A friend of mine sent me an e-mail today that got me thinking:
I’ve failed as a father. [My daughter] has asked for . . . a Barbie doll. Worse, a blond Barbie doll. Forget saving her from working in porn; likely she’s doomed to life as a truck stop hooker.
Now, my friend does have a flare for the dramatic. I don’t think he really thinks that a Barbie doll will spell doom for his adorble daughter. But the e-mail does come from a real place of panic, however cloaked in sarcasm. What do we do when our daughters want to get the singular symbol of institutionalized gender norms and sexism in our society?
My friend is an intelligent, progressive and thoughtful person. His wife is equally amazing, intelligent and educated. They are not the sort to live their lives based on antiquated notions of patriarchy, sexism or any other ism. I guarantee their daughter’s bookcase is filled with highly entertaining and enlightened literature. I guarantee that there are discussions in that houshold about respecting yourself and that girls can do everything boys can do (maybe better). I guarantee they do their best to shield her from the slut commercialism. (I was at Target the other night and I saw a denim mini-skirt outfit for a little girl on sale that made me sick. Seriously, if she doesn’t have pubes and the ability to clothe herself, she shouldn’t be wearing trashy clothes no matter how “ironic.”)
But that doesn’t do us any good in that uncomfortable moment when a little girl, perhaps your own little girl, looks up at you and says, “Can I have a Barbie?” And, for my friend, the issue is compounded since he is a black man with a bi-racial daughter. So that issue of “no, the blonde one” starts becoming loaded as well.
I have to admit, at first my friend’s e-mail made me laugh, as most of his e-mails usually do. And I wrote him back some snarky line about how Barbies don’t come with stripper pole instructions anymore. But when I started thinking about it, that question sort of stuck with me. I don’t have any children of my own, but I become a kind of “Auntie Emm” to my friend’s kids. I care about them. I care about being a positive female role model, and not because these kids don’t have great parents, but because I think it’s good to have lots of positive adult role models in your life when you’re growing up.
To be honest, I had Barbies as a kid and I loved ’em. I’m not going to lie. It does make me cringe now to think about the hours I spent playing with them because now I understand exactly just what that piece of molded plastic is selling. But I don’t think it stymied my feminist tendencies. If anything, when I got old enough to start asking questions, those pink Barbie memories were a point to return to, to investigate. (One friend of mine likes to remind me of my freshman-year-of-college wish to make a T-shirt that said “Fuck Barbie” in big, pink, shiny, sparkly letters. As my feminism budded, I certainly had some issues with that little doll.)
But maybe feminists aren’t so much bred as born. I never asked for any of the mother-style Barbies. As cliche as it sounds, my Barbies were all professionals — usually lawyers (go figure), record company owners or rock stars and every now and then teachers or professors. And while I had a Ken doll, I rarely used it. I rarely acted out fantasies of romance or marriage or that sort of thing.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not to say that Barbies are good. If I had a daughter, I think it would be a big struggle for me to buy her one. I hate what they represent! But I’m not going to be a hypocrite and act like I never enjoyed a Barbie or don’t have fond memories of my childhood playing Barbies with other girls. I’m not going to lie; I had a good time.
And that’s probably what makes the whole Barbie thing problematic. It’s like the images in Plato’s cave. Once you turn around and see their source, you can never go back. But little girls live in the real world, not just the one you make for them — as hard as that is to take sometimes. We can’t cocoon them from the things that are broken or the things that should either be changed or abandoned all together.
I think there is a place for boys and girls to enjoy playing with dolls. On the face of it, dolls are great. Dolls allow children to test out ideas about adults and life. They allow a child to be imaginative and cooperative in their play. And dolls can just be fun and relaxing, if that’s what makes a kid happy. So the problem isn’t dolls, but the kind of doll and what message that doll sends.
I read a story earlier this year about how for the first time since she became popular, Barbies are on the decline in the toy world. And already in Europe, Bratz dolls are out-selling Barbies. So do I cheer that Barbie is finally in her last throes? Or do I cringe that her replacement represents even more troubling stereotypes, gender models and race issues? I think it’s a little of column A and a little of column B.
(And yes, I know there are some really nice, positive dolls out there without all the baggage, but until they are sold in every store and are seen as “cool” by all kids, most kids aren’t going to be wanting them. A big part of toys and consumerism for kids is having what your friends have.)
So in the end, I don’t have much good advice for my friend and his Barbie problem. I suspect he’ll cave, like most parents do, under the pressure of making his daughter happy and helping her feel normal with her friends. Because the flip-side is to make Barbie taboo, and thus that much more appealing. My mother-in-law likes to tell a story about when her sons were born, she said no toy guns in the house. But then everything — sticks, leggo creations, dolls, whatever — became a gun. Do we really want our children to have contraban Barbies?
But perhaps there’s a lesson in all this for us adults, too. Maybe we make too much out of a toy.