Saturday, February 04, 2012

Barbie World

While digging around for something to post tonight, I came across this piece which originally ran as a "My View" column in the Buffalo News on May 19, 1999. I share it in part because concern about the influence of Barbie seems almost quaint now (what with Barbie's decline in sales and the more menacing influences1 that have rushed to fill the gap) and because it's easier than writing an entire post.


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.


  1. Thank you for writing this. I grew up during the time Barbie was a gasp-able and controversial toy. Most my barbies were given to me, not bought. Growing up I never understood why Barbies were such a big deal. They were criticized for their "good looks". There were no men in my Barbie's lives either. They were cowgirls, Indians (Especially the ballerina because she was so flexible she could ride a horse), and mothers and sister and everything in between. They were dolls, the only ones who saw them as a threat, were the Barbie critics.

    I don't know if five year olds really see Barbie as we think they do- perfect bodies etc. It's one of those "Everyone has their opinion" type things I suppose. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Amen! I'm not all that thrilled with the idea of Barbie and thankfully, my jBird has never had much of an interest. I just sense a disconnect in assuming that our kids' toys are the ones actually teaching them values. That said, the toys we buy reflect our values to an extent. This does not include the toys that doting grandmothers who think their grandchildren are deprived buy. Grr.

  3. "Packaging…" From my corner of a sad community, I want to include skin color, under the auspices of packaging. Combine that with the "tools we give them to distinguish potential from packaging…" and we have a winning combination. What a powerful post, for just plain contemplating the universe, and the way she ebbs and flows.

  4. I was sure that I would not allow Barbie into our home but then I saw how the girl child played with her and I realized that all that criticism I had of Barbie was my own stuff - the girl child saw Barbie as a sister and the imaginary play that went on there was all about her sorting out the world of family and friends. My 7 year old girl child did not care about dating and buxom features - she cared about the family routines and the friend stuff and the changing outfits for tun. She drew hundreds of Barbie pictures and made Barbie books and had Barbie visit her set up library or her grandparents house or have a birthday party - Barbie wasn't a monster. Barbie was her friend.

  5. I completely agree! I'm not a big fan of barbie-like dolls, but my main objection is to the Disney princesses. Barbie, at least, does not sit around waiting for a man to sweep her off her feet and for a "happily ever after" to appear out of thin air. I'm more of a "Paper Bag Princess" kinda Mom, though really I'm hoping that I will have prepared my daughter well enough to see past the superficial and to decide for herself.

  6. Having grown up with only brothers and now having only sons, when I do rarely think of Barbie it has always been in the negative. Thanks for this expanded point of view.

  7. I'm not a Barbie fan or a basher. I played w/Barbies and, in truth, because of the time I spent playing Barbie and Fisher Price Little People and paper dolls, I became adept at storytelling. I'm fairly certain those toys are what sparked my interest in writing.

    I have to agree with you wholeheartedly. Barbie is what we make of her - I made mine a museum curator. :)

  8. My Barbie started out as Exercise Barbie, but she became a police officer and a single mom...Ken dolls were forbidden in our house! I've let my daughter have both Barbie and Ken, and I have spent hours playing with her. Actually, her dad and brother have also spent hours playing Barbies with her. Their play was considerably rougher and several Barbies lost arms, but judging by the laughter, it was a great playtime.