Icon: For Love of Barbie

When I was twenty, Barbie was a symbol of oppression with obvious food issues. No way would a future child of mine identify with that.

When I was twenty, “princess” was another word for “child of oppressor.” Monarchs went with pogroms and capitalists.

If I ever had a daughter, she would be one of the people. Or a leader of the people. Or an anarchist. Or most probably an artist. Art was problematic because it also went with corporate capitalism (when not going steady with poverty) but at least the few artists who made money disdained it, if only publicly.

Twenty wasn’t easy.

When I was twenty, when I considered bringing a child into this world of wrong, I pictured her enjoying organic produce and healthy ethnic cuisines.

Decades and chameleon lives later, I was married and we were expecting.

After our daughter was born, I suggested raising her vegetarian. It seemed wrong to feed an angel on the blood and limbs of slaughtered animals. Her mother said she’d go along with the vegetarian angle as long as I did the research and committed to preparing fresh, nutritionally balanced meals that supplied every nutrient our child would need.

So she eats meat.

Mostly she eats french fries.

She sometimes eats at McDonald’s. Also she eats candy and plays with Barbies. She says she is Barbie’s biggest fan. Soon after learning to say Dada and Mama, she asked if she was a princess. We said yes.

What used to be my elegant teakwood dining table is now the staging area for a Barbie apartment. The Barbie pool, Barbie camping van, and Barbie salon that comprise the “apartment” barely leave room for the Barbies, Stacies, and Kellys who make use of these facilities.

The princess turns six in September. She’s working on the party guest list and we’ve already decided on her birthday present: a Barbie house.

Barbie is now fifty. But fifty is the new 49. There’s a reason she’s stuck around all these decades. Turns out it has nothing to do with theory and everything to do with girls.

P.S. Hint to my people: when you go to barbie.com, enable Flash.

30 thoughts on “Icon: For Love of Barbie

  1. Very sweetly put. I had the same experience when I had my sons. Oh, they were going to have dolls as well as trucks and trains, and never any guns or weapons!

    But the dolls and kitchen playsets were very quickly covered in dust, set aside in favor of trucks and cars and robots. I never did buy them toy guns, but that did nothing to stop them from using sticks, legos, etc. as their faux weapons.

    For what it’s worth, even without the dolls and kitchen sets, they’ve come out to be interesting, curious, caring young men. They have plenty of friends – male and female. And they know how to cook – the younger one loves to help me in the kitchen and makes a mean omelette all on his own!

    I’m glad to hear that you’re embracing Barbie. Although I can’t always keep up, I do play Xbox with my boys (and on my own!). There’s a joy in learning about the things that are important to the ones you love and joining in when you can. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  2. You speak the truth, Jeffrey. Staying true to your own ideals is incredibly hard when it involves another person with completely different views/goals/needs.

    My daughter has not yet discovered Barbies, but I’m sure she will eventually.

  3. Staying true to your own ideals is incredibly hard when it involves another person with completely different views/goals/needs.

    And when it comes to parenting, I’m more interested in who she is than in shaping her to some outmoded old theory of mine. ;)

  4. My parents basically only bought me legos, brios (before they apparently became part of k’nex), and other “building” toys. My favorite toy when I was a kid was a set of blocks my dad made for me with a tablesaw. But there were times where all I wanted was a GI Joe.

    I think it makes sense that my chosen profession is web development, which is somewhere between routing trains, stacking blocks, and sticking together legos.

  5. My point is that childhood play is important for determining our tendencies later on in life. What you play with and how you play has an effect on how your brain works: objectively, how is playing with Barbies altering your child’s brain? How did playing with legos change mine? It’s an interesting topic to think about.

  6. All too well said. My 2 year old daughter often introduces herself as “Daddy’s Princess”. She loves to run, jump and even fight but she’s at her most content with freshly tended hair, a dress and a mirror near by.

    That said, I always keep hammers, blow up boxing gloves, race cars and other atypical toys nearby.


  7. Very well put Jeffrey. I have more than a dozen nieces and nephews. My siblings started having kids when I was eighteen, and early in these kids lives, I found it necessary to judge parental decisions on toys, health, rules etc. In the intervening 15 or so years, I’ve seen enough about the reality of my siblings role in the world to start cutting them real slack. My wife and I are planning to have children soon, so perhaps it’s good to have this change in perspective. This week my oldest niece is visiting, and it is totally wonderful to see how these little people grow in to thoughtful, bright and interesting young-adults. Regardless of my desires, nature takes it’s course, I suppose it’s my job to watch and learn.

  8. My wife always says she was an expert on parenting until she became a parent. It’s a wonderful thing we’ve got kids to knock us down a few notches and remind us what’s really important.

  9. Personally, I never cared for Barbie, never learned to play house and lost interest in dolls past choosing whose would be whose and building their environments (with blocks, Matchbox cars and whatever else was around). But my sister still holds a grudge against our parents for not permitting them, even after receiving one from our mom as a 5oth birthday present. Nature/nurture – there’s no accounting for taste.
    Which is to say, who can say what will float a kid’s boat? One thing is certain: offering options (boats, water, oceans of art supplies and permission to choose) is sure to bolster a child’s sense of self and exploration and that is something your kid has is spades.
    Yay, Princess Ava, Barbie’s biggest fan!

  10. Nick, young boys and girls play differently.

    Generally speaking, young boys like to build (especially “up”), like things that roll and move, like things with many parts, etc. They are not quite as picky about color, and aren’t usually drawn to toys with faces.

    Young girls, generally speaking, are not as interested in building (if they do build, they build low structures, and enclosures), are not as interested in balls and things that move, and are drawn to smaller objects and things with faces (dolls, wooden animals, etc).

    These predilections are hardwired in. I kept my son away from any kind of “vehicle” toy—I was sure boys like cars and trucks as toys because pushy parents worried about having “manly” boys buy them cars and trucks as toys—until he was… about 18 months old. We were in Israel, had been there about five weeks. He’d become bored with the small supply of toys I’d brought (a set of gears you could move around and reposition [typical “boy” toy], books, a few other things), and a friend there brought over a bag of hand me down toys from her kids. There were two tiny cars. Old cruddy things, Matchbox style.

    These were the *first* car toys he’d ever seen.

    As soon as he saw them, his face changed. He picked one up, looked at it, turned it about in his hands, and in a second it was speeding across the wall as he was making brand new “engine” noises.

    It’s hardwired. Boys and girls play differently, and boys and girls learn differently. Legos did not *change* your mind (although they are certainly good for it)—you liked Legos because boys’ minds like to build. They like to build, and to destroy.

    Give a little girl a set of wooden blocks, and she’ll see a family of bears or cats going out on a picnic. Give a little boy a Barbie, and he’ll see rifle with boobs.

  11. I have no doubt that in time I will lose the war on Barbie. It is an inevitable truth. I just hope I am more successful on the Bratz front.

  12. Nicely put Jeffrey. I too had the same ideals and theories. We embarked on the parenting mission to avoid commercial branding in our home. The wife and I discussed we would not tolerate Barbie, Disney, ..etc. More than the toys we were focused on the decor and wardrobe. We warned our family and friends will we not tolerate Princess shirts, Barbie dresses, Dora shoes, Elmo blankets, ..etc. We would reward her with books and art.

    Now I type this in my office that is equally surrounded by Disney princesses. My daughter is running around playing with other princesses… running around in her Dora sneakers and Sleeping beauty dress. She is more obsessed with princesses than Barbie but requests Barbie every trip to the toy store or after a TV commercial advertising this ageless beauty.

    She eats one vegetable, yes one, at age 4. Cucumbers, nothing else. She hates milk and loves french fries, muffins, cake, chocolate, chicken nuggets – pretty much everything we told ourselves she would never be allowed to have.

    Parenting it truly does change, well, everything.

  13. Your daughter and my niece could be two peas in a pod. Last weekend, I walked into her room to find her propping her Barbies up and photographing them in their outfits.

  14. You’re one of my inspirations because of what you do for the web. You’re one of my heroes for the way you raise your daughter.

    I’ve said something like this myself, but not as well and not as publicly. Lovely.

  15. Frak. I hadn’t meant to post that yet. As I meant to say it:

    when it comes to parenting, I’m more interested in who she is than in shaping her to some outmoded old theory of mine.

    I’ve said something like this myself, but not as well and not as publicly. Lovely.

  16. My 7 year old daughter was obsessed with fairies and princesses for a while. She was a huge Dora fan and now refuses to take the Dora Tupperware bowl as part of her lunch (My 11 year old son avoids it like the plague as well, so Dora accompanies me in my lunch some days. I’m secure enough in my manhood and they already think I’m terminally unhip most of the time anyway.)

    She’s moved on to animals. We’re inundated with Littlest Pets and stuffed animals. She says she wants to be a vet, but I’m pretty sure she’s inherited my allergies. I don’t have the heart to break it to her yet. Perhaps modern medicine will do a better job for her than it has for me.

    We’ve drawn the line with Bratz. I won’t let that crap into my home. I’m not a very big fan of Junie B Jones either. I’m constantly correcting her grammar when I’m the one doing the reading.

  17. My almost-four-year-old hasn’t discovered Barbie yet, but I suspect I won’t be able to hide that part of the universe from her much longer.
    My wife insists that playing with Barbies and Kens when she was a kid didn’t prevent her from becoming a very coherent feminist, so now I’m mainly working on myself to come to terms with my dread for these, uh, innocuous toys — which is Step 2 after a Dora-related Step 1…

  18. … And there will come a time when that cherubic face turns 15 and all definitions are called into play.

    My son has abandoned his Lego’s, his Kinex, his flute, a concert grade bassoon, a 6” reflector telescope… All my attempts to drag him into the north woods and see the starry heavens, to hear loons calling at dusk, to smell wood smoke rising through the pines – have been futile.

    I swore not invite a digital game into my home. It was my sister-in-law that released the demons –a Game Boy, a PSP, an iTouch, a desktop system, a PS@, an XBox. I referred to these as my son’s electronic medicine cabinet.

    I also swore not to mold my son in my image. So I have sought a middle ground; dragging him into the kitchen to help with dinner, walking the dog together, playing with the iPad displays at Best Buy. It is these moments we still keep our channels open.

    My thoughts tonight are with Abby Sunderland tonight and her parents – a child with a vision. We as parents stand as gatekeepers to the world, mediators of good and bad, fostering strength and independence, teaching our sons and daughters that nothing is beyond their grasp.

  19. Barbie is loveable. It is clean and consistent in message and style. It tells a story a past in an alternative universe where the 50s and 80s were one decade and the surface is the engine. Colors of Hollywood. What a beautiful toy.

  20. I think a parent’s job in this area is to provide opportunities to explore and let the child sort it all out. Growing up, I had a Barbie and an Easy Bake oven. But I also had a microscope, race car set, softball mitt/bat, etc. Built and launched model rockets right alongside my brothers and my sister let me play with her makeup and showed me how to sew. Eventually, my Easy Bake oven was handed down to my nephew who is all grown up now and manages food service workers, married and has two sons. I’ve never married nor had kids but was a chemical engineer and now design motion graphics. So Barbie didn’t brainwash me. No one can predict life’s twists and turns so just let kids play!

  21. @SCS

    I think your “hardwired” examples are a bit dated, and mostly enforced by stereotypes. My four year-old daughter has always pushed aside her animals to make room for her blocks, stacked her dolls up to watch her build Lego towers and no one loves to destroy them more than she.

  22. Welcome to the real world (as you know now quite well). Loving Barbie and French Fries won’t hurt her a bit. In the end, she will become who she always was, which is, a combination of you and your wife. They can run, but they can’t escape who they really are.

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