Thursday, March 14, 2013

A feminine critique: Barbie dolls need more diversity

by Ruthie Kovanen, Guest Columnist 

     If you have found yourself perusing the Barbie-aisle at Target recently — perhaps in search of a gift for a cousin or younger sibling — you no doubt experienced the overwhelming pink explosion that is Barbie.

    If you’re like me, you may have had your very own collection of Barbies — complete with a pink limo and a Barbie dream house.

    Without a doubt, Barbie has not only has made a huge global impact in terms of economics and business, but is also influential in shaping childhoods.

    During the 50-plus years of her existence, Barbie has had upwards of 100 careers — all the while balancing her on-again off-again relationship with Ken.

    She’s been an architect, a paratrooper, a surgeon and a CEO — not to mention the president. Some assert that Barbie’s ability to have many jobs and many roles is an empowering symbol for young girls.

    Despite her seemingly unbarred vocational ambitions and achievements, the fact remains that Barbie offers incredibly limited options in terms of appearance.

    All Barbie dolls are incredibly thin and have non-naturally occurring body proportions — proportions that would make it impossible for her to stand up if she were real.

    Furthermore, the majority of Barbie dolls are white and blonde.

    Sure, Barbie says that any woman can have any career, but to achieve career success, one must be white, blonde, thin and wealthy. Not to mention wear a pink pencil skirt and heels.

    There’s a definite disconnect between the vocational aspirations Barbie encourages and the image she promotes. This narrow portrayal of success has impacted children who play with the doll.

    Mattel — the Barbie-making company — has made some progress in the past 10 years.

    In 1992, after Mattel released a talking Barbie that announced the highly problematic phrase, “math is tough,” the company released the computer engineer Barbie with support from the National Academy of Engineering and the Society of Women Engineers.

    Since the number of women in science- and technology-related fields is very low, this presence might be a way to encourage girls to such career-paths.

    I’m not saying that Barbie needs to be banished. I’m not saying that all dolls need to wear “genderless” brown burlap sacks.

    There just needs to be more diversity — racial, class and size-related diversity.

    Rather than only representing the experience of the thin, white, rich women in society, I challenge Mattel to present an equitable representation of women’s lives and women’s power.

    By adding more voices to Barbie’s narrative, a broader, more inclusive portrait can be painted— a portrait in which young children see themselves without feeling a need to change who they are in order to be successful.
    Ruthie Kovanen hails from the great state of Michigan, is a sophomore at Pacific Lutheran University and is studying anthropology, Hispanic studies and women’s and gender studies. Aside from reading and writing about feminism, Ruthie enjoys chatting over a cup of coffee, baking bread and spending time outdoors.