A new vision of Barbie was unveiled today, that astonishing woman who is nearly up to her 160th career. This time she is ‘Entrepreneur Barbie’, replete with smartphone and tablet as well as the obligatory bright pink dress and stiletto shoes. In spite of the seemingly positive career move for the ever-youthful lady, the usual digs were made.
One article quoted a study, done by the universities of Oregon State and California, which found that playing with the dolls resulted in girls feeling restricted in their future career choices. Personally, I’m surprised by this, and can’t conceive of how playtime with a doll could possibly have this terrible outcome as a direct consequence. I’m baffled. What part of playing with ‘pilot Barbie’, ‘Doctor Barbie’, and ‘scuba diver Barbie’ would make a girl feel that she could do fewer jobs than a boy? Perhaps it really is a verifiable scientific result. But to me it seems ludicrous.
Another critic today complained that, whilst Barbie has run for President three times, she has yet to be elected. Now this one I can agree with. Perhaps the makers don’t want girls to get the wrong idea. After all, there’s no such thing as a woman president, silly! Seriously, though, I just hope it’s fourth time lucky for the poor woman.
The inevitable debate that gets wheeled out with each Madonna-like reinvention of Barbie is that her unrealistic figure affects young girls’ body image, setting them up for a lifetime of eating disorders and low self-esteem. It’s an argument I have no truck with. True, I spent a childhood playing with around 40 different incarnations of the bizarrely shaped doll. True, I have had my fair share of eating issues and low self-esteem. But do I link the two? Don’t be ridiculous.
As a child I don’t remember ever thinking about Barbie’s body, except to grumble that her legs really weren’t sufficiently bendy for her to sit comfortably in her pink jeep, or that the lack of malleability really hindered me in changing her outfits. I also found it irritating that her feet were permanently high heel shaped, and so wouldn’t fit into the flat sandals and shoes that she had inherited from my Mum’s Sindy doll. But lust after her physical dimensions, which would technically make the small point of ‘being alive’ an impossibility? Nope.
Funnily enough, as a child, I also didn’t ponder too much the fact that my Lego pieces don’t resemble ‘real bricks’ or that I couldn’t actually hear a heartbeat when I tried to employ my plastic ‘stethoscope’. As a child, I understand that toys are just that. A doll is just a doll, it’s not supposed to be a biologically exact replica of a human being. It didn’t, and doesn’t, bother me that Barbie’s body is unlike that of a real person.
So the argument that has now appeared that bothers me more is that we now live in a ‘post-doll era’. The chief executive of Lady Geek, Belinda Parmar, has stated that ‘a doll is a redundant prop that does little to stimulate the imagination’, while instead espousing the benefits of computer games. I couldn’t disagree more. While she may be correct that these types of game teach ‘analytical and logical thinking’, these skills alone are not enough to get on in life. My Barbie dolls were my imagination. As an only child, with few friends and two busy parents, I happily spent many years alone, creating stories, scenarios, years-long dramas and relationship dynamics. Each of my very many dolls had a distinct personality, each had their own thoughts, feelings and behaviours. I had ‘baby’, ‘teenage’ and ‘adult’ versions, both male and female, creating whole families and communities from my toybox. This free play, without the interference of adults or screens, or even games, allowed me to explore the vast caverns of my child imagination. It stimulated my creativity, my thoughts. It allowed me comfortable to be in my own company, not lonely but content. I believe that this was key in moulding my personality. If I had been sat down in front of ‘analytical’ and ‘logical’ games all the time as a child, I would be a very different person.
Barbie has her faults, and as a feminist I’m probably contractually obliged to hate her guts. But I don’t blame a little piece of moulded plastic for my adult faults, and I’ll always have fond memories of my childhood play with my somewhat embarrassing number of dolls. Barbie for President!