For most of my life, I've been an outspoken Barbie basher. Adored for her preposterous, anatomically impossible measurements and her flowing (albeit synthetic) blond hair rather than for anything she'd accomplished, she sent a dangerous message to children.
The only Barbie I ever owned came to me by default on my ninth birthday. My parents promised me a pony and when (still unexplained) circumstances kept them from fulfilling that promise, I unwrapped Barbie and her Dream Plaza instead. So, I came by my hatred of Barbie honestly. It is a hatred I have only gradually outgrown. Ironically, it was the vehemence of my fellow Barbie bashers that sparked me to take a closer look at my own prejudice.
To many, the Barbie doll isn't merely a child's plaything, it's a symbol of the continued objectification of women in our society. We worry about the effect that daily contact with such an outlandishly proportioned ideal may have on a girl's developing self image. Many of us have used the word "Barbie" to refer to women who rely too heavily on their appearance and not enough on their skills and intellect.
Criticism of Barbie was so widespread, I actually began to feel sorry for her. Now, with the passing of Barbie's 40th birthday, the seed of sympathy has sprouted like a weed.
It turns out that lots of us were wrong in assuming that Barbie has done little the past four decades besides being perpetually engaged to Ken. In 1965, long before Sally Ride2 suited up, Astronaut Barbie was ready to take off in her hot pink spacesuit. In 1973, she became a surgeon.
At 40, Barbie is more athletic than ever--enjoying incarnations as a NASCAR driver, a WNBA player and an Olympic skater. She's also been a vet, a dentist, a teacher and a rock star. Whether it's social enlightenment or merely an enlightened marketing ploy, career paths are likely to keep opening up for her.
Along with Barbie's unsung talents, motherhood has also changed my perspective. As the mother of three sons and one daughter, my floors have been populated with more 3-inch action heroes than 11-inch fashion models. But now that my daughter is nearing 5, Barbie has appeared. These dolls are as blond and busty as ever. But they seem less of a threat to women's progress than they once did.
The sight of my daughter playing with Barbie has uncovered long-buried memories of my own Barbie. The few times I played with her, my Barbie didn't shop at the Dream Plaza, she owned it. She raised the capital to build her three-story shopping mall at her day job--my Barbie was a brain surgeon. All this despite the fact that as a limited edition Ballerina Barbie, she had a gold plastic crown welded permanently to her head. There were no men in her life and her physical attributes were of absolutely no consequence to me.
Isn't the message we send by assuming Barbie's biggest (pardon the pun) assets are the ones we can see just as dangerous as the message we fear Barbie is sending? Equating blond and busty with brainless is as unfair as holding blond and busty up as a pinnacle of femininity.
Barbie, like almost everything in life, is only what we make of her. More important than the toys we give our children are the tools we give them to distinguish potential from packaging, stereotypes from complex human beings. If we give our children the tools to see past her packaging, Barbie becomes once again a benign child's plaything
1. I speak now of Bratz dolls and even, for a variety of odd reasons, Disney Princess stuff. Among so very many other things...
2. This piece was written before Google and I became such close friends so here's the shout out that Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman ever in space (as opposed to the first American woman) was unfairly cheated of by my laziness.