Yesterday, I read an article here on PlayGroundDad, written by our very own Papa to us all, Mike Johnson, about how scary Barbie is. I know it’s an old post, but it’s worth a read if you haven’t gotten a chance to check it out– you should. In fact, if you’re a parent with children who are playing with Barbie, it’s pretty important that you keep yourself informed about the potential damage Barbie can do. I, however, must very respectfully disagree with the idea that Barbie is harmful. I’m of the belief that she is just as bad as any other toy that is highly marketed to children.
Barbie is a hot button issue in the Bizzaro house. Interestingly, it’s Big G who has the biggest problem with the plastic toy. Like many highly acclaimed feminists, my husband blames Barbie for the inappropriate body images young girls have today, and believes that she is a leading cause of anorexia and bulimia. He seems to know by heart the true-life proportions Barbie would have, should she be a “real” person.
I, on the other hand, a long time Barbie lover, stand firmly opposed to the entire argument. I played with Barbie my whole life. She was a tool for me to express my creativity and act out the stories, which I would go on to tell in writing. Barbie was a bonding experience too. My cousins and I would gather in each other’s rooms and carefully plan out our latest drama, surely imitating the plot of the latest television show we’d seen. When I was in the sixth grade, and had my first encounter with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I spent weeks staging my very own Barbie production of the bard’s classic tale. Eventually I would do the same with Romeo & Juliet. The only thing Barbie had that I wanted was blonde hair, and an enviable wardrobe that would make Carrie Bradshaw jealous.
So when I read this article about how scary Barbie is, I felt compelled to come to the defense of one of the greatest dolls ever created. In defense of my favorite doll, I give to you my own not-s0-scary list of things to consider:
- Amongst my dolls growing up were My Little Pony, Care Bears, GI Joe, those little wooden, round, armless people with the holes in their bottoms, a Cabbage Patch kid, and Batman. The only one of those I wanted to be was Batman. I haven’t really gotten over that.
- I did want blonde hair. All of my Barbies were blonde, but then again so were Heidi Klum, Christie Brinkley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan, and Kim Bassinger, all of whom were heralded as the most beautiful women of my day (am I dating myself?). I also grew up in an area with very few Latinas, where the blonde girls in school were also the most popular. It wasn’t until I was much older that a Teresa, Barbie’s Latina friend, was as easy to get as she is now. My self-esteem issues had more to do with being a lone minority in a valley of white, but I’m quite certain that discovering your own unique identity is a journey we all take, regardless of blondes, or Barbies.
- Barbie teaches girls that they can do anything they want. She has never been held back because of her appearance. She’s been The
President (every election season), an Astronaut, a Computer Engineer, a Paleontologist, a Scientist, a Doctor, and a NASCAR driver. One might argue that Barbie’s ability to stride gracefully across gender boundaries makes her one of our generations’ best feminists, and perhaps a bit of a commitmaphobe.
- Barbie allows for experimentation that would ordinarily be exerted onto the self. My parents joke that I was a Barbie mutilator. (Considering the personification, did that mean I had violent tendencies? I never considered trying swap my brothers’ heads.) It’s true. When Barbie’s hair lost her luster, or she was replaced with a newer toy, I would use the older models for experiments in hair coloring (Kool-Aid), cutting, and general toy construction. It is because I used to take apart Barbie, along with my other toys, that I learned how things are made, connected, and put together. An exercise that recently gave me the confidence to replace the keyboard on my MacBook when Little G spilled coffee all over it.
- Barbie alternatives are even worse. If you want to take a look at Barbie’s successors, the Bratz line of dolls have proportions which are even more skewed than their elders. Someone do a study on how much a Bratz head would weigh, should she be real. Do you think in ten years women will be saying, “You know, I always felt inadequate because the Bratz made me feel like my head was too small.” ? That’s because we’re not giving them the power to influence our child’s conception of what real bodies look like.
Sure, Barbie’s past isn’t all rainbows and unicorns. 1965’s Slumber Party Barbie came with a scale set to 110lbs and a book entitled, “Don’t Eat”, but let’s not take things out of context here. All of the advertising of that era would make most of us cringe, like the one below which claims the nourishing ingredients in the beer’s malt act as an “appetizing tonic”. Such advertising no longer exists, just like Barbie no longer comes with books entitled “Don’t Eat”. Of course there are some cringe-worthy aspects of Barbie even now, like how Cheerleader is touted as a career in the Barbie I Can Be series, but I simply don’t buy those, and anyone who knows me, knows better than to bring anything like that for my Little G.
Exactly how far are we going to let this personification go? Are we going to make a statement about throwing away amputees when we toss a broken Barbie in the trash? Have we really become so incapable of taking responsibility for the already skewed images of ourselves, that in an age of Botox and brow lifts, we’re going to blame Barbie for looking unreasonable? Have you seen some of those Real Housewives? I’m sorry, but you can’t blame Barbie for what Heidi Montag did to herself. That was vanity, not Mattel.
The truth is that the reasons young girls have such awful body images is that while, the Paris Hiltons, and Kim Kardashians of this world are all too proud to flaunt their bodies in public, our American prudishness forces us to reach for the sarong instead of being proud of our real life, real woman bodies. Just like the entirely too thin models, and A-list celebs we’ve lifted up to the status of deities, Barbie’s clothes come off with relative ease, and she doesn’t seem to complain when she’s left on the bottom of the toy box, naked as the day she was poured into a mold. If we want our girls to have a positive concept of their bodies, we have to show them that our bodies are all beautiful.
At the moment I am the most beautiful woman my daughter has ever seen, and that’s not vanity talking. My mother has always been the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known, and I’m pretty sure that holds true for the way so many children see their parents. So why do we teach our kids that this is untrue? Why do we teach them that their mothers are the only ones who are allowed their flaws? It’s unfortunate how we’ve allowed superficiality to grab hold of our lives, and have allowed ourselves to feed into the idea that someone else somewhere out there in toy making land is responsible for who our daughters grow up to be. Perhaps we should let go of yet another all-too-American ideal and stop blaming others for what we are doing to our kids.
In the meantime, I will continue to play with my daughter and her Barbies. I will continue to joke about how a real doctor would never wear such ridiculous shoes, create new stories with her, and role-play polite conversation. I will show her through the attention I receive from her Father (who also thinks I’m kinda pretty), and the women I encourage her to look up to in the world (Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor anyone?) , what real beauty looks like.
What’s your take? Barbie as a tool for expressing creativity, or bane of society’s existence?