How many Barbies are you giving this season?

I’d guess that most readers of this blog are not thrilled at the idea of buying one Barbie, still less a flock to distribute among the girls they give presents too.  However, a recent op-ed In the NY Times argues that anti-Barbie feelings are a prejudice that valorizes boys toys – and so signs of masculinity – over a femininity in girls.

Eschewing femininity in girls while embracing masculinity in boys (and girls too) sounds initiatively pretty bad.  The writer misses, however, the extent to which the icons on each side encode, and propagate, particular values.  It would be very hard to copy Barbie, though not impossible.  But her presence can still make clear societal values concerning weight, skin color and wardrobe.  Be thin!  Lighter is better!  Wear the trendy!  It isn’t that being thin is bad, but the message that thinness is the preferred look can, surely we all know, be harmful.

Is my negative reaction right?  What do you think?  One quasi-objection might be that for younger people what I’ve called icons are in fact less gendered. What difference might this make?


18 thoughts on “How many Barbies are you giving this season?

  1. I’d add that your points apply equally forcefully for men. The thin would have to be changed to muscular and fit, and trendy for military (I’m thinking of ‘Action man’), and serving your country for trendy. I must also admit to not having thought about a female or male doll as a gift for many decades. It might just be with the diversity modern societies proclaim to promote has made these dolls neither relevant nor beneficial. I guess it starts from a marketing/advertising centred need amongst toy manufacturers. Quite how you would market dolls to meet the full diversity that is now recognised in, say the UK, does engender a cheeky smirk, that quickly morphs into smile. I still have not exercised my teenage years as a punk rock, anarchist.
    I don’t believe you’re being negative when I review Facebook posts made by young members of family ‘friends’. Of course to group young people into one group, when assessing their icons is itself against diversity. Perhaps that’s a for a statistician to sort out.

  2. There are now a number of different body-types of Barbies (though I think not of Ken). And you have been able to buy different skin-toned Barbies for a long(ish) time.

  3. jv1, thanks. That would open the market for Barbie dolls to more customers. There is the question of who buys the Ken dolls. perhaps it is mostly girls playing families? Do young children mostly purchase a dole that reflects their own colour, shape and gender. Are visible forms of disability included in the body types available. Would it not be better for kids to try and imagine the lives of peers of a different colour and body types. It’s good they have a choice and do the dolls have to be role models or icons.

  4. For a child (especially little girl) walking through an aisle of Barbies, she sees one standard shape, and when paired with media, she can normally recognize that she does not look like that. I think a lot of it is in the subconscience, but it effects her feelings about herself as she matures to adulthood!

  5. I would not argue that the problem has gone away but I do think that the changes that Mattel has introduced are moving things in the right direction. In answer to Shaun’s questions I can say that my daughter has a range of Barbies with different skin tones and body shapes. She maybe plays more with the light toned tall skinny ones but certainly not exclusively (she is white). I should also add that though I am pretty sure that you cannot buy disabled barbies my daughter still plays with the dolls that have lost a limb and they are still included in the group play. She also does not necessarily accept the look of the barbie as it comes from the package. We often swap heads and bodies of barbies in order to get a particular look. And she often gives them radical new haircuts and changes of hair colour. This is common enough behaviour that there are lots of videos on the internet about how to modify your barbie. Indeed that is where her initial inspiration came from. Whether this attitude is positive or negative overall I think I will leave to others to worry about.

  6. “the message of the video s thatwe should stop associating toys with gender”: yes… but see eg. tangrams, and watch the second video!

  7. I agree that there can be a tendency to denigrate femininity and favor masculinity. But dislike of Barbies is not dislike of everything that is feminine, just a form of femininity that is based on extremes, based on a very performative type of expression, and very unrealistic. I can dislike Barbies and still like baby dolls, for example. Or cooking toys. Or feminine-looking clothing that is not exhibitionistic. What I like even less than Barbies, though, is today’s tendency to dress little girls in nothing but pink and purple, with sequins and glitter and ballet skirts for school.

  8. I’m a mom of a four year old. I just wanted to say that I’m actually not seeing much interest in Barbie dolls, particularly not compared to my upbringing in the 80’s. My daughter and her friends appear to like dolls that represent their heroes, such as Moana or Sophia the First so there is hope. That said, I enjoyed Barbie as a child and never sought to compare myself to her and never did. My early years were spent living in international student housing while my single mom earned her PhD. (I’m an immigrant and now a US citizen from the Middle East). Later, we moved to a wealthy, homogenous, and supposedly liberal white town in Massachusetts, which was far more upsetting to my perception of self and the female form than any Barbie doll ever could be. The thing I wonder is, can you ever teach a child who doesn’t fit the mold of their community that they are cared for because they are represented as a doll? Would the other children in that community go racing to buy that “other” doll. If the children and parents in your community don’t live and breath a colorful life, what makes anyone think that the dolls will make a difference? The dolls only make a difference if the experience they represent (the stories, movies, ads, shows) resonate with the children. It reminds me of a quote from Trevor Noah’s book: “We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited.” I don’t mind Barbie; let Barbie be Barbie. But we should be creating heroes that both break the mold and redefine it, and we should purchase with our individual values in mind. Personally, I don’t think dolls ever gave me any illusions about what my body was supposed to look like; fashion advertising did. And sadly, the first time I ever believed a woman could be truly smart was when Miriam Mirzakhani won the Fields Medal in mathematics (in my early 30’s) because it was the only time in my adult life that I ever saw an Iranian woman ever represented in the United States as being more than a poor victim from a war-torn county. I remember thinking, “maybe I am smart too. Maybe I’m underestimating my own self worth.” We don’t need to boycott Barbie; we just need to give children a way to see themselves in as many ways possible, though as many different types of heroes, experiences, and forms as we can. Barbie can be one minuscule piece of the pie. Just my quick thoughts.

  9. If only it were so easy as “stripping gendered associations from lipstick, dresses and glitter, soccer balls, sweatpants and short hair,” as the article prescribes. That strikes me as a pretty voluntaristic response to a systemic problem. My bet: it is not the case that feminists distrust barbie dolls because of hidden internalized misogyny, which seems to be the premise…we distrust barbie dolls because they have historically been part of blatant, societal misogyny. Of course, they aren’t supremely powerful or singularly expressive of that misogyny—it’s only a Barbie doll, after all, as Tara M. points out. However, I don’t think there’s some kind of widespread feminist “overcorrection” to toxic gender roles so much as a widespread naivete that choosing to spend our money on various different things will solve society’s problems. Unfortunately, the NY Times often plays into that naive voluntarism, but that is a whole other topic…

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