by Harry on January 14, 2004

Via Laura at Apartment 11D I got to this post about Barbie by Tim Burke. His main complaint is that Barbie is inflexible, doesn’t stand up alone, and is in general less interesting than boy’s toys. Fair enough, though I suspect that these features all serve her rather well as a fantasy toy. Barbie is, mercifully, no longer part of my life. My elder daughter (7) went through a 3-week Barbie phase, and refers to her less subtle friends (descriptively, not dismissively) as ‘Barbie girls’. My younger (2) occasionally gets the elder’s Barbies out to play with, but is going through a jigsaw puzzle obsession at the moment, and anyway prefers tea-sets and playing with her sister (who is more flexible, and more tolerant, than Barbie). But when Barbie was more of an issue I noted that in my (admittedly quirky) circle, fathers expressed enormous hostility to Barbie; whereas mothers tended to be much less judgemental (presumably on the ‘well, I played with her and she never did me any harm’ principle, though its not clear to me why they think they are the best judges of that). In the same circle, by the way, hostility to Britney Spears is entirely gender neutral (and extreme). I don’t share the hostility to Britney, largely because my elder is so clueless that she believed Britney to be a basketball player until last month. Anyway, is the gendered nature of the hostility to Barbie a general phenomenon?



Ophelia Benson 01.14.04 at 7:15 pm

I hope not. I loathe and detest her, for one.

I look back with teary if not inebriated nostalgia on my own childhood, when the dolls I played with were meant to look like children, not miniature prostitutes. They had flat chests, the darling creatures, and flat feet, and they were kind of chubby, and you could pretend they were the characters in Little Women.

And then when that palled, go outside with your guns and your cowboy hat and play that game. I was a very androgynous child. Or do I just mean odd.


Katherine 01.14.04 at 8:29 pm

My sisters and I used to decapitate and give bad haircuts to our barbies. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes not, sometimes unclear. But I had no brothers, so I don’t know how otherwise genetically similar males would react.


laura 01.14.04 at 9:03 pm

I was, for feminist reasons, not allowed to have Barbies. Eventually I begged and begged and was allowed to have one, which I promptly found pretty boring. I think my parents had equal hostility to Barbie, and these days I know as many women as men who are hostile to her.


harry 01.14.04 at 9:45 pm

We were pretty set against Barbie (me more than me spouse) but surrended quick on the principle that having her around would make her seem less interesting. This was partly a prediction based on our intimate knowledge of our own kid, whom we (rightly) thought was interested in Barbie largely because she did not have intimate knowledge of her. Boy did we feel vindicated.

But none of you have said whether you think she does any harm. I sued to think so, but now (not just because of my daughter, but for more general reasons) suspect that she is an epiphenomenon — there are all these other damaging things going on and she is along for the ride as it were.

My sister didn’t have Barbie, but she did have similar dolls. I thought they were grotesque, and found the appeal completely mystifying as a boy. But I suspect my childhood was somewhat like Ophelia’s in its wierdness…


LizardBreath 01.14.04 at 10:16 pm

I’m a woman who grew up without Barbies (architect father, feminist mother — all toys were Danish, and either unpainted wood or abstract shapes in primary colors). I was quite hostile to them before I had kids, but after I had a daughter decided that forbidding them would make a bigger deal out of them than they warranted: while I haven’t bought any for my daughter, lots of other people have.

I now think my hostility was overblown — while I still think that gendered toys are pretty much a Bad Thing (“Boys! come learn how to construct an electronic circuit to control your cool robots!” “Girls! find the color of nail polish that really suits you!”) Barbie isn’t any worse than any other girlie toy. What sets people off, the fucked-up hypersexuality of Barbie’s design, really doesn’t come across to a kid young enough to play with Barbie. It’s icky, but harmless.

I wouldn’t be surprised if generally, people with a lot of direct Barbie experience, mostly women, have figured out the harmlessness ahead of time, while people without such experience, mostly men, stay stuck on the (reasonable) idea that they aren’t going to let their daughters play with a doll that looks and dresses like a $20 transvestite hooker.


Ab_Normal 01.14.04 at 10:40 pm

I was a tomboy, and had GI Joe instead of Barbie. My daughter wanted Barbies, and got them. Barbie tended to go on grand adventures where she would save all the stuffed animals from the evil villain. If the kiddo was supposed to be using Barbie to model stereotyped gender roles through play, she didn’t get the memo. ;)

Anyway, my main objection to Barbie was what my dad called “naked Barbie syndrome” — all those accessories to buy! Or, in our case, resist buying! But that’s what indulgent friends and family members are for.


PG 01.14.04 at 10:41 pm

It depends on the Barbie. Hooker Barbie no, Hooker WICCAN Barbie yes!


Ophelia Benson 01.14.04 at 10:51 pm

We didn’t say whether we think there is harm because we were not asked. The question was not framed that way. If it had been, I would have said, because I always love to point out things that I think are harmful, and I think most things are.

Yes, I think there is harm. I sure don’t know, can’t prove it, could be wrong, etc. But I do. It’s not the gendered toys thing, it’s the hypersexualization thing. I don’t really mind all that much about gendered toys (oh how odd, an occasion for harm-pointing-out that I neglect) – I suppose because as my jokey but actually quite literal post indicates, I was so androgynous as a child. I did love a certain kind of doll (not the biggish, babylike ones, but smallish ones you could play with almost like puppets – dolls as actors rather than dolls as pretend offspring) but I also loved the other stuff.

No, it’s the hypersexualization thing and the weird premature adulthood thing that I think does harm. And even though I can’t prove it, I’m certainly very suspicious when I look at all the insanely adult-looking 12-year-old girls around. Where did they pick that up, I’d like to know! Yeah I know, Britney and all that. But I doubt that Barbie’s hands are entirely clean in the matter.


Keith M Ellis 01.14.04 at 11:15 pm

I’m curious why it’s so urgent that we pretend that children are asexual. They’re not. They’re more sexual after puberty than before (substantially), but the baseline isn’t zero. 12 year-old girls today are well into puberty. Personally, I find the fact that most childrens’ dolls lack primary sexual anatomy deeply creepy.

Of course, Barbie has exagerated secondary yet absent primary sexual anatomy, and that combination is fucked-up six ways to Sunday.


Laura11D 01.15.04 at 12:17 am

I’m not sure what is more harmful, letting your daughter play with Barbie or making a big thing about it, withholding the stupid doll, and letting her suffer socially because of it.

My parents let us play with Barbie, but only one, and then told us to get out of the house and play outside. They tried to prevent my brother from playing with guns until he started fashioning them out of sticks. They also really restricted TV consumption, and this led to all sorts of ridicule from other kids at school.

I think it’s hard enough being a kid, especially a kid with weirdo parents like us, that I’m willing to give my kids the toys (within reason) that they need to blend in.


Maynard Handley 01.15.04 at 12:51 am

I’m just a guy, but I remember that my sister had a “Cindy” doll, which, in South Africa at least, as I understood it, had more cachet than Barbie. The thing about Cindy was that she was just SO much better engineered. The joints (certainly elbows and knees, and I think feet and hands and neck) weren’t just articulated but had this really cool ratchet or something inside the plastic so you could bend the elbow and it would stay bent at the angle you moved it to.
Whle Barbie can’t stand up by herself, I suspect you might be able to make Cindy do so if you were careful with how you moved the feet, then moved the arms and elbows to get the balance right.


Timothy Burke 01.15.04 at 1:09 am

At this point, my main j’accuse against Barbie is really just what a crap doll she is in purely mechanical, material terms, compared against not just action figures and suchlike, but even other dolls.

The other problems don’t worry me so much, because I’m firmly convinced–having argued at book length for the virtues of bad kids’ TV–that troubling hermeneutics can be defeated by a kid with pluck or intelligence any old time. Barbie, as ab_normal observes, can end up being a macho action hero or a brain surgeon in the right hands. It’s just that the better built and designed a toy is, the more things it can do.

Laura’s also right, by the way, on her own pages, that some boy toys are equally crap, and Hot Wheels in particular. It’s just that the ratio of mechanically and visually interesting toys favors boys–if nothing else because they get more colors than pink and lavender.

And I suspect Laura’s also right about another conjecture: making a big deal out of withholding a toy is a guaranteed quick route into turning into a favored fetish-worship object. I was talking to a famously puritan liberal academic who writes jeremiads about consumerism once and she talked about how she keeps all bad toys and all TV away from her son, and I could only think, “There goes a kid who is going to be watching ‘Survivor Moon Base’ in 2015 like an addict on his crack pipe”.


andrew 01.15.04 at 1:36 am

Wouldn’t a doctrinaire amateur economist note the lack of good manipulatable dolls for girls, and declare that there must not be much of a market for it. Maybe all girls want is “a platform for clothes and an object to be looked at”…

While boys want the more active, interactive playthings, the girls want to play dress-up.

And leaving silly economics aside, what of the related question of whether such gender differences are inborn or culturally acquired? Is that debate settled yet? I’ve never seen anything very profound about it, just the chicken and egg problem.


John Isbell 01.15.04 at 1:56 am

Here’s a joke from my 11-year-old niece (and god-daughter) Zelie, who collects Barbies:
A customer goes into a store and asks the owner if they have any Barbies. The owner says sure, we have (and here I’ll make up names) Beach Barbie, Office Barbie, Teacher Barbie, and Divorce Barbie. The customer asks how much they cost, and the owner says, they’re all $12.95 (I have no GBP symbol), except Divorce Barbie who’s $250. The customer says well, what’s the difference? And the owner says, well, they’re all exactly the same. But Divorce Barbie comes with Ken’s car, with Ken’s house, with Ken’s wardrobe…


Invisible Adjunct 01.15.04 at 2:55 am

My mother hated Barbie with a passion: “I hate spending good money on this plastic crap.” This had nothing to do with anything that might be described as a femininist sensibility. More an old-fashioned and pre-feminist sense that Barbie was just a little too…well, we were’t allowed to add the Ken doll to our collection, if you know what I mean.

Anyway, my mother was right. Barbie didn’t offer good play value for the money. We didn’t often play with her. As Tim points out, there’s just not much to do with her but change her outfits and then place her against a backdrop. The most fun we ever had involved decapitation and hair-cutting (also mentioned by someone else above).

I guess I’m sceptical of the idea that boy’s toys are better made or more interesting. Seems like there’s a lot of crap out there aimed at the young lads too.

But yeah, I wouldn’t deny a toy on aesthetic or political grounds. You want your kid to grow up and join a cult? or end up as a news broadcaster on Fox TV?


cafl 01.15.04 at 4:22 am

I do not personally like Barbies, but I don’t regard them as a political issue. I’m slightly too old to have played with them as a child, though my younger sisters had them.

My two daughters received many Barbies as gifts from far-away relatives and at birthday parties from their friends. They didn’t play with them very much, except for a period of giving them all Sinead O’Connor haircuts. A family friend’s daughter, however, wasn’t allowed Barbies. So every time she came over to play, all the Barbies were dug out and played with incessantly till she left. This child is now a teenager who is perfectly well adjusted, but somewhat obsessed with fashion magazines, clothes and make-up.


Shai 01.15.04 at 7:04 am

My 3 year old niece loves the barbie of swan lake and barbie as rapunzel videos. there’s really nothing wrong with it unless you resent disneyesque videos that were probably only produced to sell toys…. like every other kids show. they’re usually only interested for a few weeks before they become bored and move on to some other new thing anyway.

my other niece is currently into hulk, which includes throwing fisher price tables and chairs and yelling hulk smash but only after politely asking everyone to make room so that she can playact.


dsquared 01.15.04 at 11:29 am

Why the hostility to Britney?


ken 01.15.04 at 1:01 pm

My son went through a Barbie phase last year when he was in kindergarten. He asked for a Barbie for his sixth birthday.

We were a tiny bit surprised, but we bought him one. For about two months, he really loved his barbie. He’d dress her up, he gave her a name, did her hair, took her everywhere — all that stuff. He even took her to school for “share day” one day.

That day all the boys — even at the tender age of 5/6 — poked fun at him The girls, on the other hand, seemed to think his Barbie was way cool and that he was way cool for being a boy that liked girl toys. He came home that day and told us all about it and defiantly said “Those guys are wrong daddy! A boy can like playing with girl toys.” He’s also gone through a Hello Kitty phase and he used to be the only boy in kindergarten who liked to play in the kitchen.

But a year makes a difference, I guess, he’s much more “all boy” these days. He did, though, tell me the other day that girls have more fun than boys because: (a) they get to do cool things with their hair; (b) they get to wear more different kinds of clothes — not just pants and shirts and shorts, but dresses and skirts too; (c) they get in less trouble in school because the games boys like to play — wrestling, grabbing, that sort of stuff — “automatically break the rules” while girls like to do things that don’t break the rules.


Barbara 01.15.04 at 2:31 pm

I played with Barbie until about age 10. Minimal harm done, in my estimation. We didn’t buy a lot of outfits, because my aunt, an incredibly talented seamstress, made Barbie outfits. I was going to ban Barbie on politico-feminist grounds, but since you can’t dictate birthday and Christmas presents from friends and relatives, the ban was short-lived. It’s one thing not to buy a toy. It’s quite another to “lose” Grandma’s Christmas present. I did buy my daughter a Playmobil surgeon set, and one day I found naked Barbie lying on the surgical table so the Playmobil doctors could operate. I decided Barbie probably wasn’t going to do any harm.


carla 01.15.04 at 2:41 pm

My mom restricted television (and required extensive chores, and restricted soda and sugared cereals . . .), but disallowing Barbie wouldn’t have occurred to her (I’m 45). Between us, my sister and I had about 20 of them (some of which DID have articulated joints, btw; Alan-with-the-bendy knees was one)–Barbie, and Midge, and Francie, and Skipper, and Alan, and Ken, and I’m blanking on a few other names. In any case, we used them as 3D figures in stories/adventures we were telling, not so much for the dress-up-and-pose thing (ick). And my grandmother made a bunch of clothes for them, and even at that age my sister and I knew that we didn’t have a lot of money, so buying the clothes & accessories wasn’t an option.

And maybe 12 years ago there was a play in Chicago, “Barbie, The Fantasies” that included vignettes (one memorable one was titled something like “Barbie the Dyke Goes to the Board Meeting” and included GI Joe as a character) interspersed with M/WOTS interviews about Barbies. I was amused at the number of men who confessed to mutilating their sisters’ Barbies.


Ophelia Benson 01.15.04 at 4:28 pm

Sure. Thinking Barbie causes harm is one thing, but the question of what if anything to do about that is quite another. I stuck to the first half and ignored the second, because It All Depends, and I Don’t Know.

It’s much like the hijab issue, as a matter of fact. I do think the hijab does a lot of harm, but it doesn’t follow from that that I’m confident I know what to do about it. I’m not.

(Mind you. Having said that – I also think there is something to be said for not worrying too much about suffering socially. People who are misfits as children often go on to great things, while their more conformist peers go on to what conformists go on to. Of course, misfits may also go on to be Unabombers, so it’s all rather tricky.)


Dan the Man 01.15.04 at 4:40 pm

>Why the hostility to Britney?

Haven’t you heard? The NRA has blacklisted Britney.

“What do Britney Spears, the United Methodist Church, the St. Louis Rams and Hallmark Cards have in common? They’re among the hundreds of celebrities, organizations and companies on the National Rifle Association’s roster of entities that it considers hostile to gun-ownership rights.”


harry 01.15.04 at 5:25 pm

That’s the nicest thing I’ve eveer heard about Britney. Daniel, you were joking right? (though, as I say, I don’t feel any hostility).

Ophelia, that’s a typical case of me thinking I’d asked a question that I hadn’t. But my observation is that people on this site don’t always restrict themselves to answering the question asked.

I agree with you, too, about the premature sexualisation of children. But I also accept that children are sexual. But its not, exactly, Keith, that adolescents and adults are more sexual, its that childhood sexuality is somehow different in kind. I resent (as Ophelia seems to) corporate efforts to shape children’s sexuality in the image of adult sexuality, and I resent it even more because I know that it does not flow from any view about what might be good for the children, solely from a profit motive. Of course, they are not solely to blame — adults who play into it, buy the stuff, etc. collude. But the corporate interests here are despicable.

All that said, Barbie doesn’t seem play into this the same way that, say, Britney does. She (Barbie) is remarkable partly because she seems so weirdly asexual, despite all the clothes, the shape, etc.


emjaybee 01.15.04 at 6:37 pm

I loved Barbie as a kid, but I played with her the same way I played with my stuffed animals, baby dolls, and Breyer horse collection; as an in-house acting troupe for stories I made up. I wish I remembered those stories now, but I’m pretty sure they involved space, queens, witches, flying, and magic of different sorts. Not just dressing up for the fashion show or whatever.

I think that’s why some women aren’t hostile; they remember Barbie in those terms, not as a tool of the sexist establishment.

Actually I saw these dolls in the stores at Christmas

and I find them intriguing, because there’s such a variety of skin tones and face shapes and the body types seem a little more realistic. I would have liked them as a kid, and probably wouldn’t mind getting them for my daughter if I had one.


Ophelia Benson 01.15.04 at 6:50 pm

Exactly. That’s the phrase I was looking for – ‘an in-house acting troupe.’

There could be a good popular culture or ludic history or something monograph there – doll play as pseudo-maternity versus doll play as theatre or story-telling or playwrighting or directing or all those.


Ab_Normal 01.15.04 at 6:55 pm

emjaybee: “in-house acting troupe” is a good description of how my daughter plays with her toys. Wish I’d thought of it. :)


Eric 01.15.04 at 7:51 pm

I can’t buy Barbie as hypersexualizing children. For one thing, Barbie is well over 50 years old, and 12 year olds weren’t nearly as sexualized when I was 12 (30 years ago) as they are today.

I can understand hating barbie because it’s expensive & fragile, but the feminist critique has always left me scratching my head.


wtb 01.15.04 at 8:32 pm

I’ve never seen male hostility towards Barbie. Frustration and disappointment, perhaps, but not hostility. I could never understand the view that Barbie teaches girls a distorted conception of physical beauty when Barbie herself is so disappointingly unlike a real woman. Perhaps it would help to advance the cause of feminism if we men made it clear how let down we felt the first time we saw Barbie en dishabille.


Katie 01.15.04 at 8:43 pm

Here’s damaging (or at least, kinda upsetting) for you. My sister finally put her foot down about Barbie because my 4-year-old niece, who had been Barbie-obsessed, started saying that she herself was ugly and fat (she’s the most beautiful 4-year-old you’ve EVER seen, in my completely unbiased adoring Auntie’s opinion, with perfect 4-year-old proportions) because she didn’t look like Barbie.


Ophelia Benson 01.16.04 at 12:26 am

There, see? That’s how.


rosalind 01.16.04 at 3:44 am

See, I think Katie’s post supports Harry’s argument, that Barbie is an epiphenomenon. Because Barbies have been around for a while, but 4-year-old girls thinking of themselves as fat is a more recent phenomenon, surely. Right? I just can’t go on if I believe there’s a longstanding tradition of 4-year-old girls thinking they’re fat. I think Barbie’s just one of many expressions of the female-body-scrutinizing media assault that’s our current reality.

I’m another who played with Barbies when I was little and I don’t think I was too damaged. The “ethnic” Barbies make me sort of sad, but that’s a whole ‘nother thread.


harry 01.16.04 at 3:44 pm

I’ve been thinking it over, and Ophelia could be right. Here’s how. Barbie does no damage in a certain kind of environment; one in which there are relatively few other similar phenomena, or one in which girls are being damaged in other ways by quite other kinds of phenomena. So in the 50s and 60s they are damaged by other things, and in the 70’s there aren’t enough other reinforcing influences for her to do any harm. Then, in the eighties, the threshold of other reinforcing influences is reached and suddenly she becomes a contributor to the harm. Obviously, pure conjecture, but its a thought..


Ophelia Benson 01.16.04 at 4:28 pm

I hasten to add that it’s certainly pure conjecture on my part too. I just do tend to think that little drip-drip things like that have an effect, and that we brush them off and assume they don’t ‘really’ make any difference, too quickly or easily.


Californio 01.16.04 at 10:13 pm

Certainly, four-year olds really should not be labelling themselves as fat. Sadly, many of them, well, are fat. Boys too. I think it is too much time in front of the television, or sitting in the car being driven everywhere. Couple that with harried parents feeding these kids on the road with drive-through fast food and there it is. Certain pejorative terms are common weapons used by kids, fat being one of the more popular. Her supportive aunt will help that kid more than my screed against Barbie.

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