Theory of the Odd Barbie: Barbie’s Controversial History and Image

The article Who Created Barbie and Why?, which I reviewed from, gives me an exclusive perspective on the earliest years of Barbie. Ruth Handler, the owner of Mattel, originally intended to produce a doll that accurately represented the mature female body. However, she ironically based her doll off of the German Lilli Doll, which was a promiscuous sex symbol. Ruth later changed the doll’s eye position and removed its make-up to alter this sexual appearance; although the doll’s body proportions remained the same.

Over the years, Barbie has held many positions and occupations which have intensified her celebrity status. Barbie has come to occupy the human world, becoming more than just a doll, but a symbol that has penetrated the physical world with ideologies of femininity, womanhood, and sexuality.

One of the most radical roles that Barbie has filled is being with child. As one could imagine, there was a wave of backlash from mothers everywhere when the pregnant doll was first introduced. If we take a step into Barbie’s history we can see that Barbie herself was actually not the first Mattel doll to be pregnant, but it was in fact her younger sister, Midge.

The pregnant Midge doll sports bright pink stud earrings and a silvery wedding band on her left hand – although I believe some early versions of the doll did not have this feature. It is important for me to note that later it became imperative to portray this doll a being married. This change was made so that her pregnancy could be deemed legitimate in the eyes of angry mothers.

As time passed, Mattel has tried to evolve Barbie’s appearance in order to reach multiple audiences and ethnicities. However, some Barbies didn’t survive this process because they were deemed too radical, and were promptly pulled off the market. Mattel has also released some dolls without thinking about the audience or the time, and as a result some rare and interesting Barbies have come into existence; thus here are a few examples of the more controversial Barbies:  

Pregnant Midge


Barbie was a doll who supposedly had it all; so in her development, of course she would need to have a family at some point. Mattel thought it would be best to approach the matter first with their Midge doll: Barbie’s teen sister. Midge had a magnetized belly with a little plastic baby inside. Although the doll was pregnant, her figure was still inexplicably thin; after the baby’s delivery and removal of the belly, her original frame was still intact. When little girls felt it was time for Midge to deliver baby, they could just reach in and pull the baby out; which is honestly a bit extreme and unrealistic. Later, Barbie fans would dispute that because Midge was originally marketed as a teenager, having her pregnant was not the greatest idea. Knowing this, one could consider the Midge doll as the first “Teen Mom” that was marketed to young girls.

Oreo Barbie


Another peculiar release from Mattel was Oreo Barbie, which was unleashed as a cross promotion with Nabisco. Following their controversial, and perhaps ignorant, trends, Mattel made an African-American version of the doll. Tactlessly, Mattel didn’t seem to do their research on pop culture at the time, because “Oreo” is used as a derogatory term that belittles someone for seeming “black on the outside and white on the inside”; as well as equates a person’s intelligence with whiteness. The black Oreo Barbie appropriately caused an uproar from the consumer body, forcing the doll to be pulled from shelves.

Wheelchair Barbie


In the spirit of encouraging inclusion, Mattel released Barbie’s friend Becky, who was wheelchair bound, in 1997. This was a seemingly great idea to include the handicapped demographic, because many children with disabilities lacked representation in the toy market. However, a disappointed teenager with cerebral palsy pointed out that Becky and her wheelchair would not fit in Barbie’s Dream House. If Mattel really wanted to be all-encompassing with their funding, they would have released a version of the Dream House with a ramp, or other options of wheelchair accessibility, to ensure that all patrons could have a realistic play experience.

Growing Up Skipper


Skipper was introduced about five years after the original Barbie doll, as Barbie’s little sister. In 1975, Mattel thought maybe it was time for Skipper to do some “growing up”. Interestingly enough, the functions of the doll included having the “Growing Up Skipper” doll gain an inch of height and grow breasts when her arm was turned. Thus, Mattel came across as promoting the ideal that a young girl’s maturation process consisted solely of getting taller and growing breasts, rather than gaining respect or maturity. Of course, this doll was not well-received by parents and had to be discontinued like so many others.

Applying Barbie’s controversial history to theory, I refer to the work of Louis Althusser. Althusser states that the concept of reproduction is mainly instilled within educational and religious institutions, places where ideology is primarily produced. This claim also supports that reproduction is essentially the acceptance of subjugation, which is promoted by various institutions as a natural/universal practice or behavior. Through material practices, such as consumerism, the ignorance of the conditions of life is maintained. The idea of girls playing with Barbie dolls is generally accepted, and this behavior is seen as natural. The common assent of this idea builds an imaginary relationship between the subject and the real conditions of their existence: effective social reproduction. Even though Barbie possesses a female body type that is unnatural and unattainable, the doll is still a model of the female body that has become accepted in today’s society as an appropriate role model for young girls. The fact of the matter is, Barbies were created by men; and it is this idealistic image that patriarchal society wishes females to attain and uphold.

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