The Situationist

Barbie Commercials Across the Decades and the Implications on Female Identity and Objectification

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 11, 2011

From Sister Blog, Law and Mind (by HLS student, Cassie Mathias):

In the past weeks, the Law and Mind Sciences blogposts have included observations about media influences and gender, including Misogyny in Music, Mindfulness and Identity in the context of yogurt advertisements, and the conformity in appearances at HLS job interviews. As these posts described, pop culture, advertisements, and cultural norms all have the power to influence perceptions of gender. No where does this media influence appear to have a wider or longer lasting impact than Barbie. From the first Barbie television advertisement ever (portrayed in the above video) to the introduction of Ken, to current television advertising, Barbie has maintained a prominent presence as a commercial phenomenon, a fashion icon, and source of gender socialization.

The focus of investigations and attitudes towards Barbie differ, but all seem to recognize that the Barbie is not just a doll, but a cultural phenomenon. Since Barbie first arrived at the World Toy Fair in 1959, wearing a Zebra bikini and stilettos, over a billion Barbies have been produced in 150 countries. According to Mattel on Barbie’s 50th Anniversary in 2009, 90% of U.S. girls ages 3-10 own at least one Barbie doll. In a Newsweek article commenting on this anniversary, Eliza Grey described Barbie as “the original bimbo, a relic of postwar paternalism that teaches its young to worship at the altar of blond hair, peach skin and formidable cleavage atop a waistline the size of a pinkie ring.”

Others celebrate Barbie. Ruth Handler, the founder of Mattell, defended Barbie as a progressive alternative to baby dolls that emphasized playing mom. Dr. Lenore Wright has argued that role-playing with Barbie allows children to explore identity formation openly and in empowering ways, whereas media advertisements present a determined viewpoint of the female identity. At the very least, some argue Barbie is the better alternative to the even more sexualized Bratz dolls.

Barbie progresses alongside social and political changes, and thus new editions reflect changes in the construction of female identity. Barbie advertisements send a clear message to young girls about not just their role as women, but how to make sense of the world around them and societal roles. For example, during the Civil Rights Movement, Barbie received her first black friend, “Colored Francie.” In the 1970s, Mattell reacted to feminist criticisms by adding non-traditional female jobs for Barbie, such as an astronaut, Army medic, and presidential candidate.

Has Barbie become a better influence? As an undergraduate, I sought out to perform a content analysis study on Barbie commercials across the decades to explore this inquiry. I examined Barbie television commercials from 1959-2009. I found 45 commercials on YouTube and coded for social gender role themes and appearance themes. I coded for the presence of Social Gender Role themes, including homemaking (e.g., ironing, setting the table, cooking); motherhood or care taking; emphasis on relationships (noting if the ads explicitly referenced marriage), careers; Age inappropriate themes; Explicit patronizing gender role messages; and fashion. I also analyzed the appearance of the dolls and actors in the television commercials, coding for if all the female dolls were blonde, if a minority doll was present, if the Barbie was attempting to portray sex appeal, if the dolls had an extreme, unrealistic thin body type, and if there was an explicit emphasis on the importance of beauty. I divided the commercials up by decade and then analyzed the themes within each decade by calculating the percentage of commercials in our sample that contained each theme and then compared the proportion each theme was present across decades to analyze Barbie’s progression.

On her fiftieth birthday, Barbie has now had 108 careers, 50 nationalities, and over 1 billion pairs of shoes. This TV commercial from 2008 advertises three of these new careers, Barbie can be anything she wants to be, including a pet stylist, a baby doctor, or a swim teacher.

Despite so many expectations associated with Barbies’ new careers, I found few messages that encourage girls to search for meaning or substance. Although Barbie had more careers in new editions, the commercials still portrayed Barbie in non-threatening, female stereotyped careers. Even when Barbie had a positive career, the emphasis of the commercial was often on her sexuality or Ken.

I found that while new editions of Barbie continued to communicate gendered themes, they did not strictly mirror societal changes. As the traditional 1950s homemaker ideal faded, new editions of Barbie brought an emphasis on promiscuity, fashion, and materialism. In the 2000s, the career messages focused mostly on Barbie as a fashion model, encouraging girls to use their bodies and fashion as a source of power. These messages resist encouraging girls to search for other outlets of power and supports the objectification of women’s bodies.Barbie and her friends had many new looks and careers, but failed to challenge traditional female gender roles.

Even if parents resist gender socialization or refuse to buy Barbies, children will still be exposed to the gendered messages in advertisements. As children internalize these messages, the commercials will contribute to difficulties in emotional expression and coping behaviors that could ultimately lead to many pathologies.

The commercials emphasize subservient gender roles and depending on Ken, rather than empowering young girls to take care of themselves. Studies have shown that this exaggerated “housewife role” has been associated with disorders such as depression as women struggle with gender inequality in their daily routines. Young boys are socialized to be active and assertive, whereas messages such as these encourage girls to develop a passive coping style.

Barbie is portrayed as always carefree, which girls may internalize as evidence that they should not express sadness or anger. Boys who are playing with GI Joe’s may develop patterns of more “active” actions, although their violent emphasis could also contribute to boys’ externalizing and delinquent behaviors. The commercials emphasize Barbie’s role in relation to her friends, her boyfriend, and her sister. Spending hours role playing these relationships could contribute to girls’ interpersonal orientation, which has been found to lead to poor coping strategies such as rumination, and psychological problems such as depression, stress, and anxiety.

Barbie communicates unrealistic standards, with her dream house, dream wardrobe, dream job, and dream boyfriend. Women today are expected to excel in every domain, leading to feelings of low self worth. According to the Superwoman theory, women who perceive that they should have it all fail to be intrinsically motivated, but instead look for social approval. As women strive towards this perfection, there is an increasing isolation from family and friends.

At the same time that girls are strongly associating with the female gender role, they are experiencing bodily changes and thus intensified body dissatisfaction and low self esteem (Wichstrom, 1999). Barbie provides an expectation for an unattainable body type, increasing the risk for eating disorders. Nearly all commercials contained images of unrealistic thinness, encouraging girls to internalize the thin ideal at an early age. In 2006, Helga Dittmar, Emma Halliwell, and Suzanne Ive examined Barbie as the direct cause of body dissatisfaction and eating problems. Of the 162 five through eight-year olds they evaluated, those that played with a Barbie reported low body esteem and desired to be much thinner than those that were exposed to a larger doll or no dolls.

Besides being extremely thin, Barbie has large breasts and a tiny waist. Norton et al. Statistics suggest that the probability of attaining Barbie’s body shape was less than one in 100,000, whereas the probability of attaining Ken’s was about one in fifty. Especially alongside age inappropriate and sexual themes, this message validates the trend that women’s bodies are judged and sexualized more than men’s bodies, which contributes to the objectification of women. Accepting male entitlement and female subordination facilitates violence, abuse, and rape, and may cause women to experience self-blame and helplessness.

Barbie commercials provide explicit messages to young children about the expectations associated with being female. Rather than empowering young girls to be ambitious, empowered, and virtuous, the commercials emphasize the importance of sex appeal, fashion, and relationships. As Law and Mind Sciences has discussed, these messages are still very apparent. As girls grow older, the media continues to present objectifying messages and institutions continue to promote conformity, even in law school and the legal profession. Pop artists such as Ke$ha are speaking out against misogyny in their own ways, but I believe her lyrics are more of illustrative of the over-sexualization of women present in the current media that I found in today’s Barbie commercials. How much has changed from 1959 to today? Are girls and women simply identifying with a new variety of objectification in the media? Are icons like Ke$ha the modern day Barbie?

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