Has Barbie got better in 2013?

The Barbie <i>Race to the Party</i> board game from Mattel.

The Barbie Race to the Party board game from Mattel.

On Christmas Eve, Michelle Obama was reported saying, "When I was little I loved Barbie dolls. I was a big Barbie doll kid, and every Christmas I got a new Barbie. One year I got the Barbie townhouse and the camper.  It was very exciting".

I was a little surprised when I heard Ms Obama providing a free White House endorsement for Mattel’s product. Barbie’s obscene spending habits may be the only thing to jump-start the US economy, but didn’t the First Lady get the memo that the controversial doll and her whole pink infested lifestyle is a disgrace to the sisterhood?

But then I recalled a chance meeting with a Mattel marketing exec. "Barbie is a feminist doll," she explained to me while we watched our kids take their first swimming lessons.

Since I’d only just met the woman and we were making polite conversation, I resisted the urge to throw my head back and howl with laughter. Instead I bit my tongue.

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The Marketing Manager took this as a cue to elaborate on Barbie’s feminist credentials. For example Barbie is apparently a great role model for little girls because she has a career.

Call me a skeptic, but I find this about as convincing as Ken’s hair. While it’s true that Barbie has had any number of careers, it’s also true that Barbie has a BMI of an anorexic stick insect, the proportional leg and neck length of a giraffe, and is as materialistic as a socialite with obsessive consumption disorder.

I’m all for professional role models for girls, but Barbie ain’t it. In fact, career Barbies are perhaps the most toxic of all of the freaky species. The message is that girls can be vets, dentists, or engineers — just as long as they are also hot, perpetually youthful, and have the time and disposable income to coordinate their campervan with their pony.

And adding the cheesy slogan ‘If you can dream it, you can be it’ doesn’t turn Barbie into Gloria Steinem. It just gives our girls one more thing to fail at. No matter how hard girls ‘dream’, not a single one of them is going to look like this.  Not only have they failed at being thin and beautiful like Barbie, they’re also monumentally rubbish at manifesting stuff out of thin air — a la The Secret.

The day after the First Lady was singing Barbie’s praises, my daughter received a Barbie Race To The Party board game as a Christmas present. Despite the assurances from Mattel’s marketing exec, about the only career this game would prepare my daughter for is a Kardashian.

For those of you who are blissfully ignorant of Mattel’s Feminism For Beginners board game, the rules reveal quite a lot about what the makers of Barbie understand by ‘feminism’.

The object of the game is as follows: ‘Players have to collect a fab outfit before they get to the party at the end of the board.’ To attain this worthy goal, the game even comes complete with ATM cards.  

And the little feminists-in-training can learn character-building life lessons by losing turns because, ‘Your shoes don’t match your outfit!’.  Fortunately, the lucky girl who snags a guy with a convertible (but no genitals — even Barbie, it seems, can’t have it all), can leave her sisters to eat dust. Or, as the game cards put it,  ‘Ken gives you a lift directly to the nearest store!’

At three, my daughter genuinely believes she is capable of anything. Her identity and ambitions have not yet been limited by the imposter syndrome, peer pressure, or even the laws or physics.

On any given day she will plan to fly to the moon, cure sick animals, or right injustices with her magic wand — and that’s before lunch. Why would we choose to shackle our children’s imaginations and dreams with games that encourage them to shop for ‘fab outfits’ in order to gain social acceptance and entry to a party?

Thanks for caring Mattel, but before you nominate yourself for Young Feminist of the Year, I’ll wager that our kids are going to get the hang of gratuitous consumption all on their own. 

And every time our girls leave the house they’re assaulted with messages about artificial standards of beauty and their worth as people. For every Michelle Obama, there are thousands of girls who have self-esteem crushing body hatred, are lining up for boob jobs in increasing numbers, and claim that they would rather win Next Top Model than a Nobel Prize.

I’m not suggesting Barbie is the sole cause of this catastrophe, but giving girls toys that focus on unattainable standards of beauty and superficiality cannot be helpful.

So rather than add to this burden, I’m putting Race to the Party where it belongs: in the pink trash compactor. 

Kasey Edwards is the best-selling author of 4 books 30-Something and Over It, 30-Something and The Clock is Ticking, OMG! That's Not My Husband, and OMG! That's Not My Child. www.kaseyedwards.com

12 comments so far

  • A game for little girls about winning a race to a party where you can zoom by faster than all the other little girls if you get a lift in your boyfriend's "convertible" (not a roadster or cabriolet but the tacky American convertible. I even bet they incorrectly label a roadster by calling it a convertible)........

    If you were to write a sit-com with this in it the scene wouldn't be funny because it would be too contrived and unbelievable to be funny. Who woulda thunk real life can be funnier than quality scripted TV!

    Commenter
    Bender
    Date and time
    January 10, 2013, 10:10AM
    • I loved my Barbie as a little girl. I used to make clothes for her. I also used to make clothes for Barbie and sold them down at the local craft shop for pocket money - so Barbie was my first foray in being an entrepreneur. There's a life lesson courtesy of Barbie. I also used to take my Barbie and her wardrobe and her campervan to local neighbourhood girl's houses where we would all play with each others Barbies. Barbie was a source of common interest over which friendships were forged and social skills learnt. Children don't see Barbie as some anti-feminist role model who is too tall and skinny to be real - they just see a toy that lets them bond with other children, that delights them by letting them play dress up, and allows them to play out every day scenes of adult behaviour that they see and want to imitate. If you want to be a feminist role model worry less about the toys, and more about your own behaviour that your children will watch and copy. If they see Mum doing the cooking/cleaning/shopping while Dad goes to work, that is when they will grow up to think that girls only do housework while only boys have careers. Monkey see, Monkey do. And for the record, I grew up to get three University degrees, worked in two male dominated industries, don't have an eating disorder, am happy with my body image, and understand the basic fact of life that a doll is just a doll and not a precursor of a Paris Hilton complex.

      Commenter
      Kaz
      Location
      Online
      Date and time
      January 10, 2013, 11:19AM
      • Kasey, I share some of your concerns about Barbie and yet I find this hard to reconcile with my personal experience. In the seventies, my parents were a little "outre" for their time but they felt Barbie was very "wrong" for impressionable young women learning about gender roles and I was not allowed Barbies at all. When I finally scored one at age 8 (from someone outside the family), I went on to play and play with Barbies until I was 13 years old! I loved Barbie, despite my parents disdain. I made clothes for her, I constructed houses for her out of boxes and she went on adventures with my brother's Steve Austin (6 million dollar man) doll. I still feel fondly towards her unrealistic plastic form with its ridiculous tiptoes, only able to wear high-heels.
        These days, both my little girls and my little boy play with Barbies. They also play with trains, cars, lego and read lots of books. Give kids good toy variety to choose what they like - you'll find their own ability to think critically and above all to play creatively will be more educational than selecting supposed ideologically sound neutral toys.

        Commenter
        guilty doll owner
        Date and time
        January 10, 2013, 12:02PM
        • When I was younger, I was a Barbie fanatic just like Michelle. Not once in the years I spent playing with my dolls did I ever analyze her enough to figure out that her body shape wasn't quite right - that's just the way Barbie looked. I didn't have plenty of female role models growing up, but I had enough to show me that women come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and not once in my life have I felt unsure of the way I look, despite always being on the "higher end" of a healthy BMI and having plenty of pressure from family, friends and peers to look a certain way.
          Maybe I'm just fortunate enough not to be horribly disfigured or obese, but I think we should give girls a little enough credit that they can work out that their dolls aren't real.

          As for the careers and "dreaming", I wanted to be an artist when I was growing up; Barbie didn't kill my dream, subjective commentary during my tertiary education did.

          Commenter
          H
          Date and time
          January 10, 2013, 12:08PM
          • "I think we should give girls a little enough credit that they can work out that their dolls aren't real"

            Spot on!

            Commenter
            Miffy
            Date and time
            January 10, 2013, 3:08PM
        • I don't see what the problem is with Barbie being beautiful, isn't Action Man handsome? And yes, no matter how hard girls try most of them will not be beautiful…just as most girls (and boys) will not be doctors or engineers because they aren’t intelligent enough (only the top students get through these courses). Whether or not a girl plays with Barbie, there will be a time in her life when she discovers that some people are good looking/smart/wealthy and some people aren't. When a kid discovers that they aren’t necessarily as beautiful/talented/intelligent as Grandma told them they were it is always going to be difficult. It is the parent's role to reassure children that they will be loved no matter what.

          Commenter
          Judy
          Location
          Rose Bay
          Date and time
          January 10, 2013, 12:10PM
          • What little girl would want a fat, ugly doll??

            Barbie is what she is. A pretty doll for doing her hair, ripping the head off, changing her outfit, marrying to ken or the star wars figurine stolen from a sibling.

            The only reason a little girl would look at barbie and see her as being "too pretty" or "too thin" is if the parents say such things about Barbie in front of the little girl.

            Until then, Barbie is just a pretty girl toy who is fun to dress up and imagine scenarios for.

            Commenter
            Adrian
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            January 10, 2013, 1:37PM
            • I'm glad there are some here who have commented on exactly what I was thinking when I read this article;- that there have been countless creative designers, (many of whom are now world famous- especially the big names who have designed clothes for her in recent times,) stylists, artists and directors spanning several generations - both female AND male!- who got their first taste of fashion and design through Barbie. It is merely a creative outlet for many children, such as drawing and writing. They don't compare their own bodies to these dolls precisely BECAUSE it is so different! It is more like a 3D version of an extreme fashion illustration than any real person. At least that's how my friends and I viewed her when we played with her. All that body-image claptrap wasn't even a thought! (And for the record, my niece and her friends don't like Barbie dolls and absolutely hate Bratz dolls, much to my disappointment...they prefer monkeys and crayons! And that's perfectly fine, too.)

              Commenter
              bigeetah
              Date and time
              January 10, 2013, 2:25PM
              • I find it hard to reconcile this Daily Life article with today's other excellent article by Annie Stevens, "Smart women are allowed to talk about 'frivolous' things".

                Like Barbie, I'm equally comfortable rocking up to my job in finance as I am matching my shoes to my dress... Sure that board game is a bit ridiculous, but so's the 'Game of Life' and that weird one where you have to build a railway line across America.

                I think as long as girls have a variety of role models in their lives (male and female) then Barbie has a place in the toy box.

                Commenter
                jeanette_kc
                Location
                Melbourne
                Date and time
                January 10, 2013, 2:35PM
                • Oh Kasey....*le sigh*. Give children the benefit of the doubt, and equip them with the knowledge to understand how the world works. Don't assume all kids are easily influenced by this stuff, you have to factor in their ENTIRE environment. The girls who want to inflate their breasts or plasticise their faces probably have much deeper esteem issues other than "Barbie made me do it".

                  I won't deny that Barbie doesn't influence girls - she does - but it's up to us to give them a variety of toys - as well as education - from a young age so they're not bombarded with one gendered stereotypes and expectations on themselves for life.

                  Do you know what I used to do with Barbies? (You could say I was a sadistic child, I say "creative") but do you remember the ones where their arms are bent at the elbow like she was doing the "robot"? well, I had one favourite, and I called "Headless Helen" - I ripped her head off and positioned it in her hands so she was holding it. I'd dress her in black scrap material, cut her hair and gave her a "goth makeover" with black texta. She was in a permenent state of "zombie-ness" ....don't ask why, no idea! Thought I was pretty creative! she used to "scare" the other dolls in my stories. Amused me to no end!

                  Not once did I think I should look or act like Barbie (I always thought she was a bit dumb) and none of mine represented "me". Barbies were merely charcters in my storytelling at playtime.

                  If you want your kids to grow up with certain values, you need to show them not only the "right" way, but the "wrong" way so they know the difference.

                  Commenter
                  Miffy
                  Date and time
                  January 10, 2013, 3:07PM

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