We’ve had a complex relationship, you and me. I adored you when I was a child. My sister and I concocted elaborate scenarios that went for years – years! – wherein we took you through school to university to a career to marriage to adventures to motherhood. You were our favourite pastime, and we loved you. Most of our Barbies were hand-me-downs from my cool older cousins, but you were so much more than dress-up games to us. You were the focus of the hours of my childhood during long prairie winters. We played Barbies from the time we were about six years old until I was nearly thirteen. (One of the saddest days of my little sister’s life was the day I declined to play Barbies on the grounds that I was now a teenager.)
But I grew up. I became a feminist, a staunch defender of the rights and dignity of women, and so of course – of course! – I began to mock you. I made fun of your proportions, of your impossible physique. I accused you of causing eating disorders in women and poor self-image in me. I swore I wouldn’t let any daughter of mine play Barbies! Never! Blonde, blue-eyed unrealistic perfection, impossible standards of beauty and deportment with gowns – gowns! who wears gowns but people who belong to things like junior league? Unrealistic, unhelpful, probably damaging. I mellowed as I got older, but I still had a vague distrust of you, Barbie, a sense that maybe you were harmful to us all. I would strive for a Barbie-Free Zone.
Then I had a daughter. Two, in fact, but our youngest is a bit too young for Barbies, preferring to toss you about the room. (And a son, but he doesn’t play with Barbies so, you know.) My eldest received her first Barbie at the age of three from her Auntie, that first Barbie was a special rite of passage that meant a lot to my sister. My parents had saved the few Barbies who survived our childhood, and the box of old clothes was pulled out of storage. I was strangely happy to see them. We had a lot of good times, you and me. Now I was torn – of course we had positive associations with Barbie from our own childhood, but I don’t know if I should allow this. So I allowed the Barbie but my husband agreed with me, we should try to keep the Barbie thing to a minimum. It’s hard to completely escape Barbie culture but we would do our best.
Over the years, we steered her natural interests in science and math towards telescopes and bug kits, we taught her ride a two-wheeler, she dominated Lego building, we did every age-appropriate craft kit this side of the Fraser River. She played with her few Barbies now and then but not much, maybe she was still a bit young.
She’s well-rounded: bold, kind, smart, interesting, and creative, truly we’re so proud of our girl. But this summer, the Barbies began to dominate her playtime and it worried me. I thought I might look around for a Barbie alternative. So we walked around the sensory overload toy store together, on a mission to find a possible Barbie alternative, and I was confronted with the “dolls” that my daughter’s friends are playing with: Monster High and Bratz, particularly. I was stunned.
Unrealistic body expectations from Barbie?
Reality check – those dolls are ZOMBIES. With head trauma. And blue skin.
The clothes are appalling, their “careers” are as fashionistas and flirts, and let’s talk about the lollipop heads with gigantic eyes and lips and barely-there bodies. Desensitizing children to horror and gore isn’t my idea of a good time. Marketing fear isn’t a good plan for tinies, in my humble opinion, I like to guard their gates because I tend to think that if I set scary or evil or even just stupid things before their eyes and ears, then I can’t be surprised with the scary or evil or stupid things take up residence in their hearts and minds. Plus I’m old-fashioned enough – even as a feminist – to like doll clothes to look like something one could actually wear to school without ending up in the principal’s office on dress code violations.
All of a sudden, dear Barbie, you looked like the more healthy and age-appropriate choice.
I began to rethink my distrust. After all, the argument could be made that you are a feminist icon: fifty years of careers ranging from doctor to teacher and all points between. You seem to have a lot of friends and interests – my daughter always has her little gang of Barbies working together to solve problems, you see. You’re a big sister, too, and a good friend. I think some part of her also likes that a few of her Barbies look like her – blonde hair and blue eyes – but she has Barbies of different nationalities and appearances, too. There’s a Barbie for every little girl now, and I’ve got my eye on a little dark-haired beauty for my youngest daughter’s third birthday coming up. You’ve changed with the times: maybe your original iterations make me want to throw up a little bit, but today, I think you’re doing a pretty good job at the role model thing.
I don’t think playing dolls is an inherently ‘girlie’ thing to do but the truth remains that my daughter – who didn’t like playing “mama” to her doll babies in the least – wanted to play Barbies. If I had to choose between Monster High, Bratz, and Barbie, well, sign me up for the Barbie Dream House so I can get ready for the disco after I head off to my career as Palaeontologist Barbie for the day.
A few months into our tentative Barbie experiment now, I have watched my daughter spend the summer with you. Here is what happened: She’s concocting elaborate and empowering imagination stories, and this makes my heart sing.
Her favourite Barbie is her Mars Explorer Barbie because she wants to be an astronaut. At this moment, she’s using her old receiving blankets to create a Mars replica. She’s converted her little Barbie car to a space ship, the Veterinarian Barbie is the controller back at the launch pad. Her Strawberry Shortcake dolls set up a bakery on Mars, the Legos are in use, the telescope is out, too. She plans on teaching school to her classroom of Barbies later. She’s happy, she’s creative, she’s dreaming, she’s having fun.
What more could a mother want for her daughter?
So, dear Barbie, I beg your pardon. You’re not perfect. I still have a few complaints. But overall, compared to everything and all things considered, I’m happy to welcome you back to my home.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I am the Official Hair Braider because all of your long hair does get in the way of our planned safari on the moon later today. I hid the scissors, you can thank me later.