Like many material icons, Barbie has had a complex history.
When Mattel introduced Barbie to the public in 1959, America was beginning to enter deep into the throes of the Cold War. The modern civil rights movement was beginning to gain steam and the nation was largely embracing the status quo. While the second wave of feminism became a radical force on multiple fronts – racial, sexual, political, etc. – the doll was immune from intense criticism.
To many, Barbie was seen as a doll that little girls of all races embraced. It was viewed in the realm of childhood and escaped the attention of progressive, socially conscious women.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, America made a political U-turn to the right and a new era of conservatism saturated the nation. Many movements and institutions that were considered to radical or insufficiently patriotic were denounced and targeted. The feminist movement was not spared.
The backlash against women’s liberation was stark. The fall of 1991 introduced the nation to the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings and blasted the issue of sexual harassment into the mainstream. Sexual assault on college campuses and in the larger society become an issue of rampant concern. Women like Camille Paglia, Christina Hoff Sommers, Rene Denfeld and others wrote best-selling books critical of the feminist movement while simultaneously considering themselves feminists. Thus, that second wave of feminism found itself under fierce attacks from various quarters.
Interestingly, it was during this period that Black, Latina and other non-white Barbies were introduced to the public. While such an expansion of dolls of various races and ethnicities was applauded, these new supposedly “ethnic Barbies” resembled the traditional Barbie doll with her thin lips, long hair, and other Eurocentric features.
Critics derided such homogeneity and lack of originality, charging Mattel with promoting a message to young non-white girls – whether intentionally or unconsciously – that they should strive to be “as white as possible.” Subliminally promoting a “white is superior” message. Some cited the Black doll/white doll experiment that was conducted by husband-and-wife psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark during the mid-1940s, where children of various races were convinced that white dolls were more attractive and possessed other positive character traits that were bereft in Black dolls.
Decades later, in 2018, “Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie” provided a detailed look at the Barbie Phenomenon from business, ethnic, political and psychological perspectives. The documentary depicted Mattel as a company in crisis. Faced with shrinking revenues and a declining consumer base, the company planned to introduce a collection of dolls whose skin tones and body types represent the full spectrum of racial diversity. Women of multiple racial and ethnic groups were interviewed for the film, including Barbie historians, feminist icon Gloria Steinem, and author Roxanne Gay.
We live in a culture where many images, institutions and entities are routinely targeted for criticism. In a society where race, gender, class , and other related factors are prominent, it is not all that surprising that Barbie would be a target of criticism. She is a symbol ripe for critique.
Unlike many toys geared toward children that have waned or floundered in popularity or demand, Barbie has demonstrated a remarkable degree of resiliency. For more than six decades, the doll has managed to survive, evolve and weather countless storms and controversies, be they racial, political, sexual, cultural, or economic.
Barbie has somehow managed to persevere over the years despite facing all these headwinds, and deserves her “Barbenheimer” moment in the sun.
Copyright 2023 Elwood Watson, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate
Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker.