Perceptions of Barbie in Popular Culture

Curator's Note

The fashion doll Barbie first debuted in the late 1950s as an alternative form of play, offering girls another option for play aside from baby dolls. However, “Barbie” has been a polarizing figure in popular culture for decades. For those who view Barbie as a symbol of potential, she imparts a message to girls that a woman can do anything, with connections to real-world role models through The Barbie Dream Gap Project, through which Mattel promotes this more positive view of Barbie. Barbie’s presentation as a character who can do everything is visible in her many jobs such as astronaut, veterinarian, and actress. Several of the CGI-animated, straight-to-DVD (or streaming) Barbie movies from the past twenty years have embraced the idea of Barbie as an actress by including outtakes, and those films themselves have shown Barbie in the roles of sister, princess, spy, fairy, mermaid, and more. For others, Barbie reflects limiting beauty standards, especially known for her unattainable figure (even as a line of Barbie dolls with different body types was launched in 2016 to confront these challenges); she is also an image of hyper-femininity, with her signature shade of pink and always high-heeled feet, said to represent women but falling short in that endeavor. For this reason, many different perceptions of Barbie are visible in references to Barbie across popular culture. For example, Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” song (“I'm a Barbie Girl in a Barbie World”) satirizes Barbie as a plastic ‘toy.’ Originally released in 1997, the song makes fun of her toy-like role in her relationship, alluding to her fashion doll origins; these same origins are also reflected in the optimistic and fashion-loving role she has played in the Toy Story films.

More recently, the Barbie (2023) live-action film built on both the satirized doll persona and Barbie’s presentations as an “everything” woman. Directed by Greta Gerwig, Barbie forms a bridge between the glamorous Barbie lifestyle and what Barbie represents in the real world (especially when it comes to her polarizing reputation), with Barbie existing both as a doll and as a person in the film. Barbie (2023) bridges several diverging threads about Barbie. Within the apparent perfection of the fantastical Barbie world called Barbieland at the start of Barbie, Barbie’s fate (as a character based on a doll) is determined by who is playing with her. As the film continues, her existence primarily as a doll is emphasized as the real-world woman who plays with her starts to project her struggles into her imagining of Barbie. Notably, Barbie (as a doll and later as a woman, too) acts as a companion not for the woman’s daughter, but for the woman, Gloria, herself. The film alludes to the idea of Barbie remaining a part of a woman’s life in different ways as she shifts from girl to grown woman, with connections to Barbie as a symbol for a woman’s potential remaining present not only through Barbie’s character arc, but also via Barbie as the model for Gloria’s doll design aspirations earlier in the film. With a Barbie doll as both comfort and muse, Gloria’s aspirations and frustrations alike are then projected onto Barbie. In the real world, Barbie continues to be more than another fashion doll on a toy store shelf. Decades after her debut, she has remained a polarizing figure onto which many women, like Gloria in Barbie, project their dreams despite the notions of impossibility she evokes. In this sense, the presentation of Barbie as an “everything” woman takes on new meaning; she symbolizes possibility and impossibility alike.

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