Nonverbal Cues

MODESTO--A 6-year-old girl stabbed a 7-year-old playmate in the back with a steak knife in a fight over Barbie dolls, police said yesterday. --Associated Press (1995; see OBJECT FANCY)

Barbie is an icon because she triggers this worshipful attitude and a desire to smash what she represents. --Valerie Steele, Contributing Curator, "Art, Design and Barbie: The Evolution of a Cultural Icon," Liberty Street Gallery, New York City (Span 1995:G1)

Sexual icon. 1. A hand-held consumer product displaying exaggerated signs of feminine beauty. 2. A portable, 11-inch plastic symbol of Americana whose messaging features (e.g., high heels, hourglass figure, and infantile schema) appeal to millions of young girls. 3. A thematic plaything (e.g., Totally Hair Barbie, Shopping Spree Barbie, Wet and Wild Barbie) idolized by children and adults in more than 140 countries throughout the world.

Usage: "I don't think anyone feels neutral about Barbie," said Forever Barbie author, M. G. Lord (Jones 1994:D8; see EMOTION). According to Mattel Inc., the typical U.S. girl between three and 10 years old owns eight Barbie dolls (Jones 1994). Extreme Barbie fans may dress like--or undergo surgery to look like--the doll itself (Lord 1994).

Anatomy. Barbie's permanently pointed feet assume a high-heel stance. (N.B.: Though plumper, rounder, and older [i.e., Upper Paleolithic], the Venus of Willendorf figurine has pronged legs, as well.) To look like Barbie, a woman would have to stand 7 feet 2 inches tall and add 5 inches to her bust size.

Evolution. The Barbie concept originated in 1951 when the doll's creator, Ruth Handler, observed her daughter's pleasure in dressing adult-shaped paper dolls. In 1956, Handler discovered "Lilli," a humorous, full-figured German plastic doll designed to entertain men. Using Lilli as a prototype, Mattel began selling Barbie dolls in 1959.

Face. 1. 1959: "Barbie's first face has a fashion-model aloofness, a sideways glance, and a seductive pout" (Hoffman 1996:16). 2. 1971: Barbie's face is restructured: "She now smiles" (Hoffman 1996:16). 3. 1977: Barbie's smile is widened to its current toothy grin (Hoffman 1996).

Semiotics. Some see in Barbie's lean and lanky slimness an unrealistic (and even dangerous, i.e., anorexic) standard for the female body (see LOVE SIGN). Others see Barbie as a shallow sign of consumer materialism. (N.B.: One of Barbie's voice chips asks, e.g., "Will we ever have enough clothes?" [Jones 1994:D8].)

Update. "Barbie, the doll that the Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler modeled after Lilli and introduced at the World's Fair in 1959, will now come in a variety of shapes and shades. (And also: a variety of hairstyles, and eye colors, and 'face sculpts'.) The doll will still be fairly cartoonish--this is Barbie, after all--but, from today, she can be bought in sizes 'petite' and 'tall' and 'curvy'. (The terms, Time notes--the English euphemisms, as well as their translations into other languages--were extensively debated by Mattel marketing executives. (She can also, just as importantly, be bought in seven different skin tones.)" (Source: [accessed Jan. 2016)

Neuro-notes I. Our primate brain dedicates distinct modules of visual cortex to the recognition of faces and facial expressions. The same dedicated nerve cells of the lower temporal lobe, which respond to human faces, respond--with equal feeling--to Barbie doll faces, rendering them psychologically "real."

Neuro-notes II. "'She can conjure up images of a perfect childhood, a safe nostalgic world. But others see her as a cruel dominatrix, a wimp and a victim, a bimbo. The responses are really visceral'" (Valerie Steele [see above, second epigraph] quoted in Span 1995:G5; see ENTERIC BRAIN).


YouTube Video: Watch Barbie's television debut in 1959.

Copyright 1998 - 2016 (David B. Givens/Center for Nonverbal Studies)