Barbie dolls were born in the Wisconsin state of American 50 years ago. They are no longer simple dolls, but a symbol of American women, American culture and an ideal embodiment of global female. The following essay will firstly discuss Barbie dolls’ historical and cultural background of the era when they appeared. This part includes three aspects, which are the consumer society of America at that time, the prevailing of hedonism in the consumer society and the enhancement of self-awareness among Americans. Then the essay will illustrate the marketing strategy of Barbie dolls which is emphasized on the fashion. The illustration comprises the explanation of the relationship between consumption and fashion, the description of the figure of Barbie and the fashion culture in Barbie’s world. Finally, on the basis of the discussing above, three arguments about Barbie dolls will be presented. Three main arguments, which are Barbie dolls had made an important contribution to the awakening of female consciousness to a certain extent, too perfect and unrealistic figure of Barbie has no benefit for the growth of children and teenagers, and Barbie is essentially the perfect female body in the dreams of men under the patriarchal society.
1Barbie’s Historical and Cultural Background
According to Sassatelli, consumer society refers to a society where “daily desires are satisfied through the acquisition and use of ‘commodities’, goods which are produced for exchange and are on the market…in the consumer society we not only satisfy our most elementary daily needs through commodities. We also conceptualize the purchase and use of goods as acts of ‘consumption’. Furthermore, we are accustomed to being addressed as ‘consumers’ ” (Gall, 2013: 3). Barbie was born in the 50s of the 20th century. American society became prosperous after World War II. The population of middle class gradually expanded and became the main symbol of American society (Schudson, 2007). To live as middle class became an important part of American dream. Barbie was the typical representative of the life of American middle class (Poulter, 2009). Barbie was born in 1959 at which time that Baudrillard said was the consumer society. Baudrillard stated, around us there existed an astonishing phenomenon that the material wealth and consumption grew so quickly. It became a fundamental change in
human natural environment and rich people were no longer surrounded by people as past but were surrounded by objects (Swagler, 1994).
In the 1950s American, cars, movie, advertising, one-time discarded, credit consumption gradually came into daily life of America. And washing machine, electric fridge, vacuum cleaner and other home appliances were used in large scale. The American society in which Barbie was born was characterized by large consumption.
1.2 The prevailing of hedonism
In the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Daniel Bell (1976) mentioned, American culture had turned towards hedonism in the 1950s. It emphasized on playing, entertainment, flaunt, happiness. The world of hedonism is full of fashion, photography, advertising, TV and travelling.
The world of Barbie is an epitome and reflection of American consumer society. If the meaning of past traditional consumption was to satisfy the living needs of people, then the modern consumption tends to fulfill the desire, dream and the need of pursuing pleasure of people. According to the theory of Baudrillard, the basic characteristic of consumer society is the formation of the symbol system (Swagler, 1994).
The emergence of Barbie dolls are coincided with the basic characteristics of consumer society. In the colorful world of Barbie, the children can make Barbie as what they want only with their hands. Barbie can achieve the dreams in their deeply hearts, just as the princess dream and star dream of little girls, and American dream. That is the culture significance which is reflected by the modern consumption.
1.3 The enhancement of self-awareness
Self-awareness and individualism is the core content of American culture. In Barbie’s age, after World War II, the economy of United States is highly prosperity, and the living standard of people is greatly improved (Slater, 2005). The Americans in this age paid more attention on self-expression and self-improvement. That is, people brought themselves into the consumption of
cultural goods in order to enrich themselves. From the series of Barbie Dolls, it is obvious to see that Barbie represent the self-expression and self-consumption (Macarthur, 2009).
The self-expression of Barbie mainly reflects as following: She can be a dancer, a police, a doctor or an astronaut. She can also be a black, Chinese or Indian doll. It seems that she can be whatever she likes. She was a youth and fashionable woman, and she is high-end consumers. The world of Barbie shows the women’s self-choice, self-realization, seeking identity and the goals and wishes of American dream.
2Marketing with emphasis on fashion
2.1 Consumption and fashion
In the significance transfer mode of McCracken, advertising media and the fashion system gather cultural elements from the reality world. Then endow culture products with significance. In this process, fashion designer, fashion magazine journalist, fashion commentator and etc. factors constitute the fashion system. The examples of Barbie can fully explain the theory.
Mattel Corporation invited Christine Dior and other top designers to design fashion clothing for Barbie. These well-known designers are proud of that. They often apply the latest fashion information of T fashion show in Paris to Barbie’s fashion, and hold live performance of Barbie fashion. Mattel has launched the Barbie fashion magazines, and Random house irregularly launches Guide of Barbie Fashion such as the Success of Barbie Fashion, the Sweet Summer of Barbie, the Hawaii Holiday of Barbie, the Simple Diet of Barbie, and etc. Obviously, the comprehensive operation of fashion system endowed the world of Barbie with the significance of fashionable society (Winterman, 2009).
All of these advertising and marketing methods became a source of culture meaning of Barbie. They linked Barbie with a feeling of fashion. It is no doubt to say that the advertising is successful to construct the fashion culture of Barbie.
2.2The figure of Barbie
Body is an important point of fashion research, and it is also the significant concept and hot topic in the cultural research. The body of woman has a close relationship with consumerism. The industries which marketing on body of woman, such as fashion, beauty, fitness, skin care and so on not only influence the interests and tastes of advertising media but also influence people’s ideal objects and consumption patterns through the construction of the beauty myth. And Barbie is such doll with good figure and myth of beauty. Barbie is 11.5 inches young woman. Its unique design attracted countless eyes form little girls. Ruth, the shape designer of Barbie, explained the disproportionate shape of Barbie is accommodated to all kinds of clothing. Some people said Barbie is the embodiment of capital. Actually, the body of Barbie is the really resource of its glamour and wealth (BBC News, 2005).
2.3Barbie and fashion culture
Barbie who has Marilyn Monroe’s sexy and beauty is a way of fashion self-expression. Barbie presents two aspects of fashion in its world, one is the fashion element showed by Barbie herself, include fashionable dress up, hair style, accessories and other living goods. Another one is the fashion living style, the so called consumerism life style, which is honored by the middle class of American consumption society. Just as the slogan of Mattel Corporation: Barbie is not only a toy, but also a kind of fashion, and a kind of living style (Winterman, 2009).
3The Social Influence of Barbie
3.1Contribution to the awakening of female consciousness
To a certain extent, Barbie doll had made an important contribution to the awakening of female consciousness. One of the most important social impacts of Barbie is the change of female conception. Barbie reflects the self-growth of women. The success of Barbie is not accidental. The 50 years of Barbie was also the years that women consciously struggled, released and stretched. In this half a century, women face the professionalization, self-identity, body like obstacles, desire to open and need to be satisfied. Maybe Barbie for modern women is as the hero for young boys.
Barbie is the first toy which is designed for girls. In the world of Barbie, there is no father, no husband and children. She is not affected by man and responsibilities from family. Her wealth comes from the job she is engaged in fashion, such as a model or a fashion designer. Barbie graduated from university in 1963. In 1965 she became an astronaut, and in 1973 she became a surgeon. Because of her smart and beautiful, she won the title of Miss America in 1974. Additional, in 1976 she won the gold medal in Olympic Games. From above these, Barbie can be engaged in any profession, which also greatly inspired the women engaged in various professions without gender discrimination, accepted education and had equal rights with men (Winterman, 2009).
3.2Harm of too perfect and unrealistic figure of Barbie on the growth of children and teenagers The too perfect and unrealistic figure of Barbie has no benefit for the growth of children and teenagers. Barbie’s waistline is one of the most widely criticisms of Barbie. Barbie preaches the unrealistic image of woman’s body, which lead to the women imitators of Barbie suffer from anorexia. Criticism refers to if a woman want to have the figure just like Barbie, she needs to have 7 feet 2 inches tall, weighs 115 to 130 pounds, hip circumference 30 to 36 inches, 18 to 23 inches round the waist, bust 38 to 48 inches. At the same time, she may lack of about 17% to 22% fat which is needed to maintain the normal menstruation (Winterman, 2009). After redesigning in 1997, the waistline of Barbie increased a bit. Mattel said this change will make Barbie more suitable for modern fashion design.
Another criticism is from feminist organization of United States. Barbie was accused of too sexy and too perfect. If little girls set goals to imitate her, their pride may be hurt in the end and they may feel inferior of their looks and body. Therefore, Barbie is not the symbol of women’s liberation, but plays the role of persecution of female (BBC News, 2005).
3.3The perfect female body in the dreams of men under the patriarchal society Barbie is essentially the perfect female body in the dreams of men under the patriarchal society. The prototype of Barbie was a German sex toy named Lily. Therefore, it is inappropriate that the target market of Barbie dolls is primary school girls. When Barbie first came into the market, it was seen as the symbol of the emerging of the sex industry. In this industry, women were often seen as dolls or babies. So the name doll made feminists feel very unhappy. They attacked that Barbie represented the destructive feminine charm and patriarchy. In the patriarchal society, the media is full of perfect female images which are constructed under the male aesthetic hegemony. For instance, female usually appear with young and thin looks, physically attractive, respectful, obedient, sexy and gentle characteristics. The independence of male seems more prominent with the dependence of female (BBC News, 2005).
The charming big eyes, sexy body and exposed clothes of Barbie are exactly the surreal perfect images of women under the construction of male aesthetic hegemony. She is not the ordinary and real women’s bodies. When the little girls fantasize themselves into the consumption, beautiful, perfect and anorexia world of Barbie, they rarely dream as their real images.
In conclusion, Barbie is the product of certain historical and social period. She was born in the consumer society in which hedonism is prevailing and the individual consciousness of the society enhanced. If without such social background, Barbie dolls will not popular. Besides, the emergence of Barbie affected the society. On the one hand, Barbie awaked the consciousness of modern female. On the other hand, she became the representative of female image which was constructed by male under the patriarchal society vision.