Barbie turns 50

By | March 5, 2009

Others criticize Barbie’s material lifestyle. (How many castles and houses does one doll need?)

Still others, including Dr. Kathleen Guidroz, co-director of the gender studies minor at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., quoted in The Baltimore Review last month, say studies show that Barbie can promote lower self-esteem in girls.

However, girls play with Barbie – and have for 50 years. Play, as sociologists tell us, is how children learn about the adult world. Play – especially role modeling – socializes children for future adult roles. And as any writer of children’s stories knows, if you want to reach children, create a hero who is a little older than them. Kids don’t want to read about, emulate or play with someone younger. That’s why the first Barbie in 1959 was a teenager.

That’s also why, when Ruth Handler introduced Barbie, she did it because her own daughter – Barbara, by the way – was avidly playing with paper dolls who were depicted as adults. Ruth noticed that the only three-dimensional dolls on the market were baby dolls. Despite opposition from her husband and co-founder, Elliot, and other Mattel directors, Ruth persisted. 300,000 Barbies sold in the first year.

Besides providing role-playing possibilities for girls, Barbie has, over the years, offered other positives:

  • Barbie has shown that all sorts of career possibilities are open to women. To date, Barbie has had 110 different careers. Some are more traditional female roles like nurse or ballerina. But Barbie has also been a doctor, a UNICEF ambassador and a presidential candidate three times (most recently in 2004, when she was an African-American candidate.)
  • Barbie also models independent, adult status. While she had a boyfriend, Ken (named for Ruth and Elliot’s son), from 1961 until their 2005 breakup, Barbie has managed to portray a woman who can support herself.
  • Barbie, early on, became a model for racial harmony, starting during the 1960s civil rights turbulence. In 1968, Barbie’s African-American friend, Christie, was introduced, followed by Hispanic and Asian dolls shortly thereafter. Barbie has appeared in African-American and Hispanic models since 1980. And various ethnic collector versions exist worldwide.
  • Barbie comes from a large family: she has four sisters – Skipper, Stacie, Kelly and Krissy – and a brother, Todd. She also has two cousins, Jazzie and Francie.

The Barbie venture has also promoted the traditional family lifestyle through Barbie’s best friend – Midge. In the Barbie saga, Midge “married” her long-time boyfriend, Alan, in 1991 – and subsequently had three children. A sidebar is that a pregnant Midge with a break-open belly to show the newborn was marketed (not too successfully) in 2003.

Now there are many other positive places Barbie could take our daughters. One obvious one, since Barbie is now in the AARP set, would be into the world of active and volunteering seniors. I can see a silver-haired Barbie and Ken building a Habitat House for Humanity, or volunteering at a food pantry.

Let’s face it, Barbie is here to stay, despite the recent sales drop. At least three generations have been exposed to Barbie. Think of the possibilities for inter-generational play dates: Grandma brings out her vintage Barbie and Mom finds her 70s Barbie and the new Princess Barbie joins the fun. The life lessons and conversations to share over a Barbie day are endless.

Andrea O’Reilly, associate professor of women’s studies at York University in Toronto and director of the Association for Research on Mothering, is aware of Barbie’s potential for unhealthy image. For a time, she would not let her own daughters have Barbies. However, she has since decided that – if mothers take an active role in the play – there is potential.

“I think it’s important if girls do play with Barbies,” she told The Canadian Press last month, “….that that conversation happens, that the Barbie is given, but there’s some dialog, age-appropriate, about what that means for the young girl.”

Does this talk about a doll sound silly? Commercial? Perhaps.

But Jesus himself taught with the simple, even commercial, things of his day – from an alabaster perfume jar and semi-precious stones on the Temple, to wine jars at a wedding, and bread and fish leftovers near the sea.

What lessons can be taught with an overdressed doll? Maybe the Lord is leaving that to the mothers and grandmothers of our day.





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