We invited teenagers to weigh in on all things Barbie — the doll, the movie, the cultural phenomenon. Here’s what they had to say.
“Barbie,” the movie, was the blockbuster hit of the summer, earning over $1.4 billion worldwide, and demonstrating that the 64-year-old plastic doll still holds an important place in our collective psyche.
“After all these years, does Barbie still matter? And if she does, then … why?” Andi Zeisler asks in “Barbie Has Never Been a Great Symbol, but She’s an Excellent Mirror.” We invited teenagers to read the essay and then weigh in.
They shared their thoughts on all things Barbie. Many of the responses came from girls, who shared the role the doll played in their childhoods, what Greta Gerwig’s film meant to them, and the ways in which Barbie has shaped them, for good and for ill.
Thank you to everyone who participated this week, including students from Julia Reynolds Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School in Philadelphia; Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, Md.; and Hanover-Horton High School in Horton, Mich.
And we’d like to give a special shout out to students from Claremont High School in Claremont, Calif., who have been replying to students from all over. Thanks for keeping the conversation going!
Please note: Student comments have been lightly edited for length, but otherwise appear as they were originally submitted.
Growing Up With Barbie
‘Barbie played a huge role in my childhood’
I played with a lot of Barbie dolls when I was younger. Barbie played a huge role in my childhood because I had over 70 dolls, including furniture, food, clothes, and vehicles for them. I used to play with my sister, younger cousins, and friends. I just had a lot of fun memories with Barbie dolls. I have memories of playing with them at my old childhood home and even bringing my swimming Barbies up to my grandparents’ house by the pool. I don’t have them anymore because we donated them but every once in while I wish we still had them so I could reminisce on the memories associated. Even as a 17 year old girl, if all my Barbie dolls and old stuff suddenly landed in our front porch, me and my 21 year old sister would be just as excited to play with them as we once were.
‘The toy let me use my imagination.’
When I was younger, I used to play with my Barbies and make up a storyline of who I was and what my job in life was. I think that the toy let me use my imagination to not only have fun through my creative thoughts, but to envision a future that I possibly wanted to pursue. The possibilities to Barbie are endless; a Barbie doll can be whoever the owner wants it to be.
‘Barbie taught us to do what we want.’
Barbie still holds an important place in our psyche even after years since its release. Barbie is one of the strongest women of our generation and she’s not even real. She is teaching women that we can be anything we want despite what we look like. But also that was her flaw, we didn’t look like her. So many people thought you had to be perfect like Barbie to get the jobs you want, but that’s not what it was. It showed that women could be in positions of power no matter being a woman. Barbie taught us that women are much more than moms, which baby dolls taught us, Barbie taught us to do what we want.
‘If Barbie could, I could.’
Growing up I always LOVED Barbie. I feel like it always gave me a new dream or hobby whenever I got a new themed doll. I remember summer or 2013 my dad bought me a pool themed Barbie and then I told my mom and dad I wanted to learn how to swim, so my mom and I would go to my cousin’s pool whenever the weather was nice enough and we’d practice swimming. Of course my Barbie was there. Also the beginning of my kindergarten year my mom took me to the store to get something to help with my worries, I ended up getting a teacher themed Barbie and brought it to school everyday and it just really helped me gain more confidence because I thought if Barbie could I could.
What the Movie Meant to Us
‘Never, in my 17 years of living, have I ever felt this heard and seen from watching a movie.’
I didn’t have high expectations of the movie, but I was still excited. It was already entertaining from the moment I started watching it, and it already started to speak to me about how women are seen in the real world. Then, the speech about how women are never seen as enough came along. Never, in my 17 years of living, have I ever felt this heard and seen from watching a movie. Then seeing Barbies band together to finally realize their self worth all over again, and stereotypical Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, realize that she wanted her own life and not one that was made for her, truly opened my eyes to Barbie’s meaning that I used to always think was, in simple words, “stupid.” But I finally understood it. I finally believed it. “Barbie can be anything. Girls can be anything.”
‘Being in a theater full of only women from all ages made me feel something I hope I can feel again.’
I saw Barbie in theater when it came out. Being in a theater full of only women from all ages made me feel something I hope I can feel again. It was beautiful seeing all of these people come together for this movie. It’s empowering. This movie has received a lot of hate for being anti man or men being the bunt of the joke. The movie derives its comedy from the men being on the extreme side of things. This is what makes the movie funny. If they weren’t extreme every joke would fall flat. I think even men can laugh at these over the top stereotypical men. At the end of the movie it makes a point to have Ken be more appreciated, making the point that men and women should be equal and not women should be more equal then men. This is the true meaning of feminism and it’s beautiful.
‘Barbie made me both incredibly proud to be a woman and extremely sad.’
Barbie made me both incredibly proud to be a woman and extremely sad. The movie was a way to show women that they not only don’t have to look a certain way, all of womanhood is beautiful. It embraced femininity as well as evoking those emotions of being a girl in a world where men mean everything. Some people thought it was a man-hating movie, when in reality it showed what’s possible if women would embrace themselves. It was a world where women were proud, and wanted to be something. Greta Gerwig did a fantastic job at displaying both the extreme beauty of women, while also demonstrating what women have to go through in this world. Barbie made me proud.
‘The film was motivational to many, including myself.’
Barbie is about a friendly community that inspires and helps each other. The film was motivational to many, including myself. It taught valuable lessons, such as ups and downs in everyone’s life, yet it is up to you to make the most of it. Not to mention, it helped others shape their perspective on women’s empowerment because, in a world filled with men in power, women need to stick together and help each other in order to effect change. In order for change to happen, men must not be at the center of everything; women need to be too. Women are just as important in this life, and women just need to realize their full potential in order to succeed in a male-dominated world society.
‘I really loved the tribute to mothers at the end.’
I personally love the Barbie movie. It wasn’t because of feminism, that was a small part of it but I really loved the tribute to mothers at the end that made me cry. As a girl who has a deep connection with her mom, it made me cry all the way home from the theatre. It was a beautiful movie even though it was a little bit dumb sometimes.
‘The Barbie movie reminded many that being feminine does not detract from your power.’
Gender norms are established at a very early age from the clothes you wear, to the activities you do, to the toys you play with, and one thing is very clear, girly stuff is not “cool.” My parents happily bought me Legos, action figures, and Nerf guns while none of my male friends owned a baking set, dress up costumes, and certainly had no Barbies. I heard this message loud and clear. I received praise for enjoying masculine activities, forgoing dolls, and enjoying getting dirty, but then I found out that this did not exempt me from sexism. On the playground, boys told me girls couldn’t play kickball, mothers commented on how I dressed, and classmates called me bossy for leading group projects. So it turns out, denying your femininity doesn’t eliminate the pressure to both conform to gender expectations and yet not be like other girls. This is all utterly ridiculous. My IQ doesn’t drop when I put on makeup, my ambition is not diminished because I wear high heels, and my feelings aren’t invalid when I’m on my period. The Barbie movie reminded many that being feminine does not detract from your power. In short, it can be incredibly empowering to ignore all the nonsense and reclaim pink.
‘Barbie’ made me realize that ‘movies in general, are made with men specifically in mind.’
I’ve seen the movie three times. The first time with my best friend, I remember the both of us getting choked up near the end. The second time I went with my mother, my eyes were on her at every joke and I can’t recall a movie in which she laughed quite as much. But on the third time I saw it, I went with my father. Whenever I looked over to him, he looked almost upset. I recall a time, just earlier that week, where he showed me a scene from a comedy movie that I did not find amusing. When I told him my opinion, he told me that I needed to imagine I was a man. I realized then that most comedy movies, or movies in general, are made with men specifically in mind.
She’s Not Without Her Problems
‘I still have some issues with her.’
Even though Barbie herself brings back wonderful memories I still have some issues with her. For instance I believe Barbie is the definition of a “gender role”: roles in life meant for certain genders. Barbie is only seen in the house, gardening, cleaning and even cooking. You never see a blue collar Barbie … Don’t get me wrong though. Barbie is amazing and enjoyable for many kids but the people who are creating her have a lot to work on.
‘Barbie’s image of the “perfect woman” has made people feel bad …’
When I was younger, I used to play with Barbie dolls all the time. In fact, I still have many of the dolls I acquired as a kid. Originally, Barbie was exactly what I wanted to be. In fact, she was what a lot of young girls wanted to be. The ideal female body, perfect in all the right places. But now that I’m older, I realize how bad of an effect it had on me and many other young women. Rather than giving proof of Barbie’s slogan, “You can be anything,” it just showed us what the world wanted us to be … But when people have stereotypes pushed on them, it makes them feel so much worse about themselves. Barbie’s image of the “perfect woman” has made people feel bad about their weight, their smile, and even unchangeable things like their skin color. So while Barbie seems like an innocent childhood toy, it has caused so many people to have uncontrollable insecurities about things that they can’t necessarily change.
The dolls ‘used to lack diversity quite a bit.’
My overall view of Barbie dolls is that it used to lack diversity quite a bit, which is something that’s very important to me, however in recent years they have gotten much better in terms of diversifying their toys. I can understand why many people might have a negative view of Barbie, and why they believe that she isn’t the best role model for young girls. The doll has mainly had one image for the past few decades and that has been a white woman with blonde hair and blue eyes. Things like this can help push that white is the norm in the USA, especially to girls of color that enjoy playing with Barbies. There was a time when you could walk into a store and only see dolls that looked the exact same, which was white, blonde, and skinny. However I feel like more progress is being made as time goes on. Despite all of this I feel that the movie handled a lot of these issues in a pretty good way.
‘I would have loved to see Barbies who … weren’t all that into pink.’
Personally, when the Barbie movie came out, I had never been interested in the sort of products the brand offered nor was the movie something I was excited about watching. However, when a friend of mine insisted we should go see the film, I begrudgingly said yes and fished to grab my one pink button-up out of my closet. Wow! I was really pleasantly surprised by this movie! Though Barbie has a very light tone, it managed to discuss important issues in a way that definitely made me think. Part of the movie is the fact that it should make you uncomfortable, which forces you to take a good look at the real world. Additionally, the character Alan was very dear to me because he symbolized the experience of not fitting into the “Barbie” or “Ken” category. However, I do feel that the film oversimplified the varied experiences of women. Stereotypical Barbie was just that: stereotypical. I would have loved to see Barbies who didn’t necessarily have high heels and dresses, weren’t all that into pink, and didn’t necessarily partner up with a Ken. Overall, while the movie certainly isn’t perfect, it was definitely something I will keep watching again and again.
‘Without Barbie, I wouldn’t value my culture as much as I do today.’
As a child, my bedroom floor was almost always haphazardly covered by a plethora of Barbies. I even remember begging my parents to go to Toys “R” Us only to browse the Barbie aisle. I was obsessed with the idea of having a “perfect” toy. Something about her ubiquitous, embellished features captivated me. Eventually, however, this admiration became envy. Having a reminder of what was “perfect” — only to look back at the mirror and find no similarities — was incredibly dispiriting. Living as an Asian immigrant, I always strived to look like what was most represented — being a white, skinny girl — which I was neither. How could I begin loving myself if the media didn’t? Thus, I started to hate Barbie. The designated Barbie pile I once had was trashed. I assimilated into American culture, disregarding my mother tongue. Rejected my food, my words, and my culture. Gradually though, I began appreciating my identity and ethnic features. It wasn’t a magical change. I had to learn my culture again as if it was an old hobby. I like to think of Barbie as a hallmark. It is representative of the pain I felt, so displaced in a world where I felt like I didn’t belong. But it also represents the progress and change I have gone through. Without Barbie, I wouldn’t value my culture as much as I do today. I wouldn’t cherish my features as much as I do today either. And I love Barbie for that reason.