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The Barbie Doll: Good, Imaginative Toy or Bad, Unhealthy Influence?

In honor of Barbara “Barbie” Millicent Roberts 52nd birthday on March 9, the Wakefield Mom’s Council decided to share their thoughts about toys and gender.

The 11.5 inch plastic doll named Barbie has been the topic of many a controversy.  Critics say Barbie promotes an unrealistic body image for young girls, given that by keeping her measurments the same but expanding her body to the size of a real woman, Barbie would be 5'9", weigh 110lbs, (35 pounds underweight for a woman her height) with measurements of 36-18-33.  Based on this data Barbie would lack the required body fat to menstruate.  (It should be noted that in 1997 Barbie was redesigned with a wider waist.)

Additionally, the releases of African American Barbie dolls caused controversy in 1967 and again in 1997, and in 2003, Saudi Arabia outlawed sales of Barbie because it did not conform to the ideals of Islam.  In 1997 a 17-year-old girl with cerebral palsy pointed out that the Barbie doll in a wheelchair would not fit in the elevator of the Barbie Townhouse, prompting a promise of a redesign of the house by Mattel.  In 2009, Mattel released “Totally Tattoo Barbie” with tattoos to be applied to the doll including a lower back tattoo which sparked outrage among some that this might make young girls want to get tattoos themselves.

We’d love to hear thoughts from you about Barbie – did you play with her as a child?  Do you let your children play with her now?

Laurie Hunt:
I remember spending about two minutes wondering about what Barbie might do to my daughters. Imagine what playing with such a horrible and unrealistic image of a woman would do to them?!  Not.

I thought back to when I was a little girl and how important Barbie was to me and remembered the fun I had playing Barbie with my neighbor.  We spent a lot of time playing Barbie.  Not once did I hope I would grow up to have such a freakishly small waist and such large breasts!  (I did, however, wonder what it might be like to kiss the handsome Ken!)  But more importantly I role played with the girl who lived across the street and acted out many a scenario on what we might do in life.  It was all very sweet and very innocent. 

My girls have had cars, trucks, a train table and one of my girls had a Buzz Lightyear costume that she would not take off for anything!  My other daughter preferred a Cinderella dress.  Papa Mike (my Dad) bought my oldest her first bed – a Little Tykes plastic race car.  My girls have Barbies, Polly Pockets, Waldorf Dolls, Paper Dolls, Corolle Dolls, American Girl Dolls… etc.  I will say I draw the line at Bratz – something about a baby doll that comes out of the box wearing a thong just doesn’t sit well with me.  One of my daughters prefers books and her computer and the other just loves anything little – Polly Pockets, Squinkies etc.  One of my girls has arachnophobia and the other loves bugs. 

I am sure I will be the reason at one point or another for why my daughters end up in therapy when they get older.  I’m not going to worry about it being because I bought her a Barbie doll. 

Peggy Barresi:
Blessed with two daughters, my husband would occasionally bring home some “boy toys,” like Matchbox cars, trucks, and plastic soldiers. After sweetly thanking him, the girls would ask, “Daddy, will you play Barbies with us?” Poor Dad. They just weren’t interested. They had plenty of gender-neutral toys, but if something reeked of boy, they stayed away.

We didn’t have a problem with this. It’s not as if we didn’t offer them equal opportunity playthings. I played with Barbies as a young girl and I didn’t grow up to have a warped sense of what the female form is supposed to look like. My girls enjoyed hours of innocent pretend play with their Barbie’s and Kens. They put on fashion shows, owned a pet store, played school and vet, and went on camping trips. Our Barbies had adventures. Our Barbies had careers.

All was good in Barresi Playroom Land. And then the Bratz dolls hit the market. If you are not familiar with these dolls, then think sexualized, blingy, and age-inappropriate. Bratz were not for us, and I explained to the girls exactly why. They were surprisingly fine with this mandate. One arrived as a birthday gift and it promptly went into the charity pile.

For us, toy gender was much less important than toy appropriateness. If a boy wants to carry around a doll (not Bratz), and a girl wants to play with trucks, let them. Where’s the harm? But if they want to play with sexualized dolls, or play video games where you kill people for sport or go on dates and out to clubs (Sims), I suggest you step in. Perhaps it’s something you’ll allow when they’re older, perhaps never. The decision is yours. Don’t let your kids, other families, or society make it for you.

Holly DeSouza:
In my house, Barbie has been known to play baseball. 

This past Christmas the list to Santa was all about Barbie.  If my daughter wasn’t asking for Barbies Dream Townhouse, or convertible, or pool, or design shop, etc., then she was playing any one of her other dolls.  I did not program her to know dolls were a girl’s toy.  The only time she would ever associate a “girl’s” toy from a “boy’s” toy would be when she gets a kid’s meal with a toy and they ask if it is for a boy or girl. 

Her nursery was a haven of pink and mint green before she left the womb.  Her clothes, up until the last year when she has had more say in what clothes are picked out for her, were a sea of pink and yellow.  I’m not sure there were many blue or green options for baby girls?

That being said, no one has ever explained to her pink is for girls and blue is for boys OR Barbie is for girls and Tonka is for boys. She plays without gender roles when it comes to her toys because I think that’s how she – or any child – is programmed.  They play with what they like and what they are exposed to.   

I am proud to say my daughter can smack a softball very far, rides her bike (which, by the way, is a pink Barbie two-wheeler) up and down the street, and loves her remote control helicopter.

Regina Martine:
Are dolls and dress-up just for girls? Are toy cars and swords just for boys? I don’t think that the toys we give our children determine their attitudes about gender roles – but perhaps the way we encourage them to play does.

I have never pushed the “girl” toys on my daughters – quite the opposite, really. I didn’t forbid them to play with dolls and sparkly dress up clothes, but I was usually not the one to introduce them. My main concern with toys was always that they encouraged the kids to play together and be creative, rather than play with toys that can only be used certain way. My girls still play with Polly Pockets and their dollhouse all the time and more often than not our entire playroom floor is taken over by their adventures. The Pollys have traveled west by wagon train, traveled to the New World on the Mayflower, and everyone on the Titanic was saved by the Unsinkable Polly Brown.  Are the toys helping to reinforce negative female stereotypes? Not in this house.

For the first  three years or so of my son’s life he was happy to play with his big sister’s toys, or at least Godzilla his way through whatever prairie town/pilgrim colony/survivor camp they had set up. He would play dress-up and cook pretend food in the play kitchen. Then one day we were visiting friends with 2 sons and no daughters and his whole world changed. Swords! Lightsabers! Baseball bats! Hockey inside the house!

We have a lot more “boy” toys in the house now, but I think the real difference is that boys and girls just play differently. Now, my son is more interested in playing a computer game or a board game than sitting and playing with toys. When he plays with other boys, he is thrilled to run around and have light saber battles and swordfights, but in general, he is not as “rough” as a lot of his friends. Is that just his personality? Is it from growing up with two older sisters? I don’t know.  I do know that my children’s ideas about gender roles are shaped by much more than the toys they play with.

Tasha Schlake Festel:
I must admit, it saddens me that my daughter doesn’t love Barbie the way my sister and I did. We would spread out our Barbie’s, our Kens, our Skippers, and  Beauty, her Afghan dog, and Dallas, her non-poseable horse, gas up the Corvettes and conversion vans, and fill the dream house with inflatable furniture. We used to spend the entire weekend in a heaven of molded plastic. It didn’t get much better than that.

I have tried to get my little girl to play with Barbie, happily risking the apparent side-effects of a warped body image and out-of-whack view of a woman’s role in society, even though Barbie does have a pilot’s license in addition to being a flight attendant. (Please! Does anyone actually believe that a silly plastic toy can do that?!? Do we really not give our children enough credit to know the difference between toys and real people? But I digress…) Unfortunately, my kid doesn’t like Barbie. She was interested at first. Interested enough, that is, to immediately undress whatever Barbie or Ken would come in to the house and toss them into a pile of other naked Barbies and Kens. Never to be played with again.

Sigh.

I tried many other “girl” toys for her too. My Little Pony, Care Bears, Littlest Pet Shop, Cabbage Patch Kids, Groovy Girls, Polly Pockets, and most recently, Teacup Piggies… Nuttin’. They’re all in various bins in my basement – naked, no doubt – waiting to be donated to a child that will actually give two hoots about girl toys.

Now, you may wonder what she plays with. Well what do you know? So do I! The kid doesn’t like toys of any kind – boy or girl – which makes Christmas shopping a crap-shoot, let me tell you. She likes to draw, color, build (with lots of tape, cardboard and other recycled treasures), sculpt, paint and read. She also likes to listen to music, watch movies, take pictures/videos with her camera, play with stuffed animals and run around screaming. Oh, and her all time favorite thing to play with is her little brother.

Her brother likes “boy toys.” My house is overflowing with Rescue Heroes, Superheroes, Star Wars figures, balls, Transformers, Bakugan, cars, trucks, tools and weaponry. (Yes, we’re a very non-PC house and we allow all kinds of toy weapons. And no, at 5 years old, he’s not a psychopath or obsessed with harming people or playing violent games. So there.) My daughter will often join in and play with him with his boy toys.

As I see it, it’s not about the toys, but about what the kids do with them. They have fun. They imagine crazy scenarios of danger, nurturing, rescuing, helping, parenting, teaching and everything else you can imagine. It’s role play. It’s creativity. It’s gender-neutral. If a girl wants a Barbie, get her a Barbie. Heck, if a boy wants a Barbie, why not get one for him? They’re just toys. Let them play with what they want and it’s likely that the worst thing that will happen is that they will be creative and happy kids.

Local Resources:

  • Avon Store, Main Street, Wakefield

18-inch doll clothing (read: American Girl Doll), well made and affordable. Check it out for sure.

This is a great local place for kids (and adults) to express their creativity. Run by a super cute and talented woman, it’s definitely worth a look for boys and girls alike.

A comic book store filled with comics, movies, books, magazines and action figures – all in Wakefield!

Jillian Sallee March 09, 2011 at 07:33 PM
I think it's most definitely not just the toys they play with but how they play with them. I am interested in a discussion about giving kids weapons, will it make them more violent or not? I've read both sides of the issue and I can't decide...
Tasha Schlake Festel March 09, 2011 at 08:44 PM
Thanks, Jillian! I think that's a great topic. We'll get to it ASAP! What resources have you looked to on that issue? I have my opinion already - just as a mom - but I'd love to read up on what "experts" might think. Although I must admit, it's not likely that their opinions will sway me! :)
Laurie Hunt March 09, 2011 at 11:09 PM
LOVE that idea Jillian - thanks! I will tell you a very wise woman I know who has three children all older than mine told me with regards to the toddler/pre-school crowd "...you can give a boy a Barbie and he may pull one leg down and turn her into a gun. You can also give a girl a gun and watch her lovingly wrap it in a blanket and then put it in a stroller and take it for a walk." I thought that was pretty neat.
Jillian Sallee March 10, 2011 at 07:41 PM
Tasha I'll bring in the books I have on the subject. I was brought up with no violent toys, my brothers and I just weren't allowed - none of us became more interested in them because they were banned. With the daycare in our house we don't allow weapons but like you said Laurie, they turn anything into a gun or sword. With my own kids I allow the lightsabers but no blasters (star wars obsessed) and if the talk or play becomes too violent for me we put the stuff on a special shelf for a while. I just don't know if I should allow it at all or a little or not at all...I don't want him to grow up to be "that kid" who talks and acts violent because as a mom I don't like that kid. I'd love an article on this :)
Carmen Urbonas March 13, 2011 at 10:53 PM
Among my fondest childhood memories were those lazy summer days spent on my porch designing and sewing Barbie clothes. Yes, her bosoms often proved difficult to cover using scraps salvaged from my mother's sewing projects but the challenge kept me busy for hours. Fast forward 25 years later when my oldest daughter met Santa for the first time. When asked what she wanted for Christmas, she quietly replied, "A pink headband and a beautiful Barbie." I decided right then and there that my child would receive not one but two Barbies that Christmas. What followed was a fascination--by me, not her--of the plethora of Barbies on the shelves. For years to follow, every holiday yielded another Barbie. I realized that this fascination (mine, not hers) had gone too far when we became regulars at Chuck E. Cheese's in order to earn enough tickets to buy .... you guessed it, Chuck E. Cheese's Barbie. Following that hard-earned win, and several more Barbies, my daughter relegated her Barbie collection to a storage bin, replacing them with Furby and Beanie Babies as her new favorite toys. Those unrealistic proportions and flawless skin that were once envied have since became a source of many jokes in our home. My daughter is now getting ready to graduate from high school and head off to college. So ... does anybody know where I can find a Northeastern University Barbie?

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