Is Barbie a feminist icon?

Warner Bros

Fact Box

  • Encyclopedia Britannica states that the 11-inch plastic toy doll, Barbie, whose full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts, was introduced by Mattel, Inc., in 1959 with pre-release market studies deeming her to have “too much of a figure.” 
  • Feminism can be defined as “the belief in social, economic, and political equality of the sexes.”
  • Statista estimates that in 2023, the worldwide brand value of Barbie is over $700 million.  
  • A 2023 Harmony Healthcare IT survey found that 69% of respondents think that “Barbie dolls can lead to body image issues.”

Mark (No)

Barbie is not even a symbol of feminism, let alone an icon of it. With the original template for Barbie, Mattel made a concerted effort to set the precedent for what a woman looks like and, in doing so, alienated countless girls with differing body types in the process. Feminism embraces realistic depictions of women, and despite Mattel trying to diversify the doll over the years, Barbie is somewhat antithetical to that with proportions that don't allow her to realistically hold up her own head or easily walk. 

Aside from Barbie's physical representation, other unsettling controversies about the doll have been around for decades--most notably 1960s Barbies with unhealthy weight expectations and 1980s talking Barbies saying things like 'math is hard!' And having been perpetually adorned in pink, Barbie has more than subtly suggested that the color is exclusive to females. Additionally, Barbie has been consistently portrayed as materialistic and leading a consumer-driven lifestyle

The idea that Barbie has somehow evolved from problematic to emblematic of feminism is a bit of a stretch. Perhaps the most damning evidence against this is that Gloria Steinem herself, co-founder of the feminist magazine Ms., said about the doll, 'She was everything we didn't want to be, but were being told to be.' 

The push to accept Barbie as a feminist icon is undoubtedly tied to the rebranding that director Greta Gerwig's Barbie movie attempts, described by The New York Times as 'taking a doll best known for reinforcing conventional stereotypes of women and rebranding it as a symbol of feminism, all without coming off as a shameless ad for the doll's maker, Mattel.' The line between role model and commodity can certainly get blurry, but feminism is never a vague notion. 

Sheryll (Yes)

Barbie has found herself at the center of many controversies involving her supposed promotion of unrealistic beauty standards and gender stereotypes. However, the backlash against Mattel's iconic doll fails to consider what she truly stands for. 

Released in 1959, Barbie was the first mass-produced doll in the US that didn't resemble a baby. Her design was based on Lilli, a doll marketed as a raunchy gag gift for men. Unlike Lilli, though, Barbie has been progressive beyond her time, with her iconic 'You Can Be Anything' slogan defining her brand. She's held over 150 jobs, including many in male-dominated fields. Barbie even ran for president in the 90s, two decades before a woman ever made it onto the ballot. 

It is also worth acknowledging that Barbie's creator, Ruth Handler, was a women's rights advocate well before her time. She was inspired to create the doll upon realizing that young girls don't just want baby dolls to take care of and instead want older role models they could aspire to be like. And though Ken dolls were released in 1961 to be boyfriends for Barbie, Barbie was rarely marketed as a woman who needed a date. 

Furthermore, while some claim Barbie portrays unattainable beauty standards, it is ironic that such arguments focus more on Barbie's body than her many careers. There should be no need for women to renounce their sexuality to have a serious job. It should also be noted that Mattel has introduced Barbies of various ethnicities, body types, and abilities in recent years. 

It is, therefore, indisputable that Barbie is a strong feminist icon who has successfully inspired and empowered young girls worldwide.

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