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In Defense of Barbie

I am a dyed-in-the-wool feminist – the stiff and scratchy, don’t-mess-with-me kind. So I’m the last person you’d think would defend Barbie.

But lately Babs has been taking it on her perfectly-formed plastic chin and somebody needs to have her back. I owe her at least that after we spent a decade cruising the world together in our Malibu Barbie Country Camper.

At 55, Barbie is facing a stern backlash.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and other groups are lobbying the Girl Scouts to ditch their Barbie patches and a $2 million brand agreement with Mattel because the doll promotes sexualized stereotypes to young girls and dangerously impossible body types. A Pittsburgh artist has launched his own crowd-funding campaign to create a new, anti-Barbie called “Lammily” that has realistic proportions and a slogan that “Average is Beautiful.” An Oregon State University researcher has found that girls who play with Barbie dolls see fewer career options for themselves than for boys.

I don’t dispute any of that. I, too, wish that Barbie didn’t have exaggerated breasts and a waspy waist worthy of a Sports Illustrated cover. I wish girls of all shapes and colors could see themselves in her unblinking, long-lashed eyes. And I wish her maker, Mattel, wasn’t so damn consumed with fashion and good looks.

Still, I was a serious Barbie player as a child. I played with my Barbies long after most of my friends had kicked the doll habit. I’ve still managed to grow up without being anorexic, dizzy, meek or unambitious (most of the time). 

My oldest daughter never had an interest in dolls, but my youngest daughter, like me, could spend hours alone with her Barbies. Here’s why I didn’t mind: 

Instead of "baby dolls," which instinctively foster a mothering instinct in girls, Barbies are adults and allow young imaginations to turn the dolls into whatever they want. That's how I played with them and that's how my youngest did – creating stories, situations, issues, confrontations and, yes, clothing. I used to fashion my own out of my mom's old scarves. My youngest daughter designed outfits for hers out of duct tape. She's taken an interest in becoming a playwright or writer, and I have no doubt that her playing with Barbies has encouraged this idea, and that she's developed some pretty fascinating stories with Barbie as her main protagonist. 

Barbies are one of the few toys that haven't gone high-tech. They encourage self-directed play. When I was little, I went through a stage where I pretended my Barbies were heroines in dramas I set in the 1800s, complete with hoop skirts and bustles. I don’t think Mattel had that in mind when it developed Barbie, her mod cousin Francie or little sis Skipper, but that’s the way I wanted to play with them.

Barbie and her partners also helped me (and a lot of other young girls I know) safely explore their sexual awakening. 

Um, thanks, Ken. 

Honorable mention goes to G.I. Joe, but please don’t tell my brother. He still thinks Joe was helping Barbie build campfires.

I understand why some parents aren’t crazy about Barbie, but I don’t think banning the doll from your household is going to save your daughter from the sexist confines of society. I have adult friends whose mothers did this. I still catch them trying to cram their feet into sexy, high-heeled slipper mules.

It’s generally a bad idea to go extreme parenting on a kid and forbid anything (unless you’re talking about truly dangerous threats like intravenous drugs or One Direction). This hardline stance will almost certainly lead to rebellion, resentment and an extreme desire on the part of a child to have or do whatever is forbidden. This explains a lot about my relationship with Doritos.

Some research suggests that it isn’t Barbie or any other toy that has the biggest influence on young girls and their body image. It’s their mothers’ attitudes. So before we start banning and blaming Barbie, we should take a hard look at what we eat, say and do in front of our own daughters. Are we equipping them with the confidence and skills they’ll need to succeed in the future?

After all, it’s called Barbie’s Dream House, not Ken’s.

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