I recently discovered that Barbie was reworking their line of dolls to be more representative of actual people and I have to admit that I was pretty excited. Obviously I’m a doll fan, but as an adult I’ve only collected fashion dolls from Japan. As a child, however, all I had were Barbies, and I had dozens. As a feminist I’ve always been wary of Barbie, but the revised line actually addressed enough of my concerns that I got curious, Bar-curious if you will, and that’s when I saw … Va-Va-Violet.
Barbie Fashionistas Va-Va-Violet has the exact same hair color and cut that I had in the Summer of 2014, so of course I bought her, and that’s when I realized that she has flat feet! Finally! Flat feet, like a person has! Obviously all of the Groove dolls have had flat feet since the beginning, but their American sister was a little behind the times. Now, however, she can wear shoes that wouldn’t make a normal woman loose all circulation to her feet. Once I started to warm up to this new, improved Barbie, I decided to search out other people’s reactions to the revamp. I stumbled upon an interesting USA Today College article, which interviewed Tina Escaja, interim director of gender, sexuality and women’s studies at the University of Vermont. Escaja argues as follows:
“It is still, even with the changes, a toy completely focused on appearance, fashion and other stereotypical interests of women that press the ideal into young girls,” she says. “I still am so against the toy as a whole … there are so many issues with a 3-year-old girl being influenced by a role model who cares about nothing other than exterior values.”
I consider myself a feminist, through and through, and this quote hit my ear wrong, so I took a few days to think about why. Then I went to the toy store and saw …
the Barbie Mermaid Fashion series, specifically I saw “Candy” in the middle, which is encrusted in pastel sweets, and I thought “now these I can understand a feminist objecting to.” As a side note, to Mattel’s credit, they encourage children to use these “fashion mermaids” as “storytelling” inspiration, which is inarguably good. As a second side note, I kind of hate myself a little for feeling this way, but I kind of love these ridiculous mer-Barbies. It was at this point that I realized that Escaja was 1) definitely not a toy collector because she had no idea how progressive a flat-footed, curvy Barbie was and 2) not putting enough emphasis on that thing beyond the doll: the parent.
I am not about to argue any nonsense about how “toys don’t influence children, parents do,” because that’s silly, of course toys influence children, but it also has a lot to do with what happens once the toy is in the house (and if it can get into the house at all). Arguably, G.I. Joe fits Escaja’s critique as well, he is a superfluous doll who you dress and buy accessories for and then they kill each other with guns (which is way worse than Barbie being vain, by the way). Yet no one is like “G.I. Joe makes men violent,” because I’m not sure a doll can glamorize trench warfare, you really need Call of Duty for that. Even if we can all agree that G.I. Joe is terrible, no mother is going to stand over her son and say, “You better make some of those Joe’s lose a limb, boy. Toss a tiny grenade!” and neither will you have a mother say, “Barbie wants to give up her career to stay home, put her tiny Master’s degree in storage, now!” In fact, if parents allow for free play, meaning for children to play as they will, Barbie can actually be quite the feminist.
In 1987 my Barbie dolls essentially lived in Herland* because I was not going to spend my allowance on Ken. I’m assuming that it’s much the same today, so we are starting with Barbie being gyno-centric right out of the gate. Of course Barbie espouses traditional heteronormative values, like marriage, and so I had a lovely wedding playset complete with gazebo and wedding dress. Obviously, presented with these props I did was a had to: I had a lesbian Barbie wedding. Literally all of my Barbies were lesbians and they got married all the time. I mean, they had to get married, I had the playset! The gazebo made them fall in love with it’s power! My Barbies then opened a successful business – a restaurant – where all my other lesbian Barbies had dinner. If you’re curious: one was the head chef and the other was the maître d’. Then they went home to their many dogs and cats, sat on the porch swing, and had a perfectly nice life. (The soundtrack was The Monkees “Pleasant Valley Sunday.”) This was a well-fleshed out world that I was allowed to create completely without comment from my parents. That’s good.
My counter-example is from my High School years. My best friend had a half-brother that I’ll call John. When John was a toddler, around five years old or so, he wanted a baby doll so freaking bad that one day he was going to have a meltdown at Toys R Us if he didn’t get one immediately. His dad eventually caved though he would not allowed him to get the black baby doll he truly wanted, it had to at least be white, or so the reasoning went. I can’t even … Anyway, “Baby” kept getting lost around the house and it was a good year – I was visiting regularly all this time – until John’s dad had finally weaned him off of Baby. Because a little boy wanting to be a parent is so horrifying? Because “real men” only grudgingly have children and then don’t do any work to help raise them? I don’t understand what my friend’s family was trying to teach John, but I occasionally wondering if he learned it.
What makes Barbie feminist or anti-feminist then, isn’t entirely the doll, it’s at least partially the parent. A parent has to step in and say “Women only marry men, here’s a Ken,” otherwise I cannot be the only little girl who had lesbian Barbies. Even if the only option is a mermaid princess made of candy, she can still be Present Mermaid Candy Princess. The imaginations of children are wonderfully boundless. Instead of saying “Barbie is anti-feminist,” it’s time to make the curvy, flat-footed, blue-haired doll – and all of the Fashionista dolls – popular. So popular that a child blows past the old, pink Barbie and demands a Fashionista the way John demanded Baby. It’s time to make this type of diversity (aka real diversity) the norm for American fashion dolls. That will be progress and no one can convince me or my lesbian Barbies otherwise.
* Herland is an utopian novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman wherein a small group of men discover an all-woman society. Spolier alert: women are amazing.