Why is Barbie Bad while He-Man is OK? Three Theories
February 7, 2014
A high school girl made a petition on Change.org asking Disney to feature a “plus-size princess” in one of its stories. Lots of interesting discussion about this online. The inventor of the Barbie doll also had another interview. So that reminded me of this picture comparing Barbie with He-man, which has been going around the Internets.
So here’s a quick quiz: Why is Barbie bad and He-man OK? I’m assuming that He-man is OK because no one is complaining about his unnatural and impossible physique. He apparently doesn’t give boys a negative image of their own bodies. So what’s the difference? I admit I don’t have a definitive answer myself. Go ahead and enlighten me in the comments section. But first, here are a few possible theories:
Girls are judged on their appearance more than boys.
OK, but why should this be so? And what are boys judged on if not their appearance? Let’s suppose boys are judged on their practical accomplishments, like wealth and social status, or else on their potential for accomplishments, such as their physical size and strength, or wit or education. In this case, why don’t boys get an inferiority complex from looking at He-man? He’s obviously much stronger and more accomplished than normal boys will ever be. Why doesn’t He-man crush a boy’s self-confidence the way Barbie does a girl’s?
Boys know that He-man is a mere fictional fantasy, whereas Barbie is promoted as a realistic goal for girls growing up.
This might be a good theory. Aside from Barbie’s absurd thinness, she looks like a realistic model for the successful young woman. She comes with clothes and accessories that are totally realistic. Barbie takes on various real-world roles in which she specifically offers a model for young girls’ aspirations. He-man, by contrast, is nothing like real-life adult men. Normal boys have never met anyone like He-man in their real-life world.
Boys tend instinctively to work in teams.
A boy doesn’t have to be the team leader, but he can get good self-confidence by being a good team-member who follows an excellent leader. He-man doesn’t offer boys a role-model for themselves as much as a heroic leader model, someone the boys want to follow. Thus, boys don’t compare He-man to themselves, but they compare He-man to their fathers or other leaders in their lives.
And get this – when fathers and other leaders fall short of the example provided by He-man, that actually gives young boys an ego boost. He-man shows the faults and weaknesses of those real-life men who dominate and perhaps intimidate a young boy, so then the young boy can imagine himself doing better some day when he grows up. This ego boost is the opposite of what Barbie does for girls.
Think back to the stone age times when our human instincts were evolving. Boys needed to learn teamwork and follow adult male leaders in order to succeed in hunting and fighting, which were their main sex-role activities. For girls, by contrast, the main sex-role activities were child-bearing and nurturing, which are activities that women mostly do by themselves, each woman taking care of her own children. This suggests that boys will tend to work better in teams than girls.
Here’s another question: If Barbie hurts a girl’s self-esteem, then why is Barbie so popular?
I had a quick brainstorm about this. I thought it must be liberating for a girl to have a doll that’s not a baby. Almost all dolls for girls are meant to make the girl practice motherhood, but Barbie lets the girl practice being an adult woman who does fun activities and has some kind of creative job.