For my sister’s 8th birthday, she wanted a Barbie. I know there has been a ton of controversy surrounding Barbies and body image. As a women’s studies major who focuses in beauty performance and body image, I appreciate Mattel’s attempt to re-proportion Barbie. But, Barbie’s body was not the hesitation I had to getting my sister a Barbie doll for her birthday.
Last year in my Language, Gender and Power course I was introduced to Paul Grice’s “Studies in the Way of Words.” In this article, he introduces the idea of implicature. His example is that if two people are talking about a third person who is not with them. One asks, “How does so-and-so like their new job?” And the second says, “Oh, they’re doing great. They haven’t gone to jail yet!” Now I’m sure these two know what they are talking about but there are many things Grice says can be implied from these seemingly unrelated ideas. This ambiguity is the idea of implicature. Implicature is the unsaid thing you are saying – whether it is what you meant – and whether it is understood or not understood.
Not being a linguist, I hooked onto this idea not so much in the literal sense of speech but how this implicature effects even when words might not necessarily be spoken.
Back to my sister and her Barbie. When I was growing up, Barbie had very few career paths she could take. I think she could be a mom, a princess, a nurse, or a beauty queen. All noble professions. But, I wanted more. Of course as a little girl I pretended that Barbie could be more. But walking down the Barbie aisles it was clear that she could not. When I apply Grice’s theory of implicature to the Barbie of my youth, I might see that a girl may only become a mom, princess, nurse, beauty queen, ect. Even though a Barbie spokesperson from Mattel would never come out and say, “Little girls of the world, here are the only career paths you may follow modeled here by our dolls.” By only creating dolls that have limited career paths, they are implying that this is what women are supposed to do.
Knowing all of this I was a little hesitant to get a Barbie for my sister. I still want her to believe she can grow up to be anything. I didn’t want Barbie to begin to limit her ideas of who she could become. But, I was very surprised to find that Barbie has expanded her idea of a good career. In fact, there is a whole line of career Barbies called “I Can Be.” Here girls can choose Barbies from different career paths including Architect, News Anchor, Computer Engineer, Ballerina, Nurse, Doctor, ect., and the one I got my sister Paleontologist.
Paleontologist Barbie is smart and plays in the mud but is still in very traditional ways feminine. While some may still object to her femininity, I think that it is important to teach girls that they can be whatever they want to be – even if that is a Paleontologist with pink vest to go over her work clothes. I am really impressed with Barbies “I Can Be” line of dolls hopefully they will open up little girls minds to what they can become. It will be interesting to hear the perspective of Barbies from children who grew up with this new version.