The Business of Barbie

by Kari Belsheim

I don’t know about you, but I grew up positively drowning in Barbies. As I got older, I began to notice that all mine looked the same. (Go figure!) I read articles explaining just how unrealistic Barbie’s proportions are, and had to come to terms with the fact that I would never have perpetually pointed toes, hair that changes color in the pool, or perfectly symmetrical lady parts. We all know the dangers of comparing ourselves to a small, plastic doll—yet Barbie remains a beloved, if problematic, icon.

Mattel recognizes its power to shape the hopes of children everywhere, and so it has created the “Barbie I Can Be” line in which Barbie follows her American dreams. She can become a Zoo Keeper, Teacher, or Pancake Chef (where’d that one come from?), and by association, you can too. However, Slate writer Emily Oster has recently made an astute observation.

In an article entitled Barbie Math, she ponders the price differential between Doctor and Magician Barbie. Doctor Barbie costs about twice as much as Magician Barbie. The “I Can Be” Barbies each come with about the same amount of clothing and accessories, so logically they would sell for the same price. Oster points to price discrimination: the fact that people are willing to pay more for things if they have the extra money or truly want the product, and its important place in business. Production costs may play a part, but businesses recognize that there is a sweet spot where the desire to have your child be a doctor rather than a magician meets disposable income. “Barbie I Can Be Chef African American Doll” is also more expensive than her white counterpart, and Barbie’s race is only specified when she is not Caucasian…but I digress.

Upward mobility is at the heart of what we call the American dream, and yet class divisions are perpetuated in the simplest of ways and at the youngest of ages. I’m not calling for a ban on Barbies—after all I was a Barbie fiend—but it’s important to notice the minutiae of marketing and its connections deep within our lives, especially around the holiday season. I’ve got my fingers crossed that Social Justice Barbie tops the Christmas list one of these days!


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