Pop Culture Rewind: “I Object”

Why problematic ‘Barbie Girls’ are still alive and well


Words || Katelyn Free

Cast your mind back to the sweet, sweet strains of the early 2000’s. To the sound of pop singer P!nk’s masterful song Stupid Girls.

Do you remember the archetypal ‘Barbie Girl’?

Envision her bleached blonde hair. The obsession with fashion. The glamourous make up application.

She cared about her physical appearance.

So, of course, she was stupid.

The association between a woman’s adherence to certain kinds of femininity and her ability to be taken seriously is ingrained in pop culture representations – particularly those concerning female professionals.

Depictions of female lawyers illustrate the varying scope in the subtle or overt ties between their characters’ ability to do their job well and their concern with aesthetic.

One of the shining examples of this is our lord and saviour Elle Woods.

“I feel comfortable using legal jargon in everyday life.”

Legally Blonde is arguably the most iconic example of how a woman’s participation in ‘feminine’ practices, such as hair care or clothes shopping, is in no way correlated with her professional capabilities.

Time and time again, we cheer Elle on as she comes up against barrier after patriarchal barrier. We sympathise with her as almost every male character in the film challenges her with the same refrain – “are you serious?”.

We see that she can be both stylish and hardworking, that she can have brains and beauty.

However, the mere existence of this film means that a link between stupidity and femininity has been established. It highlights that there already exists a stereotype that construes ‘Barbie Girls’ as needing to prove their intelligence because of their look.

It’s become part of our social psyche norms that, when it comes to Barbie Girls, concern with physical appearance is a set-back that needs to be overcome, or (at best), an assumption needing to be disproven.

“Whoever said orange is the new pink was seriously disturbed.”

This idea isn’t limited to Elle Woods proving that she can look good in a sequin bikini and still be a kick-ass law student.

The first thing acknowledged about paralegal Rachael Zane in Suits is how attractive she is. Before she manages to even enter the frame completely, her appearance is met with a “wow”.

She has to physically address and waive off her new co-worker’s flirting (which is inappropriate in a workplace, to say the least) to be able to prove to him that she is indeed extremely intelligent and good at her job.

Although Rachael does disprove this ‘Barbie Girl’ trope, why was her physical appearance the starting point for her character development? Why do we understand it as relevant to her ability to be a valuable professional?

We see again that there’s an ingrained assumption that Rachael is working against.

“You got into Harvard Law?”
“What, like it’s hard?”

However, a representation that diverts from the ‘Barbie Girl’ trope in its entirety is none other than the bread and butter of every middle-aged mum’s most watched list: The Good Wife.

Protagonist, Alicia Florrick comes up against several other challenges in proving her worthiness as a professional, yet her appearance is never considered one. She is always presented with a near perfect blow dry, impeccably applied make up and strong power suit selection.

But this aspect of her character is never explored or presented as a deterrent in her professional capacity.

There are many possible reasons for this, the most significant of which is age.

The projection of the ‘Barbie Girl’ trope isn’t necessarily applicable to women above a certain age, who can’t conceivably fit the fantasies that are projected onto younger women in the same position.

Elle Woods is the perfect example of a woman where the ‘Barbie Girl’ idea can be seamlessly applied. She’s young, she’s slim, she’s blonde, she’s young.

There is not the hurdle like age or maturity mitigating the presumption that interest in physical appearance denotes stupidity or lack of seriousness.

This speaks into a larger issue that it’s seen as necessary for women of a certain age to be interested in their appearance, in order to maintain themselves at the physical standard required by society for them to be viewed as valuable.

The real danger here is that these presumptions translate into lived experience. If women need to prove themselves as being intelligent and serious in spite of their potential interest in physical appearance, it sets the precedent that it is fine to treat them as stupid until proven otherwise.

It is fine for women in professional fields to be objectified as objects for harassment by co-workers – until they prove themselves to be worth more than their appearance.

It’s fine for young women in professional roles to be referred to as ‘the cute paralegal’ or ‘the hot admin’, until they are able to otherwise gain professional respect.

It’s fine for the most interesting thing about a woman to be how she looks.

“If I’m going to be a partner in a law firm by the time I’m 30, I’m going to need a boyfriend who’s not such a bonehead.”

Elle Woods crushed the ‘Barbie Girl’ stereotype in her perfectly manicured hand, but the issue that remains is that she shouldn’t have had to in the first place. We still see subtle messages that relate women’s professional capacity to their appearance and attention to it. Their intelligence is judged based upon their aesthetic concern, and this representation is reflected in real world attitudes.

I may spend an obscene amount of money bleaching my hair on a bi-monthly basis. I may even buy an Elle-Woods-inspired sequin bikini.

But as I soak in the summer sun rays with my blonde hair and sparkly tits, the one thing I will not be when I go to work, is stupid.