I WATCHED dozens of Barbie videos hundreds of times when my daughter was three and four years old. I can’t praise their animation, dialog, or other cinematic and literary qualities, but this I can say in their favor: every Barbie video we watched was feminist and empowering in its messaging.
This was not the Barbie my girl cousin grew up with, wondering which outfit she should wear to please Ken. This Barbie kicked ass.
In one video, set in 18th Century France, Barbie and her roommates overcame sexism to become Musketeers. They exposed a conspiracy, beat male villains at swordplay, and more than once saved the life of the kingdom’s rather ineffectual prince. (The downside of the Barbie videos’ crude but seemingly heartfelt feminism was that they tended to portray men as wimps or scumbags. Women are strong in the Barbie videos; good men are not.)
In another video, Barbie was an actor who became a film director when the director of the picture in which she was starring tried to patronize her. In Fairytopia, the first and worst animated of the videos, Barbie went on a Lord-of-the-Rings-style quest and saved an entire kingdom from ruin. In A Fashion Fairytale, she saved her aunt’s business from bankruptcy by an evil (woman) competitor, and then helped that competitor turn from the dark side to the light. In other words, she kicked ass but also nurtured and forgave. Assertive and supportive. A fighter and a hugger.
I watched these videos over and over, because children aged three to four thrive on repetition. I got familiar enough that I could quote the dialog as easily as I quote from Rushmore or North By Northwest. I was relieved when my daughter outgrew Barbie, because my mind craved something a little more grown-up in the film narrative department. But I never once worried that the videos were telling my daughter she could be anything but awesome. I never watched a single Barbie video that told girls life was about finding and pleasing anyone besides yourself.
This was also the time in my daughter’s development when we bought Barbie reading books and Barbie dolls. When I was three, Barbie had a thousand ways to look beautiful. When my daughter was three, Barbie had a thousand ways to earn a living.
You can find fault with Barbie. For one thing, she still promotes a vision of the world in which caucasian features set the beauty standard—a world in which, even if there are variously ethnic friends in the mix, the main character is always white. Then there are her unrealistic physical dimensions, which have been tied to self-loathing and eating disorders in girls and women. (Not that Barbie’s is the only unrealistic physique girls contend with—they’re bombarded with the stuff from birth.) The Barbie stories never question the established social order. They inspire girls to achieve, but obviously they don’t address male/female pay discrepancy or other serious social issues.
Musketeer Barbie saves the prince; she doesn’t ask why do we need a prince? Shouldn’t we invent representative democracy? And how about letting a woman run things?
Barbie won’t save us. But she’s not as bad as all that.
For young girls who have just begun seeing the world through the filter of gender, today’s Barbie does some good. Barbie videos were some of the only stories we watched back then that didn’t require me to immediately explain, apologize for, and caution against believing, one or more horrifying biases. Viewed a classic Disney film lately?
The internet feeds on outrage and cat gifs. And the recent outing of a Barbie story that appears to conform to 1950s-Barbie-thinking made perfect fodder. But it might simply be a book that teaches children how different professionals work together to create the digital games they enjoy playing. A designer is part of the mix; so are developers and other professionals, whose complementary skills support each other. That’s how it works when I design stuff. In my work, almost every day, there are things that go wrong that oblige me to call someone else to fix them. I notice a problem on a server; I reach out to a sysadmin. It isn’t because I’m a boy and boys are dumb. It’s because designers aren’t sysadmins.
All right. Fair enough. It was a terrible error for the illustrator to make all the technical people male. That sends an awful message—one lots of us have been working to fight. It’s disturbing that nobody at the publishing house realized the inferences that could be drawn from this mistake. And if this were my only exposure to Barbie in the past ten years, I’d be drawing those inferences and storming the barricades (i.e. retweeting) with the rest of my peeps.
But honestly? I spent two long years with the Barbie franchise. I think the women running it today are serious about girl power. Maybe the unfortunately timed illustration error reveals a deep sexist conspiracy. Or maybe it’s just one of those things nobody thought about while rushing a cheap book to print.