Barbie, as a cultural icon, has been a subject of debate regarding her influence as a role model for girls for decades, but with the new film out now, the debate has resurrected on popular platforms. While some argue that Barbie promotes unrealistic beauty standards and materialistic values, others believe that she can serve as a positive role model for girls.

Common arguments for Barbie being a good role model:

  1. Imagination and creativity: Barbie dolls can encourage imaginative play, allowing children to create stories, explore different scenarios, and develop their creativity.
  2. Aspiration and ambition: Barbie has been portrayed in various careers and professions, inspiring children to dream big and consider a wide range of possibilities for their future.
  3. Diversity and inclusivity efforts: In recent years, Barbie has made strides in diversifying its doll line, representing more ethnicities, body types, and abilities. This can promote acceptance and appreciation for diversity among children.
  4. Social and emotional development: Through role-playing with Barbie dolls, children can learn social skills, empathy, and problem-solving, which are essential for their emotional and cognitive development.

Common arguments for Barbie being a bad role model:

  1. Unrealistic beauty standards: Barbie’s physical appearance has long been criticized for promoting unrealistic beauty ideals that can impact children’s self-esteem and body image.
  2. Materialism and consumerism: Barbie’s association with fashion and material possessions can potentially foster materialistic values in children.
  3. Reinforcing gender stereotypes: Despite portraying various careers, Barbie’s overall image may still reinforce traditional gender roles and stereotypes.
  4. Limited representation: While efforts have been made to increase diversity, Barbie may still not fully represent the vast array of identities and experiences that children have.

What do you think?

For me personally, Barbie was just like any other doll, except I had lots of outfits for her, she had a boyfriend, Ken (which my dog bit the nose of, so he always looked a bit off!), and she did things I wanted to do; like camping, gymnastics, go shopping, get her hair done, have interesting and exciting jobs. I didn’t see anything deeper than that as a child, and I’m not sure others do, but I do want to note that I’m unaware if playing with Barbie and similar dolls (for example, Sindy) subconsciously affected me. I also recognise that Barbie looked like me – not exactly as I was 8, but I am white, had long blonde-ish hair and blue eyes, and was reasonably thin. I don’t recall ever thinking about that, and she was obviously portraying someone a lot older so I’m not sure a child would relate in that way.

I do wonder if children take note of their bodies without any outside judgment. I bet everyone can remember first becoming self-conscious of a part of their body, and I’d also bet that it was from a comment somebody made about you. If a parent is obsessed with looks, would they be more inclined to mention this to their children and even note the appearance of Barbie? I don’t remember ever having a conversation about my dolls’ looks or even thinking about them, except when styling their hair or outfits.

The only thing I think Barbie did for me is give me creative play time and perhaps some ideas for hobbies. For example, I wanted to do horse-riding because it seemed fun in the make believe world in my bedroom. Reality is horses scare me! Although I have always liked the idea of a Jeep so maybe I have been influenced…

I saw Barbie as cool, capable, powerful and fun. All the things I wanted to be when I grew up.

However, I do understand why some people might not have felt that way. Barbie gave us a pretend world, just like any other toy, but what wasn’t considered perhaps was inclusivity. I would argue that is the case for most toys though. While it might not be okay, I never saw disabled toys from other brands either. We did see other races from the Barbie collection, but they may have been less accessible than others. There have been arguments about a white girl being the main character too, but in a predominantly white country, is that so terrible? The Nigerian Queens of Africa dolls are not expected to have white friends, let alone another race as the main character in a predominantly black Country.

I do wonder if the attack on Barbie specifically is fair compared with other similar toys or other influences. I mentioned Sindy earlier, also an apparently pretty, white doll, that doesn’t get brought into any conversations of the sort. Is it the popularity that makes Barbie the target or is it more than that?

I went to Aldi yesterday, and there were some Barbie dolls available. There were a few different races, a Barbie with a prosthetic leg, a wheelchair baby sister doll and more. In other stores, there are many more, including a Barbie with Down Syndrome. I’m not saying they’ve captured everything, but are they expected to?

Barbie Good or Bad Role Model

I also saw various Ken dolls available at Argos, including one with Vitiligo and one with a man bun! There are also curvier Barbies available, and there has even been a pregnant Barbie.

Ken Dolls Argos Role Model

At what point does this stop being about children innocently playing with their toys and more about the grown adults that are affected by it instead, expecting a doll to represent them? Are they blaming Barbie for their body image issues and is that fair?

I read a really interesting study about whether it is external sources or Barbie herself creating the body image issues that young children grow up with:

[Negative attitudes and discrimination toward larger individuals based on their body weight] are common among adult women, and are associated with deleterious mental and physical health outcomes including body image disturbance, disordered eating, low self-esteem, stress, anxiety, and depression

Various, ScienceDirect []

While it’s important to acknowledge the criticisms and concerns surrounding Barbie, it’s worth noting that children’s role models are not solely determined by dolls, but also influenced by their families, peers, and broader cultural influences. Ultimately, it is crucial for parents and caregivers to engage in open discussions with children about body image, self-worth, and the influence of media, including dolls like Barbie.

The same should surely be relevant for all toys that may represent people. For example, I don’t see Action Man coming under scrutiny and I haven’t met many men that look like him!

I believe it’s important to think critically about these things which is why I wanted to look into both sides despite my obvious leaning towards Barbie as ‘just a toy’. And that’s a point in itself, do children’s toys have to be role models? Or will children re-enact things they see in every day life and try to make sense of them through play?

I realise I haven’t covered every single point, but I could be here a while, so let’s discuss in the comments!
What do you think of Barbie as a role model?