Doll Parts: The “Barbie Executioner” Strikes Back

by Melanie Klein, Contributor

My mother never addressed beauty in a critical way. In fact, beauty was rarely openly discussed in my house, but was the lingering weight on the shoulders of all the women in my family. The only times beauty was discussed was when my mother told me I needed to lose weight or when my grandmother told me I needed to “suffer to be beautiful.”

My critique of beauty came far too late in life, after the damage had already been done. Hole’s Courtney Love slapped me upside the head the first time I heard her belt out the lyrics to Doll Parts with gut-wrenching emotion, in her torn baby-doll dress and smeared lipstick .

I am doll eyes/ Doll mouth, doll legs/ I am doll arms, big veins, dog bait/ Yeah, they really want you, they really want you, they really do/ Yeah, they really want you, they really want you, they really do/ I want to be the girl with the most cake

Love stirred the festering agitation in me and eventually I was led to feminism’s door. I’ve been a body-image warrior ever since.

But what if a critical dialogue about the  limited definitions of beauty began early? Let’s face it: these conversations are necessary. Gender socialization does not occur in a vacuum, and even in the most conscious homes unrealistic images of beauty bombard our young people. Few parents can effectively combat the onslaught of conflicting values and norms perpetuated outside the home.

Barbie looms large as a pivotal figure in the lives of young girls. She is the epitome of the mainstream beauty standard, making an impact across race and class: She’s young, thin and, for the most part, white (while Mattel has created “ethnic” Barbie dolls, they sell in lesser quantities and, in the case of Wal-Mart, are sold for less money).

For more than 50 years, Barbie has remained an emblem of idealized femininity and a key element of gender socialization. Barbie fan Danielle Scott, 16, said:

Playing with the hair, the brushes, switching outfits. It really just made girls be girls.All the characteristics of what to look forward to and what girls really could do.

In those 50 years, Barbie has not waned in popularity (gained a pound, developed a wrinkle or gray hair), even in the face of mounting criticism. Rajini Vaidyanathan wrote at the BBC:

Despite some of the negative headlines Barbie is still a hit with girls across America and the world. … More than one billion dolls have been sold since her inception, and according to the doll’s makers, Mattel, 90 percent of American girls aged between three and 10 own at least one.

While it is true that Barbie is more complex than the Bratz (the googly-eyed dolls with a “passion for fashion”) and has had at least 125 jobs over the last half-century (jobs that presumably allowed her to purchase her multiple homes, extensive wardrobe and pink Corvette), Barbie is not famous for her extensive resume. Even Toy Story 3′s “renegade” Barbie doesn’t redefine Barbie’s cultural presence. Bottom line, Barbie is not defined by her career or the chutzpah she eventually taps into to help free Woody and the gang in Pixar’s latest. She is a timeless beauty icon. Period.

Generations after Mattel executive (and “kinky swinger”) Jack Ryan created Barbie, she continues to reinforce the beauty myth that pervades all aspects of the dominant culture. But with her alien measurements, Caucasian features, ivory skin, blond hair and unnaturally thin body how can anyone possibly measure up? I had a vintage Barbie scale fixed at 110 pounds, which would inform my notion of a woman’s ideal weight for most of my adult life.

Evelyn Ticona-Vergaray reports in “Barbie’s 50 years of beauty and controversy” on UPIU:

Studies made by the Wellness Resource Center at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee confirmed that a human version with Barbie’s body proportions would only have room for an esophagus or a trachea in her neck, a tibia or a fibula in her legs, and that she would have to crawl to support her top-heavy frame.

Academics from the University of South Australia suggest that chances of finding a woman having Barbie’s body shape is one in 100,000. Moreover, researchers at Finland’s University Central Hospital say if Barbie were a real woman she would lack the 17 to 22 percent of body fat required for a woman to menstruate.

Most girls and women could never and will never look like Barbie although many try (and some try harder than others). So, as an ambassador of a twisted yet omnipresent beauty norm, it’s no wonder that Barbie is subject to “torture play.” Ticona-Vergaray also wrote:

Research found in the article “Early adolescents’ experiences with, and views of, ‘Barbie’” revealed a high rate of “torture play” and “anger play” associated with the Barbie doll. Girls admitted to blaming the image of Barbie for their self-consciousness and lack of self esteem due to the simple impossibility of living up to the standards of beauty presented by the plastic doll.

Most anger play is played out in private, with little dialogue or social commentary to accompany the cut hair, dismembered appendages and pins shoved through her cheeks. But recently, my friend Justine showed me pictures of the anger play perpetrated by her pint-sized 9-year-old daughter (lovingly nicknamed the “Barbie executioner”).  Together, mother and daughter turned this anger play into artistic self-expression and social commentary.

Justine, a self-identified feminist, knew there was trouble the first time her then-five-year-old daughter requested a Barbie after she saw one at a friend’s house. Justine, an outspoken, self-assured woman with a personal disdain for Barbie who also teaches a class to young girls called “Tapping the Body’s Wisdom,” was quick to discuss her feelings about Barbie’s “unrealistic portrayal of feminine beauty” as something not worth “aspiring to.”

Mother and daughter critically discussed images of beauty and how the image of Barbie made them feel. Her daughter acknowledged that  she did not look like Barbie. In fact, she acknowledged that no dolls looked like her and, in the end, she consciously acknowledged that she did not want to be that doll. Shortly thereafter, her daughter began to take apart her Barbies (and Bratz dolls) and would play with their heads and appendages alone. After her daughter racked up a pile of doll parts, Justine suggested saving the appendages for a future art project. Eventually, Justine provided her daughter with a canvas and her daughter pored through beauty magazines to find words to express her feelings.

The result?

The inception, process and end result inspired me. I was moved by her 9-year-old’s ability to take the “smallness” Barbie made her feel, a feeling that too often remains silent and is internalized, and articulate it loudly on canvas. We may have a limited measure of control over the images our daughters are exposed to, but we still can help them cultivate a critical consciousness, use their voice and develop a healthy body image.

Originally published at Ms Blog. Cross-posted with permission.

An earlier version appeared at Feminist Fatale as Doll Parts: Barbie, Beauty and Resistance.

Photos courtesy of Justine Amodeo.

70 thoughts on “Doll Parts: The “Barbie Executioner” Strikes Back

  1. I grew up the oldest with the 3 younger sisters. I remember my oldest sister used to tear the heads off the Barbies of our younger sisters. I never understood why. It makes sense now. It was her way of fighting back against the pressure to conform to society’s ‘norms’. Doesn’t surprise me at all that she’s a Chicana queer womanist (I believe that’s the term she used). Funny how if you pay attention, even kids will let you know that there is something wrong with they way we socialize them according to white patriarchal standards. Very interesting…

  2. I would say that I was a tomboy growing up. I did not like dolls that much. I, too, would tear off the heads of barbies. I am glad to know that I am not the only one. I always felt weird that I did this as a girl. After reading this article I was assured that I am not the only one who exhibited this behavior.
    I liked that Justine was able to talk to her daughter about barbie and everything it represented. Barbies do bring up the issue of body image. More parents should converse with their children on this topic, using barbie as the prime example.

  3. As a little girl I never showed interest in playing with dolls although I did own barbies. I did not play with the barbies but I was well aware that they were too pretty to look human. I am surprised by the amount of damage the barbie dolls have done on the self esteem of young girls. I never imagined destroying the barbies was because of jealousy or anger towards their beauty I thought it was simply because they are fun to break. I think this project of making a collage out of the barbie parts was a very good idea in terms of helping little girls identify body image issues and express themselves out loud instead of keeping it to themselves. It is the duty of mothers to talk to their daughters and explain to them that barbies are not real and real women do not look like that and come in different shapes and sizes.

  4. I remember when I was a child, I was obsessed with the Barbie doll. I had at least 50 of them, all different outfits and hairstyles. I remember thinking how beautiful she was and how I wanted to look like her when I got older. I wanted to have the exact same life as Barbie. The perfect boyfriend, Ken, the perfect friends, Teresa and Chelsea, and the perfect house and career. I remember thinking that this is what my life was going to be like. This is probably why I liked Barbie so much. It gave me a sense of my future life and that i could construct it with a plastic version of myself. As i grew older, I obviously knew this could not be true. I did not look anything like Barbie, nor had the boyfriend or friends. I never resented Barbie because I appreciated her for the fun times she gave me as a child, but knew i could not achieve any of the desirable things she possessed which upset me a bit. I wanted to look like Barbie. I wanted to have her silky blonde hair. I wish i had a mother or a class to take such as the one mentioned in this article that told me Barbies proportions are impossible to obtain and her hair and boyfriend and friends are all a picture of a utopian world that many rarely achieve. As of right now, i do not regret playing with my Babies, but for all I know, there may be hidden resentment towards the plastic doll that I have not come to terms with yet.

  5. Looking back as a child who played with Barbie I always looked at her as a child not as a figure I want to become. I think a lot her feelings had to come from her childhood memories of being told that she needs to lose weight and you have to suffer to be beautiful. I was perfectly fine of how I looked because my parents never put that pressure on me to be thin and I was never told that in order to be beautiful I have to go through pain. I am strong believer that if you are brought up in a superficial environment like many people have than you are a victim of society and how they portray the “perfect” woman. Time will only tell when a song about the Bratz doll will emerge.

  6. Never really fond of Barbies growing I remember taking the Barbie apart after only having it for a couple days because people would tend to give them as gift since my parents knew I did not like playing with Barbies. Now I know my doings were as a result of not being able to connect with an object which had no similarities to me as an individual, I enjoyed playing soccer ,riding bikes, and skating rather than being confined in a small space alone playing with an object which I was not to fond of. Barbie is a mythical object that tends to give girls this false assumptions of image and beauty which is very unrealistic and unachievable. 

  7. I am not surprised that many young girls take their anger out on Barbie dolls for the unrealistic standards they set. Children are shown these images of thinness and beauty at such a young age that it becomes a major priority for them to achieve these standards while growing up. Its also not very surprising that even after all the pressure that toy companies have been getting, they still decide to sell the same products with barely any compromise. The only way to really send a message to these toy companies is by taking strikes against them and rejecting to buy their products. Moreover, as long as people continue buying these products, the companies will continue producing them. As a young boy, I never played with barbies, but I would play with action figures that had very similar roles. The “action” figures that I would play with were just that, “Action” packed pieces of plastic in superhuman forms that fueled me with adrenaline and fast paced commotion. Furthermore, all the toys I played with were of muscular men, with bulging muscles, either crushing things or building cities. I believe that these are the big companies’ attempt at feeding society with images of how we should behave as well as what we should expect. In other words, advertisers and the media are illustrating gender roles to individuals at very young ages through children toys and games. I would expect, and hope, for a backlash from people who want change. I know what role I must take in making a change, which is avoiding these types of products when I go shopping for my nieces and nephews.

  8. Barbie is the epitome of society’s normative beauty which is the notion of being thin, tall, blonde, colored eyed, and white. Barbie continues to reinforce the beauty myth that pervades all aspects of the dominant culture, but how can anyone measure up. When I was young I had multiple Barbies, I personally never liked Barbie just because I felt that she didn’t resembled me, therefore I always felt inclined to Teresa which had darker hair. Although there have been colored dolls, none have gained the popularity as Barbie. Many favor Barbie because in a way they aspire to be like her because of society’s approval and like Bell hooks mentioned in her book Communion, everyone wants to be loved and it is not until someone loves us that we feel worthy. But holding Barbie as a role model can be harmful, because if Barbie was to be a real women she would be very disproportionate, causing her to have serious health problems. Being 5’2, having brown eyes and colored eyes and at 120 pounds I could never aspire to look like Barbie, unless I went various surgeries or massive alterations, but even then it is an unrealistic aspiration. Yong girls should be reassured through the media and family that Barbie is just a doll, and that her beauty is altered, rather these young girls should be taught to embrace their diverse identity. I was never really fond of Barbie during my childhood, but I began to have body issues around my middle school years because I began puberty at an early age, and developed breasts way before any of my friends. As a result I always felt uncomfortable and tried to hide them through loose shirts, it wasn’t until high school that I accepted my body image. To this day I try not to let media nor anyone’s expectations define how I see my body, but unfortunately we are impacted through media in an every day basis, and sadly little girls are the most vulnerable targets, especially with Barbie holding an unrealistic sense of BEAUTY!

  9. Although I understand the feelings discussed in the article, I can’t help but feel like these feelings felt by all young girls are a bit outstretched. As a child I frequently played with Barbies and never did I look to these dolls with envy and wish to be a blonde, skinny, or a big busted woman. Barbies were simply characters in the imaginative game that I played with my friends or by myself. Playing with these Barbies did however show me how much I really did enjoy putting together outfits or fixing different hairstyles. This is something that I do not see as a bad thing, however I can see how many young girls, especially today, would turn to the idea that putting together glamorous outfits and believe that it is their place to enjoy doing these things and not other things such as playing sports or excelling in school. The end of the article where the young girl takes apart the doll’s bodies struck me as a little strange. Even though Barbies can pose as bad icons for young girls to look up to, taking part in “torture play” seems to be a little extreme. Although it is a mother’s job to instill an understanding of beauty in her child, this kind of play seems as though it may only lead to resentment of other girls who do enjoy playing with these dolls and who grow up to play the part of the traditional “Barbie”.

  10. I think it is ok to acknowledge that dolls are not the image of what we are expected to look like. We have also understand that Barbie is just a doll to play with not to destroy, if the little girl did not like the dolls she just did not have to ask her mom to buy them for her. I never thought about being like Barbie I just enjoyed dressing her up and playing with my sisters. At the same time I do agree that dolls can make some one feel annoyed for measuring up to them. We have to just tell the young girls that plastic is not real and they do not have to look like them period.

  11. It’s definitely a relief to me to hear from other women who had Barbies as children but don’t feel like they were supposed to live up to any sort of expectation that they set. I never asked myself why I didn’t look like Barbie, or remember ever wanting to look like her—I just wanted to stop losing her damned shoes. (I did wonder why she didn’t have a vagina, though.) For me, it was more about having an avatar for adulthood and the freedoms that would come with it—being able to choose your own clothes, go where you wanted to go and do what you wanted to do; having your own house and furniture and never having to send your friends home. I remember knowing that Barbie was unlike me because she had blonde hair and, in the 80s at least, her facial features were far more cartoonish and her clothes were kind of unrealistic things that no one would actually wear or consider fashionable unless they were six. (I gave away my old Barbie clothes to Goodwill years ago—a package full of neon-orange tights, fluffy pink ball gowns, and day-glo green jackets.) So, to me, Barbie was a toy—she wasn’t meant to be real. Who dressed like that? Who had that many clothes and shoes??

    That being said, I look at some of the Barbies now—especially the “Black Label” or “Collector Basics” Barbies—that look incredibly true to life, and I worry a little. They aren’t happy, cow-eyed things anymore—they have smaller eyes, and more realistic makeup and clothes. Instead of big pink ball gowns, they have tiny black wiggle dresses. I remember looking at those dolls and thinking “Holy s***!—these dolls look like the girls I see trying to get into nightclubs.” She looked less like a toy of cartoonish proportions and more like an actual woman with unrealistic proportions. Essentially, I’m seeing Barbies become less of a canvas and more of a photograph- something to be looked or aspired to at rather than interacted with. It makes me sad that now Barbies may be pushing an idealized media image of women rather than girls using Barbies as a means of creative play.

  12. This article is definitely a revelation about Barbie’s role in gender socialization. I must profess when I reminisce about my childhood, Barbie is present in many of my memories. I owned multiple Barbies, including Teresa (her brunette counterpart), and played with them on a daily basis. I do not recollect any sense of resentment towards her, but rather an admiration. My mother has always placed an emphasis on my beauty and I have grown up feeling the pressure. I was always perfectly groomed and attired in the latest fashion apparel. Barbie was what I aspired to be as a grew into a woman. Unfortunately, I was not blessed with a large chest, blonde hair, or height. Barbie is actually anatomically disproportionate, and a real women with her proportions would face a whole host of health problems. I have battled with self-esteem and body image issues my entire life even though my physical features are often praised by others. Compliments from others are ineffectual and they carry no weight in terms of my own beliefs about myself. I do not wholly attribute my self-consciousness to Barbie as many other girls do, but I do believe that she may have contributed to my own ideals of beauty.

    I sincerely admire the strength and courage of the mother-daughter duo discussed in this article. Instead of fixating on the reality that she will never look like Barbie, the “Barbie Executioner” channeled her internalized feelings into something cathartic and healing. Expressing your innermost emotions is a cleansing process, and can pave the way for the development of a healthy self-image. Mothers are not allocated the power to control the images that their daughters are exposed to on an everyday basis, but they are endowed with the ability to openly discuss how these images affect their daughters; honest conversing can spearhead this issue head-on and curtail some of the negative consequences advertisement may cause. If I become a mother in the future, I will make it a priority to establish a healthy self-image in my daughter early on, so she will be less susceptible to the powerful messages the media sends to young girls.

  13. I think the use of Barbie dolls and even legos, tell the youth, especially girls, two messages on what they should strive for and what is expected of them. The article said that the dolls/barbies came in different job titles and appearances that identified them with certain jobs and occupations. These doll figures and even girl lego figures limit the use of the female gender in the work place. We see that they are dressed up as beautiful women, nurses, secretaries, librarians, mothers, teachers, etc. which tells these young girls that society accepts these female figures in those ways only. We hardly see dolls or legos for girls that are doctors, farmers, mechanics, police officers, CEOs, solders, firemen, etc. So those toy companies support the social gender discrimination and segregation and make it difficult for these girls to enter these fields. The second issue is that the Barbie represents the false female, it shows women as being a perfect figure that has ZERO flaws. This false image is internalized into the youth of females and tells them you must be tall, long hair, skinny, with perfect proportion breast & buttocks, and that this is the best way to look, and if you don’t look like this then you are ugly. My little sister played with dolls growing up and she didn’t accept this false image as normal. She cut the hair, made her own cloths, and dressed the dolls up to what she thought was pretty. I think my mother talked to her and explained to her the issues of dolls and told her to not think she was different just because those plastic figures represented a grown woman. I think proper discussion with the younger generation about toys and human figure dolls is necessary when allowing them to play with them, so there wont be confusion, curiosity, and they will understand the are pretty/perfect in their own special way.

  14. I admit that I had many barbie dolls and I loved playing with them! However, I cannot remember wanting to look like her or any other type of doll. I looked at Barbie’s as a toy – a tool I used to roleplay as a child, expressing my creativity. It had nothing to do with how she looked or the “ideal” body image she represented. Barbie has been a cultural icon for so many years. I understand that for many girls, they look at her and think that Barbie is a representation of how girls are supposed to look. I do not think it is fair to say that every girl who played with Barbie’s had the same response as a child. To me, playing with Barbie’s and other dolls stimulated my imagination and I was able to make my Barbie doll whoever I wanted her to be. It was a creative outlet I used to express myself and I never “look up” to the doll as a role model of how I would look – or want to aspire to look like one day.

  15. Barbies definitely play a big role in gender socialization. For my 2nd birthday party I had a HUGE PINK cake with 4 barbies sitting on it. When all these little girls are playing with barbies starting such a young age, obviously the world will be filled with young women with eating disorders and low self esteem. I have noticed that even the young women who know that it is not physically possible to look like Barbie, still try to attain Barbie’s look. Until I took my Women’s Studies class, for the past 19 years, to me the ideal image of beauty and perfection was the barbie doll. When I was 11 years old I locked myself in the bathroom and bleached my hair, just so I look more like Barbie. Being around such objects and images are dangerous for the youth.

    Also, I checked out the Doll Parts video, it was awesome.

  16. Barbie definitely raises the bar for perfection in young women. The maker of barbie decided to make a perfect body, face, and color according to society. It has influenced more and more young girls to grow up that way and to be ultra thin with some hips and plainly put, perfect. The only thing that little girls never understood was that Barbie never ate either. So girls thought growing up they would eat and have this great model frame like barbie but they forgot that we are were created in different, unique ways. It is what young girls pride themselves on growing up with skinny dolls, not fat dolls. So they grow up thinking this is how I have to be too! Well its not but society only gives us one option and that is to buy skinny dolls. Even when i grew up and went to day care’s I never saw one fat doll; they were all skinny. This will have an extreme impact on young girls and provoke them to try and be as skinny as possible. Hopefully this changes so that young girls will not be influenced to look like barbie all the time.

  17. I absolutely love the culmination to this article. I personally remember sitting around in a circle with my cousins one day when I was little and each of us had a barbie in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other. By the time we were done with my barbies, I knew that I would never have to deal with another “role model” like her again. One thing I noticed while reading this article is that people are blaming barbie for all of their problems. I actually disagree with this because although I had a barbie, I do not blame her features for any body issues I have, I think that this is just the easiest answer to the biggest problem, which is the media. I was pretending that barbie was my toy baby, not who I wanted to be in life. There were so many disparities between us two that here was no point to even try and emulate her figure or skin color. Ultimately, it is mainly the fault of mass media’s portrayal of females as young, skinny, and white which is ruining us, barbie is just the byproduct of that.

  18. Barbie has been a cultural icon for so many years. I admit that I had many of them and loved playing with them! I remember at one point my sister and I had actually told my mother we did not want the traditional Barbie, but we wanted her friend. I believe her name was Theresa but I cannot quite remember; the brown haired Hispanic looking one. We wanted a Barbie we could more relate to. My sister and I had even wrapped toilet paper around our Barbie’s stomachs to make them look more voluptuous! Fortunately I can’t remember ever wanting to look like a Barbie. I have more problems with the Bratz dolls and other brands; they are marketed as much more provocative and while some Barbies do encourage careers and socializing outside and in other venues, the Bratz dolls seem more geared toward shopping and buying the boy counterparts.

  19. Reading this article made me realize why I buy these dolls, and Barbie’s for my daughter, when all I’m teaching her is that’s the body image women should have. I myself go through body and weight issues everyday of my life, and I am constantly weighing myself hoping I didn’t gain any weight after lunch and dinner. I cant believe that 9 year old girl, was so smart and strong, and came up with just playing with the heads rather than the full Barbie. I can honestly say the young generation today is very smart, and my daughter only at age 4 surprises me the things she says. For example one day last week, I weighed myself as she walked in, and saw me, and she turns to me and tells me, “Mommy you look good, why do you keep weighing yourself, you are beautiful”. I told myself, not to let her see myself struggle with my weight, and body because I don’t want her growing up thinking looking like Barbie is the norm, which in reality it really isn’t. I am 2 months pregnant now, and its so surprising how my daughter can tell my belly is growing, and now she tell me its ok mommy, your belly looks like mine now. I am 25 years old, but I cannot help myself, but to be concerned about my body. I grew up playing with Barbie’s, hoping to look like them one day. I am happy that there are people out there that also think the Barbie and Brats image is not the norm, and we will stop this, and will not let our children go through what we did.

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