Barbie: Feminist or Total Phony?
BY ISABELLA HILL '25
With wide eyes, young girls point at dolls on the highest shelves, tug on their parents' legs, and beg. One parent smiles and buys their child’s dream toy: a Barbie. With a slogan advertising “You Can Be Anything,” the Barbie doll has become increasingly controversial among feminists. All feminists advocate for women’s rights, work towards eliminating gender discrimination, and hope to establish equality among the sexes, but they divide over how to achieve equality. Although some feminists claim that Barbie empowers young girls, the doll does the exact opposite; she incentivizes low self-esteem, encourages sexist views, and objectifies women. Mattel, the company that produces Barbie, ultimately pushes the feminist movement two steps back, eroding gender equality.
For a company that supposedly inspires girls to dream big and think outside the box, Mattel places an unhealthy emphasis on physical appearances. Primarily consumed with the latest fashion trends, Barbie fixates on her hair and makeup instead of dedicating herself to her job. While some feminists claim that the doll demonstrates how girls do not have to renounce their femininity to be highly regarded, the sarcastic song “Barbie Girl” illustrates—through sexual innuendos—how Barbie is anything but respected. For example, Aqua, the singer, highlights that Barbie is overly sexualized and objectified; she is viewed as a “play-thing” without independent thoughts and whose only value is in sexually gratifying men.
Even when Barbie becomes an engineer, scientist, or lawyer, she reinforces negative stereotypes about women and is incapable of functioning on her own. For example, Mattel once produced a talking Barbie doll that claimed “math is tough.” This statement reinforces the stereotype that girls are not good at math and pushes the narrative that girls cannot think logically like men. Ultimately, Barbie’s words harm young girls who may feel they will never be as successful as their male counterparts, especially in STEM-related fields. In cementing gender roles—men being the only “problem-solvers”—the feminist movement is pushed back, and malleable children are bombarded with decade-old stereotypes. One cannot dream of achieving gender equality when products like Barbie, intended for children, promote sexism and discrimination.
Barbie, with a body mass index (BMI) so low she would be unlikely to menstruate, also triggers an increase in self-consciousness, body dysmorphia, and eating disorders. For example, a 2006 study presented young girls with Emme dolls—toys with realistic appearances—and Barbie dolls to determine if dolls influence how girls view and interpret their bodies. By the end of the study, girls who played with Barbie reported having greater body dissatisfaction and lower self-esteem. Although the Barbie doll has evolved since the 1960s when she published a diet book titled “Don’t Eat!,” harmful messages relating to eating and body image are still subconsciously imprinted in young girls’ developing minds. According to a University of California researcher, “Girls, even at a young age, can recognize the sexualized nature of Barbie, as well as her unrealistic body shape, and that these things feed into a girl's understanding of gender roles.” As the study demonstrates, Barbie insinuates that anyone who does not fit the societal norm of having a skinny body is not attractive or valuable. Girls face enormous pressure surrounding their external appearance, and they are taught, through dolls like Barbie, that they only benefit society when they look a certain way.
Once again, Barbie falls short of empowering girls. The “You Can Be Anything” slogan is incredibly ironic; although Barbie has embraced over two hundred jobs, research has proven that Barbie negatively influences girls’ career aspirations. In an experiment conducted by Sherman and Eileen L. Zurbrigge of the University of California, girls ages four to seven played with one of three dolls: a fashion Barbie, a career Barbie with a doctor’s coat, or a Mrs. Potato Head with accessories like purses and shoes. After playing with the dolls for a few minutes, the girls identified what professions they could see themselves working in. The study found that girls who played with Barbie, regardless of what she wore, did not feel equipped to do the same jobs as boys. This most likely occurred because, no matter what she wears, Barbie is portrayed as a helpless woman, dependent on men in the workforce and in her daily life. On the other hand, girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head saw an equal number of career possibilities for themselves and boys.
It might be too late for Mattel to fully reverse this negative messaging; however, if the company overhauls Barbie’s concept and begins to show how she focuses on her career aspirations and independence, rather than her body, Barbie has the potential to inspire young girls. Although playing with a doll will not completely alter a child’s mindset or career aspirations, toys can impact how girls view themselves and their capabilities. In light of modern-day issues like the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the growing pay gap between men and women, it is all the more important for young girls to grow up to be strong, confident, and empowered. Inclusivity involves celebrating differences, highlighting marginalized groups, and fostering equality amidst dissimilarities. Consequently, to raise feminist daughters, parents should expose their kids to empowering toys such as For Keeps dolls that promote acceptance, love, and self-empowerment through positive affirmations and uplifting messages. Thus, parents who recognize Barbie’s harmful influence can give their children more inclusive dolls and educate them about body positivity and inclusivity.