Mattel's top-selling doll could have started a cultural revolution. Barbie could indeed be responsible for shaping gender identity and norms in American culture in particular. The demand for ethnic Barbies and themed Barbies points to the fact that all little girls, whatever their family or cultural backgrounds, are aspiring to be like Barbie. Pop star icons like Brittany Spears and Jessica Simpson bolster the Barbie image ideal. Whether girls are being subliminally programmed or whether Barbie simply reflects an already extant cultural norm is up for debate. Heidi Burton states that the roots of Barbie's body image extend into antiquity (1). However, Greek statuary does not depict women who could fall flat on their faces; rather, the artists of antiquity portray the physical body far more realistically than Mattel does. Perhaps Barbie is a manifestation of changing norms and ideals, but it seems that the Barbie-doll body ideal sprouted after, not before, the first Barbie hit the shelves in 1959. Based on photos, painting, and film, women's body images were more voluptuous and realistic before that date than after. Moreover, Barbie's influence on gender identity extends far beyond body image. Barbie was, according to Gary Cross, "an early rebel against ... domesticity," and therefore supported feminist ideals of independence and sexual freedom (770). Furthermore, Barbie is not the only plastic icon of cultural norms. For instance, Barbie's oft-overlooked partner Ken might also have an impact on male psycho-social development; G.I. Joe affirmed "the values and experiences of many fathers," (Cross 773). Dolls like Barbie, Ken, and G.I. Joe offer three-dimensional, tangible models for children's psycho-social development.
The Barbie body ideal is unrealistic and potentially harmful for young girls and women. Barbie has taken a lot of slack lately, partly because "her breasts are so out of proportion to the rest of her body that if she were a human woman, she'd fall flat on her face," as Emily Prager points out in her article "Our Barbies, Ourselves," (766). The seemingly innocent plastic doll could in fact be partly responsible for the current boom in breast augmentation surgery and other extreme and possibly dangerous means by which women, and even teenage girls, attempt to obtain a Barbie body. Women have only a one in 100,000 chance of looking like Barbie, notes Heidi Burton (1). Lingering unconscious inferiority complexes drive girls to go under the knife to have bigger breasts; not being born looking like Barbie may also lead to the extreme dieting that can lead too easily to eating disorders in women. According to Nikki Katz, approximately seven million girls and women struggle with eating disorders and over an individual's lifetime, about 50,000 will die ("Body Image Statistics"). While Barbie can't be blamed for all these instances and is certainly not the cause of eating disorders in general, the doll does indeed influence body image. Body image, in turn, feeds eating disorders because it leads to distorted thinking.
However, females aren't the only ones impacted by a Barbie-oriented culture; men and boys are also affected negatively by distorted body images. According to Katz, approximately one million men and boys have eating disorders ("Body Image Statistics"). However, the pressure on men is not to boast huge breasts and a tiny waist but rather, broad shoulders and bulging muscles. Steroid use among teenagers is on the rise, and many men and boys also go to extreme lengths to obtain the ideal physical form. Steroids are dangerous, even deadly, especially when ingested by developing bodies. The most recent version of G.I. Joe reflects a shift in cultural norms regarding the male physique. "G.I. Joe Extreme" has "bigger biceps than anyone alive," (Burton 1). Barbie's partner doll Ken also promotes an unrealistic body image ideal for males: according to Heidi Burton men have a one in fifty chance of looking like Ken (1). Fortunately for young boys, those odds are far better than the one in 100,000 chances that a little girl will grow up looking like Barbie. Nevertheless, both G.I. Joe and Ken offer body image ideals for boys.
The influence of G.I. Joe and Ken on the male psyche and on the culture at large extends beyond body image, however. The dangers of a culture dominated by images of men in combat fatigues include militarism and violence. According to Gary Cross, "G.I. Joe began as a celebration of an all-male world of realistic combat," (774). G.I. Joe's "success was based on a boy's identity with the all-male world of heroic action aided by modern military equipment and gadgetry ... This was a womanless world," (773). The implications of a "womanless world" are immense. A womanless world enforces patriarchy and the dominance of women by men. A womanless world renders females invisible.
G.I. Joe might actually have the reverse impact on boys and men, however, causing them to question the meaning of masculinity. Stephen Hill notes that "As much as most boys and men may imagine ourselves like GI Joe, our actual lives are more like that of Ken." Ken is Barbie's somewhat emasculated partner. Emily Prager notes that she "felt weird" about Ken precisely because the Ken doll is oddly asexual, especially when viewed next to his bombshell babe Barbie. Ken was in fact designed with a very small bulge in his pants. G.I. Joe, with all his musculature, is likewise asexual, but he symbolizes male dominance and power because of his military garb and meaning. According to Hill, G.I. Joe beats up Ken to get Barbie; he is the alpha male. Yet most men do not feel victorious and powerful like G.I Joe. Hill notes, "Paradoxically, despite the fact that we live in a patriarchal society, the common, every-day experience of many men is hardly one of mastery or feeling dominant." Therefore just as Barbie presents an unrealistic body image, G.I. Joe might represent an unrealistic image of masculinity.
In spite of her unrealistic physical form, Barbie might indeed be a feminist doll. Unlike the asexuality of Ken, Barbie's sexuality is overt and obvious, as her proud breasts indicate. Barbie therefore wields a power than Ken or Joe cannot. Barbie also promotes female independence because she lives on her own, owns her own house, mansion, and townhouse and drives fancy cars. Her boyfriend Ken is totally secondary to Barbie; he is virtually a non-entity. Little girls may grow up believing strongly that they can be wealthy and popular like Barbie without needing men. This represents a reversal of patriarchy and reverses common male-female stereotypes.
G.I. Joe, Barbie, and Ken also influence the ways men and women view each other. For example, men who feel that all women should look like Barbie promote the Barbie body image in popular culture. Little girls have two ways in which to view the opposite sex. First they have the Ken doll: the good-looking but oddly emasculated partner of Barbie. Ken might look good, but he is not the alpha male as G.I. Joe is. G.I. Joe represents the second option for viewing the male gender. Joe is dominant, aggressive, powerful. He is the action hero, the victor who beats up Ken in order to "win" Barbie. More than Barbie or Ken, G.I. Joe promotes patriarchy.
As Cross notes, G.I. Joe has gone out of style, replaced by high-tech toys and sci-fi action heroes; Joe's waning popularity might reflect cultural norms and changing gender roles. G.I. Joe's popularity waned especially after the Vietnam War, according to Cross in his article, "Barbie, G.I. Joe, and play in the 1960s." Joe's waning popularity might also reflect something deeper in the American psyche: a trend towards a feminist culture. Barbie's popularity, unlike that of G.I. Joe's, prevails. Little girls everywhere continue to be attracted by the doll and her multiplicity of accessories like tiny high-heeled shoes, clothes, cars, and houses. "Today Barbie has forty-five occupations ranging from doctor, lawyer, dentist, rock star, to presidential candidate. Telling a young girl she can be anything including the highest office in the land is empowering," ("Barbie and G.I. Joe").
Dolls like Barbie, Ken, and G.I. Joe undoubtedly influence the psycho-social development of children. Barbie offers a double standard for women: they must have big beautiful breasts and a tiny waist but they must also be financially independent, stable, and powerful. Any cursory glance at prevailing American cultural norms will illustrate the Barbie ideal in action. Barbie's influence on the female psyche and on popular culture is both positive and negative. On the one hand, the prevalence of eating disorders indicates that Barbie has a bad influence on girls. On the other hand, the increasing numbers of women in positions of power might also reflect Barbie's being a positive role model. Barbie's partner Ken doesn't so much influence male psycho-social development as female: Ken offers a way for girls to view the opposite sex. Ken has only an "unidentifiable lump at his groin," and is therefore an ideal counterpart for the sexually assertive, independent Barbie (Prager 768). G.I. Joe perpetuates male…