To Barbie or not to Barbie?
Being the mother of an 8 year old son, the last few years have been more about trucks and Lego than princesses and dolls. So when I needed to buy a gift for my beautiful and opinionated 5-year old niece off I went to the local toy store. As I headed down the 'girls' aisle' (yes, there was still a designated girls' aisle!) I got to thinking about Barbie. Friends have said they would never buy their daughters a Barbie doll. I was shocked. What in heaven's name did Barbie do to raise such vitriol? What messages would my niece get from her? And how is Barbie still a pop culture icon in 2019?
A little Barbie History...
I was surprised to discover that the first Barbie doll was invented by Ruth Handler, a mother and inventor, who was also the co-creator of Mattel. The idea came from watching her daughter and friends make their own dolls that were women and playing 'grown-ups'. Her intention was to create a doll (named after her daughter) for little girls to "play out their dreams" and be anything they wanted. She was a feminist! In the 1950's Barbie was groundbreaking and she quickly became part of youth popular culture. Since then Barbie has had 180 careers (and just as many outfits!).
So what happened?
It seems that Barbie could inspire little girls to have any career they wanted (she had to pay the mortgage on the Barbie mansion somehow) as long as she was tall, slim, blond and Caucasian. There was the rub. She didn't need to be smart, just pretty. In fact, the 80's Talking Teen Barbie exclaimed how "Math class is tough!". She also asked little girls, "Do you have a crush on anyone?", implying that struggling with maths was of the same level of concern as pretty party dresses and boy crushes.
Psychologists have weighed in on what the power of popular culture can have on consumers. "The Barbie Effect" is said to be the feeling of inadequacy some girls have because their bodily proportions can not match those of Barbie's. Studies suggest that even playing with Barbie once increased the tested girls' young internalisation of the thin ideal. I wonder if these results would have been the same in the 50's? I had a Barbie in the 80's but I never imagined I should look like her. Has the effect of pop culture changed so much? Does it really effect today's youth on such a fundamental level?
A change in popular culture
As I see it, youth popular culture in the past was about participating in things that were popular. It was about playing records (yes records) of Michael Jackson, practising tricks on a yo-yo and wearing anything fluorescent (we called it "dayglo"). Then, when the music stopped and the toys were packed away, kids went on with their day. Now technology keeps kids and culture connected all day, every day. Celebrities advertise their wares on social media, teens participate in viral trends (safe and unsafe) to gain 'likes' and dances are learned because they are on Fortnight. Barbie, once merely a doll in a lovely house with a fabulous car, now has her own Twitter account, interactive websites and is an Instagram Influencer with 2 million followers! (Barbie@barbiestyle) - (We both know you are going to check it out).
The way that teens access and interact with popular culture has been revolutionized by technology and specialization. They don’t just experience popular culture and react to it; they interact with it and affect it in real time.
So my final thoughts are these. I hope we teach our kids to think about what pop culture throws their way and decide if it represents what they want our world to value. I also hope that Barbie isn't the number one role model for our daughters. If popular culture has such an impact on youth, then perhaps we too must also have an impact on popular culture.
Becker, A. (2015). Youth and popular culture: It's all about influence and interaction. Retrieved from http://www.youthesource.com/2015/08/20/youth-and-popular-culture-its-all-about-influence-and-interaction/
Rice, K., Pritchard, I., Tiggeman, M. & Slater, A. (2-16). Exposure to Barbie: Effects on thin-ideal internalisation, body esteem, and body dissatisfaction among young girls. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1740144516300730