Count Down to B-Day

AKA Barbie Day.

By Sarah Lally

About a month ago the latest trailer for the Barbie movie dropped and I clicked on the link, with the hopes of getting a glimpse at what I thought (and still think) would be a masterpiece from Greta Gerwig. A little 2.5 minutes later and I’m teary-eyed and emotional. The trailer had affected me far more than it had any right to. 

My History with Barbie

There is a picture somewhere in my father’s house of me on Christmas Day, I couldn’t have been more than 6 years old, and in my hands I have a Barbie dressed in a pink and blue bikini, and beside me is the Barbie Camper van. I tell you – the smile on that little girl’s face! Her hair messy from a poor night’s sleep, (the excitement for Santa obviously having kept her awake), her gummy smile (the tooth fairy had just visited) and a half-eaten selection box by her side… It could very well be the greatest Christmas she ever had1.

I loved Barbie2.

I was never a fashion conscious child (to be fair I’m not exactly a fashion conscious adult either) so my love of Barbie wasn’t necessarily for the “dress up” factor. For me it was always about unlocking my imagination. I would make up scenarios for my dolls, little soap opera dramas between them that afforded me hours of entertainment as a pretty solitary child. I also loved that Barbie was so versatile. She was a model or vet or a teacher or princess. As a fairly creative child, I had limitless playing possibilities when it came to Barbie3.

As I got older into my pre-teens Barbie became an outlet for what I am now aware was my pre-pubescent curiosity about sex and the beginning of my hormonal teens; and not to get too sordid but Barbie taught me about sex. (It was ill-informed and basically just the mashing of plastic genitalia together but it was kinda educational… I think…).
In secondary school and on the threshold of young womanhood, like most young people my age, I was conditioned to believe that Barbie was vapid and childish. Society led me to believe that she was a bimbo and the only thing going for her was her beauty. Myself and my friends would talk about Barbie in such a disparaging voice, and look down on people who collected Barbies as if there was something deficient with them4. There were t-shirts that said “Barbie is a slut! Signed Sindy” which I thought was hilarious at the time, and I even remember a male teacher commenting at the time with the exact same sentiment.

What did this teach me? Slut shaming? That women don’t support each other? Did it confirm to this young girl that hatred between women is what I should expect when I go out in the world? Was there ever a “boys” toy that would have this kind of vitriol attached to it?5  I’ve never seen an “Action man is a war criminal” t-shirts, and yet here we are with violent men6

There is a scene in the trailer where a bunch of young women are mean to Barbie for no reason. This is what caused my tears. I loved Barbie so much but I turned my back on her so quickly and without thought. My constant companion and I threw her under the bus all because of my ill advised attempt at the “cool girl” image. 

The issues with Barbie

Are there issues with Barbie? Sure. Physically she’s an impossibility to attain which of course teaches young girls about beauty standards long before fashion magazines dug their perfectly manicured nails into them. Diversity was never high on Mattel’s list of goals it seems (it would be 1980 before a black Barbie would hit the shelves – 21 years after Barbie’s debut). Although they seem to be doing better when it comes to diversity – even if they don’t quite hit the mark all the time. All this to say, I’m aware that, as a symbol Barbie is far from perfect, but why was she the toy society took extreme issue with?

Maligned women

Barbie is a kids toy and as with a lot of things I am most probably reading far too much into it, however I have been thinking of maligned women a lot recently and I think Barbie fits into the category well. 
We are all aware of what the media does to maligned women – plaster their faces on magazines, commenting on their every move, from too much makeup to not enough, drinking too much, being difficult, being immature, being too opinionated, telling the truth etc. (Think Sinead O’Connor, Monica Lewinsky, Anita Hill, Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan, Megan Fox, Janet Jackson) Women just dragged through the press for every supposed “infraction” while oftentimes they were young women, sometimes doing stupid young women things or in other cases women speaking truth to power. In the case of pop stars they were often people in their late teens and early 20’s just trying to get through a turbulent time in any young person’s life without the addition of constant media attention7. Like most maligned women, Barbie can’t help what is being said about her, or even how she is portrayed.

So let’s look at Barbie now, through a more sympathetic 2020’s lens. She’s beautiful of course. She has a plethora of friends and three younger sisters. She owns her own house, car, horse, jet ski and in the early 90’s a rad white and pink camper van. She has an on again/off again boyfriend in Ken Carson8 (apparently they split in 2004 but got back together in 2011 – which was news to this writer). She is an expert in many fields from astronaut to vet to fashion designer – Barbie could do it all and maybe she helped a generation of young women to believe that they could as well? Maybe women aren’t going down the same path as the generations before because we saw ourselves in Barbie and the possibilities were endless? 

At the end of the day, whatever your opinion on Barbie is, she is first and foremost a toy, designed to bring joy to young people’s lives, to entertain and be played with, and if you ask 6 year old Sarah that’s exactly what she did.

1 – If you ask my father to this day he will say I was 16 still playing with Barbie – this is blatant misinformation spread to cause the utmost embarrassment, however to be absolutely transparent I was about 12

2 – I should clarify I also loved Sindy, and the poundshop (dollar store) knock off dolls that resembled Barbie. 

3 –  As a fairly creative adult, maybe I should thank Barbie for fueling the imagination that laid the creative foundation in my life?

4 –  Yet we don’t think twice about people who collect Lego, which although Lego is a gender neutral toy, in my experience the majority of the collectors of Lego that I know are male.

5 –  Video games might be a close one with regard to being accused of violence, however according to “Globally, the male-to-female gamer ratio is close to 50:50.” 

6 –  According to the UN – “About 90 per cent of all homicides recorded worldwide were committed by male perpetrators. Men make up almost 80 percent of all homicide victims recorded worldwide”

7 –  The amount of stuff I’m glad the world will never know about me even now as an adult is cause for a sigh of relief!

8 –  Barbie Millicent Roberts before you ask.

Originally published for