Mattel, facing flagging sales of its Barbie dolls, manufactured some controversy recently by doing a tie-in with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Though some of the coverage of this (highly lucrative) controversy was quite good, mostly I came across lightly researched, predictable puff pieces. (An example of the indifferent reporting: few stories bothered to point out that Barbie wasn’t actually on the cover, but only appeared with a “cover wrap” in about a thousand issues.) The low quality of existing coverage has emboldened me to tackle the topic despite my routine unwillingness to do a lot of research myself.
Originally I thought the controversy would be about swimsuit models suffering from lowered self-esteem after being compared to Barbie dolls, but I didn’t actually find any evidence of this. And when I watched a video that accompanied a story about the supposed controversy, I stopped worrying about the models. The video didn’t even mention Barbie; it was just a few models having a routine interview interrupted by the big news that they’d made the cover of Sports Illustrated. They jumped up and down and shrieked; one curled up on the floor, overwhelmed; and one—mid-hug—cried, “Oh my God!” and then (fearing a wardrobe malfunction), “Oh, my hair extensions!” Worthy of Shakespeare, that.
So I’m focusing instead on the original charge that Barbie dolls present an impossible ideal of womanhood that damages the self-esteem of girls. As long as I’ve been a parent I have instinctively rejected this, and now upon reflection I am more convinced. Here are ten reasons to cut Barbie some slack.
Reason #1: Avoid the obvious hypocrisy
I have always puzzled over why feminists and other concerned parties seem to single out Barbie, when the rest of mainstream pop-culture is just as bad and probably worse. It’s not as though Barbie were the only representation of the ideal female as tall, skinny, and beautiful. At least Barbie doesn’t have fake boobs! And at least she’s inert until animated by our daughters, unlike the hussies you see on TV and in the movies.
I suppose it’s because Barbies appeal to very young girls that people are concerned. But I’m not convinced that preoccupation with body image begins in little kids. My ten-year-old does enjoy coordinating her Barbies’ outfits and her own (which tend still to be pink and purple) but she spends very little time in front of the mirror and would be perfectly happy going to school with bed-head. It’s her twelve-year-old sister, far beyond the age of Barbies (and who, significantly, never played with them to begin with) who has taken to stalling the family’s egress from the house with last-minute hair brushing.
Attire, physique, and grooming are aspects of a Barbie-like image that girls and women can strive for. But what about beauty stereotypes women have less control over, like hair color? Should we ban blond Barbies in particular? After all, only 2% of people worldwide are naturally blond. Couldn’t we argue that those mothers who dye their hair are equally culpable in creating an unrealistic standard? And what about mothers who do manage to have an exquisite physique that their daughters cannot achieve? Is their loss of self-esteem their mothers’ fault?
Reason #2: Avoid the gender double-standard
At least I can’t harm my daughters’ self-esteem with my 8% body fat. After all, they don’t look to their father as a role model of womanhood. But what if I had a son? Looking at how much flack Barbie has caught over the years, it’s worth wondering how Ken has managed to escape scot-free. I’d argue that Ken is even more unrealistic than Barbie, because real-life men so often let themselves go after their teenage and young adult years.
When I went to my wife’s twentieth high school reunion awhile back, I encountered a lot of fit and trim women who were paired with seriously overweight men. It was like a parody of some kind. Sure, no woman had the wasp-like figure of a hypothetical real-life Barbie, but they were closer to Barbie than the men were to Ken. Perhaps you feel assured that the self-esteem of these men has made it through this transformation unscathed. Well, how do you know? Another person’s self-esteem is always a matter of conjecture.
And how come nobody ever worried aloud that playing with GI Joes would make our sons want to become soldiers, or that they’d feel wimpy because they’re not tall and muscular? Why haven’t concerned adults campaigned for bald, tubby GI Joes or portly, bespectacled General Kyles?
Reason #3: Avoid the model vs. athlete double-standard
Could it be that looking out for little girls, without a corresponding concern for little boys, is just sexist? As if the little girls must be defended against societal ills while the boys can take care of themselves? Think about what little boys are messing around with instead of Barbies: baseball cards (historically) and video games (nowadays).
There isn’t enough disk drive space available on the Internet to cover the many ills of modern video games, but let’s consider a small subset of them, that being sports games featuring real players. Nobody seems to mind when little boys (or girls) idolize pro athletes, who to a disgusting extent have manipulated their bodies artificially to gain advantage. This is worse than Barbies, because we have actual living humans embodying impossible physiques.
Obviously football players on steroids jump first to mind, but in some sports athletes go the other direction and become so thin they’d make Barbie look stout. You think Chris Froome got this skinny without a little help from his friends? Thank God nobody has the poor taste to put out a Chris Froome doll.
Reason #4: Recognize that our daughters are not stupid
It’s common to take it for granted that our children’s play is shaping who they’ll become some day. But this isn’t a simple connect-the-dots matter. The nexus of imagination and child development is complicated. Isn’t the whole point of make-believe to entertain notions that are totally different from reality? Lots of kids’ books start with the parents being killed (James and the Giant Peach, the Lemony Snicket books, and the Harry Potter books come to mind) but most adults have the good sense not to worry about these books filling our children with untoward fantasies.
To some degree, everybody acknowledges our daughters’ discernment, even in the case of Barbies. Nobody bats an eye at how our kids gloss over the more glaring instances of these dolls’ unrealistic traits, such as what’s beneath the clothes. If we really believe our daughters’ standards are shaped by Barbies, we should worry that these little girls will one day want to have their own nipples surgically removed, and/or marry men completely lacking in genitalia. Why do we expect kids to completely ignore these anatomical fictions, while being nonetheless brainwashed about general body type?
Today I asked my daughter Lindsay, the one who loves Barbies, “Do you want to look like Barbie when you grow up?” She emphatically replied, “No!” I asked why not. In a tone of near exasperation at my cluelessness, she said, “Because she’s too skinny, and her arms are too wimpy!” I asked Lindsay if she would prefer more realistic Barbie dolls, and she casually replied, “No.” I asked if, when she grows up, she would want a husband who looks like Ken. “No way!” she said, impassioned. And why not? “His abs are too big! He looks too much like a boxer! And he has a painted-on face and molded plastic hair.”
Reason #5: Barbie gives us insight into our kids
As I see it, Barbie doesn’t shape so much as reflect our daughters’ play. I remember when I was a kid watching my friend’s little sister playing Barbies, and her play consisted mainly of one Barbie lecturing another about safety. Thus it didn’t surprise me to observe, over the years, how worried and overprotective her mom proved to be.
The brilliant writer Jo Ann Beard describes, in her memoir The Boys of My Youth, growing up in a blue collar Illinois town out near the sticks, where “things are measured in shitloads, and every third guy you meet is named Junior.” Her account of playing Barbies with her cousin reveals much about the kind of adults she had encountered in her young life:
“Let’s say it’s really hot out and they don’t know Ken is coming over and they’re just sitting around naked for a while,” I suggest.
“Because they can’t decide what to wear,” Wendell clarifies. “All their clothes are in the dryer.”
Black-haired, ponytailed Barbie stands on tiptoe at the cardboard sink. “I’m making us some pink squirrels,” she announces. “But we better not get drunk, because Ken might come over.”
Both Barbies do get drunk, and Ken does come over. He arrives in an ill-fitting suit, and the heat in the Barbie house is so overwhelming that he has to remove it almost immediately.
“Hey baby,” Ken says to no one in particular. The Barbies sit motionless and naked in their cardboard kitchen, waiting for orders. This is where Dirty Barbie gets murky—we aren’t sure what’s supposed to happen next. Whatever happens, it’s Ken’s fault, that’s all we know.
The contrast between this and my daughter Lindsay’s play is a great relief. Much of the time, Lindsay is creating worlds for Barbie and Ken, like this hotel that threw our bathroom into disarray for a few days:
You see the bowl of water on the second shelf down? That’s a soothing footbath for Barbie. The stacked cylinders next to it make her chair.
Here’s Barbie’s music room, made out of sofa cushions. The wooden cylinder in the foreground is the handle of a parasol Lindsay set up to get the lighting just right:
Reason #6: Outfits
Barbie comes in many ethnicities, but only one basic physique, and it’s easy to trot this out as proof that she’s held up as some ideal body type. But there’s a more basic reason: it’s essential that the outfits be completely interchangeable among every Barbie ever made. After all, mixing and matching outfits is one of the common forms that Barbie play takes.
This interchangeability seems innocent to me. A more cynical and venal doll company might deliberately introduce incompatibilities, just to sell more clothes.
When I was a kid, my brothers and I liked to play with the album cover of our dad’s “Papas & Mamas Exchanging Faces” record. This was a complex multi-page album cover, split horizontally, so you could superimpose the top half of any singer’s face on the bottom half of any other singer’s face. What made it so fun was Mama Cass’s corpulent visage juxtaposed with the more traditionally good-looking countenances of the others. This now strikes me as less innocent than the Barbies’ interchangeable outfits.
Reason #7: Social politics can be dodgy with kids
When teaching my daughters to be thoughtful, considerate people, I try not to introduce too many abstract concepts, like political correctness. When I see Lindsay playing Barbies, my instinct is not to run over and ruin her fun with a lengthy dissertation about Barbie and gender politics. And Barbie’s figure is only the beginning. I’m sure many a parent in our community has sat his or her daughter down and said, “It’s time to talk about Barbie, beauty, and race.” My wife and I have not done this. (This isn’t because of any fully formed ideology, mind you; we’ve just never gotten around to sorting out our position here).
It so happened that when Lindsay picked out her very first Barbie at Ross Dress for Less, she chose an African-American one. The cashier was also African-American, and she looked suspiciously at my wife Erin and said, “Why did you pick a black one?” Erin, feeling a bit awkward, said, “I didn’t choose it; I just told my daughter to pick out whatever doll she liked.” So the cashier redirected her question to Lindsay, who casually replied, “Well, it’s because she’s beautiful, and I like her dress.” The cashier seemed pleasantly surprised. And she didn’t have to wonder if Lindsay was being sincere or just being the good liberal and sucking up to her mom.
Reason #8: Barbie is the victim of an unfair assumption
We tacitly assume that little girls self-identify with their dolls, but I’m not sure they do. I asked my older daughter why she never played much with Barbies. She replied, “I don’t know. They just didn’t interest me. I didn’t like dressing them up, and their feet were weird. I preferred stuffies.” (That’s her word for stuffed animals.)
Of course it had never occurred to us to worry that Alexa would want to become a bear or a tiger or a dog some day. We never feared that she’d develop low self-esteem due to lack of fur and fangs. It’s easy enough to see that when a kid plays with a stuffed animal she’s not pretending that she is the stuffed animal; the stuffie is a third party. (Just as it didn’t affect my self-esteem when my brothers cut the hands and feet off my Smurf and painted the stubs red, to teach me not to play with dolls.) Likewise, the Barbie doll is not necessarily a representation of self for the girl at play. Sometimes a toy is just a toy.
Would you like proof? Consider this odd Barbie behavior:
I couldn’t figure out what Barbie was doing there. Later, I found Lindsay playing with the Barbie at a nearby desk, and asked what Barbie had been doing in the light fixture. Lindsay explained, “She was looking down to watch me solve the bear puzzle, so she could learn how to do it. Now she’s doing it herself.”
Got that? Barbie is not Lindsay’s avatar. She is just a playmate.
Reason #9: Barbies are well-crafted
Barbies are well-crafted and durable. (I took this for granted until my daughter received a cheap knockoff Barbie for her birthday; the poorly made doll tended to fall apart mid-play. It was heartbreaking to see how carefully Lindsay moved its arms and legs and how shocked and dismayed she became every time a limb came off in her hand.)
Take another look at the violinist Barbie above. She’s wearing a handmade dress we bought second-hand; an old lady in our community made a tremendous number of them over the years, in an endless variety of styles, and sold them to the used toy store. Lindsay has Barbies and Kens that are older than I am. She checks their manufacture date (embossed discreetly on the torso) like a rare book connoisseur inspecting a title page. I like this. In a society where so many grownups buy a new smartphone every year or two, it’s nice to see a product that lasts long enough to be venerated.
Reason #10: Barbie is a known entity
It’s often put forth that Barbie is a throwback to the unenlightened ‘50s and that it’s time to move in a more progressive direction. But how many modern toys actually do this? We’ve seen all manner of alternative female doll, but they tend to be tarted up, brazen, rebellious, and ironic: all the things we hope our sweet little girls don’t go too far into during their upcoming teen years. Why should the toys we buy them lead this charge?
I won’t even get into the vast array of consumer goods that replace toys entirely, like all these electronic media devices that rush our children headlong into adult-oriented time-wasting activities. We’ve had over fifty years to dissect and disparage the ‘50s, but it’s not clear to me that many people are keeping an eye on the societal value of the modern digital life, with its social media, continuous connectedness, and ever-increasing screen time. Maybe instead of worrying about Barbie’s bad influence on kids, we should pay more attention to our own.