I know I’ve talked about Barbie here before, but she’s such a cultural icon I figured the ol’ gal deserved a second look.
Barbie dolls first came out in the 1950s and were one of the first toy dolls that looked like a teenager/grown-up as opposed to a baby. From the start parents worried that Barbie’s figure was too sexualized for young children. Just the fact that she had breasts was scandalous (their size in relation to the rest of her body is another issue). Many mothers were hesitant to buy the doll for their daughters, until advertisements started pushing Barbie as a tool to teach girls proper grooming habits. Apparently that angle outweighed the negative aspects of Barbie and made her acceptable as a toy for children.
I honestly believe that Barbie started out innocent enough in America. Okay, yes, the idea for her came originally from Bild Lili, a German comic character and doll aimed primarily at adult men…but that was never the target audience here. Here Barbie’s measurements were necessary to scale fashionable clothes down to her size without having them just look like sacks. But as we all know, many issue have since been projected onto Barbie. The main one being the issue of body image. There is a segment of the population who believe that Barbie dolls are harmful to girls’ self-esteem and body image. Does playing with a Barbie make a girl think she has to be skinny, large-chested, blonde, and blue-eyed? Maybe. Obviously I can’t speak for everyone. But I know I never felt that way. Have I ever suffered from negative body image; felt I wasn’t thin enough, my boobs not big enough? Sure. It’s probably hard to find a girl who hasn’t suffered from at least one of those issues. But it wasn’t my Barbie doll that made me feel that way. It’s the society that holds Barbie’s figure as ideal that did.
It can also be argued that Barbie reinforces the idea that women need to have a man, since the manufacturers felt the need to make Ken to be Barbie’s boyfriend, despite no real desire for him from the children. I suppose this is kind of true. But overall I call bullshit on that. For one, it’s not like they were married or anything. And it seems rather apparent that Barbie is self-sufficient, since she’s abel to get every job imaginable. Clearly the girl can pay her own bills.
Where does G.I. Joe (and other dolls for boys) come into this? On his own, G.I. Joe isn’t really that bad. It could be argued that he promotes violence in little boys, but these days I think there are bigger promoters of violence than action figures. No, the terribleness of G.I. Joe comes in when he’s compared to Barbie. Just the term “action figure” for boys’ toys and “doll” for girls’ toys shows an engrained idea that boys are supposed to be active while girls are expected to be static. What’s terrible and ridiculous is that this expectation is built into the dolls themselves and their joints. Boys’ action figures can have upwards of 20 movable joints. This allows for complex movements and actions. The original Barbie had only five joints. Modern Barbies have more, and are more flexible but still have nowhere near the amount of joints the action figures do. Poor Barbie can’t even stand on her own due to her perpetually tip-toed feet.
So are Barbie and G.I. Joe terrible? Maybe. With the exception of the joints thing, he dolls themselves aren’t actually terrible. They’re just toys. Really it’s the meanings we impose on these toys that are terrible. Unfortunately I think it’s harder to change those than the toys themselves.

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If you’re interested in the whole Barbie vs. G.I. Joe thing, check out the essay, “Barbie and Action Man: Adult Toys for Girls and Boys, 1959-93” by Judy Attfield.