Monday, February 18, 2013

The Great Barbie Debate

The other day, a friend's daughter told me that she was excited that one of her friends from school was coming over to play the following day. I asked her what they were going to do, and she replied, without hesitation, "I don't know yet. I don't have any Barbies, so we can't do that."

Aaaahhh... The Barbie Dilemma. While I cannot speak for my friend regarding the reasons her daughter has no Barbie dolls, I know many parents who have not allowed them into their homes. For years, while I dreamt of having my own offspring, I also struggled with the idea of Barbie. After all, I am a feminist, and I am well-aware of all the evil Barbie has brought into the lives of impressionable young girls. I have been inundated with magazine articles and blog posts over the years, all warning that every little girl who plays with Barbie will become anorexic and obsessed with shoes. Then Mattel does something stupid on occasion, such as making a talking Barbie say, "Math class is tough!", thus proving that Barbie is the spawn of a patriarchal Satan.

I don't want my daughter to be anorexic. And I don't want her to become obsessed with material goods. She doesn't need a Malibu Mansion or a corvette or a pet tiger. And I really don't want her thinking that math class is tough. But.....

Barbie was a frickin' ASTRONAUT! Tough or not, she had to pass math courses to get her ass into space. And before that, she was a nurse! She's been a teacher, a businesswoman, a veterinarian, a paleontologist, and a photographer. She has served in all of the armed forces and she has cos-played most of the main heroines and villains of both DC and Marvel. Since the beginning, Barbie has held a career. She doesn't need useless Ken (with his limited wardrobe) to support her. It's Barbie's Malibu Dream House. She pays the mortgage. And the car payment for that 'Vette, as well.

Young girls in the early 60s often didn't see a lot of hope for their futures. They may go to college. They may have a "career". Then they would get married and settle down and raise some kids. Barbie knew no boundaries. The first astronaut Barbie came on scene EIGHTEEN YEARS before we finally put a woman in space (in the USA, at least). Barbie could be absolutely everything, and look fabulous doing so.

Yes, I know she's not proportionate. Her waist is too small and her boobs are too big. But I still think that is a bigger issue with adults than it is with the kids playing with her. I never once looked at Barbie and thought, "I wish I was tall, skinny, and blond like her." I remember thinking, "I can be a US Ambassador!" I was never one for playing house with my dolls. I have few memories of pretending to be a mommy. I do remember pretending to be a schoolteacher or a nurse or a pilot, and using my dolls as props in those scenarios. Which may be why Barbie always appealed to me. Barbie was all of those things and more, and far more portable than the multitude of boxes and stuffed animals needed to produce a passable reenactment.

Squid is too young for Barbie right now. She'd end up choking on a plastic shoe. But I will most likely allow her to have one or five. And we will have discussions on beauty and how models are not healthy. And we will also have many, many discussions about how material goods cannot bring you long-term joy. But, most importantly, we will discuss how she is capable of achieving anything she wants, regardless of societal pressures and misconceptions. She can even be a frickin' astronaut.


  1. ugh...the barbie debate....we originally said no...even though i had some and loved them. but of course leigha started to want some. but she was into the disney princess version of them(also a gag), and the holiday ones her grandma gives her. but there really wasnt anything we could find wrong with we have limited her barbie collection to those. a few people have asked if they could buy her barbies and some have gone against us and bought them, but they go back....its a modesty issue for us. sometimes barbie is dressed nicely and sometimes she isnt...i cant have other people deciding if the barbie they are giving my girls is modest or not so we just say i have nice to see other people really thinking about what toys their children will or will not have...instead of just getting them anything they say they want because its popular with peers. :)

  2. The modesty thing is going to be tough for us. Not that we plan on letting Squid out the door looking like a hoochie. But, we go to conventions where women dress like superheroes, which generally means catsuits and bikinis. I have no idea how we're going to handle that discussion.

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  4. You probably don't want to know that Mattel released a statement in the seventies that clarified Barbie was not an Astronaut (or several other jobs) but rather it was a costume when she pretended to be an astronaut. I call it the great reversion when Mattel had been promoting future forward dolls that had women being more than baby roasters and then they had an about face where the 80's were mostly about credit cards and getting the most from your sugar daddy

  5. I didn't say I agreed with Mattel or their business practices. And I'm sure there was pressure for them to clarify such points, especially since NASA wasn't even considering applications from women back then. But I had the 84 Astronaut Barbie. And women were being allowed to be astronauts then.

    The power is not in the mission statement of a corporation who is trying to sell the toys to parents and grandparents. The power is in the imagination of the young children who are playing with them. Little boys and girls aren't reading statements released by CEOs. And if I tell my little girl that Barbie is a paleontologist, she's going to believe me. What I tell her had far more weight than the rest of society, so it's up to me to choose my words carefully.

  6. I was too old to play with Barbie when she came out, but the kids I babysat for had the original. I did find her useful for costuming and I have my own collection for that purpose. Barbie, the mannikin.