DEMYSTIFYING THE BARBIE DOLL
Dolls are girls’ favorite playthings. Parents normally get their girls dolls even at a very tender age. What most parents don’t know is that while the early forms of the doll were faithful to their established purpose, which is as a plaything – and remained within Barthe’s (1915) definition of a ‘sign’, modern dolls, especially the Barbie Doll have moved on to create myths out of the sign and have become symbols of various concepts that are not too friendly when it comes to child psychology.
At first glance, the very expensive Barbie Doll is simply a child’s plaything, but it has become more of a household name nowadays that female children don’t seem to find their childhood years complete without the Barbie Doll. Initially, what we see in the Barbie Doll is a beautiful lady with a nice body and nice clothes. Left at that, the Barbie doll seems like positive reinforcement for the child. It gives out the message that the child has to be well-groomed and should look as beautiful as Barbie as much as is possible. However, it goes beyond this level and does something else.
In particular, let me draw your attention to this early ad of the Barbie Doll which states, “Barbie, the doll, the icon, the legend”. While initially the text seems quite innocent to the untrained eye, the message is actually telling us something else. For instance, using ‘doll’, ‘icon’, and ‘legend’ in a single line denotes that these three words are of equal level, which is not really the case. What this does is that it demotes the meanings of the words ‘icon’ and ‘legend’ to mean something as trivial as a doll. A doll cannot be an icon, because strictly speaking, an icon is defined as an image to be looked up to honorably, as in ‘Princess Diana is the icon of charity’, surely, a doll has no honor for it to be something for a child to look up to. Consider the word ‘legend’ in the same phrase which, in the context of literature, alludes to the creation of a legacy; quite unlikely for a doll that indirectly teaches a child materialism and a distorted concept of beauty. So, what does this particular order of words tell the audience – on superficial reading, it basically means that the Barbie doll is an object to be sought after because everybody has it, simply put, it tells the audience to get a Barbie Doll because it is something that you cannot live without. The simple method of organizing the text, as would be common in literature actually already denotes meanings that are not found in the text, hence the effect of this particular ad on the reader.
Now, with regards to the cultural context of the Barbie Doll, other than just the meanings implied in the text, a bigger problem arises. While most parents would consider a toy as simple that, a toy, children look at their toys with much importance, as we would usually consider what a cellular phone is to us nowadays. Children value their toys in the same way that adults value certain luxuries in life. On the basis of this assumption, it is easy to conclude that children do not only derive entertainment from toys, rather, they also look to these objects as means of learning important life concepts; because of this, the context in which the Barbie Doll is molded into because a very serious issue. Looking at the doll itself, there are many things that can be drawn from it such as the culture of opulence and excess, the importance of the physical appearance, as well as the unrealistic interpretation of a girl’s assumed life.
The culture of opulence and excess is seen mainly in heavily clothed and costumed Barbie dolls, and while manufacturers argue that this overdressing and over-accesorizing of the dolls is simply to capitalize on the child’s fantastic imagination, the overall effect of the doll on the development of the child’s concepts can be very damaging. Children have yet to develop their sense of reality and exposing them to dolls that sport elaborate gowns and wear opulent and ostentatious costumes can serve to create in them an inaccurate idea of how real life is. Children think that what they see in these dolls is normal and do not subscribe to the idea of fantasy in this playthings, hence, eventually the child will want to have what the doll has and become overly materialistic or lent to luxury because of the misinterpretation of the doll’s opulence, which, in effect is the message or the context that the doll sends out with its visual appearance. Possible effects on the child would be the development of vanity and a distorted sense of lifestyle.
On close observation, another message or meaning is sent out by the Barbie Doll – that to be beautiful one has to be exceptionally skinny. This is shown by the unnatural curves on the doll, the spindly legs, and the pouting, model-like features of the doll. This now, sends out a message that for one to be as beautiful as Barbie, she has to be skinny, has to have long legs, and has to have a pouting smile. Give the doll to a chubby child, and you just might end up with a juvenile anorexic. This is the same thing that glossy magazine advertisements do – distort the concept of beauty. This particular feature of the doll tends to trick the juvenile mind into thinking that there is no such thing as internal beauty because, as the doll would offer, beauty is actually a tangible concept, which is absolutely false.
Finally, a third and final message that the doll would be sending out is the glitz and glamour of a girl’s life. This particular message snatches the child away from reality quite like a writer does when trying to achieve believability and involvement in prose. Not all things in life or in a child’s life is glittery, glamorous, or chic; there are realities that one must face and these realities are not the realities that are sent out by the signals in the Barbie Doll, in fact the signals or messages sent out are quite contrary. The Barbie Doll makes the child believe that when she grows to be a woman she will also have the same lifestyle as the Barbie Doll which is a blatant lie. However, who would want to buy a shriveled or disfigure Barbie Doll? Consumerism dictates that for a consumer to want to buy a particular item, it has first to be visually appealing – fortunately, most consumers nowadays have gone beyond this superficial perusal of a product, unfortunately so, Barbie Dolls are still on shelves and in a toy store, a girl pointing to a Barbie Doll is almost as common as the bums in Central Park.
What is Barbie hiding from the children? What messages are unseen by the human eye but are felt by the mind and the heart?
The Barbie Doll myth conceals so many things that serve to destroy the illusion of perfection that it wants to put out. It conceals the fact that not everybody can have the kind of dresses that Barbie has, that not everybody can have the kind of body that Barbie has, and that not everybody can enjoy the lifestyle that Barbie leads. All these are not printed on the box that
Barbie comes in. Therefore, on this supposition, we can say, that behind the luxurious gown of Barbie hides the grim face of poverty, of homelessness, and of unfulfilled needs. Barbie’s perfect body conceals the reality of metabolic disorders, obesity, and psychologically related eating problems. The lifestyles that Barbie sports in her ads hide the fact that there is an abject inequality in the distribution of wealth to begin with the realization that not everybody can own a Barbie doll because of the wide gaps and differences in financial state among many of the consumers of today. These are not implied meanings, there are the meanings that come with the glamorization of reality in the very innocent child’s plaything.
Parents should consider these things before buying their children a Barbie doll. It is important to know the hidden connotations of a myth because it is an accepted fact that these hidden meanings eventually influence the subconscious and hence, might destroy the ideals and principles that we would want our children to learn.
Being very careful with the hidden messages in various objects of everyday life can be taxing at times, however it is very important that these myths are given heed if we want to be sure that what we are providing our children are items that can be instrumental to their eventual positive growth.
In general, the importance knowing the myths behind the texts lies in the fact that for most of us, interpretation can go beyond the superficial and more than just knowing what the myth is all about is being aware of the affined consequences of these myths. Culture is such that there are tangible and intangible influences to its development. In the same way, culture is as well composed of tangible and intangible components. The myths contained in many of the objects we encounter in our lifetimes all contribute to how a future culture is formed without our knowing it. These items are cultural time capsules that will eventually contain visages and features of a civilization just as artifacts save the same purpose for archeologists of today. Quite likely, the intended meanings of these signs will have been lost in the future and interpretations will mainly be assumed, and chances are, these interpretations will be rooted in the myths that we attach to these objects at present. The myths that we attach to the items that we encounter everyday are what future interpreters will see instead of the basic sign that we intended the object to become. However, very often, we do not actually, honestly intend to design an item and have it remain at that; because of the logic and the rationality of the human mind, myths are consciously attached with the intention of stimulating the subconscious. Therefore, the interpretations of the future are most likely the kinds of intentions that we intend them to be – we actually make sure that we get the message across to the viewer of the superficial object through the myth – quite like secret code writing or security features of a one hundred dollar bill. We consciously shape culture through these myths, the only problem is that the people whom we are shaping the culture for are not always aware of these myths – especially the children. We cannot discount the fact that if we are not careful in decoding the myths in the items that we purchase for our children, we will most likely have children who see the world in a very different light; a point of view that may not always be as optimistic as we want it to be.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 2005. 15-91.
Barbie Doll. Advertisement. . 9 Mar. 2009 <http://www.blogher.com/everyones-talking-about-
Faberge Barbie Doll. Advertisement. 2006. 9 Mar. 2009
Barbie Doll. Advertisement. 2006. 9 Mar. 2009 <www.flickr.com/…/in/set-