Barbie

Apparently, I’m not the only one thinking about Barbie and Bratz dolls this time of year. Margaret Talbot has a nice essay on the Bratz dolls in the 12/4/06 New Yorker and Newsweek is covering the Barbie v. Bratz court battle. Barbie, a doll that used to be for eight- and nine-year-olds is mostly for three- to six-year olds now. My older daughter will be four in two weeks. Christmas is in three. All she wants is Barbie.

I almost caved.

We were not allowed Barbie when I was little. My mom did a great job of explaining that the dolls just were not for our family. She didn’t burden me with feminist explanations, but they were central to her refusal. We had other dolls—nice, chunky Sasha dolls, built like little girls and easy to sew and embroider for.

My mom is firm for her granddaughters, too. When we talk about it, she keeps sputtering “But you’re a feminist!” She’s good to promise to support me in my decision but I can tell that she finds my confusion puzzling. It’s so clear to her that Barbie is dumb and bad. She’s found a nice, chunky doll and a small fashion doll, too, so my daughter will be duly gifted. There’s also a very big box of very pink Duplos in the basement from her other grandma. But they’re blocks. You build with them. You pretend to have a castle and you dump them into the box with green, yellow, red, and blue ones.

At Thanksgiving, I polled the guests, mostly childless, many of them psychologists and therapists, and in their forties. They shared my confusion. When I announced that I would clearly not buy Bratz for my daughter—just the name itself goes against so much of what I value for her—the one teenager in the room rolled her eyes. I think I sounded hopelessly old and maybe even a little racist to this cool teen. Barbie is a blonde. The Bratz are racially indeterminate but definitely “ethnic.”

But that’s not my issue with any of them. And the hip teen’s disapproval helped pull me back to my senses. I don’t like the Bratz because they are brats: they are dolls “with a passion for fashion” and that’s not what I want my three-year old to be learning and thinking about. True, Barbie is a lawyer now, but that’s as much an afterthought as are the black and brunette Barbies. She is all about fashion, too.

I know the studies that say that little girls playing with Barbie don’t focus on her breasts and often don’t play games about fashion and dating. But why give children a toy hoping they will play with it against its type? In The New Yorker, Talbot seems to come about to my position but more elegantly and with less hand wringing. (I’m sorry I can’t link to it here.)

I try hard to be a mellow mom and a strong but non-proselytizing feminist. Barbie is a test for that double role. Being a mellow mom means that I include a little packet of SpongeBob or Dora “fruit snacks” (gummi bears) in my daughter’s lunch knowing they are fun but of dubious nutritional value. I try to avoid TransFat, but, sometimes, at the end of a hard day, we stop in the bodega for some Little Debby goodness. We aim for organic and healthy, but settle for yummy; we aim for wood, but accept plastic. But we insist kindness and lots of books. Behind my efforts not to show it, I do believe that everything I let into my home—from a person to a Macintosh apple to pack of crayons or a dolly is a reflection of our values. I don’t think Barbie is exactly evil, but I don’t see how she enhances the lessons I want my daughters to learn.