With the release of the new Barbie movie, toy manufacturer and entertainment company, Mattel, is setting out to bedazzle a fresh generation of girls into jumping on the “Barbie bandwagon.” The hype has been massive, with marketing techniques such as the introduction of a new Barbie filter that makes you pink, poreless and pretty, filling social media. Countless of advertisements and promotions such as Celebrating Pride Month “These Barbies and Kens want to wish you all a happy #PrideMonth!” proliferate public spaces. After all, as the slogan goes “Barbie: You Can Be Anything!”
When we think of Barbie, we conjure up images of a sweet innocent doll, adored by generations of young girls. A quintessential icon, American as apple pie, a paragon of beauty, fashion and success. However, many parents, myself included, have long felt uneasy about buying a skinny blonde, white, lipsticked doll for their ethnic daughters. And to a conscientious parent’s eye, Barbie remains widely inappropriate by any standard of modesty.
Her most conspicuous feature is her warped physique — a grotesque caricature of the female form. With elongated legs, a face full of makeup, a minuscule waist, and an exaggerated bust, Barbie presents young girls with an unattainable and unhealthy sexualized beauty ideal. The majority of her outfits are mini-dresses, tight-fitting leggings, or revealing swimsuits.
The new Barbie movie cements this sexualized vision of womanhood to impressionable girls. It has a PG13 rating, but like the dolls, it is geared toward young girls. The writers failingly attempt to be edgy, showcasing Barbie as experiencing the harsh realities of being sexualized against her will. But can the adults in the room please be honest? Mattel, the producers of Barbie and the actors are instead grooming young girls into sexualizing themselves. In essence, the movie is a cash cow, implicitly messaging young impressionable girls, that they too can attain such immodest standards.
Every parent whose gut instinct tells them there is something off with Barbie is in the right. The truth behind Barbie’s creation is far from the wholesome American narrative we are led to believe. To uncover this, let us turn our attention to Bild Lilli, a seductive German cartoon character who served as the clandestine inspiration for the Barbie doll — a “dirty little secret” that Barbie creators certainly hoped the world would forget.
Long before Barbie bounced into toy shops, there existed Bild Lilli, a curvaceous and provocative cartoon character who first appeared in the German tabloid “Bild-Zeitung” in 1952. Created by male cartoonist Reinhard Beuthien, Bild Lilli was the embodiment of sex appeal, with her exaggerated proportions, sultry gaze, and risqué attire. She captivated readers and became an overnight sensation. Beuthien created Lilli as sex-kitten — uninhibited, witty, and independent. She supported herself as a secretary and dated older men for their money, essentially a call girl.
Lilli became a widespread sensation. According to Time, Lilli was so popular that tobacco shops, bars, and “adult-themed toy stores” started selling a plastic doll version of her. This Bild Lilli doll was a platinum blonde, blue-eyed bombshell with large breasts. She wore red lipstick and blue eyeliner. Her feet were molded into black stilettos and she had arched eyebrows and sultry side-glancing eyes. The doll epitomized the pervasive male ideals of feminine beauty and charm, crafted to emulate real-life objects of men’s desires.
Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel, Inc., stumbled upon Bild Lilli during a trip to Europe in the late 1950s. Recognizing the allure of the doll and the potential profit, Handler saw an opportunity to bring Bild Lilli to a wider audience. She acquired the rights to Bild Lilli and embarked on creating a palatable version of the German fantasy doll. She recalled in an interview with The New York Times, that she believed “every little girl needed a doll through which to project herself into her dream of her future.”She further stated, “If she was going to do role-playing of what she would be like when she was 16 or 17, it was a little stupid to play with a doll that had a flat chest. So I gave it beautiful breasts.”
The metamorphosis of Bild Lilli into Barbie was a calculated move to appeal to a broader audience and fit the idealized image of the American woman. Like Lilli, Barbie wears revealing outfits, has sensuous features and is touted as a liberated woman. She is also a rampant consumer with an extensive wardrobe and an impressive range of careers, thus serving as a “role model” for young girls.
Barbie is more than just a toy. Perhaps more than anything else, Barbie shows young girls they can grow up to be anything they want to be and they are not confined to the traditional roles that had been laid out before them for so long.“My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be,” Handler wrote in her autobiography, Dream Doll: The Ruth Handler Story. “Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”
So is Barbie a feminist? Well, the movie tagline speaks volumes “She’s everything. He’s just a Ken,” a dumb sidekick boyfriend. In the past feminist figures have deconstructed the Barbie phenomenon, unmasking its pernicious nature. Gloria Steinem, dubbed Barbie a “pornographic symbol” that objectifies women. Naomi Wolf, in her influential book “The Beauty Myth,” tore through the veiled glamour of Barbie, exposing its role in perpetuating unattainable beauty standards and contributing to the culture of female self-objectification. These voices serve as reminders that Barbie is not just a harmless plaything but a cog in the larger machinery of capitalism — harming the mental health of children for profit.
Countless academic studies have substantiated the adverse impact of Barbie on body image perceptions and self-esteem. According to a study published in Developmental Psychology, girls aged 5 to 8 who engaged with Barbie dolls expressed a desire for a thinner body shape compared to those exposed to more realistically proportioned dolls. This insidious longing for an unattainable body image paves the way for future body dissatisfaction, disordered eating behaviors and a lifetime of self-loathing.
Barbie’s homogenous white visage has long been a point of contention, a testament to the Western cultural utopia she represents. Until recent attempts to rectify the issue, Barbie predominantly showcased Caucasian features and unrealistic body proportions, excluding the vast array of skin tones and hair types that make up our diverse world. While Mattel’s introduction of more diverse Barbie dolls is commendable, it remains a mere tokenistic gesture.
Behind the glossy packaging and innocent smiles lies a corporate juggernaut that has profited immensely from the vulnerabilities of young girls. Mattel, the company behind Barbie, has raked in astronomical amounts of money, capitalizing on the insecurities and desires it strategically cultivates and promotes.
Though specific figures may fluctuate, according to Mattel’s financial reports, Barbie consistently generates billions of dollars in revenue each year. This relentless pursuit of profit comes at the expense of young girls’ self-esteem and more importantly, Islamic values. Just because Barbie is an iconic female figure in the “developed world,” that doesn’t mean parents should be scammed by the relentless marketing spiel. Why are we going to buy our girls a $30 doll wearing a bathing suit? What message is that giving our girls about modesty and beauty? So this summer, remember to have your daughters’ best interests at heart — don’t let her jump on the Barbie bandwagon.
Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.
Farhat Amin is an author and podcaster. She creates online courses and books for Muslimah’s promoting Islamic family values and illustrates the alternative to liberalism. Visit her website, smartmuslima.com, to learn more about her work.