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Barbie A Complex American Icon

3684 words - 15 pages

As a young girl, I was not very interested in playing with baby dolls. I preferred playing with my many stuffed animals or the only doll I did like—Barbie. With my animals, usually I was rescuing them from some horrible disaster such as a flood or a forest fire. I was their heroic savior and benevolent protector. But with Barbie this was decidedly not the case. Sometimes my Barbie did normal Barbie things, such as get dressed up for an exciting date with Ken or go shopping with her little sister, Skipper. More often, however, I subjected Barbie to strange, sadistic acts of my imagination. Frequently Barbie, in her pink dune buggy, would have tragic head-on collisions with my brother’s dump truck, or the brakes would suddenly go out on her pink Barbie scooter, sending her careening off a steep mountain cliff. Barbie also had the unfortunate tendency to be sucked from her Barbie plane by her lovely long blonde hair while flying at 30,000 feet. Since in every other way I was a normal child, psychoanalysts might interpret my play patterns with Barbie as childlike manifestation of women’s frustrations at the disparate images popular culture presents for women. Most women I know also experience this love/hate feeling towards Barbie and the mixed messages she represents, especially when their daughters start begging for Barbies of their own. While mothers do not want to encourage the unrealistic beauty expectations that Barbie represents, they also fondly remember Barbie as their own favorite toy. These many women, and their daughters, have made Barbie the most successful toy for girls since 1959, despite Barbie’s many contradictions. Barbie embodies American popular culture’s attempt to respond to women’s changing roles in the era since 1945 while simultaneously promoting traditional female stereotypes.

Susan Douglas’ book Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female With the Mass Media helps us reflect on the bombardment of mixed messages received by women through popular culture and mass media. By examining post-war television, music, movies, magazines, advertising, and newscasts, Douglas, a professor of media and American studies and a media critic, endeavors to “expose, review, and, at times, make fun of the media-induced schizophrenia so many of us feel, while showing how it has produced tension, anger, and uncertainty in everyday women.”1 Douglas argues that the media helped spur feminism by recognizing baby boomer young women as a huge market but then offered them sexist images against which they would ultimately rebel.2 She highlights various shifts in post-war women’s consciousness and the media’s role both in shaping and responded to those shifts. Douglas’ book also offers an alternative look at the women’s movement and an explanation for the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and subsequent denigration of feminism.

Douglas eschews writing a purely objective history of postwar women’s relationship with mass...

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