In the news, many probably didn’t expect to see the no-frills, outdoorsy animal behavior expert and conservation activist Jane Goodall become a Barbie doll (accompanied by her famous chimpanzee, David Greybeard).
As the latest member of toymaker Mattel’s “Barbie Inspiring Women Series” honoring historic and contemporary heroines, Goodall joins aviator Amelia Earhart, NASA mathematician and physicist Katherine Johnson, artist and political activist Frida Kahlo, tennis great Billie Jean King, medical reformer Florence Nightingale, and civil rights activist and journalist Ida B. Wells, whose Barbie debuted in January.
The series launched on International Women’s Day in 2018, as part of Mattel’s response to mothers’ concerns about their daughters’ role models. To date, there are nearly a dozen “inspiring” Barbies with each doll accompanied by information about the accomplishments and influence of its namesake. Instead of being generic plastic bodies to dress and pose, the dolls were now presented as “real” women, with Mattel pledging to “shed light on models past and present with the aim of inspiring more girls”.
What makes a heroine?
Barbie has certainly come a long way since it was first made in 1959 and has become synonymous with what feminists saw as the objectification and commodification of women.
But the fact that some of the world’s most famous and groundbreaking women – who sought careers outside of their physical appearance – were now being reimagined as plastic dolls also interested me professionally.
My new book, Heroines in History: A Thousand Faces, examines the patterns that underlie the construction of heroines over the past 200 years. I argue that representations of women who have rebelled, shaken, shaken and changed the world are constrained by portraying them as ‘superwomen’ or ‘men of honor’.
Taking the stories of individual women, including those now appearing as Barbies, I explore a range of archetypal themes, revealing how heroines are produced by the heterosexist societies around them.
Despite many advances for women, the persistence and reinvention of heroic iconography for women continues to privilege image over substance. And due to their iconic appeal, throughout history it has been common for heroines to be used for commercial purposes.
In the 19th century, for example, the image of British sea heroine Grace Darling appeared on boxes of chocolate and was used to advertise soap. Since her death in 1954, Frida Kahlo’s face has promoted everything from tequila to lip gloss. And the Marilyn Monroe image has endured to sell a number of products.
Antithesis of feminism?
So the appropriation of heroic women of substance like plastic Barbies should come as no surprise.
Dolls have a long and storied history, after all. They appeared as representative figures, including gods and royalty, or dressed in distinct costumes representing national identities. They served as good luck charms and voodoo talismans.
As they evolved from eclectic homemade rag, wool, and wooden figurines to mass-produced commercial objects, they became important in children’s gender role play. Repeating for their adult years, the boys played with toy soldiers, action figures and superheroes, while the girls had dolls to care for and model figures to seductively dress and groom.
In a sense, the Inspiring Women series can therefore be seen as a positive development, encouraging empowerment by including a wide range of ethnicities to attract girls whose communities were previously not represented as Barbies.
Overall, however, Barbie has a lot of work to do to overcome her image as the antithesis of the feminist goal of liberating girls and women from lives that have transformed them, in the words of writer Simone de Beauvoir. , in “living dolls”.
In 1991, author Susan Faludi even defined feminism by referring to Mattel’s famous product: “It is the simple word sign hoisted by a little girl during the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality: I NE AM NOT A BARBIE DOLL.
Barbie dolls have also been criticized by social scientists for promoting a white, idealized body type that advanced a kind of enforced heterosexuality and subservience. The call was for women to escape lower lives as “sex objects” and instead pursue “real” lives and be recognized for their accomplishments.
And yet, some women have even undergone plastic surgery to mimic Barbie’s body. As feminist writer Martine Delvaux saw it, “Barbie is the image of what happens to women, their invisible, silent murder.”
Can dolls loaded with such cultural baggage really honor inspiring women or serve as feminist role models? Or would it be better to think of them as examples of what I call “designer feminism” – where image and substance collide, but where the valuation of appearance underlies and ultimately contains account success?
The clothes of these dolls can symbolize real lives; but underneath there is still a plastic body.