Barbie Dolls as Material Artifacts and as Social Texts

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Chapter 6

Researching Children's Popular Culture: The Cultural Spaces of Childhood

by Claudia Mitchell and Jacqueline Reid-Walsh


Material History: Early Fashion Dolls, Lady Dolls and Barbies as Material Artifacts

 In this chapter, Mitchell and Reid-Walsh compare early fashion dolls (discussed above) with Barbie dolls as "material artifacts" and as "social texts" (2002, p.183) by examining various mediums that project images of dolls from books, publications, and doll collections in private and museums. This methodological approach is used in order to examine dolls as isolated objects and in context of the culture and society they were used in which place their function and play value.

 In The Ultimate Doll Book, Caroline Goodfellow (1993) presents three main sets of dolls across time:

1.    Early English wooden dolls [1680s to 1820s]

2.    Fashionable French lady dolls [1860s to 1890]

3.    Barbie and her different faces [1959 to 1993] (as cited in Mitchell and Reid-Walsh, 2002, p. 184)

(Note: Goodfellow's description of the French Fashion Doll differs greatly from Mitchell and Reid-Walsh's, in size and material.)

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           The original function of these types of dolls is that of fashion mannequin. According to Goodfellow, they are considered as "microcosmic representations of societal expectations regarding beauty and fashion" (1993, p. 186). The outfits and physical features represent the period fashion of that time and the characteristics of beauty as represented of certain periods of time. In that sense, these dolls across ages indicate how the idea of beauty and fashion taste change from age to age.

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Kerry Taylor even goes far to argue in her Letts Guide to Collecting Dolls (1990) that dolls "possess a kind of truthfulness, and to be three-dimensional representations of social history that exceed the two-dimensional representations of the art medium" (as cited in Mitchell and Reid-Walch, 2002, p.186). Thus, Barbie can be taken in that historical context as a fashion artifact that projects the fashion and desired images of womanhood as they encapsulate the style of a period better than any other medium" (p. 188) instead of taking her as a "metasymbol" that signifies sexual connotations (p. 186).

If we are to compare different Barbies and the changes especially to her facial expressions, we could see that the facial expressions moves her position away from the male's gaze as a sexual object to become more of what Berger (1972) calls the "spectator-owner" (as cited in Mitchell and Reid-Walsh, 2002, p. 188) or even a representation of the owner/girl herself (p. 188). The first Barbie mirrors images of female nudes in classic paintings and pornography such as Venus of Urbino by Titian, Nell Gwynne by Lely, Reclining Bacchanate by Trutat, and The Infant Academy by Reynold. The gaze tilted to the side along with the red lips project that sexual flirtatious attitude. However, the features of Barbie of 1991 and onwards, takes a more lively, innocent attitude as she stares directly to the front with a wide bright smile showing the teeth and thin pink lips.

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In addition to its function as an assertion representation of "fashionable women" (p. 189), fashion/play dolls may also be seen as "microcosm of societal expectations regarding children generally" (p. 190). The changes over the fifty years projects the cultural shift on how childhood is viewed; the "Victorian notions of the isolated, innocent child" is altered as the child is viewed as a sophisticated one "entering the adult community at an early age" (p. 191).


Play Value: The Use and Misuse of Fashion Dolls, Lady Dolls and Barbie Dolls:

When it comes to play value, it is difficult to interpret the meaning and the value of children's play with dolls since "dolls' multiple functions and meanings differ according to particular societies at particular times" (p. 192). In order to acquire that ethnographic information, Mitchell and Reid-Walsh cite various references to doll play in women's memoirs, journals, letters, and fiction across several periods of time. However, they deduce that the "multiple functions of dolls contribute to providing multiple meanings to the players" (p. 192).

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Some 18th century references "signal conventional female behavior" such as undressing the doll every night, putting her in her cradle, or feeding her (p. 193). Other 19th Century women's autobiographies and fictional accounts show more complex attitude towards doll play as "dolls appear to inspire complex, contradictory emotions of love and hate, and complex reactions which include both preservation and destruction in the child."(p. 193). Girls turn their dolls into victims in a tragedy, then seem to rescue them; these dolls are mutilated, thrown away or being taken care of.

              Mitchell and Reid-Walsh believe that such actions and play may express the child's complex identification with the doll, "may prefigure her adult personality," or may represent the female roles the child needs to acquire as a female (p. 193). Later in the century, the doll was considered not only as a medium to express the child's affection, but also as a means "to teach girls to enact traditionally feminine rituals such as tea-parties, social visiting, and funeral attendance in a correct fashion" (p. 194). It helped in developing skills, morals, and the interpersonal relationships of that time period. Image from

Nowadays, Barbie as a play doll still carries that play of acting out the daily domestic routines that seems to be consistent across all ages and places. However, her tiny size, hard texture, disproportional body, inability to be cuddled or mothered set Barbies "as a distinct category separate from other kinds of dolls" (p. 197). They are even thrown away eventually. Here, doll play takes a divergent role; the Barbie appeals to fantasy play: It can assume many roles, possess abundant outfits, has a doll-house for action to take place. Barbie doesn't resemble the features of that of a child which reduces "the degree of identification the child may feel towards the doll" (p. 197). In that sense, the child is in control of the action happening, and there is emotional distance between the child and doll which enables her with the ability to voice out her inner feelings, concerns, and to build a bond between the inner self and society or outer culture and expectations (p. 197).

Some argue that Barbie doll is just among many influences on the children that the media is making--manipulating the idea of ideal beauty in culture although it is not true and false. The following is one of the first commercials for Barbie in 1959 that bluntly states "Barbie, beautiful Barbie... I can make-believe that I am you!"

It is important to note that Barbie has caused trouble in the courthouse in the famous trial with Aqua's "Barbie Girl." Mattel felt that the song was a violation of its trademark. Mattel's biggest complaint says one of their spokesmen is that the song sings about sexual and unsavory themes; the song associates with their big busted doll as the group sings, "kiss me here, touch me there, and I'm a blond bimbo girl in a fantasy world." The Aqua spokesperson said that it wasn't noting against the trademark; they were only making a 'social comment.' It simply demonstrated the public view, or the image Barbie is portraying. However, research claims that body shape was not a concern to children. It is more of a tool used for that fantasy play to take place. All these sexual connotations attributed to Barbie are more of the adult's perspective rather than those of children.


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