The beautiful contradictions of Barbie


HomeHome / News / The beautiful contradictions of Barbie

Jan 15, 2024

The beautiful contradictions of Barbie

As Greta Gerwig’s recent “Barbie” blockbuster makes clear,the plastic doll that has been synonymous with American girlhood for more than 60 years is impossible to pigeonhole as either empowering or

As Greta Gerwig’s recent “Barbie” blockbuster makes clear,the plastic doll that has been synonymous with American girlhood for more than 60 years is impossible to pigeonhole as either empowering or regressive for women writ large.

On the one hand, Barbies offer girls the ability to act out endless possibilities with their dolls, rather than confining them solely to play that involves babies. As Gerwig depicts, dolls before Barbie lent themselves only to playing at motherhood. But Barbie – now, at long last, available in various skin tones, body shapes and hair colors – can be an astronaut, a president or a dog walker.

While she can also be a mother, she is not only a mother. Over the past 60-plus years, as we continually opened up ever more professional options for women through both legislation and custom, Barbie evolved to reflect that reality. Moreover (the recent addition of a lone trans Barbie notwithstanding), it remains understood that Barbie is for girls, and that – like modern Barbie – girls come in all sizes and skin colors, and have all kinds of interests.

On the other hand, the traditional Barbie figurine, still the doll’s best-known iteration, feeds into the notion that beauty is blonde, thin and stiletto-heeled (even sans shoes).

Moreover, the emphasis on accessorizing Barbies is an ode to, and a reflection of, a specifically feminine materialism against which many a 1960’s feminist once railed. In her film, Gerwig places this critique of Barbie as a “fascist” in the mouth of an angsty teen who resents the female beauty standards that still reign in American high schools — and that are reflected in the “stereotypical Barbie.”

But, far more importantly, the contradictions made manifest in Barbies and accurately illuminated by Gerwig ultimately say less about the dolls, or even about womanhood, than they do about humanity itself.

After all, contra the mainstream feminist zeitgeist on which Gerwig relies in the film, it’s not hard to be a woman because of “the patriarchy.” The limitations that were indeed women’s lot for much of history have their roots primarily in biological realities (i.e., menstruation, pregnancy and breast-feeding), not in male oppression.

Besides, it’s quite hard to be a man today, too. Changing models of masculinity challenge men (and contradict themselves) every bit as much as the changing roles for women reflected in Barbie dolls confound and frustrate women. And, just like women’s difficulties cannot be fairly blamed on “patriarchy,” men’s cannot be fairly blamed on feminism.

So, in the end, it’s hard to be a woman mostly because it’s hard to be a person. Constant negotiation, with oneself and with the wider world, is iterative and never-ending — for all of us, male and female alike.

But, unlike typical boys’ toys, which tend to streamline play into games with clear objectives (e.g., action figures that should beat the bad guys, footballs with which one intends to win a game), many girls’ toys reflect the possibilities and limitations of life itself. That is, while traditional boy toys tend to offer templates for later life situations (think about how often we use analogies and idioms related to sports and to war), the prototypical girl toy – Barbie – is a template onto which the complexities of life are projected in real time.

That makes sense, because most girls’ play reflects the intricacies of life much more regularly and directly than does most boys’.

This past school year, I volunteered regularly to supervise lunch and recess in my kindergartener’s class. I noticed that, at recess, most of the boys (and a few of the girls) usually played sports. Meanwhile, most of the girls (and a few of the boys) usually played imaginative games, such as “family” and the like.

When the boys had a conflict, it was almost always over something clinical: “You were out of bounds! No, I wasn’t!” When the girls had a conflict, it was almost always over something interpersonal: “You’re being mean to me! No, you’re being mean to me!”

Solutions to boys’ playtime problems were mostly objective, because the play itself was subject to agreed-upon rules. Solutions to girls’ problems, though, were often subjective, because what the girls are really playing at is, well, life. So, the relational and interpersonal dynamics that girls tend to engage in play are a lot more complicated, confounding and fraught than the kinds of self-contained games to which many boys default.

It would be a mistake to take from Barbie – the doll or the film – that women are victims of an unfair social order or that, in the words of the film’s most quoted speech, “it is impossible to be a woman.”

It is really hard to be a woman, sure. But that’s because it is really hard to be an adult in today’s world — where, like Barbie, we all have too many choices for comfort.

Girls tend to use their play to parse those choices, whereas boys tend to reduce options to one or two.

So, because girls’ play often imitates life rather than the other way around, Barbie simultaneously reflects and creates boundaries far more porous, changeable and interesting than those of any football game.

Elizabeth Grace Matthew (@ElizabethGMat on Twitter) is an Independent Women’s Forum Visiting Fellow

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.