- Barbie in "LIFE"The Life of Barbie
Barbie’s fiftieth birthday provides a fresh opportunity to reexamine the iconic doll that has sold more than any other in the United States and around the world. At first glance, historians are likely to see Barbie as either the quintessential icon of American femininity, a symbol of female liberation, or as an agent of female oppression. Nor would historians be alone in their assessments about the most popular doll in the world for nearly half a century. Despite the doll’s omnipresence and longevity, a heated debate about Barbie’s meanings has raged since 1959. Subsequent to the doll’s debut, educators, psychologists, feminists, parents, and children have disagreed over whether Barbie represents a feminine ideal that is healthy or harmful for girls.1 Life magazine’s 1979 celebration of a previous milestone in Barbie’s life—her twenty-first birthday—is a useful resource for analyzing the conflicting, even contradictory, perspectives about Barbie among a vast audience that does not agree on what they observe and the meanings they make.
The aim of this object lesson is to model a method of historical analysis useful for understanding the variety of contradictory meanings that can be expressed through a single material object. I suggest that what accounts for Barbie’s multivocality—the wide range of meanings she elicits—is her personification of changing feminine ideals as well as her perpetuation of traditional notions of gender. In addition to interrogating Barbie (especially about her clothes), I speculate about why she endorsed conservatism and, at the same time, embraced change for girls and women. Further widening the conceptual framework, I conclude that Barbie’s ambiguities derived from profound and persistent ambivalences about gender entrenched in American culture and experienced by her creator, Ruth Handler.
Life’s chronological presentation of the fashionably dressed doll in “Barbie Turns 21” is a documentary source that is particularly well suited to the instructional strategy of change and continuity. This historical method often confounds my students for whom the past is typically an inevitable story of unremitting [End Page 305] progress. While Life’s display of twenty Barbie dolls on ascending steps might initially reinforce this Whiggish perspective, it also evokes more nuanced comparisons about the doll’s gendered and generational meanings. Contextualizing Barbie within two momentous decades can also stimulate speculations about historical causation. Thus, while she is typically perceived as a blonde bimbo, Barbie has the capacity to cultivate in students the “habits of mind” that would probably please Peter Stearns, Sam Wineburg, and other scholars of historical thinking.2
[End Page 306]
Unpacking Barbie’s Wardrobe
Life’s colorful representations of Barbie’s haute couture wardrobe provide compelling evidence of both female agency and feminine passivity. During a transitional decade for girls and women, the slim slacks and khaki car coat as well as the road map that comprised Barbie’s early 1960s “Open Road” ensemble signified the importance of freedom of movement. The wedge sandals and red chiffon scarf also suggest, however, that Barbie was more inclined to drive than [End Page 307] to walk. Imposing even greater restraints on Barbie’s mobility was her refined “Red Flair” outfit complete with red velvet tent coat, matching pillbox hat, strapless heels, clutch bag, and white tricot gloves. The tension between independence and dependence manifest in these Barbie outfits reflected the struggle between changing ideals and traditional notions. During the 1960s shifting social, cultural, political, and economic prospects for women and girls occurred amidst stagnant expectations.
While the magazine spotlighted the doll’s outfits it also cloaked many of the significant continuities and changes experienced by women, girls, and even Barbie herself. Reading Barbie’s body as a historical text helps to make sense of the numerous cosmetic alterations she underwent that mirrored major changes for girls during the 1960s. By the middle of the decade, for example...