The Controversial History Behind Mattel’s Barbie: A Deep Dive
By: Devika Sunand
If you grew up in the 1980s and 90s, chances are you remember playing with Barbie dolls as a kid. And who could forget the Barbie song?
“I’m a barbie girl, in a barbie world. Life in plastic, it’s fantastic. You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere.”
If the lyrics sound a little suspicious to you now, you’re not alone.
Barbie is one of the most recognizable and beloved toys in the world. However, behind its success, there is a controversial history. From its inception to the present day, Barbie has faced criticism for perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards and promoting gender stereotypes.
Inception and Early Years
Barbie was first introduced in 1959 by Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler. The doll was named after Handler’s daughter, Barbara, and was marketed as a teenage fashion model. The original Barbie had blonde hair, blue eyes, and a slim figure with exaggerated curves. At the time, the doll was seen as revolutionary, as it was the first adult-like doll designed for children.
The Barbie doll was perceived as a ‘teaching tool for femininity’ which represented a perfect western woman. The doll raised concerns for various reasons, including an unrealistic body image.
Criticism of Barbie’s Body
As Barbie’s popularity grew, so did criticism of her body shape. Many argued that Barbie’s unrealistic proportions promoted unhealthy body ideals and perpetuated gender stereotypes. In the 1990s, the “Barbie Liberation Organization” made headlines for switching the voice boxes on Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls, in an attempt to challenge gender stereotypes.
It is important to note that biologically, nobody can attain the physical attributes of Barbie. If Barbie was a real-life woman, she would not be able to walk because of her proportions. Thus, promoting Barbie as an ideal of female beauty standards can be extremely destructive.
In 1965, Slumber Party Barbie came with pink pajamas, a pink scale set at 110 lbs, and a diet book on how to lose weight, with only one instruction: DON’T EAT!
Attempts at Diversity and Inclusivity
In response to criticism, Mattel has made several attempts at diversifying and inclusive representation. In 1968, Mattel introduced Christie, Barbie’s first African American friend. Over the years, the Barbie brand has continued to introduce dolls with different ethnicities, abilities, and body shapes.
The Barbie Song
The Barbie song by Aqua was released in 1997 and has been quite controversial ever since its release. The creator of the world-famous doll, Mattel Inc., even filed a case against the band because of its ‘sexual nature, demeaning the brand franchise as a whole.’
The song consisted of a lot of double entendres that are inappropriate for kids. Some of the controversial lines include, “Life in plastic, it’s fantastic,” “I’m a blond bimbo girl in a fantasy world,” and “I can beg on my knees.” Despite Mattel’s lawsuit, the song became an international hit that was sung by kids and adults alike for decades.
Backlash and Controversy
Despite efforts at inclusivity, Barbie continues to face backlash and controversy. In 2014, Mattel released a “Barbie Entrepreneur” doll, which came with a book titled “I Can Be a Computer Engineer.” However, the book was criticized for perpetuating gender stereotypes and portraying Barbie as incompetent. In the book, Barbie relies on male colleagues to do the actual coding work.
Future of Barbie
In 2019, Mattel launched the “Barbie Fashionistas” line, featuring dolls with different skin tones, body types, and hairstyles.
As the world becomes more diverse and inclusive, the Barbie brand will need to continue to evolve to remain relevant and compete with realistic dolls like Healthy Roots dolls.
In recent years, the brand has focused on promoting positive messages of empowerment and encouraging girls to pursue their dreams. In 2019, Mattel launched the “Barbie Dream Gap Project,” aimed at supporting girls’ education and empowerment.
Barbie has come a long way since its inception in 1959. While the doll has faced criticism for perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards and gender stereotypes, Mattel has made efforts to promote inclusivity and diversity. As the world continues to change, the Barbie brand will need to evolve to remain relevant and promote positive messages for young girls.
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