Barbie Anniversary: Over 50 Years Later, Mattel is Still Marketing Sexism to Children


Barbie is 54. She’s eligible for AARP benefits and lower annual fees at specific banks, but despite Barbie’s intergenerational fan base, her presence on retail shelves still polarizes feminists.

Ruth Handler, creator of Barbie and co-owner of Mattel, had no idea how much popularity her plastic doll would accrue when she debuted at the American Toy Fair in New York City in 1959. She wanted a doll that served as an ode to feminist empowerment and independence, so she created Barbie.

"Barbie has always represented that a woman has choices. Even in her early years, Barbie did not have to settle for only being Ken’s girlfriend or an inveterate shopper. She had the clothes, for example, to launch a career as a nurse, a stewardess, a nightclub singer," she said in an interview.

Barbie has sold more than 1 billion dolls since its initial launch, with 99% of girls between the ages of three to 10 owning at least one.

However, many critics argue Barbie is the fictional personification of a beautiful, glitzy woman with a wardrobe full of chic designer digs and a shallow sense of purpose. This has led several researchers, including Helga Dittmar and Emm-a Halliwell, authors of Consumer Culture, Identity and Well-Being, to criticize Handler and Mattel for peddling sexist images to girls.

Dittman and Halliwell argue Barbie’s adherence to the male gaze’s perception of beauty and a distortedly thin frame decreases self-esteem among girls. One of their studies found a direct correlation between increased body dissatisfaction and exposure to the Barbie doll. Most of the girls included in the study desired an ultrathin figure similar to Barbie’s, not realizing how unattainable this longing is.

If Barbie were a real woman, her measurements would be 36-18-38. This would lead to extensive health issues, including the inability for Barbie to hold her head upright. Finland’s University Central Hospital in Helsinksi even found Barbie lacking the appropriate percentage of body fat required for menstruation. Barbie’s figure is not only unhealthy, it is almost unachievable. The likelihood of a woman having Barbie's body shape is one in 100,000.

Young girls don’t realize this. A large percentage of the impressionable population sees Barbie as the pinnacle of attractiveness and wants to emulate her. British researchers examined the effect of Barbie on children and found girls were more displeased with their bodies after seeing images of Barbie. Some expressed a desire to lose weight or achieve thinness similar to the doll. This is one of the reasons Handler and Mattel have been blamed for producing a doll that leads to distorted self-image.

Mattel has propelled this notion with several product launches designed to "fix" girls. In 1965, Mattel released "Slumber Party Barbie." She was sold with a bathroom scale set at 110 pounds as well as a book titled "How to Lose Weight," according to "The Barbie Effect." The one tip included in the book? Don’t eat. In contrast, Slumber Party Ken was released with his own accessories, including milk and cookies. Mattel sent a clear message with this doll: Girls must adhere to a certain weight to be attractive while men are excused from such pretenses.

This incident also speaks to another bolded critique of Mattel’s marketing of Barbie. She represents archetypal gender stereotypes. The first talking Barbie embodied this when she uttered the phrase, "Math is tough." Of course, Barbie has had several professional careers including being a veterinary science and engineering, but to assert math is difficult indicates it's better left to men. Women are often left out of STEM careers with fewer entering these fields opposed to women-dominated trades. Barbie continues to perpetuate that notion.

She is marketed as a glamorous, pretentious, elegant "lady" with more interest in the latest fashions, cars, and mansions than building a career. This is a false dichotomy. Women can and do balance both life paths, but Barbie is presented as an either/or figure instead of a both/and. Why can’t Barbie be fashionable and intelligent, accomplished and beautiful, brilliant and chic?

Mattel is attempting to combat its sexist notions of womanhood with the "I Can Be" academy. The organization empowers girls by showing them the various careers Barbie has portrayed and encouraging them to seek success as well. One of the initiatives included the release of computer engineer Barbie, but she hasn’t been mass-marketed for retail. Parents have to seek this specific Barbie doll at specialty stores. But fashion model Barbie is easily accessible. How ironic.

Girls are being assaulted and bombarded with conflicting images daily. The pressure to fit into confined limitations of girldom and femininity is leading some girls to drastic measures to achieve the perfection Barbie emanates.

Sarah Burge is one of them. She was raised with Barbie and has spent more than $1 million in plastic surgeries to imitate her idol. Burge desired flawless hair, clothes and makeup and she’s attained in. But at what cost to her sense of self-worth and value?

Barbie is 54 with no wrinkles or sprinkles of gray in her flowing tresses. Her abs are ripped, frame taut. Young girls think Barbie is perfect and are dying to see her face in their mirror reflections. Their souls are crying as they succumbing to the falsehood of unattainable beauty.

Happy anniversary, Barbie.