There must be a version of Godwin’s Law which states that as an intro Women and Gender Studies course approaches completion, the probability of having a discussion about Barbie approaches one. My class had that discussion last week. One classmate, in passing, mentioned that she had a Barbie, but “didn’t treat her right”. To my surprise (and relief) a murmur of solidarity passed over the class, followed by a murmur of shock and concern directed toward the Barbie mutilators. The conversation moved on, but I was lost in contemplation of my own relationship with Barbie.
When I was young, every holiday brought a new Barbie toy. In addition to a plethora of dolls with various outfits and accessories, I had Barbie’s convertible, a (gigantic, early-90s) toy cell phone, and bright pink child-size cleaning supplies. While I’ll admit a fondness for following my mother around with my tiny broom, I absolutely despised my other Barbie toys. I knew exactly what personality to attribute to my dolls, and they were all superficial, narcissistic, and privileged in every way. I loathed them for their vices and envied them for their social dominance. My Barbies would be punished, sent flying across the room, and replaced with a toy more akin to a giant robotic insect.
Mattel has always promoted Barbie as an independent career woman, a role model for girls. In reality, Barbie is a foot high plastic toy. She isn’t realistic and she doesn’t have an inherent personality. She is, however, a representative of our society’s perfect adult woman. This makes her an extremely valuable parenting tool.
As an adult I constantly dismiss most portrayals of women (and men) in advertisements and media as unrealistic or insulting. Children, boys and girls alike, can’t make that distinction. Even the most careful parents can’t completely shield their little feminist from this patriarchal bombardment. As much as we’re working to put a negative stigma against these unfair portrayals of femininity and masculinity in the media, they won’t change overnight, and they are affecting today’s children harshly. Barbie is thus essential as a window into a child’s still-malleable conception of gender roles. I know now that I had a twisted view of the perfect adult woman, but I would not have begrudged learning that lesson a bit sooner. So after all my Barbie hate as a child, I’m standing up to defend the innocent piece of plastic. Give your child a Barbie, teach them that real bodies aren’t meant to look like hers, stand back, and watch.