The Feminist Legacy of Barbie

Photo by Sandra Gabriel on Unsplash

By Isabel Hicks

For many young girls across the country, Barbie was central to their childhoods, providing a creative outlet for their imagination in a world where their future was limitless. With the doll, they were able to imagine themselves as anything, 

Recently, the teaser trailer that was released for the upcoming “Barbie” movie rekindled everyone’s love for the iconic doll and her legacy. The movie, directed by Greta Gerwig, stars Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken. The teaser trailer had fans excited to see the return of Barbie to mainstream media, as well as Greta Gerwig’s interpretation of the famous blonde. 

Barbie’s image has been a staple in American culture, and has been part of various cultural shifts through the decades including feminism, civil rights, and views on gender and gender roles. 

Her 64 year reign began in 1959, when toymaking company Mattel Inc. introduced the first Barbie doll. The doll was designed by Ruth Handler, who created Barbie for her own daughter. She was tired of the baby dolls that only promoted caregiving, and instead wanted to create a doll that could inspire girls to see themselves in more roles and careers. Handler wanted young girls to know that they could be anything they wanted, and that they could pursue other careers in life other than motherhood.

Since then, Barbie has been an ever-expanding and evolving doll. Her body has changed a lot over the decades, as she was first modeled after the German Lilli risque doll, but has now been altered to have more “real life” body proportions. 

Barbie’s body has frequently been a topic of debate, as many argue that Barbie is detrimental to the body image of young girls. Mothers and psychologists alike expressed their concerns over the ultra-thin doll and its effects on children’s self image. 

Over the years, modifications to her body were made to reflect a more realistic body type. In 2016, Mattel introduced the “Fashionistas” line which included three new Barbie models: tall, curvy, and petite in addition to the traditional doll. 

Barbie is more than just her controversial body type, however. The main purpose of her creation was for her to be a career woman and make girls feel represented in professional fields. Barbie dolls were made with career outfits spanning from doctors to astronauts, depicting Barbie as a self-sufficient and financially stable woman. She has also been coined a fashion icon, with her collaboration of many luxury designer brands such as Burberry, Calvin Klein, Versace, and Christian Dior.

As part of her Mattel “You can be Anything” campaign in partnership with the White House Project (a nonprofit nonpartisan group to inspire women to join politics and business), Barbie has run for president over seven times, with the message “go vote, go run, go lead, go girl!” 

 She has even gone to the moon twice and is a gold-medalist in multiple athletic competitions, inspiring girls to excel in fields such as STEM and athletics.

For their Role Model Collection, Mattel shared that “Barbie is committed to shining a light on empowering role models in an effort to inspire more girls. As a part of the Dream Gap Project, we’re introducing girls to remarkable women’s stories to show them you can be anything.” Barbie persistently works to close the “Dream Gap” in male-dominated career fields and level the playing field for women. 

Barbie dolls have been created after iconic and inspiring women in history, such as Pulitzer winner Ida B. Wells, LGBTQ+ actress Laverne Cox, and author Maya Angelou. Mattel also created a line of dolls modeled after the frontline workers and women who helped create the vaccine during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Despite all this, Barbie has been characterized as being two dimensional and unintelligent, only caring about her looks and clothes. This criticism shows a deeper issue within our society on the way we view women, because we force this idea that pretty girls can’t be smart and that smart girls can’t be pretty. Women are chastised for caring about their appearance and are deemed unintelligent for it, but people fail to understand that women can be both. Barbie can care about her outfits and appearance, while being a robotics engineer or criminal justice lawyer. Barbie shows the world that women can be multifaceted and that their intelligence should not be judged just by their appearance.

These criticisms are also double standards, because the judgment applied to the dolls is not the same as that applied to traditional male toys. No one criticizes boys’ toys such as Superman for being too masculine or promoting an unrealistic body type, or G.I. Joe for promoting violence and glamorizing war. They have always been considered heroes, and a good role model for young men. Why don’t we see Barbie the same way?

Barbie works to be an inclusive representation of girls, and has introduced many new dolls to better represent our diverse society, such as Barbie in a wheelchair, or Barbie wearing a hijab, or a Barbie with Vitiligo. 

The criticisms and stereotypes that are pushed onto Barbie are reflections of society itself and the way it views women. Barbie consistently showed young girls that they could be anything they wanted to be, while it was the adults who limited them and pushed onto them societal norms and gender roles. The doll has served as a pathway for creativity for many, and has never wavered in her mission to serve as a positive role model for young children. With Mattel’s Dream Gap Project, Role Models Collection, and You can be Anything Campaign, Barbie continues her legacy as an inspiring feminist icon.