Just a Pretty Face

Some of my collection, including my lovely vintage doll, Charlotte.

Some of my collection, including my lovely vintage doll, Charlotte.

Recently I’ve seen a lot of venom directed at Barbie across various mediums, interspersed with one article arguing against the idea that playing with the doll increases body insecurities and the risk of eating disorders.  Admittedly, like all corporations, Mattel brings a lot of its trouble on itself.  But does an 11 1/2 inch doll with tits really prompt girls to hate themselves?  I’m fat.  I’m a feminist.  I had numerous body insecurities growing up.  I have opinions.

My first Barbie-style doll was a black Miss Flair… she was probably bought in 1993 or ’94.  I named her Julia.  My first Barbie followed soon after, and then a Ken.  About that same time my dad acquired a tape of Tex Avery cartoons, of which, one of my favorites was always “Swing-Shift Cinderella,” starring the even more impossibly proportioned Rita Hayworth-esque dame from “Red Hot Riding Hood.”  I was fascinated by Red.  She was gorgeous; she sang well, and she could handle herself pretty well against the ravenous Wolf (that’s how Grandma described him).  I asked my mother if I would look like Red when I grew up; she said no, Red was a cartoon character.

I applied the same lesson to my dolls.  I would probably have learned it anyway.  My baby brother arrived July of that year, and he in no way resembled the handful of baby dolls in my room.  Toys and real life were mutually exclusive.

Admittedly, it’s just my experience.  My body insecurities came from people rather than toys.  But beyond the body image thing, there’s still a lot of rather myopic hate thrown at Barbie.  A couple years ago I came across this book called The Good, The Bad, and the Barbie— a history of the doll, and the controversies surrounding her.  Some were pretty ridiculous, such as is Barbie an assimilated Jew (because the Handlers were Jewish)?

No.  Barbie is a plastic doll.  She’s not a Jew, a Christian, or any other religion.  She was invented because Mrs. Handler’s daughters preferred grown-up paper dolls to baby dolls.  It wasn’t meant to be political, or scheming to make people unhappy.  She just happened to observe what was liked.

Anyway, that was a commercial break.  The question you really want answered is whether Barbie is feminist or not.  And different feminists will tell you different things.

Yes, Mattel has slipped up a lot– pretty much all companies be they toy or entertainment have.  But Barbie is more than just a pretty face in that regard.  The Handlers put her into space before the US sent its first female astronaut skyward.  She has also been a teacher, a doctor, an army medic, as well as all the careers people are inclined to sneer at (ballet dancer, model, etc.).

And the inclination to sneer at Barbie for being too pink or two feminine complicates the problem further.  The problem isn’t pink– it’s pink being the only choice.  And that wasn’t always the case.  Until the 1980s, Barbie had a much broader palette.  For that matter, when she was first created, her appearance was much more cartoonlike (like Red), unlike the levels of “realism” Mattel strives for today.

Body image is a genuine problem, as are eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, but I feel that pointing the accusing finger at Mattel and Barbie is simply putting a bandage over the bigger issues.  Mental illness, eating disorders included, is still incredibly stigmatized and difficult to treat because most insurance plans don’t provide sufficient coverage for a patient to get the therapy they need.  Also body insecurity is not the sole cause of eating disorders.  Famous anorexic royal, Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary was trapped in a loveless marriage, bullied and sometimes locked in her apartments for days by her mother-in-law– what she ate, and how she made ready were the only aspects of her life she had real control over, and very quickly sank into that mental illness.

Then there’s the beauty paradox.  Too much of a woman’s worth is placed in what she looks like, that’s elementary, but the beautiful don’t necessarily get ahead.  Attractiveness is also a liabilty in that if one is beautiful, people will likely assume that that woman isn’t smart, that she’s shallow, or can’t be a good mother.  Barbie falls victim to that.  The viral video of kids playing with the “average Barbie” doll features one child saying that Barbie looked like she wouldn’t have a job.  Adults say the same thing.

There’s a lot of sexism in her criticism.  Even feminists who don’t like Barbie occasionally fall into that bad habit.  Admittedly, though, it’s a tough one to break.

So, should Barbie continue to be demonized as corrupting girls with her tits, dooming them to a life of misery, and mental illness?  No.  Is she a bright and shining example for young girls everywhere?  Probably not.  Though she has a very impressive history and makes many children happy when they act out her various adventures.  But she’s a doll– just a pretty face if you will, even though there’s a lot of brains behind it.  When there’s a problem, we need to use our brains and solve them instead of looking for something to blame.