Is Barbie Forever?

By Skye VanLanduyt

My English professor in college distorted my image of Barbie after assigning Marge Piercy’s poem, “Barbie Doll.” Piercy’s poem criticizes Barbie’s negative psychological impact on young girl’s body image. In my opinion, the last stanza is particularly haunting not just for its sexual implications but for its praise of non-bio-degradable beauty standards. For me, this is what makes Barbie so controversial. Her “perfect body,” painted lips, and little outfits are put into the hands of little girls around the world. This teaches little girls there is only one standard of beauty.

I was excited when the UMKC Women’s Center announced M.G Lord, author of “Forever Barbie: An Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll” would be coming to The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures to speak about the complex role Barbie plays in the feminine experience. In September, Mattel launched “Creatable World,” a gender-inclusive doll line. I was surprised by the Lord’s response to Mattel’s efforts. She felt the gender-inclusive doll is nothing new. “Children mutilate and cross-dress their dolls. I was that child. Children have been making dolls their own for years.” So, perhaps, Lord has a point. I know as a child, I too, cross-dressed and cut the hair off of my Barbie dolls. I am sure most kids experimented with their dolls’ hair and clothing.

For Lord, her reasoning is deeply psychological. At the height of her childhood, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Lord believes she coped by “cross-dressing her Barbie dolls as a way of protecting her vulnerability.” The act of dressing Ken in feminine clothes preserved her image of her mom. For corporations, she poses these questions, “is there only one way to be non-binary?” and “does Barbie reflect or shape the market place?” In some respects, Barbie is a teaching tool for gender performance. Lord calls this “impersonation, approximation.” Drag Queens have been using Barbie as a feminine paradigm for years.

While I think it is amazing the LGBTQIA community is uniquely invested in Barbie’s femininity, I wish the doll was not idolized by young girls. Lord talked about a number of different Barbie’s Mattel released such as the Sally Ride Barbie, the David Bowie Barbie, and Skipper. Lord claims none of Mattel’s career themed Barbie’s are deeply loved. She calls the David Bowie Barbie and Skipper “grotesque,” and I would have to agree with her. Although the Skipper doll comes with a desk for academic studies, Lord explains, “When Skipper grows up her desk for homework turns into a vanity.” What is even more alarming is knowing Skipper and the David Bowie doll were created by men. It seems like corporations are teaching girls to become vain and overtly feminine. In the case of women’s equity, the marketplace is a bad teacher for “shaping” women to be a certain way. Thus, answering Lord’s previous questions regarding non-binary expression and the market place.

Lord’s extensive knowledge on the inner workings of Mattel and the corporate world reiterate similar, troubling themes from Marge Piercy’s poem. However, Lord provides some hope for those worried about gender expression and equality. If children are making Barbie their own rather than being swayed by corporate ideas, where does children’s idolization of Barbie come from? Is Barbie really forever? Maybe this all draws from childhood psychology. Lord’s talk left me with so many unanswered questions. It would be interesting to continue research on why and how Barbie is still in the hands of so many young girls today.