Barbie and Ken . . . tiny figurines that pack such a cultural punch. These eleven-inch plastic dolls, generally a light shade of pink with hands, feet, arms, legs, heads, and torsos all in the rough shapes of a genuine human body, have an endless array of accessories. They drive convertibles and live in large, well-furnished homes. Their faces are frozen in perpetual smiles, and they seem carefree.
Until very recently Barbie had always been portrayed as a tall, slender, feminine, Caucasian debutante in cocktail dresses, stilettos, and perfect, in-season couture bags, or perhaps in crisp pink miniskirts, or even in form-fitting swimsuits that accentuated her narrow hips and ample breasts. She sported weightless blonde hair, eyes the blue of the Pacific, and nails that sparkled in fi re-engine red. Her blush and lipstick were flawless from sunrise to sunset, and she hosted parties for the elite. She was every little girl’s dream.
Barbie’s eternal partner, Ken, was always unmistakably masculine, a Caucasian, preppy college student in polo shirts and loafers. He was an expert with a tennis racket and a confident, yet sensitive, boyfriend who never forgot to bring flowers. The debutante’s ideal mate.
GI Joe, an “action figure,” was similarly ideal, representing hyper-masculinity as a musclebound, uniformed, no-nonsense soldier in military fatigues and combat boots. His gun and “kung fu grip” were extremes of authoritative power, and as a toy targeted to adolescent and preadolescent boys, his overall demeanor was replete with male virility.
These toys represent ideals of gender and of lifestyle: extremes of femininity and masculinity as defined by Western, twentieth- and twenty-first-century cultural norms, expressing middle-class Caucasian American fantasies of what women and men should be. Originally encoded within Barbie was the notion of a job-free or homemaker existence for women, while Ken still portrayed the…