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Opinion

Barbie's no threat to little girls

They learn more about self-image from their moms

By Courtney E. Martin / February 26, 2009



Brooklyn, N.Y.

Diana was going to be late for her super serious business meeting. Her tiny feet barely hit the ground and she'd lost a high heel back at the mansion, but she didn't care. She had a big presentation to make and she wouldn't miss it for the world. She had to convince her boss, Kylie, that the company must stop using Styrofoam in their products.

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This is an average plot line from my early days as a playroom producer, aka as a little girl playing with Barbies. My best friend Megan was always Diana; I was always Kylie. Complex business narratives, angry mothers-in-law, pool parties, social justice campaigns, and a whole lot of crawling around on the shag carpet in my attic ensued.

As Barbie turns 50 this year, and I turn 30, it seems an opportune time to reflect on just how much, or how little, Barbie really causes problems for little girls' self-image.

Here's the received, feminist wisdom: Barbie's freakishly tiny waist and history of self-abasement (most famously in 1992 when she said, "Math class is tough!") influences girls to have impossible standards for ideal beauty and underestimate their own intelligence.

My own mother, a second-wave feminist and therapist to boot, tried to minimize Barbie's ominous presence in my life to no avail. I would beg, steal, and borrow just to get one of those stiff plastic ladies into my hot little hands.

And here I am, a couple decades later – happy with my curves, convinced of my own intelligence, and unabashedly feminist. You see, when Megan and I "played Barbies," we didn't really play Barbies so much as we invented twisting, turning versions of the adult female lives of our wildest imaginations. Sure, it sometimes included a little risqué contact (getting caught was a great plot twist device), but it always included an exciting professional life and plenty of self-confidence.

Barbie wasn't an oppressor; she was an empty vessel that we could fill up with all of our confusion and excitement concerning femaleness – just as Barbie creator Ruth Handler had envisioned it in the late 1950s.

That point seems to be missed as the continued popularity of Barbie, and her more modern counterpart, the sultry Bratz doll, continues to be a sore point among mothers.

I've had the opportunity to speak at colleges and parenting groups across the nation with mothers. More times than not, a well-intentioned mother asks: "What can we do about Barbie and those terrible Bratz dolls?!"

The answer? "Forget about Barbie or the Bratz. Worry about what you say at the dinner table every night."

The truth is that none of these dolls has ever held or will ever hold a candle to how much power our own mothers' lives have to influence our ideas about femaleness, bodies, and power.

Watching my own mother flinch at her mother's subtle, biting comments about her weight, and still manage to enjoy food without much neurosis and walk in the park everyday with her friends did far more to determine what I thought about my own body than Barbie's anatomically impossible figure. Likewise, observing her struggle with the second shift with little support, compromise her own health in pursuit of "having it all," and contribute an amazing amount of her talent and dynamism to our community taught me far more than any insecure Mattel toy.

On the flip side, I fear that many women find it easier to point the finger at a piece of plastic than take a hard look at their own relationships with their own bodies. So many of the young women whom I have spoken to describe a mother who would say to them, "You are beautiful! You are perfect! Don't ever let anyone tell you different," then turn to the mirror and in the next breath say, "Ugh, I look gross today." Actions and words speak so much louder than mute Barbies.

You can't build a wall between your daughter and the wider culture. Those who try end up making radioactive orange mac & cheese, violent video games, and yes, antiquated dolls even more attractive to their pop culture deprived kids.

Instead, learn to love yourself – it's the ultimate example we can set for our daughters.

And once you do that, you can trust your daughter to use Barbie, or the Bratz as the case may be, as a tool for exercising some of the dreams and demons of femaleness that she is inevitably processing.

Courtney E. Martin is the author of "Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters" and an editor at feministing.com.

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