Lawson: Barbie is enforcing gender roles


Angelica Lawson

Barbie and the Mattel brand have seen brighter days since the market introduction of Barbie in 1959, when the Barbie brand was targeted to only girls. The brand started strong; Barbie’s clothes were designed in the image of Christian Dior, and her body shape has reflected the ideal shape for couture clothing.

But over the years, Barbie has been the target of media fire for the clothes and versions of Barbie that have made their way to the market.

Barbie’s 50th anniversary took place in February 2014, and it only seemed right to celebrate the milestone by putting Barbie on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swim Suit edition. And let’s not forget to buy the special edition Barbie, which is, of course, sold separately.

The Sports Illustrated cover was the beginning of the #unapologetic campaign that Mattel started for Barbie. Some of its endeavors have been embraced by the public, while others haven’t. The Sports Illustrated cover part of the campaign did not go over well, but many others have.

A study done by Tara L. Kuther and Erin McDonald about early adolescents’ experiences with Barbie and their views of the doll put 90 boys and girls between 10 and 14 years old into two groups. The kids were asked about their experiences with Barbies, how they felt about Barbies and what types of play they engaged in with their Barbies.

They also offered solutions to “fix” Barbie. Some suggested creating a fat Barbie, so fat girls wouldn’t feel sad when playing with Barbies. The older groups mentioned how Barbies affect self-image and the health of young girls.

This is just one of Barbie’s problems. You can’t sit here and say you are unique, that you are created by girls for girls. No girl in the company’s targeted market buys Sports Illustrated. You have a doll that young girls have played with and modeled their lives after sitting next a very slim, photoshopped and nearly naked woman.

This type of placement does not communicate a strong, confident and proud young lady. Instead, these types of placements encourage low self-esteem and only support the people who do not like and will not buy Barbies for the children in their lives.

With the Sports Illustrated cover in the past, Barbie launched a new career doll that got several people excited about the brand again. Entrepreneur Barbie was introduced to the market, and people were elated.

Mattel has launched several career-themed dolls that reflect the current time and careers that are becoming more popular for women. But these dolls still raise questions. I don’t know about you, but the day I see a nurse making rounds in pink high heels will be the day that I bow down to Mattel for predicting the future.

Barbie announced in February that it will launch a SuperHero “Barbie in Princess Power” line. The doll will still maintain the iconic Barbie-ness but will have a super hero outfit. The line is in response to a survey of more than 2,400 participants between the ages of 3 to 10. The survey found that 90 percent of the participants wanted more superhero dolls for girls. 

Mattel more recently launched a new Barbie commercial, which was picked up by Upworthy. The commercial is about breaking down gender roles with Barbie. It’s unique, and I appreciate the message. This is what I think the “Unapologetic” campaign should be focusing on — not putting the Barbie product on the cover of a sexualized publication.

Barbie is one of the most successful toy brands of the 20th century. It is iconic and holds a different meaning to those who have embraced one. Barbie should focus its efforts on encouraging the boys and girls who play with its toys. Shattering gender roles can help remove the image that Barbie is bad for you and demeaning.

By focusing on empowering the next generation, Barbie can once again become a childhood staple. It’s time to evolve past the accessories and focus on the imaginations and creativity that will ignite the young minds of tomorrow’s leaders.