When a Girl Plays with Barbie (But Thinks for Herself)

4 min read

In December of 2009, when my older daughter was four years old, the children’s museum near my home in Indianapolis opened a new exhibit developed in conjunction with Mattel, Inc., called Barbie: The Fashion Experience. It featured vintage Barbie dolls, fashions created for Barbie by world-class designers, and an interactive dress-up area with a fashion show that ran every fifteen minutes or so, complete with Barbie-themed techno music and installations for the kids who wanted to play the role of DJ or photographer.

I’ve always been more of the laissez-faire parent in our family. Or, as my wife sometimes explains it, “Daddy doesn’t like to say no.” It’s true that I’ve been known to cave in quickly to their requests. Like a lot of my personality flaws, I blame it partly on what I term “a fiction writer’s disposition.” When you’re constantly making up stories, it’s pretty easy to come up with reasons to approve things that you know your spouse would disallow. Especially if you give them a fancy French name.

So when my daughter wanted to go to the Barbie exhibit, I didn’t stop any longer than it took to give her a little background information. “Well,” I said, “Barbie promotes an unhealthy body image and historically hasn’t supported the kind of gender roles for women that your mother and I would choose for you. That said, we have a lot of hours to kill between now and the afternoon nap that you take only when you fall asleep in the car at 4 p.m., and as a woman you should probably become familiar with the onslaught of unrealistic expectations and cultural assumptions that you’ll be up against in your lifetime, despite centuries of struggle. So, sure, we can go. But maybe you don’t mention this to Mom.”

(She did anyway. We got past it.)

Three weeks ago, Mattel unveiled a two-minute video starring a series of articulate six-year-old-or-so girls. “What happens when girls are free to imagine they can be anything?” the opening title card asks. The video shows the girls inhabiting adult roles (professor, veterinarian, businesswoman, coach, museum docent) in a number of humorous situations, while adults, observed via hidden camera, react with politely suppressed mirth. The video ends with a twist: The girl professor is revealed to be acting out a lecture scenario with her Barbie dolls. “When a girl plays with Barbie, she imagines everything she can become,” the closing text reads. And: “You can be anything.”

As a laissez-faire dad, I really want to believe this message. Especially since my daughters (yes, the younger one, too) ended up spending many hours in the Barbie exhibit, which was at the museum for more than two years. They dressed up. They got makeup tips. They designed clothes. To be fair to me (the lazy, fair dad), they also spent a lot of time at the museum’s other, less commercial exhibits. They learned about modern Egyptian culture, did science experiments, wore dog and raccoon costumes.

What I actually believe is that a girl can imagine everything she wants to be despite playing with Barbie. Let’s be honest: Barbie is a grotesque caricature of even the most statuesque of women. If a typical Barbie were translated into human form, her waist would be four inches thinner than her head. She’d have room for only half a liver. Her tiny feet would force her to crawl around on all fours.

And while their recent DVD offering, Barbie and her Sisters in the Great Puppy Adventure, makes her look more intrepid than those in the Barbie Princess collection, Mattel was dinged in the press as recently as last November for releasing a book—in its “I Can Be” series—in which Barbie is a computer engineer who can’t even code.

“’I’m only creating the design ideas,’ Barbie says, laughing. ‘I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!’”

And it’s telling, I think, that nearly concurrently with this new ad, Mattel has made available for holiday pre-order a Wi-Fi-connected, artificially intelligent doll—called Hello Barbie—that can make conversation (a la Siri) with kids. “Hello Barbie can interact uniquely with each child…sharing stories and even telling jokes!” says an online ad. So who’s supposed to be doing the imagining here? The kids? Or Mattel?

Our approach, my wife’s and mine, is not to completely shield the kids but rather to make sure that we’re talking with them about what they’re seeing and doing. Whether it’s violence, profanity, advertisements, or sex-role stereotypes, our daughters have seen (and thought about) it all. (Of course, they haven’t seen a lot of any of them. Not since I stopped letting them watch Futurama.)

My daughter, enabled by her overly permissive dad, eventually wore down my wife and acquired a couple of Barbie dolls. She doesn’t play with them much. Turns out, she has a real talent for coding. And drawing, and writing, and consensus building, and fashion.