When I was nine years old, I inherited a half-dozen Barbies. They were bestowed upon my giddy, fourth-grade self shortly after my family and I moved to the United States—the dolls were hand-me-downs from the slightly older daughter of a new, American family friend. She had “outgrown” them, which was inconceivable to my still developing mind. (How could anyone not want to play with Barbies?)
I, for one, welcomed those injection-molded plastic dolls with open arms. I spent hours dressing up their anatomically impossible bodies and braiding their smooth, supple hair. (I’m pretty sure I also received a Ken doll, but he wasn’t nearly as versatile.) Free dolls? America seemed like a pretty great place.
At some point, though, I too outgrew the Barbies. I just kind of lost interest, as kids often do. I let their hair get knotty—or what was left of it, since I’d given a few of them “haircuts.” And I kept them in a box under my bed. I don’t remember what became of them, but I didn’t think about the dolls for many years. My love for them devolved into apathy. Then, a few years ago, I had a daughter. And then another. Gradually, as they became a little older and asked for Barbies, the long-forgotten doll became top of mind for me again, but in a very different way.
Having children makes you reevaluate all sorts of things. For example: How had my experience of playing with Barbies shaped me, if at all? And how could it shape my daughters? Most importantly, as a feminist (and a writer who often covers women in powerful positions) how could I justify letting my girls play with a doll whose “greatest quotes” include the following gem: “Math class is tough!” (Courtesy of Teen Talk Barbie, circa 1992.)
Yes, I had loved my Barbies—for a time. I’m not sure how to explain it, but there was something so exciting about playing personal stylist to a half-dozen glamorous dolls, and imagining all the glamorous parties they would go to. Then again, I also remember wishing that I could look like them. At least back then, Mattel did not make a frizzy-haired doll with red-rimmed glasses and scuffed sneakers, and anyway, I didn’t even think about the possibility of playing with a doll that looked like me, I just wished I looked like the Barbies I had. What does that mean? I don’t fully know. But I do know that it’s a confusion I don’t want to pass down to my young daughters.
To be fair, Barbie has gone through a massive transformation in recent years, becoming a bit more reflective of our society. In early 2016, Mattel, maker of the doll, launched a new series of Barbies with different body shapes—tall, petite and curvy. They even came out with a “dad bod” Ken. And Barbies of different ethnicities have been on shelves for quite a few years now.
But the doll, first distributed in 1959, still seems outdated to me. Despite the updates to our thinking about gender (and the infiltration of technology into seemingly everything we do), she has remained virtually the same: A passive doll whose identity is primarily formed by the clothes she wears. That hasn’t stopped her from remaining the top-selling doll in the world, bringing in about $1 billion in annual gross sales for Mattel. The numbers suggest that plenty of parents still buy Barbies for their kids. But, for me, the ritual of dressing up and doing hair isn’t something I necessarily need to bequeath. I want my daughters to build, to create, to imagine. To play with a ball and get muddy. To cheat at checkers. (Okay, that last part I can do without.)
So, though they’ve asked, I haven’t bought my children Barbies. Because, well, I saw them as antithetical to the kind of examples I wanted them to have. But then, just a few weeks ago, I embarked on a story about Mattel. and its new CEO, Google veteran Margo Georgiadis. I found myself wandering the halls of the company, wondering if maybe, just maybe, I should give Barbie another chance. After all, the CEO pointed out, she was sort of a feminist in her time.
“Barbie was the empowered Malibu woman who was independent—she had her own house, her own car, and her own visions of herself,” Georgiadis told me during an interview at the company’s headquarters in Southern California. “That was a pretty disruptive idea back in the ’50s.”
In 2017? Not so much. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe I had misconceptions. I took my internal debate to a very unscientific sample—a group of friends who have daughters. I asked each of them two questions: Did you play with Barbies growing up? And do your daughters play with Barbies now?
“I played with Barbies, and, as I recall, the only thing I liked to do with them was dress them as outrageous and slutty as possible,” said one friend. “My daughter is still too little to play with them, but I imagine she will do the same if they’re still making the cobalt blue lacy gloves and fuchsia hot pants (which I sure hope they’re not).”
Another friend had this to say: “As to whether my daughter plays Barbies, truthfully she has not asked to. I don’t think it’s really in fashion anymore, which as a mother and a feminist makes me pretty happy.”
“Yes, I had Barbies, black and white ones,” said yet another acquaintance. “I’d let my daughter play with them, just like I also let her play with trucks, Legos, doctor kits, and tutus. You can’t figure out what it is you like unless you’re exposed to a variety of things. I will say it’s interesting looking for dolls for her because she is rather fair skinned, and most black dolls are brown, like me, so I have to search to find dolls that are more of a reflection of her skin tone.”
Lastly, one of my hard-core feminist friend shared the following: “My friends and I would play [with Barbies] for hours. It was the ’70s. My parents were average, Jewish middle class, and we lived in the suburbs and ate Wonder Bread and Spaghetti O’s. I watched a lot of TV. All of my friends had Barbies. I get the stigma, but I never felt like I needed or wanted to look like a Barbie. What can I say? I’m a feminist, but it doesn’t really bother me.”
Their reactions, like mine, were complex (not to mention full of snark). We all have a certain nostalgia for Barbie, however ridiculous the doll seems to us today. We still love the memory of playing with her, of dressing her up and dressing her down and the joyful, imagination-stimulating rush we got from living vicariously through her. Barbie, at least to some of my friends, represents that time in our childhood when we were still ignorant of the powerful, sometimes subliminal gender messages that were shaping us. But she doesn’t represent who we want to be. After all, she is quite literally, a plastic, perfect woman.
My daughters, now six and seven, haven’t asked for a Barbie in a while. Instead, they’ve shifted their lobbying power to try and convince me that Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse, an animated web series, is educational and therefore well worth their time. So, in the sprit of research and keeping an open mind, I’ve decided on a compromise: I told them I would watch it with them. That I would give Barbie a chance.
Last weekend, we sat down to watch the show, an episode about Barbie giving her sisters some one-on-one time while simultaneously trying to prepare an all-girl band for their concert. The new and evolved doll, it turns out, likes to say things like “Terrif!” and “Sounds amaze!” She is fun-loving and hard-working. And she still really likes clothes—and shoes. Barbie “climbed Mount Everest in five-inch heels!” exclaims one of her sisters. That’s really cool, I thought. But why in heels?
Later, I asked my girls why they liked the doll and her “terrif” show. “Because it’s stupid,” said my wry seven-year-old. “I think it’s funny.” My six-year-old had a different take: “Because she’s pretty,” she told me.
The show left me more confused than before, and I’m still not sure what to think about Barbie and her potential role in my household and in my daughters’ lives. All I can say is that, despite all of her advancements and evolutions, she’s still so… Barbie. And I love her and hate her for that.