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The Endless Possibilities -- and impossibilities -- of Barbie

As the world's most famous doll turns 50, the criticisms are obvious and well-documented.

Bruce Deachman
The Ottawa Citizen
March 9, 2009

What's less appreciated is her potential to inspire unscripted creativity in children When she huffs and puffs in an attempt to extinguish all 50 candles on her birthday cake today, Barbara Millicent Roberts will be able to look back on what has so far been a very remarkable life.

So remarkable, in fact, that almost everyone -- from folks in her fictitious hometown of Willows, Wisconsin, to ... well, to outer space, where she worked for a spell in the mid-1960s as an astronaut, just one of more than a hundred careers she's held -- knows her simply as Barbie, with that kind of mononymous fame reserved for a very elite cast (Cher, Madonna, Twiggy and Lassie come to mind, after which we're into the second tier that includes middle names and descriptors: Norma Jean, Mona Lisa, Hurricane Katrina).

There will no doubt be games and ice cream today, and gifts and good wishes from parents George and Margaret, and friends -- Teresa, Midge, Christie and Steven among them -- and numerous relations, including Skipper, Tutti, Todd, Stacie, Kelly, Krissy, Francie and Jazzie. And, of course, that most special of friends, Barbie's on-again, off-again boyfriend of seemingly indeterminate sexuality, Ken.

And what, when pressed to give a speech to mark the occasion, will Barbie say? Will she come close to the controversy in which she found herself mired in 1992, when she drew fire from feminists and others for repeatedly uttering such phrases as "Math class is tough," "Will we ever have enough clothes?" and "I love shopping"? No, she'll likely say nothing this time, leaving the talking instead to her parent company, Mattel, which paints the world in shades of pink as it slaps lawsuits at Barbie's detractors and parodists with a singleminded vigour reminiscent of kamikaze pilots and the Disney empire.

But face it, Barbie math is tough. With close to a billion pairs of shoes in her closet and three Barbies sold every second of every day, the orgy of flesh-tone plastic out there is staggering. And say what you will about her, Barbie has been a substantial figure for half a century, always among the oligarchy of toys that have determined how generations of kids play, attracting along the way legions who revere her and almost as many who revile her. And many who do both at the same time.

When Barbie came along in 1959, says Utah State University professor Jeannie Thomas, there were no mass-produced adult dolls for children; for the most part, girls played with baby dolls, taking care of them like mothers.

"Barbie also had a career, and that was pretty early for that," says Thomas, who teaches English and folklore, but has, for more than a decade, been researching how children play with Barbie dolls. "So the first fear about Barbie was that she would turn little girls into these viperous, independent women.

"Now, of course, we're more worried about the body-image issues that come along with her, and also the consumerism." Thomas admits that she initially approached Barbie in a less-than-favourable light. In the late 1990s, she'd bought a talking Working Woman Barbie that, when you pressed the button on her back, said "I can't wait to go dancing with Ken tonight!" "And I thought, 'I want to throw you across the room. You're evil'," Thomas recalls. "But when I started looking at how people played with her and their stories, which is what got me into this research in the first place, I came to appreciate her wonderful creativity." What won Thomas over to Barbie, at least as cautiously as she has been, is how young girls, then accustomed to playing the parental role with baby dolls (and often very punitively, she notes), instead found themselves imagining their future lives.

"When they played with Barbie, what they were doing was projecting possibilities, and they projected themselves and their interests," says Thomas. "They mirrored and extended their own lives, so if a kid was into horses, then their Barbie play was all about horses. Also, problems or issues in their families often got picked up.

"That's the genius of Barbie; she's Everywoman in the sense that she can become a vehicle for that kind of play. Kids were not bound by the script that Mattel sold with her, and they would freely violate that. So I began to see that it was a matter of the kid and her family, and their choices and values." The problem that Thomas still has with Barbie is the unrealistic body image she projects onto young girls, although Thomas points out that it manifests itself in different ways with different children, and often not at all.

She recalls a conversation she had with her daughter when she was six, asking her what the difference was between Barbie and other women.

"She looked at me like, 'How dumb are you?' and said, 'Well, Barbie's not real.' "So obviously she was getting reality versus plastic, and I think some kids do that. But I ended up thinking that that's a personal judgment call based on the parent." Standing 111/2 inches tall, Barbie, as a one-sixth scale toy, would be 5-foot, 9-inches tall in real life, with estimated -- and exaggerated -- hourglass measurements of 36-18-33. According to research done at the University Central Hospital in Helsinki, she would lack the required body fat to menstruate, and, gauging by the bathroom scales that accompanied 1965's Slumber Party Barbie, was 35 pounds underweight for a woman her height.

"If it were just Barbie," says Thomas, "I wouldn't worry so much, but it's all those media images and all the skinny models, so in that larger context of the relentless message, I think that's a problem." Last month, the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood bestowed its inaugural TOADY (Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young Children) Award for worst toy of the year to Mattel's Barbie Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader doll, which comes equipped with short shorts, stiletto boots and halter top, and is marketed for children age six and up.

"No one who cares about children's well-being," said CCFC director Susan Linn, "could produce a toy like the Barbie Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader doll. It embodies a host of harmful expectations about what girls are supposed to be like." Andrea O'Reilly, an associate professor of women's studies at York University in Toronto and founder and director of the Association for Research on Mothering, agrees that Barbie's appearance makes her a "problematic" toy.

"Despite 50 years of educators, parents, feminists and social justice people asking Mattel to change how she looks, just a little bit, they have been largely -- I'd say completely -- unresponsive to those concerns.

"Educators have come to them with issues of anorexia and eating disorders in young girls and said, 'There's a lot of good in her, but why can't we have a doll that's more diverse in the way she looks?' and that hasn't changed in 50 years." Yet despite her reservations about the doll's unrealistic and unattainable appearance, O'Reilly also heaps praise on Barbie.

"She is a single woman. She's not necessarily married or with children -- Ken never did sell well and was irrelevant to the plot -- and I think it's a good thing that young girls played with Barbies and had narratives where women were women and hung out with girlfriends and had careers and climbed Mount Everest or went backpacking.

"That's the promise of the doll, but there's always the tension that parents try to negotiate. They like that part, that she's unscripted, unlike a lot of toys today that tell you how to play, when to play, where to play. It's just a doll; you can do what you want with her. That's the good part.

"But there's still the negative side -- the way she looks." O'Reilly had Barbies when she was a girl -- 25 of them -- but when her own daughters, now 19 and 21, were youngsters, her concerns over Barbie's effect on body image trumped the doll's positive aspects, a decision she says she remains comfortable with.

"I was asked recently if I'd buy Barbies for my grandchildren and I said 'No.' I didn't realize I'd answer that so quickly, but I did.

"It's very complicated," she adds, "and I'm not going to dictate what other people play with or buy for their kids, but maybe if Mattel was pushed on this, they might do something. I mean, Mattel knows that this is not good, so why are they marketing a product that has Barbie say 'Math is hard. Let's go shopping.' Come on, Mattel, 50 years have passed -- girls do math, and girls don't need to look like that to have a sense of self." Maybe not, but it's also hard to ignore this Barbie math: It's estimated that worldwide sales of the doll and related accessories bring in some $3 billion a year for Mattel.

Steven Dubin, a sociologist and professor at Columbia University in New York, first became interested in Barbie when he was asked in 1994 to be part of the curatorial team for a museum exhibition called Art, Design and Barbie: The Evolution of a Cultural Icon, marking the doll's 35th birthday.

It turned out that the show was, unbeknownst to Dubin and many others on the team, sponsored by Mattel, and after an essay he wrote for the catalogue was red-marked and he was kicked out of the show, he penned an essay titled How I Got Screwed By Barbie: A Cautionary Tale, which gained national media coverage and ultimately led to most of the curators dropping out.

"We were curating this show with integrity, or at least as much as you can do with Barbie, but it turns out it was an infomercial." And while he has few kind words for Mattel, Dubin says the controversies that have hounded Barbie are more complicated than many think, and that Barbie is often too quickly maligned by the public.

"Can you blame all the issues that affect girls today on Barbie? Of course not." Dubin points out that Barbie's effect on kids is mediated by such factors as family, friends and interests, and that outcomes are as varied as the children themselves.

"There's no one way that girls play with Barbie or are affected by her.

"Rather than being some kind of monolithic force, Barbie is a blank slate, and we tend to underestimate the degree to which little girls make her what they want to make her." And while he believes that some girls may receive a conform-or-be-miserable message from Barbie, most don't. They're active participants in this, not just passive receivers of some evil message that's being broadcast by Mattel.

"I'm not going to be a big defender of Mattel's -- I'm not -- but I think that Barbie does take on this burden," he adds, "like some tribal African areas where there'll be this statuary that they drive nails into to get rid of evil spirits. I think a lot of people would like to do that to Barbie, but it's misplaced." Dubin points to Barbie's career-minded independence as an extremely positive selling point, especially in her earliest days.

"She uses men when she needs to; they're kind of an accessory, rather than a necessity. She's tried all these incredible careers and had a really cool lifestyle. This would have been a positive influence in a time when it becomes possible for large numbers of girls to start thinking about themselves in terms of careers and not just being housewives." Dubin sums it all up by describing a cartoon he saw once, which showed a young girl playing with a hammer in one hand and a screwdriver in the other.

"Her parents have given her boys' toys," Dubin recalls, "and the girl is animating the hammer and screwdriver, and the hammer is saying 'Barbie, will you go out with me tonight?' "Kids," he adds, "are very resourceful in terms of how they view things, and it's a very shallow reading to think that Barbie only has this evil influence. She can have a very positive influence.

"But she's exhausting, isn't she?"

 

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