Girls’ Studies: 1980s Barbie Glamour Home

This week’s girls’ studies blog assignment is to locate a cultural object related to girls’ play and analyze it with the following questions.  How do you know it is meant for girls?  What would happen if a boy were to play with it?  Is this a product of a particular era? Is it aimed toward a particular class/subset of girls? Would possession of the object bestow a certain status upon its owner?  How was the object marketed?  Was it popular, or relatively unknown?

I have chosen to focus on the 1980s Barbie Glamour Home because I always wanted one and I never got it.  I even compensated for it when I had my first baby by getting her a large wooden dollhouse that doubles as a bookcase.  Of course, she never really plays with it.  She doesn’t like Barbies.  I, however, loved Barbies as a child.  I realize the complications of that with my feminist leanings, but that’s just the way it was.  I was a girly girl.

To watch the commercial I used for this analysis, please click on this link:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-BpY0qfHYo

Also, here’s a picture.

barbie glamour home

We know this object is meant for girls because it is pink and purple.  We also know this because the commercial shows girls playing with it and the narration features a woman’s voice with a babyish tone.  In addition, words like “decorate,” “glamour,” “beautiful,” and “elegant” are used to describe what one should do with or believe about this object.  These tend to be words that are directed toward girls.  I would say a big indicator of this is the fact that if boys played with this, they might be ridiculed.  It also doesn’t tend to appeal to more stereotypical masculine features, such as action, violence, and aggression.  The music of the commercial is soothing and the play is serene.

I know that boys, however, do play with Barbies, but mainly when their peers aren’t looking or when they can create a game that has more action than Peaches and Cream Barbie (whom I did have, pictured below) ascending a stair case and offering to give a “grand tour.”  I had six boy cousins, all brothers, who often came to visit us during holidays.  We would, of course, get out our Barbies and make those boys play with us.  They reluctantly agreed, and used the Ken dolls.  After joining in, they would gain some momentum and make things much more exciting than we usually played.  I remember one of these episodes and the boys warning us that if we ever told anybody, including another set of cousins, that they would deny it.  But I could tell they enjoyed it a little bit.

barbie peaches and cream

The glamour home was a popular product of the 1980s.  I remember wanting one and visiting friends’ homes who had them.  It was marketed on television, and of course, in big displays in the stores.  I would beg and beg but never got it.  I would envy my friends, who spent their time decorating the mansion and even creating their own accessories and furniture for it.  I often saved random objects, like milk cartons or tiny cups, imagining that I would wash them, fix them up, and use them as Barbie objects in the glamour home, once I got it.

I think the glamour home is aimed at middle to upper class girls, especially those who are white.  I say white because of the girls depicted in the commercial and the fact that Barbie was mostly white then.  I remember only ever having one black Barbie and not until the 1990s.  (Yes, I played with Barbies for THAT long.)  I think this object would have been aimed at the middle or upper classes because of the capitalist values it embodies.  Giving a “grand tour” of one’s mansion is something a girl with money might see her parents do or imagine herself doing.  In addition, one of the claims of the commercial is that Barbie and her girl can decorate the mansion.  This is a leisure activity that requires money.  In this way, the object may have had some sort of power to bestow status.  I don’t know if that status necessarily related to the type of status that adults ascribe to their homes these days, but I do remember feeling envious of the girls I knew that had this Barbie house.

But homes are status symbols, and in that way, these miniature homes would therefore be status symbols, too.  My husband and I were just talking about how our home sometimes has too much room for us.  We finished our basement a few years ago and only really use two of the rooms down there.  We could do with less space.  Yet we know so many people in our neighborhood who are moving away for larger homes.  It becomes a way of showing that one has moved up in the world or “made it” and can finally afford to symbolize that with their home.  In that way, Barbie does the same for the girl who owns her mansion.

I keep thinking about the plot of Toy Story 3 (which I have had the good fortune of seeing so many times that I can’t number them), in which Ken has the dream home and Barbie is mesmerized by it.  Once she realizes that Ken is in with the “evil” toys and that he’s quite vain and narcissistic (with his wardrobe and the house a symbol of that), she uses those qualities to trick him and ultimately helps Woody, Buzz, and the gang triumph.  So while a dream house (even Barbie’s dream house) might be a status symbol, it can also represent hubris, greed, and vanity.

We certainly see some of that in the commercial, with Peaches and Cream Barbie ascending the staircase in her ostentatious gown, as if life is about prancing about one’s house in an evening gown.  This, along with the status symbol of the house, may send the wrong message to girls about what life will be like when they grow up and own their own homes.  Much of actual home ownership is cleaning and maintenance and yard work.  I hardly ever wear my old evening gowns, except, of course, when I’m vacuuming or cleaning food up off the floor after my children have eaten.

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38 thoughts on “Girls’ Studies: 1980s Barbie Glamour Home

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  1. Thanks Emily. Great post. Two comments. It is off topic some, but I was thinking it would be physically quite difficult for a woman to maintain Barbie’s proportions, so the dolls created an image of a body shape that is virtually unattainable. I am wondering how many girls became anorexic because of this. The other is about the “house” esteem. I was moved by the director of the documentary “I Am” who after he made it big through earlier movies bought this estate. He said the moment it was his, he walked in and realized it did not provide happiness. Take care, BTG

    1. You are right about body image. I am sure there are studies about it. And what a cool anecdote about that director and happiness. It is a good lesson to remember!

  2. Yet another “we’re so alike” moment – I too dreamed to get this house but never got it 😉 Well, to be more specific, I really, really wanted the Barbie Townhouse (maybe they didn’t have the Glamour Home when I was growing up), but it was $125 and I knew my parents weren’t going to get it.

    Reading your post I’m realizing how we grew up in so much fantasy. I know that for me it was a wonderful escape to dream of growing up to become beautiful and curvy, to marry the perfect, handsome husband, and to have my dream home. The difference seems to be that when boys play, they are not tying their playing with the future, or are they? To me they seem to be enjoying the moment of playing and doing, rather than forming images of how perfect their lives are going to be. I know that my son isn’t looking ahead when he’s playing – he’s just in the moment.

    1. Cecilia, what a fantastic observation about the difference in boys’ and girls’ play. I can see that in my experiences and in some of the articles I read this week for the girls’ studies class. It would be interesting to conduct a study on that. And I love that we are so similar! We should really meet someday!

  3. Love the blog. My mom refused to let me have a Barbie growing up. She didn’t like the image and we didn’t have the money.. It was a social disgrace to be the only girl at my church who didn’t have Barbie stuff, so when I had a daughter I bought her all sorts of Barbie products only to find she wasn’t enthused. Every time she wants to throw the last few Barbies away, I stop her. Some social lessons from our childhood die hard.

    1. Oh, that makes me so sad! I guess I should be happy that at least I had Barbies. But it is such a disappointment (and a secret source of pride, in some weird way) that my girls don’t really like Barbies. We still have a huge box of them, and they just sit there, unused.

  4. The whole topic of girl’s toys and boy’s toys is so interesting. My mother hated anything that was stereotypical. She avoided buying Barbies for my sisters and I for as long as she could. But she did eventually break down and buy my sister (who relentlessly asked for nothing but Barbie stuff) the Barbie camper van. Maybe she thought that was a little more neutral because Barbie was going camping. I wasn’t as interested in Barbie, so it didn’t matter so much to me. But my own daughter loved Barbie when she was younger, and, influenced by my mother’s distaste for Barbie, I tried to avoid it, but in the end, I think our kids just like what they like, and there’s not much we can do about it. She spent many happy hours playing with Barbie, and my son did too until he was old enough to realize he was a boy.

    1. Yep! Our kids do like what they like. In reading for this section of class, one article critiqued the fact that girls’ toys include crafts. My daughter loves crafting, and yes, it might be stereotypically feminine, but she’s good at it. In fact, my dad was the one who taught her how to knit. I have no idea how to knit, nor do I have any interest. But they like what they like and we just have to support them and then talk about some of the issues with them. My daughters have recently been into the cartoon Johnny Test, and I often point out some of the misogyny in it so we can talk about it without me totally banning it from our house.

  5. Reblogged this on The Eliso Blog and commented:
    I think this is brilliant. It’s impacting in gender studies where everything for girls has to be pink, glittery, feathery, etc. Suggested read and thank you.

  6. I love this post! I was never a barbie person (I liked Nancy Drew, even if there weren’t toys), and even now I shudder whenever I’m in target and see the signs for “Girls’ Toys” and “Boys’ Toys.” An utterly ridiculous division, and damaging, too. And that pepto-bismol pink is just awful. Why not just “Toys” with dolls and legos and trucks and cooking sets all together?

  7. We discussed this issue of Barbie culture and its effect on young girls in one of my women’s studies classes. I found it interesting how Barbie did expand her repertoire from gown-wearing housewife to nurse, scientist, astronaut and a variety of other professions. I also found it interesting when I went into a toy store recently to see how much Barbie’s look has changed from when I was kid back in the 80s. It’s nice to see that her waist is no longer smaller than her head.
    A friend sent me a video showing a brand of engineering toys geared towards girls. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xo7QZXpfO50#t=28
    I like how it addresses this boy/girl toy dilemma and the song declares “it is time to change/we deserve to have a range/ we want to use our brains”. Yet this commercial still addresses that these are GIRLS engineering toys. I think it’s good that even if you are a girly-girl who likes pink you are not stuck with only Barbies, but have a larger range. And if pink isn’t your thing, there are lots of green and brown and black engineering toys (sure, maybe there are targeted to boys but so what!) that girls can play with too. Thanks for bringing up all of these great discussion topics!

    1. I just watched the Goldie Blox commercial last night for this same class! It was quite cute and I loved the lyrics, as you pointed out. And yes, Barbie has come a long way! I once answered an interview question in high school by saying that if I could be anybody, I would be Barbie precisely because she can be anything she wants to be.

  8. A very interesting post. Barbies were not that common in India when I was growing up although they are now. And I wasn’t much of a doll person. So I had to see a lot of this through your eyes.

    There’s been lots of discussion about the barbie and body image in girls but yours is the first discussion I encountered with interesting potential for development about the barbie and dreams of home ownership that’s driven people in contemporary American culture to such lengths (think refinancing and debt) to *own* a home. Although this could be a “natural” human desire to an extent, I wonder how much role such toys and early childhood experiences have in making this such a dream and shaping desires that it takes a hold of people in adult life so they try to buy homes they can’t afford.

    1. What a great observation! I wonder that too. How do our toys affect us as we get older, without our even realizing it. I see some clear connections to the housing market, but I guess we would have to conduct a study to actually prove that.

  9. Barbie wasn’t around in India when I was growing up, but if there was I probably would have wanted it. My daughter is obsessed with Barbie though I can see she doesn’t really think too much about her proportions or blondeness. They are just characters for her to enact married life, I guess?

    She wanted a dollhouse for the longest time, and I finally caved in and got her one. I made sure it was wooden, there’s nothing pink about it, and there are some eco-friendly lessons included within the house too. Not that she sees that either 😀

    1. Ha! That is true too. We try to be ecofriendly or talk about body image and sometimes our children just don’t care or understand. How much of what we critique in Barbie is really even noticed by the girls or boys playing with it?

  10. I was a rough and tumble outdoorsy little girl and never cared much for dolls (except, oddly, Strawberry Shortcake dolls.) My niece, however, flounced out of the womb with ribbons and pink glitter fingernail polish on. I worry about the ideal of all the princess marketing and try to get her toys that are gender neutral, which she does not care for at all. I probably worry too much about it because when I listen to her imagination she’s using her Barbies to go bow hunting for deer to feed the family and share with the neighbors at church. (her Dad, my brother, is a bow hunter.) I got a little worked up when she was enthusing about “killing the deer” and asked why on earth we would want to kill a deer? To which she responded the above, about feeding families. So it seems, regardless of the toys they play with, it’s the ethics we adults teach them that influences children the most.

    Great post! I recently got the book Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein, but haven’t had a chance to read it yet, so this topic is right in that same vein and a topic that is definitely on my mind.

    1. Denise, I agree. We should focus more on ethics rather than who plays with what, but I do hate the marketing associated with the toys.

      And I love the Orenstein book. So interesting and well written. Let me know what you think. Your niece sounds adorable, by the way. How fun for you! I wish my sisters would have kids so I could be the cool auntie. They get to have all the fun with my kids!

  11. My brother played with Barbies because he is the only boy out of seven children. Growing up, my younger sister and I would play Barbie-My Little Pony-Batman, in which the Batman action figures would always end up dating Barbie – which is an interesting proportion, since Barbie is twice as tall. We usually didn’t have a Ken doll, because Ken’s head usually popped off and got lost. Sometimes, we would keep a headless Ken doll. He would be normal, except for the lack of a head.
    In my home, Barbies were rarely glamorous. They were usually helping Batman save the ponies.

    1. Nice! Our Ken dolls were rare and usually naked, since they came with one outfit that would usually rip as soon as we took him out of the box. Once, we visited a friend of my dad’s over the summer with our dolls. He noticed that we didn’t have Ken, so the next time we visited, he gave us each a Ken doll. It is a lovely gesture that I will never forget.

  12. I never had a Barbie house and only one Midge doll. My mother didn’t think they were good for girls, because of the body image issues.
    But I let my daughter have them . . . and a house.
    My memories of Barbie houses revolve around how difficult they are to put together. See http://mthupp.wordpress.com/2012/12/24/playing-santa-with-grandpa-and-barbie-spoiler-alert/ and http://mthupp.wordpress.com/2013/10/28/the-haunted-doll-house/
    And I’ve never known a boy who would play with Barbie or her house — not my brothers, not my son.

    1. They are hard to put together! I built my own wooden dollhouse once from a kit and it was my first and last. I wanted to at least try, but I don’t think I could do it again. The instructions were awful!

  13. I remember when I got my first Barbie Dream house! My sisters and I would play with that thing for hours a day. We were especially psyched that it had an “elevator” (a box that you could manually move up and down from floor to floor), we even asked my parents how much it would be to build an elevator in our house. I always thought it was interesting how the Glamour barbies that went along with the Dream Houses were so much more extravagant than the other barbies, and how you could have just any normal barbie as the lady of the household. In My opinion this model of barbie really supported the “gold digger” stereotype of women, where materials and wealth were everything.

    1. That is an interesting observation about golddigger Barbies and and so true. I wonder what message that sends to little girls. And I’m so jealous that you had one! I remember that elevator well from my friends’ houses.

  14. Haha the last sentence made me laugh. Spot-on analysis. I had a couple of Barbie “mansions” when I was growing up, which according to your post here, makes sense because I was middle class. Funnily enough, I always wanted to play with Barbies outside and only started playing with them indoors once I became old enough to be embarrassed by them. The stories my sister and I came up with were very elaborate, like a soap opera plot. But certainly, we never played Barbies with any boys.

    1. We enacted soap operas too! How could we not? So tempting. I do wish that you had wrangled some boys to play with you. It was quite fun and changed things up a bit.

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