Child’s Play: The Unstoppable Barbie and Other Dolls

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This year Barbie turns fifty, although you would never know it: the passage of time seems to have skipped the doll’s diminutive form, and she remains plastic fantastic, blonde-haired and wrinkle-free. Amidst the host of publicity surrounding her birthday and the barrage of collaborations (with Vera Wang, Fiat and even a life-size Malibu beach house built in her honor), Barbie has managed to keep up appearances. Her looks have barely changed since her 1959 incarnation; despite feminist protest, Barbie, and her ridiculous measurements, have endured. All the hype around Barbie’s birthday got us thinking about dolls, the stereotypes they proscribe, and the inevitable backlash. It makes you wonder: When did these toys become anything more politicized than playthings?

1959: Barbie hits the scene as one of the first mass-manufactured dolls. She is an instant success, and around 350,000 Barbie dolls are sold during the first year of production. As Barbie diversifies into dolls with different careers and races, the body and sweet feminine disposition remain. Like any girl, Barbie can’t last long without a boy by her side, and her companion Ken is launched in 1961.

1964: Hasbro releases G.I. Joe, the first doll (now known by the butch term “action figure”) marketed to boys. Unfortunately, the advent of the Vietnam War somewhat rained on Joe’s uber masculine, army-based persona, and Hasbro had to backtrack on their warmongering creation, rebranding him as more of an adventurer and less of a soldier.

1978: Cabbage Patch Kids are launched. Despite their proportions being even weirder than Barbie’s (those giant, squidgy heads and Winston Churchill-inspired jowls), they look more like children than adults, representing both genders free of stereotypes. They peak in popularity in the mid-80s, and are owned by boys and girls alike.

1992: Mattel delivers another blow to gender equality in the form of Teen Talk Barbie, who offers such words of wisdom as “Will we ever have enough clothes?” “I love shopping!” “Wanna have a pizza party?” and “Math is tough.” The last of which is particularly confusing given that in the Generation Girl book series, Barbie reportedly attends Stuyvesant High School. Maybe her question about clothes was interpreted as a sound critique of materialistic consumer culture by the admissions board?

2001: Bratz Dolls hit the scene, tapping into the emerging tween market and competing with Barbie in an even more monstrous display of sexualized femininity. They claim to have a “passion for fashion”, but appearances would suggest that their love of teeny-weeny denim skirts, draggy make-up, and belly tees lends itself to a passion for street walking. Despite hopes that Bratz might be abolished at the end of 2008, they still remain on the shelves.

2009: Barbie wins the infamous TOADY (Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young children) award for promoting harmful expectations as to what girls should look like. Backlash also comes in the form of spoof dolls who promote a more realistic body image (Plain Pamela) or a more adventurous “masculine” spirit (Turbo Heather). Yet, as this year’s 50th celebrations prove, Barbie’s popularity fails to decrease and Mattel claims that three Barbie dolls are sold every second.

Despite claims that Barbie damages girls’ health, and even banishment in Saudi Arabia, Barbie, G.I. Joe and other toys that peddle a constrained image of gender remain very much in business. Don’t believe us? Just check out these Barbie-Corvette pink Scrabble boards that Hasbro’s hawking… As Barbie herself so portentously puts it; small doll, big deal.