Barbie

February 15, 2009

Listening to On Point this week, (http://www.onpointradio.org/shows/2009/02/barbie-turns-50/) I got to thinking about Barbie, my childhood, my feminism, and my future children.

I played with Barbie dolls, and I do not hold any grudges against my parents. I played with the charmingly vintage models from the 1950s and 60s that lived in a toy chest in my grandmother’s basement as well as the updated versions of the early and mid-90s. I also played with Lincoln logs, Matchbox cars, marbles, jacks, my dollhouse, little plastic figurines of cowbowys and Indians, paper dolls, my rock tumbler, sticks and rocks in the woods, plastic Lion King characters, and my mother’s button collection. So you see, there is no pattern to my childhood amusement. There was no gender-specific niche my playtime fit itself into. My parents considered it fairly obvious that I would not internalize Barbie’s body as the one that mine was supposed to become, and I did as well. I laughed at the thought of my own nonexistent breasts ever becoming so unnaturally high and protruding, or my legs being as thin as my wrists and the length of my entire body. She was a vehicle for my imagination- she could be a park ranger, a Greek goddess, a baseball player, a teacher, or a soldier. It was not her body or her obvious sex appeal that formed her identity (though as I grew older,  I can recall constructing many a raunchy scene involving Ken), it was her “blank-slate” abilities that kept me coming back to her. I am in every way a feminist and a critic of our society that puts girls in (neat, pink) boxes from the moment they are born. But I am not afraid of Barbie, and I do not blame her for current gender inequality.

I think that if I end up having children, be they boys or girls, I will give them the option of Barbie. As long as I do these three things, there is no sense in fearing the influence of this doll:

1. engage them in ongoing discussion about body image and gender identity

2. shy away from the white/heteronormative model that Barbie tends to encourage

3. surround them with all kinds of toys (though certainly not too many!) and encourage healthy, imaginative play with many different things.

Because that’s all Barbie is- a toy. One of many, one meant to fuel imaginations and star in stories of a child’s own making. If hyper-vigilant feminist parents stop seeing her as a threat, they may come to realize that she is not really that big a deal.

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