In a Barbie World

Barbie is iconic and an unbelievably contested product and topic of discussion. Decades have passed since the doll and brand was introduced and I believe it’s still as relevant today, if not more, than it was initially. Barbie had the goal of being progressive and dedicated to young girls having private play time to envision their adulthood. However as many of know and can attest to, the impact which Barbie had and continues to have on our lives is much more than its original goal. This is not to solely criticise Barbie and its creators as I believe that Barbie is a symbol which brings attention to complex issues; including body image with extreme dieting and unrealistic/exclusive beauty standards, gender roles, femininity and fashion. Barbie is indicative of many cultures and sub-cultures. At times Barbie may not be as present but the aspiration for the plastic and perfect look is prominent. With the development of social media there is an influx of superficial and self-promotion, sometimes using filters and other digital modifications. There is even the rise of people who are admitting to wanting to look like Barbie and look plastic. I selected Barbie as a topic for my year 12 Society & Culture major work. I wanted to explore this as to why she’s so popular and the impact she has on people. Whilst I understand that I was inexperienced with research and framing questions I still feel that I never came to a solid conclusion as to her relevance and impact. What real impact does it make to say that you won’t allow your children to play with Barbie dolls when the cultures which Barbie represents infiltrate society in numerous ways. There may be people who have barely played with Barbies as children but have a strong consciousness about self-image and beauty. These are traits associated with Barbie so it’s not as simple as just removing Barbie as beauty standards, fashion and gender roles are ever present despite Barbie. Representation matters but has it changed anything? I remember when I was interviewing someone for my major work and they mentioned that they had a few Barbie dolls, not all were Caucasian and blonde, but the blonde one was still their favourite. The interviewee could not describe why they were the favourite. It’s clear how complex Barbie is as and how they impact people’s lives, not always at a conscious level. Many of us express hatred and anti-Barbie sentiment but there’s still this gravitation, love and sometimes obsession with the dolls. Even with Barbie changing over time with the addition of different careers and outfits to complement her, was there really a positive change? Did the discussion and impact of Barbie shift from body image and beauty standards? How relevant is Barbie to people today? Even when Barbie changes to have the standard doll body template modified and altered to be more inclusive and realistic, it’s not necessarily positively received or results in sales being boosted because of it. Is it Barbie that needs to change or the cultures and norms related to her?

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A Loud Minority

It’s often difficult to discuss anything related to gender, women’s rights and even using the word ‘feminism’ in particular. I understand that it shouldn’t be so divisive to talk about such things. At this point in time it should be a given that women’s rights, equality, freedom, justice, empowerment and security should be respected and promoted. The backlash that people and activists receive can be very destructive and invalidating. Often it does lead to the cause being made invisible and people being silenced and invalidated. Recently I attended a webinar, hosted by an international women’s rights foundation, on anti-gender movements. It’s a paradoxical feeling getting involved with anything related to women because I’m extremely interested and passionate about these issues but it’s such a painful topic to discuss; especially when hearing some of the entrenched negative beliefs about women and our rights. A number of activists from across eastern Europe shared their experiences and challenges of advocating for women’s rights and education. A significant theme across each panellist and the dialogue was the feeling of lack of support, burnout and pushback by loud people. The feeling of burnout is pretty common amongst many activists. Even when working in certain sectors where people are trying to enact positive change it can be a real challenge to understand if what you’re doing is even helping and if you stand alone in the fight. When advocating for women’s rights it can be painful to think how a loud minority can have such a detrimental impact. This can be true if the loud minority are the people in power and are at the forefront of decision making. However, when it is revealed that the loud minority are not representative the majority of the population it is reassuring to know that the fight for equality can still continue. From this it is important to recognise where advocacy can be directed. During the webinar one activist mentioned the importance of being proactive and not reactive. By this she meant that not necessarily trying to engage in an ongoing dialogue with people from a loud minority who have no chance of shifting their views, to a wider majority who can be more flexible and just need an enhanced insight into women’s and gender-related issues. I would like to think that when it comes to promoting women’s rights that it is a loud minority that is holding the movement back. Even though the webinar reflected on many disappointing responses to women’s rights activists and the challenges which follow, there was a beacon of hope. Some activists shared their thoughts on what needs to change in order to maintain the fight for women’s rights. One expressed the importance of creating a more global network of support, another said that in her experience often people see feminists and people who fight for women’s rights as strong, therefore in no need of support systems. The conversation continued to emphasise the importance of support and voices being heard. It’s when there’s silence, the feeling of abandonment and isolation that the fight for rights can burn people out.

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