The Doll That Broke the Glass Ceiling: Barbie

Tiffany R. Isselhardt

A Public Historian who focuses on the intersections of girl studies, history, and material culture. She focuses on reinterpreting girlhood at museums and historic sites to advocate for gender equality. She serves as Program Developer for Girl Museum and as Development and Marketing Manager for the Kentucky Museum at Western Kentucky University. Her work includes over 20 exhibitions, several publications and conference awards, and collaborations with Museum Hack, the Theodore Roosevelt Center, Blowing Rock Art & History Museum, Hickory Ridge Homestead, and Gulf Coast Archaeology, among others. Her first co-authored book, Exploring American Girlhood in 50 Historic Treasures, will be published in November 2020.

Original Barbie Doll

Barbie.  No word evokes more joy or controversy than the doll created by Ruth Handler of Mattel.  Born Barbara Millicent Roberts on March 9, 1959, Barbie has been played with and collected by millions.  She has been ascribed a family of dolls and embodied over 125 career roles.  Today, she has a fan base of millions worldwide: the bimonthly Barbie Bazaar reaches over 20,000 readers and countless conventions have been held in her honor.  Most studies of Barbie have focused on her idealized body and its psychological impact on young girls, though recent analysis suggests that her influence is lesser than the influence exerted by mothers. Unfortunately, focus on such a small part of Barbie limits our ability to understand Barbie’s full influence on American girls

Barbie’s true power lies in her symbolism: she is an artifact of American culture that has embodied, as Catherine Driscoll states, a “game about gender” that emerged in the late 20th century.  Barbie embodied the new transitory phase – “teen” – in which consumer culture was a dominant influence. Through her various careers, she achieved the economic independence needed to purchase innumerable cars, dune buggies, yachts, houses, planes, clothes, and accessories that made her an idyllic inspiration for young girls.  Thus, to fully understand Barbie and her influence on girls, studies must be performed on her various parts – beyond the prevalent literature on Barbie’s body.  This study, which I conducted in 2012-13, is a step in that direction. It asks questions like, “What influence did Barbie have on the careers girls eventually chose? How did Barbie’s choices reflect – or not reflect – the realities of working women in the mid-to-late 20th century? Did Barbie empower girls to envision breaking the glass ceiling?”

Methods. To answer these questions, I detailed Barbie’s careers from her debut in 1959 to 1989 (the 30 years for which I was not a Barbie-consumer and thus could provide a fairly unbiased opinion). Then, I compared evidence of her careers – titles and clothing – to U.S. Census data in order to grasp whether Barbie embodied the reality or ideal of working women in the late 20th century. Census data for the beginning and end of each decade was averaged to provide the median percentage of women reporting employment corresponding to Barbie’s chosen careers of that decade.

An example: for Barbie’s careers in 1960, each career was matched to the equivalent occupational category in the 1960 Census.  The percentage of women in that category from the 1960 and 1970 Censuses was averaged.  This average is assumed to reflect the median number of women that, over the decade, worked in that occupational category.  These medians were analyzed to determine whether Barbie sought traditionally male or female career choices.  If Barbie chose predominantly male careers, Barbie embodies an ideal rather than reality, and vice versa.  Since Barbie is intended for young girls, and as psychological studies have demonstrated her impact on girls’ self-image, I assumed that her career choices also influenced the choices girls eventually made in their professional lives.

Additionally, a review of Barbie’s clothes for traditionally male careers was also undertaken, in order to ascertain whether Barbie attempted to “feminize” traditionally male occupations.  A feminization of traditionally male roles would reflect preserving America’s gendered division of labor despite allowing women into the male sphere.  Women between 1960 and 1990 were able to transcend this gendered division and enter into male-dominated fields, such as medicine and engineering.  Yet, as Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber and Gregg Lee Carter note, these women were influenced by gender roles and family responsibilities in their selection of specialty; thus, women who chose medical professions tended to pursue fields such as pediatrics and family practice, an extension of a woman’s domestic duties of child-rearing and ensuring family well-being.  These trends in retaining the gendered division of labor were best reflected in Barbie’s clothing choices for her occupations.  Thus, an analysis of her clothing choices is necessary to fully understand her effect on girls’ career choices.

The Data. According to U.S. Census data, the percentage of women in the workforce increased from 32% in 1960 to 45% in 1990.  Most of these women were middle-income wives, whose work rate increased each decade between 1940 and 1970 by at least 28 percent.  Overall, between 1960 and 1995, the percentage of married women employed increased from 32% to 61%.

During this time period, Barbie pursued 21 different occupations, though 8 of these did not clearly relate to Census-defined categories.  The excluded careers included three modeling roles, two industry-neutral executive roles, a Candy Striper (Hospital) Volunteer, a U.S. Army Officer, and a UNICEF Ambassador.   Of those excluded, four may be considered traditionally male roles.  However, given the supportive nature of women’s ambassador and army roles and the possibility that both executives may have pursued managerial positions in which women were expected to advance, such as in fashion magazines, it is not possible to analyze whether Barbie broke the barriers into these fields.

Of Barbie’s 13 occupations that clearly identified with Census categories, 8 were in male-dominated fields, including Announcers, Athletes and kindred workers, Editors and Reporters, Engineering and science technicians, Physicians and dentists, and Veterinarians.   For each of these categories, women between 1959 and 1989 occupied between 10% and 38% of the workforce.  However, only among Athletes and Editors/Reporters did women comprise more than 20% of the workforce during any given decade.  For the most traditionally male occupations, Engineering/Science Technicians and Physicians/Dentists, women comprised only a maximum of 15% of the workforce.  The other two careers, Actors and Musicians/Composers, were male-dominated fields that can be considered borderline traditionally male in that the number of people reporting such as their primary occupation may be skewed, as many actors and musicians also hold side jobs in order to achieve a steady income.  Another field, Designers, was male-dominated in the 1960s (21.06% women) but became female-dominated by the 1980s (52.71% women).  Since the majority of Barbie’s Census-related careers over this period were in male-dominated fields, Barbie thus exhibited a preference for breaking into male-dominated fields before women actually entered them

In contrast, Barbie’s ‘feminine’ careers were stereotypically female roles.  The remaining 4 careers were female-dominated between 1960 and 1990.  First, Barbie was an airline stewardess in 1961, 1966, and 1973 – a time period in which women comprised 95.82% of the workforce.  She was then a Dancer in 1961, 1976, and 1987, during which women comprised 80% of the workforce.  Third, Barbie was a Registered Nurse in 1961, when 97.44% of nurses were women.  Finally, she pursued a teaching career in 1965 and 1985, when between 70% and 73% of teachers were women.  The high percentage of women in these roles and Barbie’s repetition of these careers throughout her life indicate that Barbie also portrayed the most stereotypically female career paths.

Another aspect that must be considered is what careers Barbie did not pursue.  As Catherine Driscoll states, Barbie’s variation had real limits; certain kinds of Barbie’s were not made, such as ‘Feminist Barbie’ or ‘Pregnant Teen Barbie.’  Barbie also does not pursue blue-collar jobs, especially in manufacturing, or careers that are ‘stepping stones’ into managerial and executive positions, such as clerical and retail.  Besides having been a perpetual babysitter for her younger siblings, Barbie does not pursue private household and personal service occupations, such as waitressing, cleaning, childcare, and counseling.  This absence is striking, given that these are female-dominated occupations.

Taken together, this demonstrates that Barbie either attempted breaking the hardest barriers, such as into the medical and engineering fields, or remained in professional female roles that required extensive training.  She ignored the vast majority of women’s actual occupations that did not require education before pursuing.  Thus, while Barbie may have broken the mythical glass ceiling, she did not portray the intermediary roles that real women had to achieve before breaking into male-dominated fields.

Feminizing the Male Sphere. Barbie’s achievement of traditionally male-dominated roles included the feminization of those roles.  An exemplary comparison comes from her two stints as an astronaut, in 1965 and 1986.  In 1965, Barbie’s astronaut uniform was a relatively non-form fitting spacesuit and large helmet (Figure 1), akin to the orange jumpsuits and white helmets worn by male astronauts of the time (Figure 2). 

                                                                             Figure 1                            

However, Barbie’s 1986 astronaut uniform was a drastically feminized outfit, more akin to a sci-fi movie costume (Figure 3) than the actual uniforms worn by male and female astronauts of the time (Figure 4).

                                                                                     

This feminization mayindicate an initial desire for women to simply assume male roles (in the 1960s during the peak of the feminist movement), followed by an increasing desire to personalize these roles later in the century.

This is further evidenced in Barbie’s medical careers.  In 1973, Doctor Barbie was a surgeon, donning surgical scrubs in the form of a short-skirted dress cinched at the waist, though she did don white sneakers and the traditional mask and head covering.  However, this feminization was repeated in 1988, when Doctor Barbie donned high heels, a colorful dress, and white coat as her preferred outfit for a day on her feet.  Doctor Barbie of 1988 also included babies and a list of childcare rules.  The choice of outfits and accessories therefore alluded to the gendered division of labor persisting despite the breaking of the glass ceiling.  It also indicated an increasing preference for women to personalize male roles rather than simply assuming them.

This feminization is prevalent in most of Barbie’s career outfits and accessories, with form-fitting clothing and accessories that exhibit an emphasis on the nurturing and supportive aspects of her careers.  Did these wardrobe choices send the wrong message to girls, and take away the idea that women were as qualified as men no matter their appearance? Or was Barbie’s feminization demonstrating that girls can be feminine and still be taken seriously? The verdict is still out.

Conclusions. Barbie was a symbol of the ideal career woman who has broken the glass ceiling, both by assuming male roles and then personalizing them before American women achieved the same in reality.  Her ability to transcend these boundaries was encoded in her from the beginning, when Ruth Handler elected to refuse to give Barbie a biography. Instead, she did what Louis B. Mayer did for films: With no real past, no heritage, Barbie had no defined story. She could become anything her owners wished – and through any means they could imagine. Being a quintessential teen – not a girl, yet not a woman, with a story yet to be told – is Barbie’s greatest power and influence on American girls.

Without a background, Barbie opened the doors to girls’ imaginations: Barbie ascended to her position of independence by whatever means her consumers preferred, giving girls an avenue to explore the many ways in which their own dreams could be achieved.  In doing so, Barbie participated in the renegotiation of gender roles that dominated postwar America.  She embodied what Driscoll calls the “irresolvable openness of girlhood itself” through her ideal lifestyle: an openness to which her consumers may generate their own stories of ascendancy both to Barbie and to themselves.  This is perhaps no better reflected than in Barbie’s 2010 career choices.  Chosen through an online consumer poll, Computer Engineer Barbie again broke into a male-dominated field, personalizing her choice with a neon-colored, binary code pattern T-shirt, a smartphone and Bluetooth headset, and hot pink glasses and laptop.  She also feminized the role of Racecar Driver, sporting the standard race uniform, but with personalization in her pink helmet and bright blue-and-pink uniform.  Through these style choices, Barbie imposed femininity on traditionally male roles, breaking the glass ceiling both in terms of achieving the career and personalizing it. 

Thus, Barbie continues her embodiment of the ideal American woman who constantly renegotiates her role in society and, in so doing, finds self-fulfillment.  She remains a toy and a symbol, an artifact through which we may view the renegotiation of gender that began in the postwar years and continues today.  While further study is needed on her many parts, in order to form a complete picture of Barbie’s influence on American girls, what Barbie ultimately meant for girls is becoming clearer with each step.  Though Barbie may not reflect the realities of female occupations or lifestyles, she embodies the American Dream: the ability to redefine herself without limitation, to claim professional and personal spaces on her own terms, and achieve true independence.

Bibliography

Baxandall, Rosalyn and L. Gordon and S. Reverby (ed.).  America’s Working Women: A Documentary History: 1600 to the Present.  Vintage Books, 1976.

Driscoll, Catherine.  “Barbie Culture.” In Girl Culture, ed. Claudia Mitchell and Jacqueline Reid-Walsh.  Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007.

Hesse-Biber, Sharlene Nagy and Gregg Lee Carter.  Working Women in America.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Lord, M.G.  Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll.  New York: Walker & Company, 2004.

Pearson, Marlys and Paul R. Mullins.  “Domesticating Barbie: An Archaeology of Barbie Material Culture and Domestic Ideology.”  International Journal of Historical Archaeology 3, no. 4, (1999): 225-259.

Stone, Tanya Lee.  The good, the bad, and the Barbie: a doll’s history and her impact on us.  New York: Viking, 2010.

U.S. Department of Commerce. 1960 Census of Population and Housing. http://www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/decennial/1960.html

–.  1970 Census of Population and Housing. http://www.census.gov/prod/www/abs/decennial/1970cenpop_pcs1.html

–.  1980 Census of the Population: Detailed Occupation and Years of School Completed by Age, for the Civilian Labor Force by Sex, Race, and Spanish Origin: 1980.  http://ia700403.us.archive.org/2/items/1980censusofpopu8018unse/1980censusofpopu8018unse.pdf

–.  1990 Census of Population: Detailed Occupation and Other Characteristics from the EEO File for the United States. 1990 CP-S-1-1

Weiner, Lynn W.  From Working Girl to Working Mother: The Female Labor Force in the United States, 1820-1980.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Images:

 1965 Astronaut.  Barbie Media. http://www.barbiemedia.com/careers/1960s.html

Boyle, Alan. “Mercury astronaut’s ashes going to space.”  NBCNews.com December 1, 2005. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/10283728/#.USpchKXhETw

1986 Astronaut: https://images.app.goo.gl/kZssfnKPFGkt5GqUA

“Christa McAuliffe.”  Framingham.com  Accessed February 24, 2013.  http://www.framingham.com/history/profiles/mcauliff.jpg

“Original Barbie.” History of Dolls, Accessed January 25, 2020.  http://historyofdolls.com/doll-facts/original-barbie/

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