When we think about feminism, we think about the 60’s, free love, burning bras and fish with bicycles. But we don’t usually of dolls. But 1959 was a turning point for women. While there were riots erupted in the Belgian Congo, Buddy Holly plunged to his death in a plane ride gone awry, and communists overran the Cuban government, other things were going on as well.
Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler was busy growing the toy manufacturing business based out of her garage workshop. And while young men were being shipped off to Viet Nam, Ruth was perfecting an 11 and 1/2 inch statuette inspired by her tweenaged daughter, Barbara.
The first Barbie Doll debuted later that year as a doe-eyed redhead clad in a now famous Black and White bathing suit. Since then, Barbie has undergone numerous “makeovers” the most significant of which being her career making change from Brunette to Blonde. Barbie has been a role model in career changes from traditional teacher and nurse to ground breaking doctor, veterinarian, single career woman, home owner and astronaut.
Although Barbie has become of the most successful toy franchises in the world, her curvy build has been the subject of much controversy. Naomi Wolfe, an acclaimed feminist author whose works include the novel The Beauty Myth, insists Barbie sets an unrealistic beauty standard for young girls. Likeminded author Ophira Edut supports Wolf’s assertion. "You're busted, Babs. You've been found guilty of inspiring fourth-grade girls to diet,” she writes in her book Adios Barbie.
Wolf, Edut and others maintain that girls who seek to imitate Barbie’s impossibly long legs, big bust and tiny waist will jeopardize both their physical and mental health by extreme dieting which will ultimately lead to a lifetime of distorted self-image and body issues. Doctors have noted that if Barbie were alive she would be well over six feet tall and too thin to menstruate.
Handler adamantly disagrees. “I though it was important for girls to play with a doll that had breasts,” pointing out that most dolls for girls were designed as babies, creating mommy-modeling.
The Mattel toy company found the objections truly baffling. Even though Barbie’s dimensions are somewhat unrealistic, spokesmen say Mattel continues to believe she is still an excellent role model for young girls. After all, she has tackled every conceivable career from homemaker to UNICEF ambassador. According to Mattel, her ever-expanding resume includes an impressive 80 plus occupations. Any fan of blond jokes must not be familiar with her credentials.
In addition to balancing her hefty workload, Barbie moonlights as philanthropist. In 2006, Barbie fronted a national campaign for breast cancer awareness. The Pink Ribbon Barbie Doll raised a $250,000 dollars for the Susan G. Komen foundation for Breast Cancer research.
And currently, Barbie Group is involved in a similar campaign for the American Heart Association. And you thought she was just a pretty face!