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Living Dolls: Femininity and humanity

Sunday, 10 December 2023  | Nicole Jameson


Ruth Handler’s idea for the Barbie doll was sparked while watching her daughter Barbara play with paper dolls. In the 1940s baby dolls were popular, and little girls were encouraged to play at being mothers and homemakers. But Barbara enjoyed playing with paper dolls and giving them adult roles in her play. Handler was inspired to create a toy her daughter and other little girls could use as a kind of avatar through which to imagine themselves as women, beyond domesticity: ‘every little girl needed a doll through which to project her dream of the future’ (S. Kershaw, ‘Ruth Handler, Whose Barbie Gave Dolls Curves, Dies at 85’, nytimes.com, 29th April 2002). This is why Handler designed Barbie dolls with the appearance of an adult woman - albeit with controversially unrealistic body proportions.

While Mattel has tweaked their dolls’ body size and shape over the years, the company has never claimed to scale Barbie to human dimensions. Given that the dolls were developed with the purpose of widening girls’ scope of their future, it seems contradictory to anchor these dreams in a body that is almost impossible for any girl to manifest in adulthood. Even if a girl did grow up to look like Barbie, it’s unlikely her body would have healthy mobility and function. Walking on tiptoes would be debilitating; Finnish researchers have hypothesised that, if Barbie were life size, she would lack the body fat required to sustain menstruation (D. Winterman, ‘What would a real life Barbie look like?, bbc.co.uk, 6th March 2009).

Perhaps this explains the dolls’ other anatomical notoriety, which anyone who has played with Barbies will have observed and likely giggled about: her modestly asexual moulded plastic crotch. A running joke throughout Greta Gerwig’s 2023 blockbuster hit The Barbie Movie plays on the fact that Barbie and Ken don’t have genitals. The punchline lands in the closing scene, in which the newly human Barbie arrives for her first appointment with a gynaecologist. Although we are clued in to the transformation when she walks into the waiting room on flat Birkenstock-ed feet, it’s not Barbie’s feet (bye-bye iconic tiptoes!), but the vagina she implicitly now has, that confirms to the viewer her metamorphosis from doll to human. Mattel’s dolls come in a variety of person-like shapes, but functioning anatomy is definitely not produced on an assembly line.

Gerwig has said that her intention with the final scene of The Barbie Movie was to provide a positive message to women and girls that their body could be spoken about openly and with happiness. This contrasts with the shame she and many others have experienced: ‘I knew I wanted to end on a mic drop of a joke, but I also find it very emotional. When I was a teenage girl, I remember growing up and being embarrassed about my body, and just feeling ashamed in a way that I couldn’t describe. It felt like everything had to be hidden’ (P. Ryan, ‘“Barbie” ending: Greta Gerwig talks “emotional” final line, creator Ruth Handler (Spoilers!)’, usatoday.com, 2023). Gerwig’s film is packed with statements and observations about women, men and the cultural soup in which we swim. But the ending falls short of examining the fact that Barbie’s transformation from doll to human leaves her in the real world, where life in a female body is usually not liberating for a woman, no matter how happy she may be about her parts.

In the real world - our real world - both Barbie dolls and women are typically object, rather than subject. This is not a condition inherent to existence in a female body, but instead results from the social meaning ascribed to female bodies, along with socially determined failures to properly account for women and girls (C. C. Perez, Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, 2019, xiii). Living in a female body and living in a male body are different experiences. However, this difference is due less to the accommodation of male and female as distinct modes of being human as it is to a collective failure to properly consider the female experience as human - and the according structure of societies and economies in ways that impact men and women asymmetrically.

Perez describes various ways in which social practices globally assume (often in good faith) that the male body and attendant life experience is the universal human norm, while rendering the female body and perspective invisible or irrelevant. She refers to this ‘male-unless-otherwise-indicated’ approach as a ‘gender data gap with disproportionate consequences for women across all aspects of life’. It could be considered a design flaw that pianos, computers and smartphones are constructed for use with an average male hand size. But what about the exclusion of women from medical research trials because female bodies process substances differently - even though women are eventually prescribed those medications (Perez, Invisible Women, 205)? Or the statistic that while women are less likely than men to be involved in a car crash, they are 47 percent more likely to be seriously injured and 17 percent more likely to die, because women are considered to sit in cars ‘out of position’? The ‘standard seating position’ and crash testing are based on average male body measurements (Perez, Invisible Women, 186), and women die accordingly.

Hand in hand with ‘the kind of unthinking that conceives of humanity as almost exclusively male’ (Perez, Invisible Women, xv) is the valuation of girls and women in terms of their sexual currency. When women and girls are visible in Western media and culture, this tends to be as a hypersexualised collection of body parts made appealing and available for male pleasure. In Killing Us Softly 4, her documentary on the depiction of women and girls in advertising, Jean Kilbourne observes a pattern of media representation that is demeaning, degrading and dehumanising. Kilbourne likens our environment of this industrialised, pornographic pathology of images of women to one of poisoned air, connecting the ways in which women and girls are objectified to the normalised mistreatment of women and girls. 'Turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step towards justifying violence against that person’, she says. ‘It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to be violent to someone we think of as an equal, someone we have empathy with, but it is very easy to abuse a thing’ (S. Jhally, Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising’s Image of Women, 2010).

This is not how it is meant to be. Men are not the default human, with women the decorative non-man. Both are made by God to uniquely reflect his image in their shared humanity. In the Genesis narrative of creation, God creates living beings ‘according to their kind’ - birds share a similarity to other birds, wild animals with other wild animals, livestock with livestock, and so on. People, however, are the only creatures of their species made not ‘according to their kind’, but in the likeness of God himself. This is perplexing, as God does not have physical form, yet His creation is material. What characteristics can embodied humans share with a God who is spirit? Moreover, God is triune - three persons in one essence. What creature can bear such a likeness?

The answer lies in the creation of humanity in ‘twoness’. Catholic scholar Dr Abigail Favale describes the first human in singularity as incomplete, because Adam’s existence as a man without a corresponding woman is effectively one of a neuter being: ‘It’s only when that being is differentiated into male and female that the work of creation is complete’ (interview with Louise Perry on the Maiden Mother Matriarch podcast, episode 21, 2023). When God observes that it is not good for Adam to be alone, this is not simply a question of companionship but an acknowledgement that more than one type of human being is necessary for people to reflect God’s relational and creative nature. The creation of Eve, and the resulting sex difference of humanity, is the culmination of Gods creative action and fully embodied existence in His image.

But before meaning can be explored, Genesis 1-2 is followed immediately, and tragically, by Genesis 3. We are swept straight from the perfect completion of human establishment in creation to the gendered repercussions of the Fall, in which Adam and Eve’s dynamic of communion is twisted away from each other. Both men and women experience significant and ongoing consequences of the fall that are difficult and distressing. Arguably one of the heaviest burdens to land on women and girls is the way in which their femaleness - intended as a cornerstone of humanity - is inverted in such a way that women come to be perceived as less than fully human on the basis of their sex.

In the penultimate scene of The Barbie Movie, Barbie stands face to face with Ruth Handler. Having travelled back and forth between Barbieland and the real world, Barbie no longer feels content to exist as a doll representing women, and longs to become a real woman. ‘I want to do the imagining, not be the idea’, she tells her creator. ‘I want to be part of the people that make meaning, not the thing that is made’.

What Barbie yearns for is not a complete flat-feet-and-vagina set, but to discover what it means to be a human being in her own right. The only existence she has known is what others have imagined about her; however Barbie has come to realise that the ideas she represents about women are not the same as personhood itself. This is profoundly insightful, for human beings are not intended to be projections or playthings, but to fully reflect our Creator in every aspect of our being and relationships with each other. Our embodiment is essential to our common humanity; when one sex is dehumanised, the dignity of the other is not unaffected. Let us take care to examine the ideas we have about men and women, and where those ideas originate, as we strive to deepen our understanding of what being human means.


Nicole Jameson is a Wollongong-based mum of four. She has a Master of International Public Health, a Cert IV in Breastfeeding Education (counselling) and a keen desire to encourage Christians to have healthy conversations on difficult topics.


Image credit: A Bunch of Pink Boots that are on a Table by Girl with Red Hat on Unsplash.

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