If you have been on the Internet in the past few weeks, it's likely been brought to your attention that Barbie, a little hunk of plastic shaped like a woman with synthetic hair on it, appeared in Sports Illustrated. Many feminists see this unholy union as a perfect reification of the problems with both crumbling cultural institutions: Barbie and Sports Illustrated both present to the world an unrealistic, limited and reductive (i.e., vacantly smiling, bikini-clad and blond) version of femininity.
Barbie, who is a very accomplished human-shaped object, recently added another feather to her little tiny hat. In a remarkable feat for a non-sentient thing, she penned an op-ed about her experience modeling for Sports Illustrated:
My bathing suit now hangs beside a Presidential power suit, Pastry Chef hat, and Astronaut gear in a wardrobe reflecting the more than 150 careers I've pursued to illustrate for girls that they can achieve anything for which they aim. And yet, I am still seen as just a pretty face. It's simpler to keep me in a box — and since I am a doll — chances are that's where I'll stay.
"Today, truly anything is possible for a girl. Let us place no limitations on her dreams, and that includes being girly if she likes," writes Barbie. Yeah, yeah, whatever. But, as Ann Friedman argues at The Cut, the "op-ed" does have a point: "it's true that for many women, including me, playing with Barbie as a young girl was a way to explore the kind of life we might want as an adult." By this she mostly means that Barbie spends a lot of time engaging in wanton sexual intercourse. For many girls, Friedman points out, Barbie functions as a vehicle for exploring and coming to terms with the concept of adult sexuality. To wit: she quotes several of her friends, all of whom spent days gleefully rubbing plastic crotches together and facilitating doll-on-doll makeout sessions.
"Girls are not looking at Barbie as, 'She's unrealistically tall and skinny with big boobs,'" says one of Friedman's friends. "What Barbie represented to me as a young girl was imaginative play. I don't think that's a thing to shy away from." Psychoanalyst Joyce McFadden points out that, though Barbie is criticized for having an unrealistic figure, it's significant that she's one of the only toys that has breasts — the "only one to create a space where girls could start to fantasize about that."
I agree with that: while I think that the notion that "Barbie-the-commodity is empowering!" is laughable, I strongly believe in young female imagination and anything that facilitates its free expression. For all that's gross and wrong about Barbie's World, the fact remains that playing with Barbie is a good way for girls to construct elaborate imaginaries and build their own realities. When I was younger, I didn't really ever make my Barbies have sex — but that's because I was preoccupied with creating an elaborate matriarchal society. There was one Ken in my world; he didn't have much agency because, having been gnawed apart by my dog, he was just a torso with a a head. The Barbie-government was run by women. Sometimes, I would make my dad occupy my Barbie Dreamhouse with his collectible G.I. Joe figure so that my sister and I could play Feminist Uprising (a very fun and educational game in which G.I. Joe forces the all-female household to do his dishes until they're moved to violent resistance). So, though I didn't play around with sexuality, child-Callie played with radical feminism — which is way sexier anyway (???). It was identity-building for me. I wasn't affected by the pre-packaged narratives marketed to girls, and I doubt most children are. Toys are a conduit to imagination — Barbie happens to be the most useful conduit because she has the best accessories — and kids don't need adults to tell them what to fantasize about.
To test this thesis, share your stories in the comments. What fucked-up and weird shit did you do to your Barbies? Did you build a radical feminist utopia with a single male torso? How much fornicating did your Mattell-brand toys get up to? Discuss.
Image via Getty.