Parenting Blog

The Evolution of Barbie

The New Barbies

by Brian Kurtz

If you have daughters, you’ve likely seen by now that Mattel, the makers of Barbie, has introduced something new for their iconic doll: a more diverse selection of Barbie body types. Barbie’s origin story is as a mass-marketed adult-figured doll that broke the mold of infant dolls that were the only dolls generally available in the late 1950s and early 1960s when Barbie was introduced. Of course, like all toys with longevity, Barbie has never stood still. The most visible evolution of Barbie ‘changing with the times’ has come in the form of new careers, friends, and accessories. And she has flourished: it is said that every three seconds, a Barbie doll is sold somewhere in the world. Growing up in a house with only boys, I rarely experienced Barbie dolls in person and never gave them much thought. My awareness as a child was limited chiefly to whatever Barbie products (who can forget the Dream House or Corvette, right?) were being marketed during the cartoons I watched. While you probably wouldn’t see too much Barbie during the commercial breaks of shows aimed primarily at boys like Transformers and G.I. Joe, I watched enough “unisex” shows like The Smurfs to see plenty of ads for Barbie, Care Bears, Monchichis, and the rest. And in this age of streaming media, where my own children rarely see a television commercial of any kind, I am sort of in awe of the hours of my life – would it even add up to days? – I spent in rapt attention of ads for breakfast cereals that my parents would never consent to purchase.

Now, as a father of two daughters, my relationship with Barbie is different. So far, my oldest (6) hasn’t shown more than a passing interest in dolls of any kind really, from American Girl to Barbie to modern versions of the action figures I played with in my youth. My youngest (2) seems more drawn to dolls generally than her sister but is so far oblivious to the existence of Barbie. Like many modern parents, I spend time thinking about the messages children take away from the toys they play with, and what the toys we play with or buy say about us and our values. And to be sure, a younger version of myself would be too busy trying to make Voltron out of Legos to understand why the relationship between childhood and consumer culture makes me uncomfortable now. He would laugh at the worry that nags at me – how do you know when there are too many toys? What message will my child take away from this toy?

These questions occur in the larger context of a society and media which bombards our children with overt and covert messages about what’s important. Barbie’s record in this area, honestly, is abysmal. No person’s body looks like a Barbie. If Barbie represents a standard of beauty to aspire to, and all Barbies look basically alike and patently ridiculous. Why on earth would we want to collude with a system that has the nearly inevitable result of assaulting a girl’s self-esteem through poor body image? No amount of astronaut or doctor or nurse or president Barbies can make up for that. Several infamous (and quickly discontinued) recent examples of Barbie lamenting the difficulty of math class or Barbie needing male classmates’ help for computer game design raise the quite legitimate question of whether Barbie herself just invites anachronistic gender messages.

The Old Barbie Careers

The degree of gender-specific marketing, too, makes me uncomfortable. The “for girls” aisles awash in pink and princesses at the toy store (no longer labeled as such at Target, although they may still be segregated), or the lack of Rey toys for the most successful movie in recent memory – what are we to make of this? Do our children choose their toys or are their choices constrained by our society? Should I buy the girl-targeted “Friends” line of Legos because it may appeal or boycott it because it shouldn’t even exist? Is even asking this question a reflection of modern parenthood’s need to prepare the world for our child instead of preparing our child for the world and trusting they’ll figure it out?

I think the only way we can really help, that we can equip our girls with the tools needed for resilience in the face of pervasive forces that undermine them, is to talk about it with them. Whether it’s toys, fashion, television and movies, books, celebrity culture – I want to wonder together with my children about what these things mean, and how girls and women are portrayed and marketed to and what this says about our values as a society, and whether these values align with our own personal values. If they want to buy a certain toy or consume some piece of media, I want to talk about it with them. If I can show that there’s a conversation to be had here, and model skepticism and help empower my daughters to question what pernicious messages might lie below the surface and how to amplify the competing, positive messages. If a doll has an unreasonable appearance, let’s talk about it. If my daughter thinks that Lego could market to both boys and girls with the same product if they made some changes, I’d love her to tell me what she thinks. And not only the negative examples, but I love to “catch someone being good” like when Inside Out shows a girl who can play hockey and be strong and joyful and also sad and scared, or even tackle mixed messages – what it means when the cool Nancy B’s Science Club toys utilize “girl-friendly” marketing and colors to help catch the eye of girls, or when Frozen turns some princess tropes on their head but still strengthens the stranglehold that princess culture, with its ambivalent messages, has on girls.

So, Mattel, I have no illusion that you’re perfect, but I tip my hat to you on your change with the Barbie line of dolls. You’ve created a space in which I can do my work as a parent. Now, just shopping for a doll can be an opportunity for a fruitful discussion with my daughters. Thank you for that.

In another world or age, perhaps, I’d want to keep my daughters innocent of all this. I’d hope that I could protect them from any awareness that, historically, girls don’t always get a fair shake, that the deck has always been, and in too many cases still very much is, stacked against them. I’d wish that I could shield them from the harsh truth that women are judged by things like appearance because it is assumed that their main worth is determined by the way they are useful to the men in their lives. It’s just too sad. But as tempting as it may be, it’s my job as a dad to use whatever influence my love and guidance has to help them come into possession of the knowledge that they are strong enough to weather all that and turn out confident, competent, happy, and awesome.

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