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Outrage: ‘We need to look past Barbie’s self-serving aesthetic polemics to find a new cultural significance’

Barbie’s domesticalia is more layered and far more apt to be mined for cultural significance

Barbie jpg

Barbie jpg

Source: Beth Kiernan/Anjou

True to her origin as German adult gag gift, based on a sassy, saucy, liberal-minded cartoon character named Lilli, Barbie is anything you want her to be. And from last week she is also – in Mattel’s own words – Tall, Curvy and Petite, as well as the standard Unrealistic.

As many were quick to point out, Barbie’s new body shapes seem more driven by commercial failure than a genuine desire to celebrate diversity. Three years of dropping sales numbers, a result of the doll’s lack of appeal to millennial parents, culminated in its dethronement as the top toy during last year’s holiday season, making way for Disney’s Frozen characters (hardly paragons of a healthy body image themselves). Until now, Barbie’s makers had pushed back critics as much as they could, even launching an online campaign with the tag line ‘Be YOU, Be bold, Be #Unapologetic’.

But financial pressure finally convinced Mattel to make her superficially more inclusive.

‘As many were quick to point out, Barbie’s new body shapes seem more driven by commercial failure than a genuine desire to celebrate diversity’

So these might be strange times for the increasingly unpopular doll to be making the cover of Time magazine – that Valhalla of current affairs – as happened in February, with a title that reads ‘Now can we stop talking about my body?’

Well … not really.

Barbie’s pop culture significance is based on the idea that she is public property, a lightning rod for all sorts of polemics, a banner for every cause, from pop science articles focusing on the statistical likelihood that someone would actually sport her measurements, to studies confirming the damage it does to the aspirations of young children. It seems almost irresistible to use the doll as a support for every ambition and criticism; she is endlessly customisable, the quintessential fashion – even lifestyle – model, having had every profession, from babysitter to astronaut and back. It is an effect further heightened with the introduction of these three new body types which, when combined with the myriad skin tones and hair colours available, make up a truly cosmopolitan population. And somehow they are all Barbie. A philosophical problem, but one hell of a marketing move.

Comrades in architecture have used the same trap, and perhaps also fallen foul of it. In 2012, the inaugural Women in Practice issue of the Architects’ Journal showed on its cover a voguish Barbie in full architect regalia: black robes, thick-rimmed glasses, hard hat and a drawing tube. Anachronistic and clichéd, yet the recognisable symbols of the profession. Inside, the explanation by Christine Murray – now editor of this title – was clear: ‘… we don’t believe a toy doll is a viable role model [but] every comment drove more visitors to our content, which calls for equal pay and flexible hours’.

Barbie is not a role model for architects, female or otherwise. But if we can’t stop talking about her body, we could at least start talking about an aspect from which architects could learn more: her houses. Since the first dolls’ houses – or ‘baby houses’ as they were known – appeared in 16th-century Bavaria, the domestic space in which the doll is inserted has been upgraded from mere backdrop to educational and moral device. Dolls’ houses, meant to teach affluent little girls about their future occupation as mistress of the house, were often accompanied by pamphlets exulting domestic labour.

At first Barbie’s houses had the same didactic objectives. In 1962, a couple of years after the first doll was launched, her first Dream House came out and it was nothing like the suburban pink palaces to which we have become accustomed: it was a cardboard one-room studio with no toilet or kitchen, a sort of temporary accommodation. All the furniture and fittings had to be assembled from flat-packed cut-outs and the centrepiece was, of course, the all-important TV/hi-fi combo unit. This could seem like a potentially liberating environment if it wasn’t for the toy’s marketing enforcing a different message, with an ad exclaiming it was a ‘lady’s privilege’ to ‘arrange and re-arrange the furniture’, along with a manual explaining how the house would teach your daughter to be neat and tidy.

This kind of rhetoric would follow Barbie’s accessories all through the 1960s and ’70s until the message became more about being self-indulgent than appropriate: in later houses the emphasis is on the gadgets and the boudoir, where Barbie is less of a homemaker and more like a rich, emancipated teenager.

‘Barbie is not a role model for architects, female or otherwise. But if we can’t stop talking about her body, we could at least start talking about an aspect from which architects could learn more: her houses’

At the same time as her persona was being defined by its domestic setting, perhaps unknowingly, Barbie’s houses were displaying and distilling parallel themes in contemporary life. In the 1965 essay A Home is not a House, Reyner Banham concentrates on the qualities of the American house, be it the Cape Cod cottage or the towable trailer, and praises its compactness and portability. From the first Barbie houses, with their ingenious folding and disguised handles, these same qualities were present. Of all the possible examples in the Barbie catalogue, the 1996 Folding Pretty House stands out, not because of its sickening colour scheme and saccharine embellishments, but because of the simplicity of its architectural diagram. When it is not being used, the front and rear facades collapse into a neat package; when open, it presents four separate spaces with thick thresholds that contain storage and appliances that rotate, pivot and extend into the living areas. Even these most recent houses, pastiche as they might seem, could be seen as instances of Gesamtkunstwerk, managing to hold together very different ideas in a masterful way: nostalgia and novelty, iconography and quaintness.

Let’s be clear on something: Barbie is a product and the constant public debate about her role-model status only serves its corporate makers’ profit motive. But Barbie’s domesticalia is more layered and far more apt to be mined for cultural significance. In the past 55 years, the leggy, wasp-waisted doll has been a prolific designer, or at least an interesting patron. Let’s see what kind of architecture Tall, Curvy and Petite will bring to the playroom floor.