Document Type

Department Honors Thesis

Publication Date


First Advisor

Selina Gallo-Cruz


Since 1959 the Barbie doll has held the status of cultural icon in American society. In the past six decades Barbie has dominated the toy industry as an unmatched competitor among girls’ dolls, generating approximately $1 billion in annual sales. Originally intended by her creator Ruth Handler to “allow girls to project their future self,” Barbie continues to remain a household name, and it has been estimated that each American girl owns an average of eight Barbie dolls (Newman 2013). As a cultural object, Barbie continues to re-enter the “human circuit of discourse” (Griswold 1987) with each changing public appearance, just as critics challenge Mattel for marketing a doll unrepresentative of “the real woman.” In this sociology honors thesis I investigate the historical developments in the discourse surrounding the meaning and impact of Barbie’s representation. First I ask, what is Barbie purported to represent and how has her iconic status served as a location for changing discourse on the feminine ideal? And, how have various social actors found spaces for resistance and protest through contesting Barbie’s meaning and representation? Despite the ongoing problems that feminist and popular critics have with Barbie, the enduring popularity of the doll, and the particular ways it has changed in response to certain cultural concerns, speaks to how cultural icons both come to embody and transform social meaning and power. I seek to understand the collective process of both articulating and contesting Barbie as a cultural object and the discourse surrounding the social meaning of this cultural object as an exercise in demarcating gendered status and boundaries. On a general theoretical level, I ask, what are the processes driving divergent interpretations of cultural icons, and in the case of Barbie as a site for gendered contention, how do we use icons to work out attitudes about femininity? I explore both popular and scholarly discourse to understand the process of contesting and reorganizing the feminine self around Barbie. I conduct a discourse analysis of approximately 150 newspaper articles and approximately 40 journal articles exploring Barbie-related scholarship published since 1959. I explain that Barbie’s iconic status is achieved through her ongoing instruction and reproduction of social forms, while at the same time, her malleability is representative of the many ways that these social forms have the potential to change over time. I conclude by arguing that through an examination of the discursive circumstances surrounding the various stages of Barbie’s development, we can better understand how cultural icons like Barbie relate to the structure and transformation of social life.


This thesis was written for the Sociology Department Honors program.

Capstone thesis for Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies concentration

Presented at 2017 Academic Conference