Exploring the impact of Barbie on today’s society, through studying paratext and intertextuality of the case study Barbie.

With the continuous rise of the media’s power, people are becoming more materialistic and dependent on items that they feel may gain them status. Because of this, large multinational conglomerates and franchises have more influence on society than ever before. These companies can now use their platforms to promote both negative and positive ideas and opinions, a lot of people tend to trust their voice without question because they have such a large global following. However this power also angers a lot of people, they cannot promote viewpoints that keep everyone happy so they tend to face a lot of backlash from the media and the public. Something companies are criticised heavily for at the moment is their portrayal of women and body image. With movements such as Black Lives Matter and The Body Positive Movement making a massive impact, accurate representation of the people is more important than ever. I intend to explore the way people’s minds have been warped by the media content they consume and the products they buy. The easiest audience to manipulate is often children and the youth, it is clear from advertising that companies will often take advantage of this, however it can be dangerous. Children will regularly passively consume information which can lead them to wrongly think badly of themselves or others. After vast technological advancements, companies can now use the media to operate across multiple platforms, furthering their influence. The cross platform media case study I will be using to explore the ideas I have briefly discussed so far is the children’s toy brand Barbie. I will be applying the key concepts paratext and intertextuality to understand whether my case study has had influence on society’s views and opinions. By focusing on the very current topic of portrayal of women and body image, I aim to promote original discussion among readers of this essay, untainted by the opinion of the media and corporations.

Barbie was launched by the american toy company Mattel in 1959. It is a doll that when first created was one of a kind and has since inspired many manufacturers. Barbie is a cross platform media text as it began as a toy but has developed over the years to become much more including, books, films, games and interactive experiences. It is these paratextual elements that have ensured the ongoing success on the product. According to Henry Jenkins ‘paratexts are absolutely integral in terms of marketing, and in terms of grabbing an audience to watch the thing in the first place’ (Jenkins, 2010). Over the years Barbie has used paratext in order to fight back criticism and prevent sale drops. One of the most crucial ways to do this are marketing campaigns as Henry Jenkins suggests. In Dr. Rebecca Hain’s article ‘5 Reasons NOT to Buy Barbie for Little Girls’, she states that ‘In 1992, Mattel’s “Teen Talk Barbie” infamously chirped, “Math class is tough!” Mattel recalled this sexist toy reluctantly, after the American Association of University Women brought widespread awareness to the issue’(Hains, 2014). To fight the ongoing argument that Barbie teaches young girls patriarchal views to have little ambition in life, one of the latest campaigns is called ‘You Can Be Anything Barbie’. Screen Shot 2017-05-11 at 16.51.52This campaign features a range of dolls from ‘Firefighter Barbie’ to ‘Video Game Designer Barbie’. James  Mason says that you can use ‘paratext to disrupt the general expectations readers might have’(Mason 2016) before they have interacted with the text itself. In this campaign Barbie has done this by creating the ‘you can be anything barbie’ in order to change the opinion of the public. In the past couple of decades Barbie has been struggling to keep up with the 21st century but this ad campaign makes them appear to be progressing. This also relates back to my original exploration of impact of multinational companies on today’s society, as it shows the way that companies can positively influence the public when they have such wide scale recognition. After years of teaching girls that they need to be skinny and a good spouse, they are now being taught the importance of a powerful future, this also shows the impact advertising as a paratext has.

Barbie is an interesting case study as it is more common for toys to be part of the paratext rather than the main text itself. This made studying paratext as a key concept for Barbie different to what it may have been compared to a book. When reading Henry Jenkin’s interview with Jonathan Gray ‘On Anti-Fans and Paratexts’, toys are discussed as a paratext but the information became relevant to my research. It is said that ‘toys contribute to how we make sense of all these films and shows, and to the cultural meanings that surround them’ (Jenkins, 2010). In this case the Barbie doll does not contribute to the films and books made about her, rather they contribute to her. However, this may suggest that the Barbie doll may have contributed to the way children made sense of life and cultural meaning, because when children play with dolls they create games about real life. Having a doll that sports a figure physically unattainable by most human beings, taking part in their own make believe may have lead to children creating a obscure sense of life. Including issues to do with body image and sexist stereotyping. Gray goes on to mention that toys ‘teach kids to expect transmedia and participatory culture’(Jenkins, 2010), this contradicts popular beliefs about Barbie. Many feel that Barbie teaches children they need to be skinny and perfect, leading a lot of young people to be caught up in unoriginal thoughts about their appearance. This would mean that young people who had played with Barbie would not be able to entertain participatory culture as they have been heavily influenced by the text rather being able to influence it themselves.

Barbie has been regularly featured in other texts across the years making it very intertextual. Bakhtin once stated that ‘Intertextuality is a literary theory that claims texts share certain aspects of their meanings when they become de-contextualised from one context and re-contextualised into another’(Bakhtin, 1986). This is a widely recognised definition for the theory, however in 2011 an attack on the company, used Barbie as an intertextual reference whilst completely taking it out of context. This was when Greenpeace started the ‘Barbie, It’s Over’ campaign, their website states that ‘Barbie has a nasty deforestation habit – she is trashing rainforests in Indonesia, including areas that are home to some of the last tiger, orang-utans and elephants, just so she can wrap herself in pretty packaging’(Greenpeace, 2011). The environmental organisation created a parody where Ken breaks up with Barbie because of the effect she has had on the rainforest, they created a video and posters in order to spread awareness of what Mattel had been up to.

In his study of intertextuality, Mohammad Khosravi Shakib says that ‘textual success is due in large part to the commodity of combinations of intertexts’ (Khosravi Shakib, 2013). In this case, Greenpeace used this knowledge that parody can create success to their advantage, by closely imitating Barbie’s form and style they created this video in which Ken breaks up with Barbie. However the use of swearing being bleeped out and an emphasised script, does not promote the Barbie product itself. The fact that Mattel’s major deforestation was not common knowledge before the release of this campaign by Greenpeace shows the way that major corporations can still influence society and make millions, even though they also doing the wrong thing. The popularity and community formed by Barbie hid the negative actions they were performing behind the scenes. This also links back to my main statement as the impact of multinational companies on today’s society is made clear by this example. We are more interested in money and plastic toys, but overlook far more important things such as our planet being destroyed. Companies such as Mattel can cause worldwide distraction from worldwide issues. Exploration conducted on the intertextuality of my case study revealed that in a new age where consumers have become producers, participatory culture now allows more and more freedom when creating text using aspects from other texts. Text such as fan fiction and other parodies are hard to regulate, so the original producer of a text can have little say as to how the meaning of their text may have been manipulated. Even though this may contribute to Barbie’s impact on society, they do not necessarily always have control on the impact they inflict. In the case of the Greenpeace campaign, the backlash on Barbie may have been negative. However, as the company responded to the campaign with claims to reduce their effect on the rainforest, they impact was positive.

In the companies prime, the Barbie doll was seen as the perfect American girl, someone to inspire and influence the young children who played with her. However this influence may have become a burden, as mentioned previously over the years Barbie has been criticised for teaching young children the wrong thing, especially to do with image, ‘in 1963, the doll came with a book entitled “How to Lose Weight”, with instructions to not eat. Research also found that, with her 36in chest and 18in waist, Barbie would lack the 17% body fat needed to menstruate’(The Guardian, 2016). The fact that the doll’s figure used to be unachievable sent the complete wrong message to young people learning about themselves and their self confidence. The company has ‘been blamed for causing body image issues and even eating disorders. She has even been said to be perpetuating gender stereotypes that lead to domestic violence and the gender pay gap’(Yaga, 2014). Although this accusation is rather extreme, it was not an uncommon opinion of the product until recently. Last year Mattel released yet another line of new Barbies called the ‘Fashionista’ range, the line consists of petite, curvy and tall barbies that are more relatable to ‘normal’ figures. It was widely advertised in order to give Mattel’s Barbie a new lease of life in the modern age, but has received mixed signals by the press. The Guardian claims the dolls ‘reflect a broader view of beauty’(The Guardian, 2016), now every child can play with a doll that looks just like them, but is this really true. Each new toy is labelled by its body type bar the normal barbie which is called ‘the original’, in an article labeled ‘The new Barbie: why she sucks and is actually teaching our kiddos the WRONG thing’ a mother critiques the new campaign saying ‘women come in all shapes and sizes. But most of us hope that’s not the first thing people notice. And when you slap a giant label on the box that says “curvy” or “petite” or “tall,” guess what people are noticing first. The wrong thing’ (Baby Sideburns, 2016).

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The mixed opinions caused by the new ‘Fashionista’ Barbie may be down to the fact that the public had been deceived by the paratext of the product. In the book ‘Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation’, Gerard Genette describes paratext as having an ‘influence on the public, an influence that – whether well or poorly revived – is at the service of of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it’ (Genette, 1997). This may not be true of the marketing campaign for the ‘Barbie Fashionistas’ as the advertisement shown makes the new range seem as if it is defying any previous conventions negatively associated with the text. However in the BBC article ‘How does “Curvy Barbie” compare with an average woman?’ it is revealed that the largest Barbie of the range labeled ‘curvy’ still does not even match the average body of 19-24 year olds in the uk. (Bates, 2016).


This  contradicts the statement made by Gennette as it shows the campaign was positively received by the public as a product, that was going to make a change to the views of society. The actual product itself may not have been what they were expecting and therefore has angered various groups of people.  This negative reaction may well have been unavoidable due to previous circumstances of the product, intertextual references such as the Greenpeace campaign and the song ‘Barbie Girl’ by Aqua that made parodies of the company may have left a permanent taint on Barbie’s reputation.

The song ‘Barbie Girl’ by the european group called Aqua caused mass controversy in 1997. The hit song was a parody that showed a make-believe world featuring Mattel’s characters Barbie and Ken in a heavily satirical and sexualised manner. Mattel sued MCA Records, the label that released the  eurodance song in 2000 because of copyright issues. In the article ‘Thoughts on Barbie, Intertextuality and the E-reader’, Kate Robinson claims that Mattel was angered because ‘the song sings about sexual and Barbie-Girl-Aquaunsavoury themes; the song associates with their big busted doll as the group sings, “kiss me here, touch me there, and I’m a blond bimbo girl in a fantasy world.” (Robinson, K,2010). This type of intertextual reference is described by Mohammad Khosravi Shakib as ‘the second category of intertextuality called iconotext’ which is ‘the use of (by way of reference or allusion, in an explicit or implicit way) an image in a text or vice versa’(Khosravi Shakib, 2013). In this case MCA Records did not attempt to be implicit at all and made no effort to be discreet when directly referencing Barbie in the song, they even used her name and trademark colour ‘Barbie Pink’. This example of hypertextuality shows that Aqua took the basic meaning of the text Barbie completely out of context in order to create an original text, however ‘the downside is that the author and his/her intent becomes devalued and marginalised’ (Sandeep, 2013). A toy made for young children became heavily involved in adult themes and messages without Mattel’s consent. As this song was available to children, this may have heightened the stigma surrounding the fact that Barbie teaches the wrong values to those that play with the doll. Aqua taught children that it is normal to allow men to touch your body all the time and to allow the devaluing of women in society. Although the song was not made my Mattel the intertextual reference to the company made it part of the cross-platform aspects associated with Barbie.

I feel like I have learnt a lot from my research and engagement with this case study and research. I began this essay knowing I wanted to explore the concepts paratext and intertextuality but was unsure what I would discover, at first I thought I might be restricted because of my chosen case study, however I was unaware how much impact the company had had on society until I began conducting research. It was intriguing to learn the extent of the power companies can exert by using advertising and other paratext, audiences can be manipulated in so many different ways without even knowing. Finding out about the way in which personal body image issues and society’s opinions can be affected by something as simple as a doll, made me think that more people should be made aware of the reasons why they face the issues that they do. My position on the topic I chose has now changed to feeling a lot more negatively about the power of big corporate companies. I now think that these companies that dominate the media with advertising and product placement should take some responsibility for the issues they are causing amongst society and this should be more widely recognised. I will bear this in mind for the future of my own production as I have learnt how easily producers can manipulate their audience and would not want to do this myself. This research has inspired me to produce work with a message that isn’t hidden and intended to manipulate but educate instead. I will also remember this when consuming media as I have taken messages from texts in the past and now realise how perfectly constructed this messages are in order to make you to this. Although it was revealed to me how companies can use paratext to conduct influence on the public, I also learned the impact intertextuality can have on these companies reputations and popularity, by using elements of other more popular texts you can boost the popularity of your own text or raise awareness. I will remember this for my future production as if done legally and appropriately, intertextual references can be an extremely effective aid to your work. In the past I was not aware of the ways in which you can use this device to carry forth ideas and meaning without being tacky or devaluing work.

In conclusion, I wanted to explore the impact of Barbie on todays society, through studying paratext and intertextuality of the case study Barbie. It has been shown from my research that Mattel’s Barbie has influenced issues in society massively especially when it comes to children and the way they learn about the world. Barbie has caused a lot of controversy since the doll was first made commercially available in 1959 however the company has made a noticeable effort to change this reputation in recent years. It is clear that due to the long period of time where Barbie was one of the most popular children’s toys, the company contributed to the rise in body confidence issues and taught young girls that they did not need to have real academic ambition. However, due to recent campaigns such as ‘You Can Be Anything Barbie’ and the ‘Fashionista’ range, it is possible that the company could now work towards contributing to the rise of feminism and self confidence, rather than set back social reform like it may have done in the past. These example show, whether negative or positive, Barbie has has majorly impacted society worldwide and has defiantly contributed to way children perceive cultural meaning. Barbie may have created dolls that will aid the next generation in the way they view themselves and those around them. But they can not undo the impact that has already been made on the children who played with Barbie in the past, that are now too old for dolls now. Barbie can reinvent itself limitlessly but this is not a privilege that real people hold. However, it also proves that no matter how much change a company can implicate, because of the diversity of morals and opinions within society worldwide, there is no way of releasing texts that will meet the needs of everyone. My research also shows that as well as not being able to consistently influence all audiences, Barbie is also not in complete control of all the meanings audiences interpret from the text. Due to the way different audiences can use intertextuality as part of participatory culture, the original owner of the text can not regulate what they produce. This is also true of the way Greenpeace and Aqua used Barbie in order to raise awareness of their own texts, whether that be for popularity or politics, there was nothing Barbie could do to control the consumption by their own audiences.


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