Tuesday, December 05, 2006


Apparently, I’m not the only one thinking about Barbie and Bratz dolls this time of year. Margaret Talbot has a nice essay on the Bratz dolls in the 12/4/06 New Yorker and Newsweek is covering the Barbie v. Bratz court battle. Barbie, a doll that used to be for eight- and nine-year-olds is mostly for three- to six-year olds now. My older daughter will be four in two weeks. Christmas is in three. All she wants is Barbie.

I almost caved.

We were not allowed Barbie when I was little. My mom did a great job of explaining that the dolls just were not for our family. She didn’t burden me with feminist explanations, but they were central to her refusal. We had other dolls—nice, chunky Sasha dolls, built like little girls and easy to sew and embroider for.

My mom is firm for her granddaughters, too. When we talk about it, she keeps sputtering “But you’re a feminist!” She’s good to promise to support me in my decision but I can tell that she finds my confusion puzzling. It’s so clear to her that Barbie is dumb and bad. She’s found a nice, chunky doll and a small fashion doll, too, so my daughter will be duly gifted. There’s also a very big box of very pink Duplos in the basement from her other grandma. But they’re blocks. You build with them. You pretend to have a castle and you dump them into the box with green, yellow, red, and blue ones.

At Thanksgiving, I polled the guests, mostly childless, many of them psychologists and therapists, and in their forties. They shared my confusion. When I announced that I would clearly not buy Bratz for my daughter—just the name itself goes against so much of what I value for her—the one teenager in the room rolled her eyes. I think I sounded hopelessly old and maybe even a little racist to this cool teen. Barbie is a blonde. The Bratz are racially indeterminate but definitely “ethnic.”

But that’s not my issue with any of them. And the hip teen’s disapproval helped pull me back to my senses. I don’t like the Bratz because they are brats: they are dolls “with a passion for fashion” and that’s not what I want my three-year old to be learning and thinking about. True, Barbie is a lawyer now, but that’s as much an afterthought as are the black and brunette Barbies. She is all about fashion, too.

I know the studies that say that little girls playing with Barbie don’t focus on her breasts and often don’t play games about fashion and dating. But why give children a toy hoping they will play with it against its type? In The New Yorker, Talbot seems to come about to my position but more elegantly and with less hand wringing. (I’m sorry I can’t link to it here.)

I try hard to be a mellow mom and a strong but non-proselytizing feminist. Barbie is a test for that double role. Being a mellow mom means that I include a little packet of SpongeBob or Dora “fruit snacks” (gummi bears) in my daughter’s lunch knowing they are fun but of dubious nutritional value. I try to avoid TransFat, but, sometimes, at the end of a hard day, we stop in the bodega for some Little Debby goodness. We aim for organic and healthy, but settle for yummy; we aim for wood, but accept plastic. But we insist kindness and lots of books. Behind my efforts not to show it, I do believe that everything I let into my home—from a person to a Macintosh apple to pack of crayons or a dolly is a reflection of our values. I don’t think Barbie is exactly evil, but I don’t see how she enhances the lessons I want my daughters to learn.


Dave Munger said...

In case you haven't seen it, we posted about this on CogDaily a while back.


Quick summary: Barbie isn't good for the little girls (kindergarten age) that want her. By the time Barbie is uncool (second grade), it's not a problem.

Anne said...

Awesome! Thanks, Dave. That's the final thing I needed to firm my resolve.

And it's fascinating to think that the Barbie mutliation that I'd read about elsewhere may come from a dawning dissatisfaciton with the things that I want to resist too.

As my sister said, "Anne, you can parent..." Indeed.

meika said...

I believe (and this may well be a myth for all I know) that 'Barbie' was based on sex toys imported to the US from postwar Germany, just rebranding and re-targetted, and named after the importers daughter, while Ken was the name of her little brother, so the whole thing is just plain weird, My 5-year old loves the idea of them, I think a barbie toothbrush snuck its way into the house, but the 3-year old refuses to like them at all because the 5-year old does!!

Sally said...

For moral support, I recommend Mondo Barbie. More here where I blogged about your thoughtful post. I also recommend M. G. Lord's Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll.

Anne said...

Meika--your myth is not far off: Margaret Talbot says that "One of Handler's inspirations for the Barbie doll was a postwar cartoon character who had originally been featured in the German newspaper Bild. Lilli as she was called, was a touch little blonde with an eye for the main chance; eventually she had been turned into a lewd three-dimensional item intended for purchase by men..."

If you haven't yet, stop by Sally's: the quotation from Mondo Barbie is great old-fashioned stuff.

I'm beginning to wonder why I ever paused. Now, what do I do if she gets Barbie from someone else....?

Dave Munger said...

Anne, I just realized something -- I'm a little jealous of you: you can talk about your potential Christmas/birthday gifts on your blog. My kids read my blog! Suffice it to say, I'm saddled with the teen-age version of the same problem.

brd said...

The Barbie problem. Ah, if it could be solved by not purchasing one item from a Christmas list. But (sigh) it is far from that simple. The culture bombards our girls. I started my day on the phone with AOL, telling them in no uncertain terms that I was offended for myself and my children at it's home page exploitation of the breasts of Britney Spears (plastic or not.)

Keep struggling with the issues. Your daughters may never even remember whether they did or didn't own a Barbie. They will remember that you struggled to make sure that they knew they are whole and important human beings.

Anne said...

brd: I know, I know: it's a losing battle but, as you say, one worth fighting. And one begins to sound like such a fuddy-duddy. But I embrace it, my fuddi-duddiness, that is.

And yes, Dave, it is pretty delicious to be able to broadcast what's in the basement, unwrapped, even now. She's not allowed in the basement and too little to disobey. She cannot read. (Although she loves to write and has painstakingly, letter by letter, spelled out the lyrics to the first verse of "Santa Claus is coming to town." These lyrics are clipped to the top of her "list" (all pictures from catalogs with Barbie invisible on the bottom).)

Michelle said...

Hi Anne,
I hope I'm not too late to join the conversation. I had a Barbie (several, actually) when I was young. I don't believe it made me insecure about the type of figure I should have, since it was a 12-inch doll and I couldn't really figure out how skinny she'd be if she were an actual human being. That being said, I *know* that I was affected by the blonde-hair, blue-eyed ideal that seemed to be upheld by the Barbie. (Sure, they came out with more multicultural Barbies, including an Asian barbie, but that wasn't until a few years later, and even then, the blonde Barbie was *the* Barbie to have.)

Anonymous said...

this is awesome... i'm not a parent myself, but i am so hearing what ur saying. thanks! :-)

Anonymous said...

I cant beleave that bratz are even on the market even the babys dress like hoochies.Its unbeleavable to me that parents would buy these dolls after taking one look at them.

Freudian Slip said...

Way to go! It's hard to say no to your kids now, but boy will they thank you when they are older. This is very important stuff!

genevieve said...

Dear old Babs, she never goes away.
The ideal is to have some at a cousin's house, that can be played with briefly as a special treat.

We got around the dilemma of the three aunties (inlaws, of course) buying and bestowing the Barbie without two hoots about my concerns, (and openly admitting they didn't care, either - FASCISTS!!) by purchasing blackhaired friends and Skipper sisters for Barbie, as well as several beautiful evening gowns at Christmas times, rather than the skimpy stuff. But her head ended up over the fence quite a few times. I should have let it stay there I think. Though a gaggle of Barbies is quite a good solution in itself - they seem less significant once they get all messed up and the kid has to deal with all that hair and all those freaking shoes....

Agree with Dave M. about the blogging family issue - it's a pain, innit? some hilarious things happen here. I have blogged my kids deconstructing Citizen Kane, and losing phones in a mosh pit, but that's as far as I dare go.

It's great you have the support of your family on this, Anne. I was really annoyed that it wasn't my choice, and wish I had been a bit tougher about it.

By the way, the workers in the Bratz factory in China are paid something like 10c a doll and work 90 hour weeks. So that's another good reason not to buy them.