The Barbie Paradox: Modern Woman or Retro Bimbo

Laurel Welch

Writer’s comment: In Professor Barber’s History 174C class, I had the fortunate opportunity to work in the area that most interests me, American social and cultural history. This research paper was a twofold assignment. First, I read and wrote a review of Susan Douglas’ feminist interpretation of popular culture, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media. Then I selected one aspect from Douglas’ book to further research and determine whether I agreed with one or more of her conclusions. Thinking of a topic brought back memories of the many seemingly worthless hours I spent as a girl playing with Barbie—mostly just changing her clothes. And the recent Mattel-inspired nostalgia for collector Barbie dolls, Barbie ornaments, Barbie plates and just about anything else imaginable shows that I was not the only one. Initially I was prepared to condemn Barbie as the ultimate symbol of female objectification and degradation; however, my research revealed to me a more complex perception of this American icon. Through this assignment, I learned that good historical inquiry challenges one’s assumptions, sometimes resulting in a frustrating number of thesis changes.
—Laurel Welch

Instructor’s comment: The assignment for History 174C, United States History since 1945, required students to combine close reading of an assigned book with further research using other sources. I wanted students to grapple with some of the key problems in historical analysis; find the strengths of and criticize the limits of well-written histories; search out and analyze primary sources; and develop complex interpretations, combining their analyses with clear narratives. Ms. Welch’s paper stood out because she not only met these ambitious expectations but moved beyond them. Her use of the personal voice is subtle. Her analysis of the assigned book is skillful. Her description of the debates surrounding a new doll is insightful and original. As a result, Ms. Welch shows how wide-ranging debates about women in the United States since the late 1950s also appeared in the controversies surrounding a small plastic doll known as Barbie. Indeed, on a personal level, Laurel Welch’s paper helped me to understand why my mother, an active supporter of Women’s Liberation in the 1970s, never let me own one of these dolls and why I still wanted so much to play with my friends’ Barbies.
—Lucy Barber, History Department

As a young girl, I was not very interested in playing with baby dolls. I preferred playing with my many stuffed animals or the only doll I did like—Barbie. With my animals, usually I was rescuing them from some horrible disaster such as a flood or a forest fire. I was their heroic savior and benevolent protector. But with Barbie this was decidedly not the case. Sometimes my Barbie did normal Barbie things, such as get dressed up for an exciting date with Ken or go shopping with her little sister, Skipper. More often, however, I subjected Barbie to strange, sadistic acts of my imagination. Frequently Barbie, in her pink dune buggy, would have tragic head-on collisions with my brother’s dump truck, or the brakes would suddenly go out on her pink Barbie scooter, sending her careening off a steep mountain cliff. Barbie also had the unfortunate tendency to be sucked from her Barbie plane by her lovely long blonde hair while flying at 30,000 feet. Since in every other way I was a normal child, psychoanalysts might interpret my play patterns with Barbie as childlike manifestation of women’s frustrations at the disparate images popular culture presents for women. Most women I know also experience this love/hate feeling towards Barbie and the mixed messages she represents, especially when their daughters start begging for Barbies of their own. While mothers do not want to encourage the unrealistic beauty expectations that Barbie represents, they also fondly remember Barbie as their own favorite toy. These many women, and their daughters, have made Barbie the most successful toy for girls since 1959, despite Barbie’s many contradictions. Barbie embodies American popular culture’s attempt to respond to women’s changing roles in the era since 1945 while simultaneously promoting traditional female stereotypes.
         Susan Douglas’ book Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female With the Mass Media helps us reflect on the bombardment of mixed messages received by women through popular culture and mass media. By examining post-war television, music, movies, magazines, advertising, and newscasts, Douglas, a professor of media and American studies and a media critic, endeavors to “expose, review, and, at times, make fun of the media-induced schizophrenia so many of us feel, while showing how it has produced tension, anger, and uncertainty in everyday women.”1 Douglas argues that the media helped spur feminism by recognizing baby boomer young women as a huge market but then offered them sexist images against which they would ultimately rebel.2 She highlights various shifts in post-war women’s consciousness and the media’s role both in shaping and responded to those shifts. Douglas’ book also offers an alternative look at the women’s movement and an explanation for the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and subsequent denigration of feminism.
         Douglas eschews writing a purely objective history of postwar women’s relationship with mass culture; rather, she presents her own perspective. She readily admits her own bias as an educated, Northeastern, white, middle-class woman when she states, “Like all histories, my account . . . is neither objective nor exhaustive; rather, it is idiosyncratic and replete with the sorts of biases that come from my having been raised in a particular place and time.”3 However, her continual use of the pronouns “we” and “us” implies that all baby boomer women, regardless of class and race, had the same concerns and were influenced by the media in the same way. By disregarding the experiences of non-white, non-middle class women, Douglas follows the same course as other white feminist writers, a course which is criticized by some non-white feminists such as bell hooks. As hooks explains, “White women who dominate feminist discourse today rarely question whether or not their perspective on women’s reality is true to the lived experiences of women as a collective group.”4 hooks argues that ignoring class and race when constructing feminist theory does not provide a “solid foundation.”5
         Douglas’ subjective approach to her subject also reveals itself in the book’s structure and tone. Throughout Where the Girls Are, Douglas intermixes historical references with her own attitudes and experiences. Additionally, she employs highly charged, often hilarious, language to enliven her study. In an attempt to broaden the appeal of her book, Douglas finds a compromise between a rigid scholarly work and a humorous pop-culture retrospective. While passages like “I’m tired of Cher’s rump, Christie Brinkley’s thighs, and countless starved, airbrushed, surgically enhanced hindquarters being shoved in my face”6 are indeed colorful, such passion occasionally brings a vindictive spirit to her work. Nevertheless, Douglas generally succeeds at creating an engaging tone without diminishing the soundness of her arguments.
         Douglas’ interest in the mass media sometimes causes her to overemphasize the media’s impact at the expense of other important influences. When tracing the evolution of the feminist movement, she notes the importance of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and women’s civil rights movement involvement in the raising of women’s feminist consciousness in 1963. However, she does not mention Mary King’s and Casey Hayden’s significant “kind of memo” addressed to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee expressing the contradiction between the goals of the civil rights movements and women’s subordinate roles within them. Sara Evans states that “This ‘kind of memo’ represented a flowering of women’s consciousness that articulated contradictions felt most acutely by middle-class white women.”7 Further, Douglas attributes the ultimate defeat of the ERA to the news media’s polarizing coverage of the campaign as a “catfight” between radical women’s libbers and Phyliss Schlafly’s traditionalist Stop ERA campaign.8 However, Schlafly’s ascension and the ERA’s defeat could also be attributed to the overall rise in conservatism in America during the late 1960s, which emphasized traditional values and Christian fundamentalism over social activism.9
         Although Douglas may overstate the role of the media in the ERA’s defeat, her exposure of the media’s slanted coverage of the women’s movement is nonetheless one of the strongest components of her book. Moreover, she resurrects important episodes in the women’s movement, such as Robin Morgan’s powerful 1968 Miss America Pageant protest, which, Douglas claims, have been slighted in most late-1960 retrospectives.10 Douglas effectively argues that the news media polarized women through selective coverage which showed feminist activists “only in highly charged, dramatic, public demonstrations, yelling loudly and tussling with men.” In contrast, women “opposed to the movement appear more thoughtful and rational.”11 Douglas also reveals the news media’s condescending attitude towards the women’s movement. She notes that prominent journalists such as Howard K. Smith regularly made comments such as “Quote. Three things have been difficult to tame. The ocean, fools, and women. We may soon be able to tame the ocean, but fools and women will take a little longer. Unquote.”12 This type of reporting clearly denigrated and trivialized the women’s movement, tainting some Americans’ perception of the movement.
         Another major strength of Douglas’ work is her argument that postwar popular culture increasingly offered women conflicting images of their roles in society. She relates the dilemma of women her mother’s age, who were aggressively encouraged to work during the war, enjoyed working outside the home, but then were told to quit when the war ended. At the same time, these women were being bombarded with advertisements for amazing new consumer goods which the women could afford only if they continued working. And television shows such as Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best portrayed good mothers as having elegant, spotless homes. To achieve this ideal, women spent most of their “free time” doing housework. Douglas explains that “women like my mother were in an untenable position. They worked all the time, yet their work inside and outside the home was taken for granted and poorly valued.”13 Douglas continues tracing this pattern of mixed messages using such varied examples as Police Woman, which featured a woman as a cop who always needed to be rescued by her male counterparts, and beauty advertisements which equated personal liberation with toned bodies.14
         While these mixed messages aimed at women are disturbing, even more alarming are those messages directed at girls. Most women develop some capacity for control over popular culture’s influence upon their views of themselves, but most girls have not learned these skills, making them especially vulnerable to conflicting messages. Douglas writes that she, like other girls in the late ’50s and early ’60s, was told that she was “a member of a new, privileged generation whose destiny was more open and exciting than that of my parents. But . . . that I couldn’t really expect much more than to end up like my mother.”15 Douglas explains that President Kennedy included girls in his vision of American exceptionalism, but the television shows she watched stressed that girls should be popular and cute so they could catch a man.16 For young girls discovering their adult identities, sorting through these diverse images could prove a confusing task.
         One of these mixed messages baby boomer girls received was through one of the most powerful and controversial symbols of American girlhood, the Barbie Dolls. I reviewed articles from pre-Barbie (1959) mainstream popular magazines to substantiate girl’s roles and the reflection of these roles in their toys. I examined early 1960s articles from popular magazines and business periodicals, which reported and speculated on the causes of Barbie’s popularity, to determine if Barbie represented a break from established girlhood values. Then I analyzed a variety of different sources to identify controversies that have surrounded Barbie. I was mostly interested in early Barbie controversies, but I also briefly reviewed more contemporary Barbie criticisms. I found that liberal periodicals were more critical of Barbie but that mainstream magazines also offered some criticisms. My goal was to determine through these sources whether Barbie’s appearance in 1959 contributed to her success and whether Barbie typified the kinds of mixed messages presented to girls, as Douglas argues.
         Popular magazines in the 1950s and early 1960s emphasized traditional roles for girls. A 1955 New York Times Magazine article entitled “Mother for a Day” explained: “On the long road of growing up a little girls lives in her own mind many different lives. . . . Mostly, though, her play is concerned with dolls and her favorite part is ‘mother.’ Somewhere around the age of 9, however, doll play begins to wear thin. Then a girl wants to play a housewife’s role for real.” The article recommended that mothers encourage this “housekeeping urge,” and suggested that they allow girls to help with the shopping, serve tea, and cook simple meals since “cooking is still a little girl’s biggest thrill.”17 This article indicates that mainstream popular publications advocated the roles of wife and mother as the appropriate ambition for girls.
         Popular magazines also promoted toys which especially emphasized traditional roles for girls. A 1955 Saturday Evening Post article reported that new toys reflected the national interest in space travel. The author noted that the hottest toys of the season, such as ballistic missiles and moon rocket launchers, stressed military science, but the author apparently believed these toys were intended only for boys. The author stated: “Girls are traditionally harder to please (dolls excepted), but this year they get a special break. Manufacturers have scratched their heads and come up with some fresh ideas—a tiny mixer than can prepare real ice cream, a laboratory technician’s set especially for girls, and an airlines-hostess outfit.”18 Unfortunately, the article did not reveal the difference between girls’ and boys’ laboratory technician sets. In addition, a 1955 Newsweek article about toys claimed that “little girls can emulate their mothers with housewifery kits and devices boasting such well-known brand names as Kleenex, Pillsbury, Hoover, Ivory, Ipana, Brill, and Heinz.”19 Overwhelmingly, toys promoted for girls in this period were either baby dolls or miniature homemaking tools. But if children chose toys which allowed them to emulate the roles of their parents, as the Newsweek article suggested, then the toy industry was clearly unrealistic about women’s roles by the late 1950s.
         By the late 1950s, women were occupying roles other than wife and mother. Douglas notes that “in 1960, one out of five women with children age six and younger was in the labor force, and nearly 38 percent of women over the age of sixteen had a job.”20 Girls were being told they were part of a new, privileged generation, with more opportunities than ever before.21 Young girls’ consciousness now included aspirations beyond housewife and mother. One such young girl’s parents, Elliot and Ruth Handler, owned a small doll furniture manufacturing company. The Handlers noticed that their thirteen-year-old daughter, Barbie, had lost interest in her baby dolls and preferred playing with adult paper dolls. Thinking that other girls might have the same interest, the Handlers introduced a long-legged, tiny-waisted, big-busted fashion doll—Barbie. The Handlers also created an extensive wardrobe and countless accessories for Barbie. A complete Barbie ensemble prepared her for such varied activities as “skiing, skating, skin diving, shopping, cheerleading, tennis, being a drum majorette, ballerina, career girl, airline stewardess, nurse and hospital volunteer.”22 At various times, Barbie also owned her own house, car, and boat. Mattel eventually added Barbie’s boyfriend, Ken, and several Barbie friends. By 1964, the Handler’s simple idea had grown into a $97 million annual industry.
         Barbie’s success can partly be attributed to Mattel’s perceptive advertising techniques. Douglas noted that in the 1950s, the American birthrate surpassed India’s, making kids a huge consumer market.23 Their large numbers, combined with their being the first television generation, made baby boomer children especially appealing to advertisers. In a 1962 Time article, the Handlers credited much of their success to Mattel’s saturation-selling on TV.24 Mattel first bought a quarter-hour of advertising on the Mickey Mouse Club and then sponsored Funday Funny, its own weekly half-hour show for children from four to twelve.25 By using TV as their advertising medium, Mattel directly sold to girls the glamorous image of Barbie and her friends. However, was this image appropriate for girls to emulate?
         Barbie’s history is remarkable, not simply because of her success but also because she has flourished despite intense controversy. By the early 1960s, criticisms of Barbie began appearing in both moderate and radical publications. The author of a 1963 Saturday Evening Post article, which condemned American mothers for forcing girls into premature womanhood, believed Barbie contributed to girls becoming sexualized too soon. She wrote: “Girls today are spurning the traditional pudgy infant dolls for the very popular new doll which boasts a ripe bosom, long, shapely legs and, of course—for this is the core of the doll’s symbolic value—her own boyfriend doll.”26 Another Saturday Evening Post article questioned Barbie’s value by stating that “with its emphasis on possessions and its world of appearances, it is modern America in miniature—a tiny parody of our pursuit of the beautiful, the material and the trivial.”27
         Early criticisms from more radical periodicals echoed the Post’s concerns but in a much more aggressive tone. A 1964 Nation article warned: “Teen-focused play-fantasies are rearranging the souls of girls between the ages of six and fifteen. Barbie threatens to make a generation of vipers that will cause men to plead for the return of momism.” The article also referred to a 1964 University of California Medical School symposium on teenagers, which reported “Barbie-instigated problems.”28 In addition, a 1965 Ramparts issue included a scathing reproach of Barbie and Mattel; the author caustically argued that “the company wants little girls to realize the American feminine ideal (growing up to be a big-spending, busy, powerful, frigid woman).”29 He also quoted Dr. Alan F. Leveton—director of the Pediatrics Mental Health Unit, University of California Medical Center, San Francisco—asserting that through Barbie, “both boys and girls are introduced to a precocious, joyless sexuality, to fantasies of seduction and conspicuous consumption.”30 And by 1975, Barbie regularly appeared in Ms. Magazine’s “Toys: Bad News/Good News” feature as “bad news” because of her stereotypical qualities.31
         Although the Saturday Evening Post had a very different audience from Ramparts or Nation, all three articles expressed similar criticisms. They condemned Barbie’s emphasis on materialism, beauty, and sexuality. Their criticisms support Douglas’ argument that 1950s and 60s girls were receiving messages that they should be narcissists. Douglas asserts,”To be a success as a girl and then as a woman, I learned early that I was supposed to be obsessively self-centered, scrutinizing every pore, every gesture, every stray eyebrow hair, eradicating every flaw, enhancing every asset.”32 Since the Post, as a mainstream magazine, relied on consumer products’ advertising revenue, they may have been hesitant to severely criticize a popular consumer item. The Post would have benefitted from celebrating popular culture, not tearing it down. In contrast, liberal publications would be freer to denounce cultural symbols.
         Barbie’s reputation has been tarnished over the years but, recently, writers are offering a more positive view of Barbie. Even though Barbie reinforced stereotypical ideals of feminine beauty, she also presented the image of an independent woman. She represented the other message Douglas contends that girls were receiving in the 50s and 60s—that they “were a force to be reckoned with . . . and they were freer from constraints than our mothers . . . riding a wave of progress, less old-fashioned.”33 And Mattel claimed Barbie’s careers have “reflected the activities and professions that modern women are involved in.” These have included nonstereotypical female roles like medical doctor, TV news reporter, and corporate executive.34 Even some feminists have softened their stance on Barbie. A 1992 Utne Reader feminist feature noted that some feminist moms are defending Barbie, believing their daughters are learning messages of power from Barbie. The author quotes one Barbie fan, Diane Bracuk, claiming, “Barbie represented a liberating counter to the omnipresent image of woman as housewife drudge.” The author also pointed out that Barbie’s appearances as astronaut and career girl preceded many real-life women’s entries into these professions.35 In many ways, Barbie epitomized the dual image Douglas concludes girls received in the ’50s and ’60s. She was both over-feminized tease and groundbreaking visionary—popular culture’s compromise between femininity and feminism.
         As a society, we should be particularly concerned with the messages children receive. These messages help lay the foundation from which children construct their adult identity. While Barbie gave girls different personas other than mother and housewife to explore, Barbie also characterized women as shallow, narcissistic sex objects. Sources from both the 1960s and more recently remain divided on which Barbie message girls are most likely to internalize. Unfortunately, toy alternatives are almost as limited for girls today as they were in the 1950s. Current toy advertisements clearly sex-segregate their advertisements, with the girl’s toys dominated by dolls, beauty sets, and homemaker toys—pretend kitchens seem particularly prominent. And Barbie still can not decide if she is a modern woman or retro-bimbo. This year Barbie assumes such noble roles as teacher and pet doctor (Mattel apparently believes little girls would not understand what a veterinarian is). However, girls can also choose from “Shopping Fun Barbie” and “Jewel Hair Mermaid” Barbie, neither of which presents a particularly progressive image.36 My six-year-old niece, who used to love building things, has already informed me she wants a Barbie for Christmas. While I probably won’t give her one, I cannot help but imagine what fun she would have pretending her beautiful “Ocean Magic Barbie” fatally depletes her oxygen 100 feet below the surface.


1 Susan Douglas, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media (New York: Times Books, 1995), 20.

2 Douglas, 14.

3 Douglas, 19.

4 bell hooks, “Black Women: Shaping Feminist Theory,” in A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America, eds. William Chafe and Harvard Sitkoff (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 245.

5 hooks, 256.

6 Douglas, 264.

7 Sara Evans, “Women’s Consciousness and the Southern Black Movement,” in A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America, eds. William Chafe and Harvard Sitkoff (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 241.

8 Douglas, 232.

9 Lucy Barber, Lecture, November 19, 1996, History 174C.

10 Douglas, 157.

11 Douglas, 184.

12 Douglas, 163.

13 Douglas, 57.

14 Douglas, 210 and 259.

15 Douglas, 25.

16 Douglas, 27.

17 Dorothy Barclay, “Mother For a Day,” New York Times Magazine, January 3, 1955, 20.

18 Roul Tunley, “What’s New in Toyland?” The Saturday Evening Post, December 6, 1958, 34.

19 “Biggest Christmas,” Newsweek, November 28, 1955, 92.

20 Douglas, 43.

21 Douglas, 25.

22 William K. Zinsser, “Barbie is a Million-Dollar Doll,” The Saturday Evening Post, December 12, 1964, 72.

23 Douglas, 24.

24 “All’s Swell at Mattel,” Time, October 26, 1962, 90.

25 “It’s not the Doll it’s the Clothes,” Business Week, December 16, 1961, 48.

26 Cleo Shupp, “Little Girls are too Sexy too Soon,” Saturday Evening Post, June 29, 1963, 12.

27 Zinsser, 73.

28 “The Barbie-Doll Set,” Nation, April 27, 1964, 407.

29 Donovan Bess, “The Menace of the Barbie Dolls,” Ramparts, January 25, 1969, 25.

30 quoted in Bess, 26.

31 Letty Pogrebin, “Toys: Bad News/Good News,” Ms., December 1975, 60.

32 Douglas, 27.

33 Douglas, 25.

34 “Zeitgeist Barbie,” Harper’s Magazine, August 1990, 20.

35 Helen Cordes, “What a Doll!,” Utne Reader, March/April 1992, 46.

36 taken from December 1996 Toys R Us, Wal Mart, Target, and K-Mart advertisements.