Barbie as a Cultural Icon; It’s Complicated

Barbie made news last week due to a 21% drop in sales for the last quarter.
   I was asked to do a couple of interviews for the BBC about Barbie and why I thought she was having a hard time lately.

Among the reasons I cited, and I don't think is talked about enough, is that Barbie is far more than a toyShe is a powerful, cultural icon and that presents good news and bad news for Mattel.   To explain why, allow me to start with the origin of my perspective on Barbie.

A number of years ago I had a chance to hear the literary critic, Leslie Fiedler, speak.  Fiedler was known for taking out of the box positions on what constituted great literature and that night he made a comment that has stuck with me ever since.  Fiedler said that truly great fiction created characters that were so powerful that they had a life outside of the book.

Fiedler cited The Wizard of Oz as great literature because the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, Dorothy and the witches (good and bad) all walked out of the book and into our lives as cultural reference points.  He cited Tarzan as another example.

It seems to me that Barbie has obtained that position.  She has, without meaning to I might add, become a powerful symbol in qualifying what it is to be a girl and a woman.  As a result, it seems like women and therefore the world have a very complicated relationship with Barbie;  more on that in my next posting.



One thought

  1. I am old enough to have experienced the Barbie revolution. I was ten or eleven and my mother had announced that I was too old to get any new dolls. Ha!
    When my best friend and I heard that a girl down the block had this fantastic new doll, we went to check it out. Maybe I should say I’m embarrassed to say this, but seeing a Barbie for the for the first time was a moment I’ll never forget, up there with watching the Beatles first perform on Ed Sullivan. Let’s just say my eyes popped out of my head. Here was a doll unlike any I’d ever seen. All the dolls I owned had eyes that opened and closed on a oversized head set close to the doll’s shoulders and short arms and legs. Here was a doll with a NECK! And proportions utterly different from anything I’d ever seen, including those of my hitherto beloved Revlon doll, a supposedly glamorous image of a young woman. To top it off, you could choose a Barbie with blonde or black hair. This was the first play doll (as opposed to show doll) I had ever seen with black hair like mine. I was instantly obsessed.
    In addition to the doll, Mattel at that time also produced clothes and accessories with extraordinary detail and in perfect scale, like sweaters knit with miniscule stitches with tiny beads for buttons. My poor mom was utterly defeated.

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