No – and I would like to say thankfully not. Life in plastic is not fantastic. Whilst the Barbie franchise has expanded its representation the doll remains a clear representation of societal expectations and norms.
The new Barbie movie, directed by Greta Gerwig, is a feminist commentary on the dolls and the expectations they set. It plays on nostalgia, but also considers the way in which children (and adults) ‘play’, aspire, self-actualise, and face considerations of existentialism. The film is a masterpiece that addresses not only the patriarchy, toxic masculinity, and the sexualisation of women, but far more subtly the spectrum of sexuality. It allows us to consider how we empower ourselves and indeed whether we are Kenough.
The revival of Barbie leads us to consider what it is our toys did for us and what they are doing for children today.
Barbie in Brown
For me, it has become a point of reflection on my Barbies and what they represented to me, but it also made me consider the ways in which Barbie worked to entrap me in societal norms. They were a point of reflection on class, but also, they starkly placed me, racially speaking, on the borders of society.
I had two Barbies – The ‘Heart Family Mom and Baby’ from the 80s and a ‘Totally Hair Barbie’ from the 90s. Neither of them was brown. Mattel sold Barbies of different races, but they were not available in my local ‘Toys R Us’. The racial exclusion at play was a representation of the dominance of the white population within Britain (and specifically the southeast of England). It was yet another means of assimilation into white culture. You may think this is a step too far, but if you consider the impact of always being faced with white faces within society but also within your safe space of play – then these contexts matter. If the rudimentary blocks of play – i.e. dolls - are white, then the context of play and make-believe is a white one. And if these toys are to be as Mattel intended – a source of inspiration for girls to be whatever they dreamed to be – then I was dreaming and aspiring in white. Representation matters.
I loved both my Barbies – I loved the fact that the ‘Heart Family’ came with a baby and lots of accessories, but she was so modestly dressed and was not as cool or exciting as the other dolls. None of my friends had her. She wasn’t desirable as a ‘mum’ and had to be redressed and rebranded by me and my friends, and the baby went to the bottom of the toy basket. It wasn’t that ‘mum’ wasn’t a valid aspiration, but she wasn’t sexy or exciting, representing how we see motherhood.
Totally Hair Barbie was amazing – she had hair down to her feet! For a woman of South Asian descent – the doll said a lot. I have always been told that hair is a sign of beauty. The longhaired Barbie became a totem of the beauty standard. But she created further problems for my understanding of beauty and whom I should aspire to be. She was white, slim, blue-eyed and was allowed to wear mini dresses. She was a complete contrast to ‘Heart Family’ Barbie, she was a contrast to my comparably conservative(-light) upbringing, as I was never allowed to wear short skirts. But she set the standard for what was pretty, what boys would like, and she fit the stereotype of elegance - a trait my mother has always wanted me to have. Barbie set me up to fail every beauty standard.
Representation matters but it is not just about aspiring to be an astronaut – we need to think smaller and more local. The inclusion of the Heart Family and Midge (pregnant Barbie) and their subsequent discontinuation is representative of the pressure to do it all, and the devaluing and disempowerment of being a mother.
Within the world of academia itself, the promotion categories and points do not account for academics (of any gender) who do mothering or gendered labour. Academia does not award those that fulfil these important roles; roles that students value. Instead, we are supposed to fit the confines of academic Barbie and Ken. This further entrenches the structures of power that favour the white, middle-class male professor and fundamentally does not allow for diverse modes of thinking: ironically what academia is (or should be) about.
Unnecessarily woke Barbie?
There has been a backlash to Barbie by conservatives who see Barbie as a harmless toy and that the politics of gender, sexuality and race that is superimposed onto the toy goes too far. Barbie is just a toy, and the film politicises it. The fact that you are either Barbie OR Ken, that the family is made up of 2.4 children, or that Barbie promotes a particular aesthetic and patriarchal system is not harmless. This conservative criticism of the film fails to consider the impact of representation. It fails to consider the goals and boundaries toys set. The fact that Barbie was not problematic for some was and is because it is representative of them.
There is a need to recognise the duality of joy and empowerment, as well as the confusion and disempowerment that accompanies Barbie. Life is not play, but a continuous navigation and negotiation of identity, recognition, and representation. We don’t neatly fit into stereotypical models. We must move beyond the binaries and dichotomies and embrace the ambiguous and diverse. We must seek to empower, leaving individuals to imagine beyond confines and norms.