In Defense of Barbie

Girls playing with BarbieWhile babysitting earlier this month, I made an offhand comment about having 100 Barbies. This is perhaps an exaggeration, but I certainly had no less than 60. The little girl I was watching told me that her mother doesn’t like Barbie and thinks Barbie is stupid. (Possibly not the word she used. I don’t think this family uses that word, but it was something close to it.) She’s almost 5 years old, and she said this a little sadly while holding her one Ariel doll (from The Little Mermaid).

Clearly my parents had no such reservations, and Barbie in the 80s was a totally different doll than she is today, in many ways. But the thing she has never been in my lifetime is stupid. Barbie taught me that a woman can be anything she wants – a doctor, an astronaut, a rock star, a veterinarian, a teacher (like my mom) – and can look good doing it. (Many episodes of What Not to Wear have shown me that this is a hard lesson for women to learn.) In recent years Barbie has added such professions to her resume as computer engineer, architect, and art teacher (like me!). These are not the career paths of a stupid woman! On top of all that, she still leads a vibrant social life, apparently raises a slew of siblings, and maintains a healthy relationship with no visible signs of codependency. (We won’t talk about the Blaine years.) Isn’t this the type of superwoman we’re told we should be?

Exhibit A: The very first Barbie I ever owned, Day-to-Night Barbie, came with a pocketbook, suitcase, and a reversible power suit that could be turned into a fashionable cocktail dress for a night of dinner and dancing out on the town with Ken. This closely mirrors the transformation I watched my own mother go through when she would get ready to go out, from brightly dressed first grade bilingual teacher to a fluffy-haired, eyeliner-ed beauty in high heels. I loved watching my mom put on going-out makeup.

Day-To-Night Barbie Day-To-Night Barbie and Ken Day-To-Night Barbie and Ken

So it bothers me a little that Barbie gets such a bad rap. Barbie and her friends did so much for me while I was growing up. (After a certain point I only wanted the Teresa dolls, since she had brown hair like I did and I saw her as the Latina friend. But for the purposes of this essay I’ll keep using Barbie’s name.) Playing Barbies taught me how to craft stories and characters; my friends and I would create epic storylines, and my first forays into long-form fiction writing involved the plots and people we made up during sleepovers.

Exhibit B: Teresa 

Rollerblade Teresa Barbie

I learned how to use a sewing machine by making Barbie clothes using a retro fashion doll pattern my grandmother probably found at a church sale and polyester fabric scraps from the 70s. My grandmother taught me how to knit and crochet in this manner, as well, and even though she’s gone I still have all the doll clothes and bedding she made for me during my childhood. (The most special piece is a bright red tunic dress we made together using some scraps from the dress my great-grandmother wore at her 90th birthday party.) I can still remember my grandma muttering in frustration over the “tiny seams and hems,” but she still tackled it for me. (I miss her.)

Exhibit C: This was the pattern we used.

McCall's Doll Pattern from 1970s

I also honed many other arts and crafts skills with Barbie: making food out of polymer clay, furniture out of cardboard and other recycled materials, and clothes with fabric glue and velcro. Accessories could be made out of anything. (These skills came in handy when I decided to build my own Little House playset, complete with Laura and Mary Ingalls dolls.) Barbie and friends were the precursor to figure drawing classes, standing in as artist’s models for me to draw. Admittedly, they couldn’t pose in a lot of positions, but they could hold a pose for hours. Some friends and I even tried our hand at stop-motion animation with my dolls. The limitations of the video camera meant the results were rather stilted, but hilarious.

A few weeks ago, when I made this little girl a pocketbook, folder, and “work” papers (tiny charts and graphs) for her Ariel doll, she asked how I knew how to make them. I told her I had spent many hours when I was a young girl doing the same for my own dolls. Countless hours, really. I was an only child for 8 years – I had a lot of time to myself. (As a result of those years, I have no problem being alone and I’m never bored.) The kids had a science lesson that same day, studying electricity. I told them how I used what I had learned in Electricity Club in 4th grade (nerd) to add lights and fans to the dollhouse I made. They were suitably impressed.

Exhibit D: Her Ariel doll. I also made a quick paper-and-scotch-tape dress, since she only had a tail.

Ariel

And this is not even getting into the sociological and developmental aspects of play and pretend. Through playing Barbies, we acted out relationship growth, arguments, conflict resolution, and family interactions. That stuff is important.

I realize that not everyone grew up with Barbies. I’m well aware that they were a luxury, and my meager allowance from my father (Mom didn’t believe in it) always went towards comic books and dolls. I got a lot of my collection secondhand, too. (I was a fiend for miniatures, and searched for them everywhere.) I also get that some people just weren’t into dolls and that sort of play. But I don’t think it’s fair to withhold it from the kids who are, because I fully believe that playing Barbies opens a doorway to creativity that can potentially lead to other artistic interests – whether it be fine arts, writing, or performing arts. (I wonder if there are any studies done on this? Damn, yet another moment where I lament only having a minor in sociology.) I loved Barbie, and I don’t think she should be dismissed as stupid because she’s blond and wears pink and sometimes falls victim to poor marketing (and fashion) choices. (Haven’t we learned anything from Elle Woods in Legally Blonde?) Besides, ultimately the doll is just a tool, and it’s what’s inside the child that truly matters. The doll, what she stands for, and the potential for creative expression shouldn’t be denied based on her looks and packaging. After all, in the immortal words of Jessica Rabbit, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” So don’t judge a book – or doll – by its bright pink cover.

 

EDIT – 9/23/11: My father read this post and had this to say about it:

“Meager allowance”?!  Hello?! Didn’t I buy you lots of stuff?

“Reviewer of all forms of visual media since I was a little kid”  Umm, just for the record, it’s been a lot longer than that. My first published review was in a school newspaper when I was in 7th Grade. That was 18 years before you were born.
The writing’s good, though.
Thanks, Dad. (Seriously, though, I do have the best dad ever.)
(For the record, my mom read it, too, and she liked what I said about watching her put on makeup. She gives me lip gloss every year for Christmas.)
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