Barbie is a feminist, & she always has been

Despite her flaws, the iconic doll has always been a signal to young girls that they can accomplish anything

Barbie is more than her body.
Photo: 

Girls start to feel the effects of the patriarchy from the moment they first walk through a toy aisle.

Boys are encouraged to play with toys which inspire curiosity and adventurism, like LEGO or Nerf toys. Girls, on the other hand, tend to get stuck with baby dolls or kitchen sets—toys geared toward homemaking.

In recent years, companies that have historically only marketed toward boys have come out with new toys aimed at girls. Toys that convey harmful stereotypes about women are rightly being called out and criticized. At the heart of this criticism, however, there’s a flaw.

When we think of the absolute worst toy that you could give a young girl while trying to avoid stereotyping, we think of the Barbie doll. It’s time we examine why that’s wrong.

Barbie is a feminist, and she always has been.

For years people have been saying that Barbie, with her unrealistic proportions and wild materialism, is a bad influence on young girls. Even newer additions—dolls with a wider array of body types and skin tones—have been attacked for making young girls feel as if their looks are all that matters. But perhaps it’s ironic that, in the name of feminism, all we can talk about when it comes to Barbie is her body.

It’s a doll. Certainly, it’s a product of sexism that most dolls have insanely thin waists and long legs, but at the end of the day, dolls aren’t supposed to look like real people. And with new lines that speak to girls of all shapes, sizes, and colours constantly being released, it’s a problem Barbie is actively addressing.

Beyond her body, Barbie has always been a revolutionary and unstoppable force. She’s never been limited to a homemaker, nor has she ever enforced the notion that there’s a single ‘ideal’ lifestyle that girls should strive for. She’s a symbol that girls can achieve anything. She’s had over 200 careers, from president to astronaut. Her slogan is “Be who you wanna be.”

None of these traits are products of Barbie aligning herself with mainstream feminism. She’s put in the work since her debut, when the idea that girls could do anything was relentlessly extinguished.

In 1963, the US passed the equal pay act. At that point, it was still taboo for women to work outside of the home, and even more taboo for little girls to aspire to be working women. That same year, Barbie released an Executive doll: finally, girls could play with a doll that not only worked outside of the home, but held a position of power. Though they may not have sent as strong a message, before the Executive doll, Barbie had two other careers as a fashion model and fashion designer.

Similarly, though girls’ dolls still blindingly lack colour, Barbie has been releasing Black fashion dolls since 1980, and has expanded to encompass many more identities. For those girls who have the privilege of being able to afford a Barbie doll, they can find one that looks like them.

These dolls may still look too perfect, and Barbie may still be far from a perfect role model, but Barbie dolls are both comforting and inspirational to girls. To completely dismiss Barbie because she’s not a flawless feminist is devaluing the positive impact she’s had on many childhoods.

While Barbie certainly works to hold up oppressive standards of beauty, that’s not all she does. Barbie has always been revolutionary in allowing young girls to envision themselves as anything they want to be. Now, with expansions to the Barbie collection, her message is reaching more and more girls than ever before. That’s undoubtedly a good thing.

Tags: 

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.