers, Mary F. Barbie Culture 17

2 Ive, Suzanne, Dittmar, Helga, Halliwell, Emma. "Does Barbie Make Girls Want to Be Thin? The Effect of Experimental Exposure to Images of Dolls on the Body Image of 5- to 8- Year Old Girls." 283

3 Rogers, Mary F. Barbie Culture 11

4 Ive, Suzanne, Dittmar, Helga, Halliwell, Emma. "Does Barbie Make Girls Want to Be Thin? The Effect of Experimental Exposure to Images of Dolls on the Body Image of 5- to 8- Year Old Girls." 284

5 Lord, M.G. Forever Barbie 226

6 Rogers, Mary F. Barbie Culture 118

7 Ive, Suzanne, Dittmar, Helga, Halliwell, Emma. "Does Barbie Make Girls Want to Be Thin? The Effect of Experimental Exposure to Images of Dolls on the Body Image of 5- to 8- Year Old Girls." 283

8 New York Times Co. “She’s No Barbie, Nor Does She Pretend to Be”

9 Gladstone, Neil, “A Doll’s Life”

10 Ive, Suzanne, Dittmar, Helga, Halliwell, Emma. "Does Barbie Make Girls Want to Be Thin? The Effect of Experimental Exposure to Images of Dolls on the Body Image of 5- to 8- Year Old Girls." 289

11 Ibid 289

12 Ibid 290

13 Ibid 290

14 Rogers, Mary F. Barbie Culture 118

15 National Eating Disorders Association: “Statistics: Eating Disorders and Their Precursors”

16 McDonough, Yona Zeldis, ed. The Barbie Chronicles 25

17 Rogers, Mary F. Barbie Culture 16

18 Van Gelder, Linda. “A Barbie World”

19 Rogers, Mary F. Barbie Culture p 15

20 Ibid 67

21 Ibid 50

22 Ibid p 51

23 Library of Congress Exhibitions. “With an Even Hand: Brown vs. Board at Fifty”

24 Rogers, Mary F. Barbie Culture 56

References:

  1. Dittmar, Helga. "The Costs of Consumer Culture and the "Cage Within": The Impact of the Material "Good Life" and "Body Perfect" Ideals on Individuals' Identity and Well-Being." Psychological Inquiry 18(2007): 23-59. Print.

  2. Gladstone, Neil, “A Doll’s Life” Philadelphia Citypaper March 18-25, 1999, http://www.citypaper.net/articles/031899/coverstory.shtml

  3. Ive, Suzanne, Dittmar, Helga, Halliwell, Emma. "Does Barbie Make Girls Want to Be Thin? The Effect of Experimental Exposure to Images of Dolls on the Body Image of 5- to 8- Year Old Girls." Developmental Psychology 42(2006): 283-292. Print.

  4. Library of Congress Exhibitions. “With an Even Hand: Brown vs. Board at Fifty” http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/brown/brown-brown.html

  5. Lord, M.G. Forever Barbie. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc, 1994. Print.

  6. McDonough, Yona Zeldis, ed. The Barbie Chronicles. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Print.

  7. National Eating Disorders Association: “Statistics: Eating Disorders and Their Precursors” 2006 http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/p.asp?WebPage_ID=286&Profile_ID=41138

  8. New York Times Co. “She’s No Barbie, Nor Does She Pretend to Be” Aug 15, 1991, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/08/15/garden/she-s-no-barbie-nor-does-she-care-to-be.html?sec=health

  9. Rand, Erica. Barbie's Queer Accessories. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995. Print.

  10. Robertson, A.F. Life Like Dolls: The Collector Doll Phenomenon and the Lives of the Women Who Love Them. New York, NY: Routledge, 2004. Print.

  11. Rogers, Mary F. Barbie Culture. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 1999

  12. Toffoletti, Kim. Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls: Feminism, Popular Culture and the Posthuman Body. New York, NY: I.B. Tauris and Co. Ltd, 2007. Print.

  13. Van Gelder, Linda. “A Barbie World” MSN Lifestyle: http://lifestyle.msn.com/your-look/makeup-skin-care-hair/articleallure.aspx?cp-documentid=17334436 2009




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