If there was one certainty when I conceived a daughter – one thing I felt rigidly, righteously inflexible about – it was that Barbie wouldn’t enter her frame. I was raised Barbie-free — a feat in 1970s North America — and have always felt that gave me a slightly healthier perspective on my body than girls who grew up subconsciously expecting their feet to be shaped like stilettos.
In 1970, the year I was born (and only 11 years after the first Barbie exited her mechanical womb), only four versions of Barbie were produced: Standard Barbie, Twist and Turn Barbie, Dramatic New Living Barbie and Talking Barbie, who issued such pearls as “I love being a fashion model.”
To revisit the history of Barbie is a fascinating, if appalling, window on the history of American racial and sexual politics. “African American Christie,” whose black hair usually oxidized to red, debuted in 1968, after “Colored Francie” was criticized for having been produced in a Caucasian mold. Black and Hispanic Barbies debuted in 1980.
Three decades later, Barbies branched out. According to Mattel, three dolls are sold every second of every day. There are “Barbie I Can Be” dolls for careers over and above the predictable “movie star,” “babysitter” and “video girl,” all of which exist: architect (complete with miniature pink house model, which would presumably limit her client base), computer engineer (pink laptop and glasses, putting the silicon in Silicon Valley), doctor (pink pantyhose, clipboard and accompanying child doll ratchet down the intimidation factor; no surgeons here), and chef (pink kitchen tools). Try to forget that the aspirational “can be” in the title versus “am” is itself a mockery of gender equality. Though this is progress of a sort, I suppose.
Keeping Barbie out of my daughter’s life was a simple matter until she went to daycare, where a big tub of well-used dolls greeted her. The other girls all owned them, but her pleas to me fell on stubbornly deaf ears. “Sorry,” I explained. “I don’t mind if you want to play with them there, but you have all sorts of other toys to play with at home.” I told her I didn’t think Barbie was a good role model for girls, struggling to explain the concept of role models to a three-year-old.
Then it happened: The woman who cares for her (whom I admire and respect hugely) gave her a Barbie for Christmas. Alice was beyond thrilled with her “Pet Vet Barbie,” whose pink micro-dress and stockings make her look more like a male-fantasy 1950s diner waitress than a veterinarian.
My heart sank. I couldn’t very well take away her favorite gift, and the daycare operator had clearly put thought, effort and money into her choice. I gritted my teeth and decided to go with it.
At first, Alice played with her constantly. Barbie was everywhere, insipid expression and narrow hips passively tempting me to drop her behind the piano or lose her in a donation box. Alice carried her around cooing over her “pretty” dress and brushing her shiny bleached tresses with real love.
But soon, as eventually happens with every new toy, the gloss wore off. One day I found Pet Vet Barbie, limbs twisted and hair a rat’s nest, face down in the bathtub, forgotten and forlorn. I almost felt sorry for her. Exposure to her charms had robbed Barbie of her power, perceived and real, both for me and for my daughter.
And looking forward, I’ve realized parents of daughters in our culture will have bigger fish to fry. I will save my energy for the larger battles, for those dolls who make Barbie look like a quaint, demure overachiever, for the real enemy: Bratz.