I Had High Expectations For Barbie

I saw the Barbie film recently; taking my husband and friends and looking forward to some enlightening discussions afterwards. But I left more confused than enlightened. Before I elaborate, this reflection is highly personal and in no way any sort of film critique.  First of all, I had high expectations of the film because of the paramount attention and chatter about Barbie’s debut (the movie made $337 million worldwide in its opening weekend). I always find it super interesting to see what takes hold and sometimes what just passes most by (however, I am under no delusion that exceptional marketing played a heavy hand). Secondly, the cinema was packed full of younger folk all dressed up. It felt like a weird moment in time; a cultural phenomenon which felt both illuminating and insubstantial of women’s struggles.

It has taken me a couple weeks for my confusion to make sense. This blog is helping me distill and articulate some of those feelings. Let us travel back to look forward.
Back in the 80’s, I had Barbies and I played with them a lot.  I don’t remember what Barbie I had, but I do remember Skipper, Ken and the pink corvette. I used to play with them alone for hours, in an imaginary world with all my imaginary friends. It was about not feeling alone and I was oblivious to any sort of profession or roles that Barbie should play; or at least I don’t remember that being important to me at the time. I do remember getting a little older (maybe 8 or 9) and my older sister refusing to play Barbies with me anymore. Although she was only 18 months older, she decided she was too old to play with dolls. I would go into our crawl space (dirt floors with carpets on top and where we stored unused things) and play for hours- feeling part joy of retreating and part shame for wanting to still play with dolls.
I understand the need for Barbie’s creator, Ruth Handler, that the doll was an adult woman with breasts. She noticed a gap in the market when watching her daughter, Barbara, play. She took doll playing from little girls pretending to be mummies, to acting out what women do, and eventually all the things they could do.
Fast forward to adulthood and the legacy of Barbie as a role model left an uncomfortable stain on beauty standards for women.

Barbies in the early days really doubled down on both unrealistic beauty standards and on diet culture. One of them was Slumber Party Barbie. I believe she came with a scale and had these little diet books with the “diet advice” in them that was like, “Don’t eat.”

That was the advice!

Right, it’s really damaging and damning stuff to put into a little girl’s head. The scales were set to a certain number, I think it was like 110 or something like that. The point is these toys were like an instruction manual, and you’re giving them to a little girl saying, “Do this.” And with these toys, you’re really starting them down this lifetime path of potential body dysmorphia and issues with weight. Barbie is definitely complicit in that historically, and I think we have to remember that Barbie, she has all these incredible careers now — but her very first career was teen model.

Until the film came out, I hadn’t given much thought to Barbie, although I think my daughter had a cheap version of one at some point around 4 years old. We mostly just wanted to do her hair and I remember not wanting her to want one because of the unrealistic body shape.

Contempt for the feminine

Disclaimer, I am currently experiencing the more sinister and dangerous sides of misogyny. I have been witness to the trauma left on women by men who believe they are entitled to a woman of their choosing. This means I am of a particular state of mind through personal experiences, which is also why I had high hopes for bigger messages from Barbie.  Ken’s threat to throw himself off the balcony if Barbie didn’t want to be with him stood out to me. He wanted control, he felt he deserved her even if she didn’t want him. Let’s look at how the ultra masculine rejects the feminine. This contempt for women is beyond just women but also towards the feminine.

Julia Serano defines misogyny as not only hatred of women per se, but the “tendency to dismiss and deride femaleness and femininity.” In this view, misogyny also causes homophobia against gay men because gay men are stereotyped as feminine and weak; misogyny likewise causes anxiety among straight men that they will be seen as unmanly.  Serano’s book Whipping Girl argues that most anti-trans sentiment directed at trans women should be understood as misogyny. By embracing femininity, the book argues, trans women cast doubt on the superiority of masculinity.

Culture rewards traits that are considered masculine and devalues traits that seem feminine, according to Tracy M. Hallstead at Quinnipiac University. From childhood, boys and men are told to “man up” to appear tough by distancing themselves from feminine things. Boys learn that it is shameful to be seen as emotional, dependent, or vulnerable. Men raised in this way may disown femininity and may even learn to despise it. In this view, misogyny is directed not only at women, but at any feminine qualities that men see within themselves.

This contempt for the feminine causes men feel that they must assert their dominance over women by controlling them, Hallstead writes. She illustrates this with the ancient story of Pygmalion, a sculptor who hated “the faults beyond measure which nature has given to women.”  Pygmalion creates a sculpture of a woman that magically comes alive. Pygmalion is very gratified by the complete control he has over the woman, Galatea, because this control re-enforces his masculinity. He considers Galatea the perfect woman, in spite of his contempt for women, because of his absolute power over her. This deep desire to have complete control over women is often mislabeled as romantic. Jean-Léon Gérôme also painted about slave markets, very disturbing paintings of women getting purchased.

Bild to Barbie

Her demeaning origin story goes back to her European ancestor, Bild Lilli, who began as a lewd postwar comic character in a German newspaper. The character grew so popular in Germany that Lilli developed into a sort of three-dimensional pinup, an 11.5-inch full-figured female doll as a gag gift for men. Men would hang the doll off the rearview mirror in their cars, or take it to bars, lifting up her skirt or pulling down her pants in their idea of humour.

This doll also enraptured Ruth Handler when she saw it in 1956, during a family vacation in Switzerland. She had been eager to manufacture an adult doll for children, but her colleagues said producing a plastic doll with as much detail as Handler wanted would not be profitable. Handler believed the male designers just didn’t want to make a doll with breasts, M.G. Lord wrote in her book about Barbie.

Bringing several Lilli dolls back to California, Handler showed the designers that such a doll could be manufactured, if not in the United States, then overseas — Barbie was first prototyped in Japan, her fashion-forward outfits hand-stitched by homeworkers.

Mattel made changes to the doll, relaxing the lips, softening the eyebrows, upgrading the plastic and whitening the skin, plus at one point filing nipples off the breasts of an early prototype. That, mixed with a marketing campaign, all helped to transform her personality from a vaguely pornographic male fantasy into a girl-next-door fashionista. Maham Javaid.

“We mothers stand still so our daughters can look back and see how far they have come.”

This line stood out to me during the film. From the gag gift for men beginnings, to the first Black Female President, where have landed? Also, what are our expectations of ourselves and one another? Too high, not high enough? This brings me to America Ferrera’s monologue;

“It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.


You have to be thin, but not too thin. And you can never say you want to be thin. You have to say you want to be healthy, but also you have to be thin. You have to have money, but you can’t ask for money because that’s crass. You have to be a boss, but you can’t be mean. You have to lead, but you can’t squash other people’s ideas. You’re supposed to love being a mother, but don’t talk about your kids all the damn time. You have to be a career woman but also always be looking out for other people. You have to answer for men’s bad behaviour, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’re accused of complaining. You’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sisterhood.


But always stand out and always be grateful. But never forget that the system is rigged. So find a way to acknowledge that but also always be grateful. You have to never get old, never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line.


It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out, in fact, that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.


I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other woman tie herself into knots so that people will like us. And if all of that is also true for a doll just representing women, then I don’t even know.”

If Barbie did one thing, it gave us voices. Perhaps outdated voices some of the time but still a voice.  I love these words from Rebecca Solnit’s article;

Silence and powerlessness go hand in hand – women’s voices must be heard

Being unable to tell your story is a living death, and sometimes a literal one. If no one listens when you say your ex-husband is trying to kill you, if no one believes you when you say you are in pain, if no one hears you when you say help, if you don’t dare say help, if you have been trained not to bother people by saying help. If you are considered to be out of line when you speak up in a meeting, are not admitted into an institution of power, are subject to irrelevant criticism whose subtext is that women should not be here or heard.


Stories save your life. And stories are your life. We are our stories; stories that can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison. We make stories to save ourselves or to trap ourselves or others – stories that lift us up or smash us against the stone wall of our own limits and fears. Liberation is always in part a storytelling process: breaking stories, breaking silences, making new stories. A free person tells her own story. A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.


Violence against women is often against our voices and our stories. It is a refusal of our voices, and of what a voice means: the right to self-determination, to participation, to consent or dissent; to live and participate, to interpret and narrate.


Having a voice is crucial. It’s not all there is to human rights, but it’s central to them, and so you can consider the history of women’s rights and lack of rights as a history of silence and breaking silence. Speech, words, voices sometimes change things in themselves when they bring about inclusion, recognition: the rehumanisation that undoes dehumanisation. Sometimes they are only the preconditions to changing rules, laws, regimes to bring about justice and liberty.


Sometimes just being able to speak, to be heard, to be believed, are crucial parts of membership in a family, a community, a society. Sometimes our voices break those things apart; sometimes those things are prisons.

By redefining whose voice is valued, we redefine our society and its values.


The Irony of Having High Expectations

The irony is not lost on me. I have high expectations of myself and that is exactly what Barbie’s message was- we create impossible standards to live up to. While feminism may have opened up the world to women in many ways, this freedom has not replaced society’s expectations of what a woman ‘should be’. Instead, they have piled on top of them. Having it all and looking effortless while doing it. It’s nonsense and it is making us ill-as women and as a society.

Perhaps I should have just enjoyed the light entertainment of the film, its just a doll.

But at least I am using my voice.

Get in touch, as I would love to hear your thoughts.