Friday, July 29, 2011

Barbie's Standards of Femininity

In order to analyze the ways in which toys teach children gender, I recently went on a shopping trip for a young girl. I was shopping for Lacey, an 8-year-old girl who likes soccer, dance, and Barbie dolls. For the purpose of this analysis, I opted to focus on Barbie dolls. Barbie purveys a certain message to young girls about what it means to be a woman. According to this toy, the ideal woman is white, rich, preoccupied with appearance, and limited to traditional female roles.
Barbie represents a very specific and idealized image of a female. For one, Barbie dolls are overwhelmingly white. The few that are not are specified as the African American counterpart to an existing white Barbie. Besides white and black, no other races were accounted for in the Barbie products that I encountered.

The image that Barbie embodies is also a wealthy one. The word “glamorous” is thrown around in many of the product descriptions. Barbie has access to mansions, vacation houses, pools, luxury cars, and yachts. She also has an unlimited stream of clothes and accessories. She unquestionably represents an upper class lifestyle.

Barbie portrays an unattainable image of beauty. Her figure is thin with large breasts, a tiny waist, and long legs. In addition to promoting this beauty ideal, Barbie shows girls how to achieve it by teaching a preoccupation with physical appearance. According to Rogers, “Barbie demonstrates that femininity is a manufactured reality” which “entails a lot of artifice, a lot of clothes, a lot of props such as cuddly poodles and shopping bags, and a lot of effort” (Rogers 95). In other words, Barbie shows that being a female requires a lot of maintenance. All of the dolls come with hair brushes. This is even true of the professional Barbies, showing that she needs to appear flawless even while on the job. Many of the Barbie products are centered completely around grooming. Girls can do her hair, make-up, nails, and even put tattoos and body glitter on her.

Barbie also teaches young girls the traditional roles that are valued for females. Many of the products relate to cleaning, cooking, and housekeeping. Even when Barbie decides to be a working woman, her careers are very much limited to stereotypically female ones. These include teacher, babysitter, nurse, and ballet dancer. Furthermore, these careers are portrayed in a very glamorous and feminine way. Her uniforms are almost always pink, glittery, and impractical. How many nurses do you know that wear pink stilettos to work?

All of these feminine ideals and roles help teach children gender. In his discussion of learning differences, Newman states that “toys and games that parents provide for their children are another influential source of gender information” (Newman 112). Barbie clearly sends a lot of messages about how girls should look and behave. Children internalize these messages in order to build a more complete concept of what it means to be a female in society.

In addition to simply teaching these views of what it means to be a female, many Barbie products allow children to actively try and emulate her. These products include everything from dress-up kits to accessories like fake sparkly cell phones. Barbie also introduces children from a young age to make-up and beauty kits. They even sell blonde wigs so kids can “look just like Barbie!”

Overall, Barbie teaches children gender, by depicting what it means to be a female in today’s society. According to Barbie, the ideal woman is white, upper class, and physically attractive. She is preoccupied with appearances and sticks to traditional gender roles. The children that play with Barbie dolls learn this image of women and internalize it. With the help of Barbie they are even able to emulate this vision.

Works Cited

“Barbie Hairtastic Hairplay Wig Set- Blonde.” Photograph. Toys “R” Us. Web. 27 July 2011.

“Barbie I Can Be Doll Playset- Newborn Baby Doctor.” Photograph. Toys “R” Us. Web. 27 July 2011.

Newman, David M. “Learning difference: Families, schools and socialization.” Identities and Inequalities: Exploring Intersections of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. New York, New York: McGraw Hill, 2007. Print.

Rogers, Mary F. “Hetero Barbie?” Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-Reader. Eds. Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2003. 94-97. Print.