• Wed, Jul 20 2011

Smotherhood: How I Learned To Stop Hating Barbie

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.

(Photo: mattel.com)

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  • Nelly

    Barbie isn’t that bad. She’s been through a lot, with a gay boyfriend who came out as Earring Magic Ken for a short period of time. Then he got a westie named Sugar and became Sugar Daddy Ken. So come on, give the doll a break!

  • Veronica

    Barbie was my favorite toy growing up, and I had a zillion of them. You know what I’ve never had? Body image issues. I have never, ever thought (even as a child) that I had to look like Barbie. I think there are much bigger fish to fry in the body image blame game.

  • Leigha

    I hadn’t realized they pink-ified Barbie that much. I had a veterinarian Barbie when I was little, and she wore a blue dress and a lab coat. I actually am pretty sure I only had one or two that wore pink (and I had quite a lot of Barbies). There was one in a pink flannel nightgown that came with a nightgown I had (she was all soft, though, except for her head), and gymnastic Stacie had a pink bodysuit with silver stars (I also had Olympic gymnast Barbie, who was in red, white, and blue, of course). I had a school set that was blue and yellow. I don’t remember what other accessories I had (I cared more about the dolls), but I don’t remember them being pink.

    I might feel differently had everything been pink, but I don’t think playing with Barbies had any adverse effect on me. I never thought anything about the details of her shape, which looked no different from any adult woman to my six year old self (and the pointed toe ones, which I owned few of, were more annoying than anything). I saw them as tools for me to act out stories I thought up. I had a very vivid imagination as a kid and frequently expressed them via Barbies. That did make it impossible for me to play with them with anyone else (since they never imagined well enough for me), but I was an only child so that wasn’t much of an issue.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jen-Clark/100000568225513 Jen Clark

    My parents, mainly my father, bought me more toys and a wider range then even I could imagine, while they tried their best to have me “be a girl” they also had no problem getting me other things even if they were “boy” things. I had enough barbies to where if we went into the toy store, there weren’t any barbies left to get at the time cause I already had the same one, everything from mermaids to fairies and colored barbies, fit with multiple houses and mansions, children, ken dolls, pets, barbie cars, the barbie plane and cruise ship, every accessory from cell phones, dishes, to tiny plastic food and house furniture, with enough clothes, shoes and jewelry to clothe hundreds of children if they were real clothes. It was short lived because I slowly forgot about them over my other interests, by the time I was 7, my barbies were forgotten among the consoles, video games, dinosaurs dragons, and action figures. I can’t say barbie ever effected me negatively, I loved dressing them up and decorating the houses, barbie actually opened a lot of doorways in my life and in a way taught me that you can do and be anything.