How Barbie affects gender perceptions

The History of Barbie Day:

The original 1959 Teenage Fashion Model Barbie. (Credit: Mattel)

The history of Barbie Day is also the history of Barbie herself because March. 9th marks her official birthday. Barbie debuted on March 9, 1959 at the American International Toy Fair in New York. Ruth Handler, the wife of Elliot Handler, who is the co-founder of the toy company Mattel, Inc., thought that the toy market needed something more, after watching her daughter Barbara playing with paper dolls. She noticed that she often enjoyed giving them adult roles and at that time most children’s toy dolls were representations of infants. She viewed this as a gap in the market and suggested the idea of an adult-bodied doll to her husband who was unenthusiastic about the idea, as were Mattel’s directors.

Barbie and Ken in the 1960s. (Credit: Mattel)

The creation of Barbie started with a trip to Europe in 1956 with her children Barbara and Kenneth, where Ruth saw a doll that fit exactly with what she wanted. The German doll, named Bild Lilli, had the adult features that matched exactly what she had in mind for her new toy idea. The company then went on to make the first ever mass produced doll with adult features and this is when Barbie was born! There have been minor changes throughout the years, but Barbie came off the production line almost the exact same as we know her today. Some people objected to her figure, but as you can see with her success, these people were only in the minority.


How the Evolution of Barbie has Affected Gender Role Perceptions:

Many people have a problem with the inherent message that Barbie dolls sends to girls about their roles in society. For example, the Barbie persona focuses too much on shopping and she reinforces gender differences in mental capability. One of the Barbie dolls’ spoken phrases: “Math is tough,” reinforces the belief that women are less capable at excelling in math or STEM subjects, even though a meta-analysis by Hyde, Fennema, and Lamon showed only a small effect (0.15) of gender on math ability. In addition, in some of the genres and stories created around her, Barbie often trades her youthful looks for material possessions.

When Barbie began to gain more popularity, feminists fought against it, claiming that the doll encouraged girls to look at themselves as either mannequins, sex objects or housekeepers. On the other hand, Mary F. Rogers in the book Barbie Culture, describes Barbie as “a creature of privilege” who isn’t content to stay home, look pretty, and clean house. Some of Barbie’s diverse character roles have been an Olympic athlete and competitor, an air force pilot, a boutique owner, a fashion designer, a presidential candidate, a veterinarian, NASCAR driver, pilot, and even a paleontologist; over 100 professions in all.

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Political activist Susan Stern notes in the documentary Barbie Nation that Barbie has a wholesome American girl personality, but is also described in terms of her sexuality and what was expected of woman sexually at that time. Women were expected to be sexual, but also a little bit “dippy”; meaning bubble-headed. Barbie never got married; she was a career woman who loved her independence. Barbie is described as being a very destabilizing influence to the middle-class American. She was along the lines of “Sex and the Single Girl”, and is seen as displaying an “anti-marriage” manifesto.

Since Barbie has no husband, she instead reflects the materialistic tradition of American society by always being surrounded by a never-ending supply of personal belongings and beauty aids. Mattel’s marketing of Barbie not only includes the selling of the doll itself, but also keeping the customer returning for more Barbie goods. In regards to advertising for Barbie, Kristin Noelle Weissman, notes in the book Barbie: The Icon, the Image, the Ideal: an analytical interpretation of the Barbie Doll in popular culture: “People who internalize these ads and purchase the products because of them identify with a cultural image or iconic presence in society.”


The Barbie Body Image:


Let’s put this in perspective. If the traditional Barbie doll was a real woman, she would be 5’9” and weigh 120 pounds…sounds a little unrealistic, right? Her body fat percentage would be so low that she would not be able to menstruate and her measurements would be 38-18-34. The average woman’s measurements are about 41-34-43…what a huge difference that is! In the book, Ken and Barbie at Life Size, author Kevin Norton states that only about one in 100,000 women actually match the Barbie body image. That’s how absurd the whole idea of Barbie’s “perfect body image” really is!


How children sees Barbie:


Children are influenced by the toys they play with. One study showed that girls who played with Barbie reported lower body image satisfaction and a greater desire to be thinner than the girls who played with a curvier doll or no doll at all.


So, What Does Barbie Really Teach Children About the World? Barbie teaches children that it is desirable to be thin, white, and blonde. She may also encourage children to strive for an unrealistic body image.

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Author Julia Mason

About the Author

Julia loves to write about topics that interest and inspire her to make a difference in the world. She also enjoys editing and researching for new ideas to put in her writing. She is passionate about her work and would love to be able to change the world one small step at a time.

One thought on “How Barbie affects gender perceptions

  1. Interesting article, but hasn’t the company addressed some of the issues above by making dolls of multiple ethnicities now? I’ve seen Barbies of color, with different colored hair, etc. However, I have yet to see a Barbie with a “less than perfect” build.

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