Doll Parts: The “Barbie Executioner” Strikes Back

My mother never addressed beauty in a critical way. In fact, beauty was rarely openly discussed in my house, but was the lingering weight on the shoulders of all the women in my family. The only times beauty was discussed was when my mother told me I needed to lose weight or when my grandmother told me I needed to “suffer to be beautiful.”

My critique of beauty came far too late in life, after the damage had already been done. Hole’s Courtney Love slapped me upside the head the first time I heard her belt out the lyrics to Doll Parts with gut-wrenching emotion, in her torn baby-doll dress and smeared lipstick .

I am doll eyes/ Doll mouth, doll legs/ I am doll arms, big veins, dog bait/ Yeah, they really want you, they really want you, they really do/ Yeah, they really want you, they really want you, they really do/ I want to be the girl with the most cake

Love stirred the festering agitation in me and eventually I was led to feminism’s door. I’ve been a body-image warrior ever since.

But what if a critical dialogue about the  limited definitions beauty began early? Let’s face it: these conversations are necessary. Gender socialization does not occur in a vacuum, and even in the most conscious homes unrealistic images of beauty bombard our young people. Few parents can effectively combat the onslaught of conflicting values and norms perpetuated outside the home.

Barbie looms large as a pivotal figure in the lives of young girls. She is the epitome of the mainstream beauty standard, making an impact across race and class: She’s young, thin and, for the most part, white (while Mattel has created “ethnic” Barbie dolls, they sell in lesser quantities and, in the case of Wal-Mart, are sold for less money).

For more than 50 years, Barbie has remained an emblem of idealized femininity and a key element of gender socialization. Barbie fan Danielle Scott, 16, said:

Playing with the hair, the brushes, switching outfits. It really just made girls be girls.All the characteristics of what to look forward to and what girls really could do.

In those 50 years, Barbie has not waned in popularity (gained a pound, developed a wrinkle or gray hair), even in the face of mounting criticism. Rajini Vaidyanathan wrote at the BBC:

Despite some of the negative headlines Barbie is still a hit with girls across America and the world. … More than one billion dolls have been sold since her inception, and according to the doll’s makers, Mattel, 90 percent of American girls aged between three and 10 own at least one.

While it is true that Barbie is more complex than the Bratz (the googly-eyed dolls with a “passion for fashion”) and has had at least 125 jobs over the last half-century (jobs that presumably allowed her to purchase her multiple homes, extensive wardrobe and pink Corvette), Barbie is not famous for her extensive resume. Even Toy Story 3′s “renegade” Barbie doesn’t redefine Barbie’s cultural presence. Bottom line, Barbie is not defined by her career or the chutzpah she eventually taps into to help free Woody and the gang in Pixar’s latest. She is a timeless beauty icon. Period.

Generations after Mattel executive (and “kinky swinger”) Jack Ryan created Barbie, she continues to reinforce the beauty myth that pervades all aspects of the dominant culture. But with her alien measurements, Caucasian features, ivory skin, blond hair and unnaturally thin body how can anyone possibly measure up? I had a vintage Barbie scale fixed at 110 pounds, which would inform my notion of a woman’s ideal weight for most of my adult life.

Evelyn Ticona-Vergaray reports in “Barbie’s 50 years of beauty and controversy” on UPIU:

Studies made by the Wellness Resource Center at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee confirmed that a human version with Barbie’s body proportions would only have room for an esophagus or a trachea in her neck, a tibia or a fibula in her legs, and that she would have to crawl to support her top-heavy frame.

Academics from the University of South Australia suggest that chances of finding a woman having Barbie’s body shape is one in 100,000. Moreover, researchers at Finland’s University Central Hospital say if Barbie were a real woman she would lack the 17 to 22 percent of body fat required for a woman to menstruate.

Most girls and women could never and will never look like Barbie although many try (and some try harder than others). So, as an ambassador of a twisted yet omnipresent beauty norm, it’s no wonder that Barbie is subject to “torture play.” Ticona-Vergaray also wrote:

Research found in the article “Early adolescents’ experiences with, and views of, ‘Barbie’” revealed a high rate of “torture play” and “anger play” associated with the Barbie doll. Girls admitted to blaming the image of Barbie for their self-consciousness and lack of self esteem due to the simple impossibility of living up to the standards of beauty presented by the plastic doll.

Most anger play is played out in private, with little dialogue or social commentary to accompany the cut hair, dismembered appendages and pins shoved through her cheeks. But recently, my friend Justine showed me pictures of the anger play perpetrated by her pint-sized 9-year-old daughter (lovingly nicknamed the “Barbie executioner”).  Together, mother and daughter turned this anger play into artistic self-expression and social commentary.

Justine, a self-identified feminist, knew there was trouble the first time her then-five-year-old daughter requested a Barbie after she saw one at a friend’s house. Justine, an outspoken, self-assured woman with a personal disdain for Barbie who also teaches a class to young girls called “Tapping the Body’s Wisdom,” was quick to discuss her feelings about Barbie’s “unrealistic portrayal of feminine beauty” as something not worth “aspiring to.”

Mother and daughter critically discussed images of beauty and how the image of Barbie made them feel. Her daughter acknowledged that  she did not look like Barbie. In fact, she acknowledged that no dolls looked like her and, in the end, she consciously acknowledged that she did not want to be that doll. Shortly thereafter, her daughter began to take apart her Barbies (and Bratz dolls) and would play with their heads and appendages alone. After her daughter racked up a pile of doll parts, Justine suggested saving the appendages for a future art project. Eventually, Justine provided her daughter with a canvas and her daughter pored through beauty magazines to find words to express her feelings.

The result?

The inception, process and end result inspired me. I was moved by her 9-year-old’s ability to take the “smallness” Barbie made her feel, a feeling that too often remains silent and is internalized, and articulate it loudly on canvas. We may have a limited measure of control over the images our daughters are exposed to, but we still can help them cultivate a critical consciousness, use their voice and develop a healthy body image.

An earlier version appeared at Feminist Fatale as Doll Parts: Barbie, Beauty and Resistance.

Photos courtesy of Justine Amodeo.


Comments

  1. barbie is innocuous compared to those darn bratz dolls eeeew

  2. Oh, those Bratz are something else aren't they? They are actually included in this project. With that said, Barbie remains an iconic figure in girlhood.

  3. Melissa Shaffer says:

    Why worry about being Barbie anyway, Barbie could definately not be me. , As far as bodyfat goes, I can have low levels of body fat like Barbie because I bodybuild, but she on the other hand cant bench press her own bodyweight, LOL but maybe she can that would be about say a weight of 10oz. LOL, as far a menstruation goes, who needs periods anyway,

  4. Pam Redela says:

    Great post. Kids are so much more capable than people give them credit for! I remember cutting all of my Barbie and other dolls' hair off in adolescence. I didn't take them apart nor do I feel like I was doing "torture play", (I was practicing punk haircuts!) but I totally see how doing this was my own sort of "rite of passage" from doll-playing-child to angst-filled-adolescent.

  5. I grew up with Barbies and never thought I would look like one. They were just fun to play with. Now I sell Barbies. Am I worried about girls body image problems? Yes! I think they get that from actresses and models that are extremely thin. What they don't realize is that to be that thin on TV they have to be even thinner, since the TV puts weight on you.

  6. Bratz dolls scare me and I personally haven't seen a young girl play one because they usually prefer Barbie. Both dolls send the wrong message and this post definitely pointed out the reasons.

  7. Joanne S. says:

    Barbie is the most popular doll among girls. Almost every girl I knew in my childhood owned a barbie doll. It wasn't until the late 90's did they start coming out with dolls of different color. I remember secretly getting excited to own an Asian barbie. Now, it looks like the Barbie has amassed a larger fan base than back then. There are fashion outfit collections popping out everywhere for young girls to dress up their dolls. Unbelievable, the soft teddy bear is officially replaced with a plastic, skinny, hard bombshell toy. I think that a child dissecting parts of a barbie doll hints that if a barbie can be disassembled why can't I?

    This idea is just scary.

  8. Danielle G says:

    I feel pretty lucky to come from the family I did. I loved Barbies, was obsessed actually-I even got interviewed for the evening news to talk about it when I was six. My parents bought me all different kinds of Barbies and even though they knew I loved them, they always said to me "Now don't get the wrong idea Danielle. Those are just toys. Completely unrealistic, so play with them because you like them and not because you like the way they look"

  9. It is important for parents to speak to their children and inform them that a Barbie doll is not a realistic image of beauty. This doll is given to children and through play, these impressionable children learn that this is beauty. Justine and her daughter’s project was a great example of informing your child about reality.

  10. Tandis Shams Fard says:

    Yes! this is exactly what needs to be done to develop a healthy body image. We need to start at a young age and make children realize and see that the dolls and images that are out there now are not real, and that hopefully, someday they will be.

  11. Oh my gosh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!How is barbie skinny,i mean her upper body is basically a size extra large plus size double h double g.Why don’t we all talk about Monster High because this is the second year they’ve been a top selling toy because by Thanksgiving every doll will be sold out basically.Deck Mattel with all my money 20s 30s 50s and 100s too.Toralei is coming out by y y y y y y Chri istmas.I want Abbey,Draculura,Claw aw aw aw aw aw dee een een.Goulia a is my favorite do on’t hate my song I’m only 9.Sing deck the halls with this song.I obsess over Monster High.

  12. Bridget T. says:

    I am so grateful to have read this article. It has inspired me to talk to my 9-year old sister about Barbie’s unrealistic body measurements when I fly back home this Christmas. Even though she doesn’t own any, I want her to be sure that Barbie looks nothing like the women she sees in the real world, just in case she happens to come across one while playing at her friend’s place. Thank you for sharing this article!

  13. As a female growing up in America in the 1960’s with Barbie and her growing family and friends (Ken, Scooter, Allan, Skipper, Ricky, Francie, PJ, and the little twins Tutti and Todd – I had them all) I can really relate to this blog. Although I had the Barbie car and a Barbie house, I never really “played with my Barbies. Occasionally I would have them interact, but my primary fascination was dressing them up in the fancy adult outfits, usually involving Barbie, PJ and Scooter in fancy party clothes and then posing them. This article addresses the impossible body images Barbie and her female cohorts imparted to girls, but it is also interesting to note that in my generation, Ken and Allan (Barbie and Midge’s boyfriends, respectively) also gave girls unrealistic images of what the man in their adult life would look like. Obviously the proportions of Ken and Allan were not as humanly impossible as those of Barbie, Midge and PJ, but still, although these male dolls only had bulges in the place of genitalia, they had well defined six-pack abs.

    I find it very ironic that I was playing and admiring my Barbie dolls at the same time as the Second Wave of Feminism was gaining steam. By the time I hit my teens, I was told I was the equal of a male and could achieve anything, but in the back of my mind were still the lingering images of Barbie and Ken, something I would never be able to achieve even with full equality.

  14. Elyzabeth A says:

    Pretty amazing on what this young girl did in finding the quote “the secret to happiness.” We are talking about a 9 year old girl who already has the effects of how Barbie is idolize as the pretty one. I grew up with Barbie’s as well, but I can’t recall on tearing them apart. Perhaps I did but I can’t really remember. All I remember is that I only yearn to have the same stuff they had, such as nice clothes, a car, and a pretty house. Today’s issue is how these Barbie’s are affecting younger girls in becoming a Barbie and jeopardizing their life’s when dieting. I just hope more little girls understand that it’s important to be you and be more aware of what a real woman is in reality. Likewise, that their mothers support them and not tell them to diet and starve themselves.

  15. I had over 20 Barbies when I was younger, and I loved playing with them. And, I will be honest, I never compared myself to these plastic dolls. To me they were just toys. I never wanted their hair, eyes, clothes or their bodies. I grew up knowing that they were just toys, it never crossed my mind to compare myself to them because I’ve always known they were fake. I loved and I mean loved to play with them, I would invent soap operas with them, design/make their clothes, and make houses for them. I would even go with my mom to Yard Sales, hoping to find little kitchen appliances, or furniture for my Barbies.

    But that was 10-15 years ago, and a lot has transcended over time. For example;I think a lot of young girls mainstream shows are poison. I mean they have such a focus on young girls becoming famous, it’s ridiculous. If you ask a child NOW what they would want to be when they are older, most will answer “I want to be famous”. I have actually been really interested in why so many people want to be famous. And I get it I live in LA, but it is like an epidemic. I google everything, so I did a bit of research and came across book by Dr. Drew Pinsky (Whom I really like), and essentially what the book is about, is the notions of why people want to be famous, and what is their state ( emotional, physical, etc), once they reached being famous. Dr. Drew says that people view celebrities as role models, when really they are sick people. Most of them suffer from a large ego but a low self esteem, and that can be really unhealthy. I think that now more than ever, girls are comparing themselves, which is why Barbies seem presumably dangerous, but I think that if a mother and a daughter communicate at a young age, Barbies could just be toys. They can help them them embrace imagination rather than beauty.

  16. Markus Wolf says:

    I grew up with Legos and have lived with the unhealthy body image that my skin wasn’t yellow enough nor shaped like a bucket. So glad I read this article. Let the healing begin.

  17. I truly applaud the Justine and the original method she used to teach her daughter about the dangers of gender socialization. She allowed her daughter express herself in an authentic way and did not let her conform to societal standards of art. The fact that 90% of girls between the ages of 3-10 own barbie products is a dangerous trend that will ensure the future generations will attempt to conform to dangerous stereotypes and standards of beauty which do not exist. In order to prevent this, alternative and more realistic toys must be introduced to young children which will teach them gender equality and ensure that future generations don’t fall for stereotypes.

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