I am one of many 21st-century feminists raised in the 1980s who played with Barbies as a child. In fact I had piles of them (as well as paper dolls, Madame Alexander dolls, American Girl dolls, and baby dolls). I know for a fact that some of the most ardent and committed career women in my life sat on their own or friends’ floors in rooms all across the country at the very same time, manipulating their own plastic-limbed blonde dolls through the rigors of demanding, often weird, “games.”I bring this up every time Barbie is in the news, as a way of reminding myself (and others) that there seems to be no correlation between playing with regressive dolls and growing up to live a progressive life. In short: Barbie doesn’t necessarily foster bimbos.
That’s partly because dolls, unlike other kinds of toys, are propelled by the power of imagination and play, and no amount of paint and sparkle and skinny blondeness can fully combat the aggressiveness of kids’ fancy and creativity. Parents who try to keep their kids away from certain activities or objects — or cave in and buy those coveted things — often find them being used in entirely novel and unpredictable ways. So whenever the great Barbie debate arises, I think of a Margaret Atwood poem a high school English teacher once showed me after I wrote my very first late-’90s zine essay about being a Barbie-loving feminist.
It’s from Atwood’s poem/essay hybrid “The Female Body,” and begins with parents arguing about the ethics of buying Barbie for their daughter:
“He said, I won’t have one of those things in the house. It gives a young girl a false notion of beauty, not to mention anatomy. If a real woman was built like that she’d fall on her face. She said, If we don’t let her have one like all the other girls she’ll feel singled out. It’ll become an issue. She’ll long for one and she’ll long to turn into one. Repression breeds sublimation. You know that. “
The couple ends up reluctantly getting the doll, hoping for the best. And the poor thing’s fate makes them feel as though they dodged a bullet, for poor Barbie is abused most delightfully by her new owner:
She came whizzing down the stairs, thrown like a dart. She was stark naked. Her hair had been chopped off, her head was turned back to front, she was missing some toes and she’d been tattooed all over her body with purple ink, in a scrollwork design…
It’s a wonderful ending to the story. And yet the initial qualms expressed by the speaker’s husband have become as much a part of the culture around America’s favorite fashion doll as her weirdly shaped feet and perky plastic breasts. Even as a happy Barbie veteran, I have struggled with the question of whether I’d buy the dolls for a future daughter (or son who wanted one). Studies like the doll test show that racism is ingrained early in kids, entwined with their toys and dolls, while other studies show that Barbies do affect body image.
Responding to this conundrum, artists have been pointedly rendering Barbie in different shapes for decades, while the fact that Barbie’s figure was so unrealistic a real woman with those proportions would be unable to stand became conventional wisdom (an initial tweak to Barbie’s shape occurred a few years back).
Makeup-free Barbie, plus-size Barbie, and “average American proportion” Barbie are some of the artistic creations that have generated conversation over the years:
Nickolay Lamm’s Barbie sans makeup
Lamm’s average-proportion Barbie
The Body Shop’s infamous plus-size “Ruby”
So it’s not surprising that, in 2016, Barbie has ended up absorbing some of the anti-Barbie critique and, during an age of trendy pop feminism, changed her body type accordingly. This week, with a Time cover story, Mattel unrolled three more Barbie body sizes: curvy, tall, and petite. The company is out to win over “millennial moms” with a message of diversity and empowerment. Essentially: they want to keep selling dolls. And it isn’t the only high-profile progressive move Mattel has made recently — it comes on the heels of more career-oriented and diverse Barbies, like this Ava DuVernay doll.
Yet in the very same issue of Time, feminist Jill Filipovic warns about the gender segregation of toys in general, noting that new Barbie does not break the trend. “When girls are trapped in the pink box — or minimized in dialogue — their interests are reined in, their physical and psychological development stymied. Yet girls are fed a steady diet of princesses, makeup and homemaking,” she writes.
When Time interviewed several moms about the change to Barbie, the result was exactly as one would expect: lukewarm but positive; girls, meanwhile, joked about curvy Barbie being fat and stared at her body, although they did like the one with blue hair who looked like Katy Perry (showing how far images of pop stars have permeated). Curvy barbie isn’t even that curvy, it must be said; she is a small person with muscular limbs and healthy hips.
Still, these dolls have made me think about my own early-adolescent body image. I had been a skinny-limbed child with straight hair, and when I hit 12 I stopped growing, gained a new Jewfro, hit puberty early, and morphed almost overnight into someone who (at least at the time) looked a lot like Curvy Barbie does now, except at the height of Petite Barbie. It was somewhat traumatic, and I wonder if I would have been more accepting of this sudden change if one of the many, many dolls I played with looked more like I did, if it became a shape I was accustomed to and it had absorbed into my subconscious earlier.
A doll wouldn’t have protected me from the worst parts of growing from girl into woman in a patriarchy, but it might have taken some of the edge off of my shock. New Barbie is both a cosmetic change and a good one, reflective of the ways feminism in 2016 is being repackaged and sold back to consumers — with positive results that nonetheless remain on the superficial, plastic surface of society.