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Professor discusses Barbie doll’s impact

Caitlin Housley | Thursday, February 23, 2012

With blonde hair and blue eyes, Barbie seems like an all-American girl next door — but behind the plastic doll lies a mysterious past and a troubling message, according to Terri Russ.

Russ, a communication studies professor at Saint Mary’s College, outlined the truth behind Barbie’s life and her impact on women in her lecture “Barbie — Love Her, Hate Her, Who Cares?!” on Thursday evening in the Saint Mary’s Student Center.

“[Barbie] is this really interesting toy,” Russ said. “She’s been around for well over 50 years now … [but] even though she’s a doll, she … represents more than that. Clearly, she’s part of our cultural understanding of a lot of things.”

Barbie, whose full name is Barbie Millicent Roberts, is a teenager with an interest in fashion. She hails from a make-believe town in Illinois where she lives with her architect father and stay-at-home mother, Russ said.

The story behind Barbie’s creation is guarded closely by her manufacturer Mattel, , Russ said.

“One of the things [Mattel] has … done is been very protective of what the public knows and doesn’t know about Barbie,” she said. “One of the ways we see that play out is in terms of the creation of Barbie.”

Mattel advertises that Barbie was named for the daughter of her creator, Russ said. However, there are other possible stories of Barbie’s creation.

“[One] story is that Ruth Handler, the woman who we think came up with the idea of Barbie, wanted to design a doll for her daughter, Barb, so that her daughter and her friends could practice being an adult in play and make believe,” Russ said.

At that time, the only other popular dolls on the market were made of paper, she said. Handler wanted to enrich her daughter’s playtime, so she turned to another doll on the market for inspiration — a highly sexualized German fashion doll named Lilli.

“Lilli was a sex toy doll marketed to men in Germany and other places in Europe,” Russ said. “So, you can kind of tell why Mattel would want that [sanitized].”

The second story, Russ said, starts with a man named Jack Ryan — an engineer employed in the defense industry.

“After World War II, the defense industry kind of went downhill, so [Ryan] needed to find something to do,” Russ said. “He was really good with plastics, so he went to work for Mattel.”

Some believe Ryan’s interests dictated the appearance of Barbie, Russ said.

“Jack was kind of like the Hugh Hefner of his time,” she said. “He had a preference for thin, blonde women with big boobs. The story is that he designed Barbie.”

However, Russ said most Barbie scholars believe the true creation story is a blending of the two.

Beyond mystery surrounding Barbie’s creation, the doll also has a powerful effect on the lives of little girls around the world.

“[Barbie] is this idea of little girls getting to practice being a woman, and they do that by buying Barbie,” Russ said. “But, buying Barbie is never enough, because she only comes with one outfit, and the whole purpose of Barbie is to dress her up. To do that, you have to buy more outfits, and all the accessories.”

This constant need to purchase Barbie accessories instills consumer behavior in girls, Russ said.

“As we know from other research, that whole consumer identity continues in other forms,” she said. “We’re marketed that we can improve ourselves if we buy the right product. That presents this really interesting phenomenon.”

Despite Mattel’s idea that Barbie should inspire girls to pursue careers as doctors, teachers, dentists and more, there is a strange reality left out of this empowering thought, Russ said.

“It’s interesting, because we’re supposed to view Barbie to help us be anything we want to be as a girl, but it’s very controlled by Mattel,” Russ said. “If you think about all the careers Barbie has been, which is a lot, there’s also a lot of things she hasn’t been.”

Barbie has never been a professor, single mom or other realities women face, Russ said.

“If [Barbie] is supposed to represent what it’s like to be grown up as a woman, it presents a very narrow view, not just physically, but holistically,” she said.

Russ said Barbie’s physique creates an ideal body that is unrealistic.

“We’re not going to find anyone who even comes close to looking like Barbie,” Russ said. “Even if they are blonde and thin, still nobody can really look like Barbie. She’s just completely unreal. I mean, hopefully no one has feet like that.”

In fact, she’s creating a body image paradox that is not ideal, Russ said.

“While we all know Barbie is just a doll and she’s unrealistic, there’s still that part of us that asks, ‘Well, what if? What if I could do that?” she said. “There is this ambivalence. We love her, but we know we shouldn’t love her, but we don’t really hate her, and she’s hard to hate. She’s a doll.”

Despite Barbie setting unrealistic physical standards, mysterious career paths and disjointed thought paradoxes, Russ said Barbie does not have to be hated.

“Nothing … is good in excess and nothing is good in a vacuum. It needs to be contextualized,” she said. “At the end of the day, [Barbie] is a toy — a doll — but a really, really famous doll.”