Oh, Barbie. Over the past 50 years, you've done it all. You've been a doctor, a pilot, a mother, a Rocker, a cheerleader, a veterinarian, an athlete, and a princess. But mostly, you've been controversial.
The debate over Barbie's influence on young girls as been raging for years. Some see the doll as an impossible standard, a body image nightmare that tells girls that in order to be happy and successful, you must also be blonde, have a big chest, small waist, and feet that are so disfigured from years of wearing high heels that they don't seem to have any toes. Others, however, see the doll as a trailblazer, a woman who took jobs outside of the home, showing girls that they, too, could grow up to be a teacher, a lawyer, a doctor, an astronaut, or a Nascar driver.
An article in this week's Guardian, entitled, "Dumb Blonde- or Diehard Feminist?" explores both sides of the Barbie debate, with two writers stating their case as to why Barbie is—or isn't—a good role model for girls. Moira Redmond takes the pro-Barbie stance, noting that Barbie is "a brilliant role model. She's been a doctor, a vet, a palaeontologist, an astronaut, a firefighter, a pop singer, a teacher and a film star. She has even been a presidential candidate. Here are some things I defy you to imagine Barbie doing: housework; sucking up to men; cowering; being bullied or intimidated; being sexually harassed."
Julie Bindel disagrees, noting that Barbie was based on a German "porn doll" and that "there are many different Barbies, and they often represent negative stereotypes. There is the French maid Barbie, and the Black Canary Barbie - in full black leather and fishnet hooker chic. Then there is the Barbie who simpers in a wedding dress, and, of course, a nurse Barbie outfit for toddlers. Barbie as Medusa tops the list off nicely."
I have my issues with Barbie; her unrealistic body type, perma-makeup, and ridiculous outfits (how many doctors do you know that dress like Dr. Barbie?) drive me a bit crazy. However! Barbie, for all her faults, is nowhere near as offensive as her rivals, the Bratz, who are, perhaps, the single worst thing to happen to children's toys in the history of all time, ever.
I played with Barbies as a kid; I later developed an eating disorder. One of these things has nothing to do with the other. I never wanted to look like Barbie; I wanted her houses, her ice cream parlor, her soda shoppe, her ski chalet with the built in ginormous hot cocoa maker tacked to the wall. Barbie, to me, was pure escapism, a fake world with fake girls in fake dresses: perhaps it was my upbringing or the fact that I was able to recognize, at a very young age, that Barbie was so ridiculously unreal (she doesn't even have a vagina!) that I can honestly say that Barbie had no real effect on who I am as an adult. When I was 10, my sisters systematically beheaded all of my dolls and reattached them in various ways: Skipper's head on Ken, Ken's head on Midge, etc., and I just laughed. I was over it at that point.
However! I cringe when I'm out shopping for presents for my 5 year old niece. Perhaps as adults, we become more protective, we see Barbie for who she really is: a lie, a box of nonsense, a Real Housewife of Mattel County. We forget that we had adventures with her, that we made up stupid stories for hours on end as we pushed her around the rug in her badass '57 Chevy. Maybe it's because Barbie is supposed to be an adult, and as adults, we are less forgiving than we were as children. Children see all of us as weird and ridiculous. We see each other as bizarre reflections of the best and worst parts of ourselves.
And so I'm afraid I'm a bit torn on this one. There's a lot to hate about Barbie, but as someone who played with Barbies for years, I'm not sure she's the scourge on society that some make her out to be. Redmond notes that Barbie "lets girls live out their fantasies in a safe context: a great psychological tool." Bindel claims that she deplores "the fact that these daft dolls are seen as so harmless and cute."
So what do you think? If nothing else, we can all agree on one thing: she could do so much better than Ken.