More Than a Doll Barbie as a reflection of cultural norms & trends

Critics of Barbie tend to point out the socialite standards that Barbie adheres to, rather than the ones she breaks. Obviously Barbie is a plastic doll, and yes, she does adhere to an unrealistic beauty standard, but she didn’t invent that standard. At her infancy Barbie was forced to follow these gender and beauty rules in order to be a sell-able product. Over the years as the world have become more inclusive, so has Barbie. But Barbie has also broken a lot of the standards that society had in place for women over the years before the world was so accepting of it. Barbie had to look the way she did/does so that the general public would listen to her other, more important messages. More Than a Doll is meant to explore what Barbie reflects about society and what she works to improve/change, and to defend Barbie as a feminist and a role model for young women.

"Barbie reflected all sorts of elements in the culture both positive and negative."

Many argue that Barbie is just another tool of the patriarchy, but I think that those people are missing the point. Some iconic feminists, such as Gloria Steinem, have reported that they are "so grateful that I didn't grow up with Barbie." Steinem and many other second wave feminists thought of Barbie as the embodiment of what 'the man' wanted them to be. Which, in part, is true. Yes Barbie (traditionally) is blonde and impossibly thin which indeed is the standard that society has pushed on women for decades. But these standards oppressed Barbie for years similarly to how they oppress real life women. American activist Amy Richards put it best when she said, "when adults talk about barbie they aren’t talking about the classic doll…they’re talking about gender roles and white supremacy, and body image, and beauty-ness. And I think barbie symbolically get caught up in that."

Since her debut in 1959 Barbie has been changing young minds through doll play. There was never a toy like this on the market in the past. Until Barbie hit the shelves the only dolls available for young girls were baby dolls. From a very early age this taught girls to nature and gave the subliminal message that mothering and taking care of others is what women were meant to do. Barbie broke the mold of what girls could play with thus changing the narrative for little girls everywhere. With Barbie girl could dream of being women rather than being trained for motherhood. Barbie's primary message is that girls can be anything, this mantra teaches girls to break the mold of the role that society has given them and to be whatever and whoever they want.

"For girls the Barbie represented a sort of rebellion. There no ‘mom with three ungrateful kids’ Barbie. Right? Barbie is always single, she’s always carefree."

I have always been a Barbie girl. Growing up I had over 50 dolls and each one played a different role in this little world that I had build for myself. In this world Barbie could be anything and so could I. Through doll play I explored narratives about my dreams and goals for the future, I expressed feelings I didn't yet understand about my sexuality and identity, and I discovered my love of fashion, art, and design. I know it sounds crazy that a couple dolls could do so much, but for myself and many others Barbie serves as an outlet for children to explore a lot about themselves. Because of Barbie's brand messaging I always knew that whatever discovery I came to was okay because if Barbie could be anything, then so could I. More Than a Doll, in addition to being an analysis of movements in the zeitgeist as shown through Barbie herself, is my chance to defend Barbie as a role model. Since she was such a big role model in my life and I believe so strongly in the messages that she has taught me, I want to ensure that others can look past their judgments and see what Barbie really represents.

Pictured above is my initial mood board for the visual language for the More Than a Doll exhibit. Although some of the aesthetics show through in the final product, the imagery has evolved a lot.
In the end my designs take visual inspiration from a combination of hand made elements, like in my initial mood board, and clean, vibrant, colorful lifestyle images from Barbie's instagram accounts. Barbie in recent years has taken on a social media influencer persona in an attempt to modernize the brand and appeal to not only kids but adults as well. Barbie's message knows no age limit, her social media presence has allowed her to reenter the public eye in a positive way. The modern and clean, while still very fun, visuals greatly inspired the language for the More Than a Doll exhibit.

Exhibit Applications

When trying to decide what vehicles would best fit my concept, my immediate thought was simply: big. Barbie is larger than life. She represents so much more than she is given credit for and she is internationally recognizable and iconic. Every two seconds a Barbie Doll is sold. That being said, I landed on some large scale applications along with some smaller more portable ones.

  • Exhibit logo
  • Timeline
  • Zine
  • Doll Box
  • Board Game

Logo Design Process

Timeline: Barbie Breaking Barriers Through the Decades

Although there are many feminists who criticize barbie, she has been breaking through the glass ceiling since her debut. My intent with the application was to highlight the male dominated fields that barbie has worked.

Final Timeline

Mixed mediums | 36"/65" | text and sources: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Lw0O0RDkVKcQUrX0SYPOyRNUKyYBih9L/view?usp=sharing

Diversity Zine

Many negative remarks about Barbie are centered around her appearance. Much like real life women, despite her many accomplishments critics focus only on her looks. In recent years Mattel has decided that they want more little girls to see themselves in Barbie. The content of my zine highlights out what the brand has done to become more inclusive.

Current barbie fashionista dolls
Early version of the zine

Final Zine

Mixed mediums | 8.5"/11" | text and sources: https://www.rd.com/list/most-diverse-barbie-dolls/

Barbie Box: Be Barbie

Barbie is perceived and judged by society in a that is similar to how women are treated in our current patriarchal system. When standing in the box viewers are meant to think of their own relationship with Barbie and how they perceive her. One should ask: 'Have I ever misjudged her? Do I possibly have more in common with her than I thought?'

Barbie box hand drawn sketch
Early designs
First mockup

Final Box

Mixed mediums | 3.5'/7'/2'

Board Game: Barbie Queen of the Prom Re-design

The 1960s classic board game, although still beloved by many, leaves some to be desired when it comes to modernity and inclusivity. The game re-design is meant to be a prototype of what I think Mattel could do to update the language and content of the game to match Barbie’s current aesthetic and values. Today Barbie values women’s differences and encourages them to li􏰀ft each other up. Implementing these values has helped Barbie Queen of the Prom shi􏰀ft from a game primarily about shopping and boys to one that all young girls can relate to and learn from.

Original Game

Re-design Visuals

Final Board Game

Box cover

Poster Series

Exhibit Setup

Created By
Julia Parrick