There is a toy, wildly popular, produced by Mattel, that we should all be concerned about. The plastic body looks nothing like reality. Children playing with this will get a distorted view of what is normal, and it can cause woefully unrealistic expectations for their future. Also, this is crassly marketed to only one gender, and sets superficial standards for what that gender should be like. There are dire consequences for children’s self-esteem as they grow and find themselves moving through the world in a body nothing like the sleek, sexy body of this toy. That’s right. I’m talking about this notorious Hotwheels car.
Not only is it unrealistic, it is played with in a provocative and dangerous way. Children do not drive it safely on a model road. Think of the drivers they will grow up to be! They think the way to drive is to crash cars off of bridges, gleefully shouting. They think cars can fly! This toy is a menace!
Absurd, right? I mean, obviously, it’s a toy and kids know it’s a toy. It is an exaggerated representation of reality, meant for acting out extreme situations that children are thinking about and imagining. Also, they are cool. And while toys ought to be taken seriously, we know that kids use them for playing, right? So why, exactly, as a feminist and educator am I supposed to be concerned about Barbie? Because she is not like a real person? Well, how about her?
She might not have big boobs, but her hair smells like berries. I myself know quite a few women with big boobs but have yet to meet any with naturally fruity tresses. “Ah,” the Barbie detractor will respond, “it’s not that Barbie is unrealistic, it’s that she’s unrealistic in a dangerous way. She is an exaggerated model of the pernicious Western ideas of female beauty. Trying to be like her makes girls hate themselves and starve themselves and get surgeries and be shallow.” This seems inaccurate to me, and not just because I have managed to stay fairly happy being fairly dumpy despite many childhood hours spent with my leggy plastic friends. It is also an insult to girls, and an insult to women. Girls know Barbies are fantastical representations of glamorous women. They know what real women look like, and they don’t need a toy for that. They actually see real women all the time. Like, every single day. You may say that a child should not want to have a doll to act out mature glamorous scenes of romance and costume-changes. Why not? Is it because kids don’t do those things or fully understand them yet? Well, isn’t exploring that stuff the point of play? Do kids really drive or parent babies? My daughter used her Barbies to enact weddings for weeks after being the flower-girl at her aunt and uncle’s. Rabbi Grand Entrance Barbie’s blessing brought joy to my heart!
I suppose she could have played this scene with corn husk dolls or Raggedy Anns or something, but I can’t imagine why that would have been so much better for her.
Furthermore, though it may be that no one looks just like Barbie, nature often come close. Many women do, in fact, conform to Western standards of beauty. This is not an immoral act on their part. Making dolls that look more like them than they look like me is also not wrong. Wanting to play with the doll is not wrong either, any more than it is wrong of a child to prefer the above Hotwheels to a scale model of our 1993 Subaru Impreza station wagon. Being conventionally beautiful also does not correlate to being vapid. To suggest so is just the sort of offensive woman-judging that we are supposed to be against. At what point in increasing cup sizes or decreasing waist circumference would I become a bad role model for girls? How many blondes does it take for us to see that beautiful, accomplished, intelligent women can like nice clothes and jewelry, and even dye their hair, without being shallow? Do these examples help?
Is Barbie a great toy? No. She does not deserve to be in the pantheon with blocks and crayons and empty cardboard boxes. Great toys are more open ened and flexible than Barbie. She may not be great, but, like the absurdly smooth and uncomplaining baby dolls that get dragged by their toes into pretend families, and the cars that little fingers speed and crash without injury, she deserves her place in the fantastic, essential, world of children’s play.