Barbie Is Running For President, But Do We Want Girls Voting For Her?

When relaying 2012 election facts to your little one this fall, don’t forget about a new lady on the ticket just for them: Barbie. In her fifth run for office, the girlhood icon will again take to the shelves in a bid for America’s highest office. And although parents might be delighted to see Barbie continuing her eclectic career with yet another girl-positive incarnation, this 2012 plastic candidate again presents a problematic message for girls given those extreme and notorious bodily proportions.

A quick gander at a lot of women in politics reveals a likeness to this new “I Can Be…” Barbie, as if you cut that blonde helmet of hair, you might as well be looking at Callista Gingrich. As much as a wife in politics has been known to play an influential role, being the spouse of a president isn’t exactly the leadership position Mattel and The White House Project is hoping to say with this product. Forbes reports:

“Being President culminates Barbie’s career path,” says Mattel’s Cathy Cline, VP of Barbie Brand Marketing in North America. “She stands for inspiring girls to be informed and involved in their local communities. We hope that one day we’ll have a female president standing in the Oval Office.”

But this presidential Barbie, which will debut in four different ethnicities come August, still sports the problematic bodily proportions that Barbie has been slammed for in the past. In fact, clicking through Forbes’ gallery of Barbie’s many professional advancements, including surgeon, astronaut, and computer engineer — all applaudable — her head continues to get bigger while her body gets increasingly smaller. We’re all well aware that Mattel has those stomach-churning Bratz dolls to compete with, but the quickness at which Barbie’s form fades away is concerning if we’re going to deem this doll a positive one for our daughters.

It’s been noted already that young girls today do feel that they are able to tackle a variety of previously male-dominated fields, such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects. Yet, where we continue to fail girls as a culture is in our “yes, but” mantra, observed by girls’ issues author Rachel J. Simmons, which tells girls that of course they can run for president, of course they can be doctor, of course they can be an engineer — but they better look conventionally sexy while they do it.

We see this troubling tendency bubbling up in array of studies that finds girls’ self-confidence at an all-time low, with half of 10-year old girls saying that they feel better about themselves when they’re on a diet, and at a time when — if we consider historical advances for girls — it’s never been a better time to be one.  Girls are heading into undergraduate and graduate programs in droves, getting scooped up by colleges like Harvey Mudd, and being given mentorship opportunities with NASA via the wonderful organization that is Girl Scouts.

Yet although this Barbie reflects an aesthetic that is common among a lot of women of politics, I don’t find that likeness to necessarily be an empowering one. I’m all for encouraging girls to take an interest in government and “their local communities” through products and toys, but if we’re going to encourage girls into public office, let’s not encourage them to need a mythological waistline like Barbie to get there.

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  • Jen

    My daughter likes playing school and so for Christmas this year someone in our family gave her the Barbie I Can Be Preschool Teacher. Not only was she the most disproportional Barbie yet, I could not imagine trying to wrangle a bunch of four year olds in the (what would be equivalent to) four and a half inch stilettos and ultra-mini dress she was wearing. Even my daughter commented that Barbie wasn’t going to be able to run in those shoes. I think the I Can Be line is such a wonderful idea, but the way it is being implemented is questionable at best…

  • Daisy

    This is stupid. When I was a kid, Barbie’s waistline did not occur to me for even one second. Of course it doesn’t look like a real person–same as cartoon animals with googly eyes or the Simpsons with yellow skin. It’s a fictionalized representation, and although I wouldn’t have used those words as a kid, I still knew that a cartoon or a toy wasn’t supposed to look real!

    I got my gymnast Barbie, was really excited that she was a gymnast, and spent hours making her do flips and cartwheels across my bedroom floor. Same with my dentist Barbie, my horseback-riding Barbie, my ballerina Barbie, my pilot Barbie… Not for one moment did I think, “Being a gymnast/dentist/pilot is cool BUT only if you’re skinny like Barbie.”

    This is seriously making a mountain out of a molehill.

    • Emily

      Amen to that! I sometimes think that these articles read way too into the “yes but” factor. When I got my vet Barbie, I didn’t think “Oh well, I can’t be a vet unless I’m wearing high heels and look skinny” since I was too busy playing with her. Kids really don’t read into their toys that much. It’s not like I thought “Gee, I better cut off my feet to look like my rocker girl Bratz.”

  • Jane Frances

    The head biggification process started back when I was still playing with Barbies in the 90s, but the body hasn’t gotten smaller and the waist actually got a bit bigger c. 1997-98. I see it as a backwards compatibility issue. As a kid, I loved that I could put Mom’s old swingin’ Carnaby Street Barbie clothes on my Jasmine and Belle dolls. Even little Jane could feel a powerful continuity between my mother’s play experience and my own. Her Barbies were independent hippie ladies with cool jobs, and so were mine. Nary a Ken in sight. And since body dysmorphia and glamour pussedness weren’t part of my mother’s system of values – in the 60s, in the 90s, or now – she didn’t pass them to me through her toys. If anything, I got the antidote.

    When I have daughters (or, more likely, nieces), they’re getting my dolls and their grandma’s dolls, along with a warning that their bodies were designed in a dark age when women wore horrifically uncomfortable underwear. I trust that the abundance of lab coats and work boots in the outfits bin will do the rest of the talking for me.

  • Katie

    Barbie has a much bigger wait now than I remember as a kid.

    But maybe thats because now that im an adult, im actually thinking about it, most children dont examine Barbie’s body and go “Hmm, okay, so this Barbie doll is a president, therefore if I want to be president, I will have to lose weight, grow giant boobs and dye my hair blonde” its the adult pressure put onto this that opens up those ideas, “Heres a Barbie doll, but remember honey-pie, you are perfect the way you are and you dont need to be as skinny as Barbie to be anything you want” is MUCH more harmful than “Heres a Barbie doll, have fun”

    • Fabel

      I definitely agree with this. It would never occur to a child to contemplate Barbie’s proportions, until an adult pre-emptively warns them “Now, don’t feel bad if you don’t grow up to look like Barbie!”

    • Jen

      I think this is really a situation that depends on how sensitive the child is to that sort of thing. I work in a pre-school and I have had four and five year olds comment on my hair, weight, clothing and general looks. My daughter–who has never been told ANYTHING regarding Barbie’s looks–has pointed out repeatedly that all her Barbies look like “the people on tv”.

      The other aspect that I think you guys might be missing is that it’s not just about whether or not a younger kid is feeling bad about how she looks because she’s playing with the toy, it’s also about the internalized messages she receives from Barbie and Disney Princesses and media portrayals of the female form. While you might not think your four year old is getting anything more than fun imaginative play from her Barbie doll, the fact is that Barbie is simply the beginning of all the negative and highly idealized images of female bodies she is going to be exposed to before she even hits high school.

      Which is not to say that I think Barbie (or Disney or whatever) should be outlawed. As I said previously my daughter plays with all of that stuff. I just think we as parents need to be aware that there are certain messages that the constant exposure to this one, idealized form of womanly beauty–seen through the male gaze–that our children are receiving and we need to be sure that we counter those messages through age appropriate conversation and education.

    • Nancy

      @Katie and @Fabel, totally agree with you. As I kid, I definitely did not think that any human being looked like Barbie; It never crossed my mind that anyone could like her, because I knew that it was just a doll.
      @Jen, I actually totally agree with you, too, and you made greeeat points! but I just wonder what you or Koa Beck or anyone would do to change Barbie if you had control of the company. (Not trying to be sarcastic or anything at all, just pointing out the issues Mattel must have deciding these things). What I mean is, if Mattel changed all Barbies to have more “normal” waistlines, what does that mean? Exactly how much bigger? Just enough to have a waist that’s a little smaller than the hips and breasts? But really the same problems just come up again – people’d be saying “But overweight people can be president, too!” and then they’d have to either increase it again, or make Barbie’s come in different ‘sizes,’ which of course messed up all the standard Barbie sized clothes ans such… But even then, there’ll be people who aren’t represented. People will be saying, “But you don’t have to pretty!” and “You don’t have to be tall!” “What about women who are top/bottom heavy?” “What about transgendered women?” “What about women with stretch marks?” etc, etc. And they’re all totally valid points. But, since no woman on earth is exactly the same as any other, this can go on forever. There is no ‘average’ woman to make the doll look exactly like [side note: same problem with criticizing people's looks based on some imagined 'average' or 'perfect' person - no one will ever acheive it].
      If I ran Mattel, I’d probably end up making them look even LESS like real women, to make totally clear to girls that it’s just a doll and there’s no way they can look like it.

    • Jen

      Nancy: I wouldn’t actually change Barbie at all. I don’t really think there is one female image that could make everyone happy because there is simply not one female form. I buy my daughter Barbies and I know that even if I kept them out of our house she would be bombarded by 9,000 other unrealistic and harmful images of the female form. Barbie is a symptom of a much larger disease–a symptom that helps perpetuate the disease in generation after generation, but a symptom none the less.

      What I do think we need to do is teach our children (and not just our girls because the portrayal of women and girls as objects for the male gaze is harmful to our boys and men too) is to be objective consumers of media. We need to talk to them regularly and from an early age about how to engage with various types of media without being taken in by the images it attempts to sell. For example, right now my daughter is going through a huge princess stage. This is alarming to me not only because I fall much closer to the “tomboy” end of the spectrum, but also because princess culture is at least as rife with problematic portrayals of females as Barbie. However, I’m not going to forbid my daughter from playing with princesses or spending her days traipsing around in frilly dresses, so much jewelry the late Liz Taylor thinks it’s too much and tacky plastic high heeled shoes.

      Instead I ask her questions about this obsession. Why does she like princesses so much? Why does she want to be a princess. What does it mean to be a princess? When you actually ask kids (even young ones, my daughter is only four) to engage in these sort of thought activities it changes the way they approach things and it can also help us sort through potential issues so that we can address those most relevant to our child.

  • CW

    We have the 2008 President Barbie, and I made the point to my DD that a real female politician would need to have a different hairstyle, makeup, and outfit because the Barbie version is too sexy. A woman who wants to be taken seriously can’t look like a bimbo.

  • Maria

    Barbie is an inspiration and I am a collector and my daughter and niece love Barbie. Some people make a big deal out of her looks. She is pretty and it is great that she is in good shape. People have to make a big issue out of everything for attention. If you want to be pretty- look inside yourself and you can feel pretty in your heart, what ever your size is. We are all different sizes and look different and that is how it is- you have to have confidience in yourself and not be tearing apart a doll. I am so happy that Barbie is going to be president in the pretend world of dolls and I think she is really neat! Thank you Ruth Handler and Mattel for making her who she is. People read into these dolls and come on- get a life and let kids have fun and enjoy Barbie and be free and enjoy life! All of those nonsense comments- come on- find something to do. Have fun Barbie collectors and enjoy with your kids because Barbie is a great doll!

  • Renee J

    I don’t know. It seems what you are saying is that a woman can be accomplished in many careers. But, when it comes down to it, she’s only judged by what she looks like. People shouldn’t vote for Barbie because she’s pretty?

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