GI Joe & Barbie

What’s All The Fuss About Children’s Toys?

Millions of children own them, millions of parents buy them, and most of us have played with them at one time or another. So why should we worry about the messages that toys such as Barbie or GI Joe convey about femininity, masculinity and the ideal bodies and behaviors for men and women?

Ask Yourself

Did you play with Barbie, GI Joe or other similar toys when you were growing up? Do you think this had any effect on your ideas about male and female bodies or male and female roles?

GI Joe 

First, as most boys quickly remind you, GI Joes are not dolls. They are “action figures.” And this separate terminology reveals the very different meanings toys such as GI Joe and superhero figures convey. Typically, these toys are not designed to be dressed up and admired for their appearance. Product packaging shows them staging daring rescues and fighting battles. In stark contrast with Barbie, boys’ action figures seem to teach children that:

  • Boys and men are powerful and important.
  • Boys and men do great things and are recognized for their deeds.
  • Boys and men fight the bad guys, and protect the innocent and the weak.

And yet, recent decades have seen boys’ action figures become impossibly, even grotesquely muscular. Some recent dolls have biceps bigger than their heads—not a positive message about brain vs. brawn. Jackson Katz, in his documentary Tough Guise, observes that the GI Joe doll’s biceps have been steadily enlarged over the years to the point that the figure’s body proportions are virtually impossible for any real man to attain.  What’s more, Katz points out that such toys are just one source of messages in our culture that associate masculinity with violence—heroic, morally justified violence in this case, but violence nonetheless. One current line of professional wrestling action figures is promoted as the “Ruthless Aggression” series. Thus, among the potential harmful messages conveyed by action figures, we might include the following:

  • Boys and men should have large, powerful bodies with sculpted muscles.
  • Boys and men should be willing and able to use their bodies to commit morally justified acts of violence.
  • The only real men are “tough guys.”

Again, the psychological and behavioral effects of being exposed to these messages are hard to gage. However, potential negative effects include 

  • A negative body image for boys and men, especially those labeled as “fat” or “weak,” and the development of unhealthy practices to cope with feelings of frustration and shame 
  • The potentially life-threatening use of steroids to build muscle mass
  • The socialization of boys and men to violence and dominance.

Barbie

In the last three decades, the humble Barbie doll has come in for a lot of criticism. While many feminist researchers have suggested that Barbie represents an unattainable body ideal that damages girls’ self-esteem, the doll’s defenders have argued that Barbie is, after all, “just a toy” and is unlikely to create any lasting psychological effects.

What is indisputable, however, is that the Barbie’s body dimensions are very far outside the “normal” range. In a [2003] study, Urla and Swedlund calculated that if Barbie were full size, her measurements would be 32-17- 28, typical of a woman suffering from anorexia. Add to this anorexic frame her large gravity-defying breasts and you have a body ideal that is virtually impossible for a healthy, non-surgically altered woman to attain.  

Although it is unlikely that children playing with Barbies consciously compare their own bodies to those of their dolls, it would be naïve to assume that they do not pick up on the powerful messages embodied by this cultural icon. Among these messages we might include the following:

  • The ideal female body is stick-thin and big-breasted.
  • The natural, healthy female body is unattractive.
  • To be attractive and popular, girls and women must have well-disciplined bodies, meticulously groomed hair and make-up, and a carefully coordinated and fully accessorized wardrobe. (Subtext:  Spend, spend spend! Diet, diet, diet! And live at the gym if you have to!)
  • And, perhaps the overriding message: Girls and women are judged more on how they look, than on what they do. Although Mattel has introduced some career-themed Barbies in recent years, the fashion-oriented dolls (along with the bride and princess) are the perennial best-sellers.

It is difficult to measure any negative psychological or behavioral effects that early and intense exposure to such messages may have. Such measurement is difficult primarily because such messages are so pervasive in our culture today. Summer (1996: 14) noted of fashion advertising, for instance, the prevalence of “concentration-camp-thin models with pasty complexions sporting blackened eyes, limp hair, and designer outfits.” However, with 80% of 10-year-old girls now dieting to control their weight, and most American women struggling daily to make their bodies conform to unrealistic ideals, few could argue that Barbie and her kind contribute to the development of positive body image among girls and women.