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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Friday, July 19

Gapers Block

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There are a few subjects that never go out of style. Just as there will always be a new parent eager to read an article about how to get a cranky baby to sleep, or how to deal with a biter at the playground, there is always a group of parents turning the corner from babyhood to Barbiedom.

Barbie continues to cause a stir with feminist parents just as she has done for the last several generations. To buy or not to buy? Will playing with these dolls turn our daughter into a midriff-baring, lip-injected tramp? Will our independent and imaginative young girl, previously happy to play with her pleasantly bland baby dolls, become jaded and bored by her childish playthings? Will she no longer be a mother to her dolls, and instead just have a group of trashy plastic girlfriends, laying around the house in various stages of undress?

Accepting that your daughter is now part of the marketing machine that colors everything a particular shade of pink, and puts a death grip on girls from age 2 up, is even harder than acknowledging that she may want to play with toys you feel are going to damage her tender self image, give her a body complex and introduce a side of pop culture into your lives that doesn't jive with your principles.

I write this on the other side of this decision as I no longer have a very little girl, but here's what happened in our house. I drew a line early on: no undesirable toys. No electronic bells and whistles for the baby; no off-gassing plastic crap; no toys, clothes, bedding or accessories that would turn our girl into a living, breathing advertisement. In other words, thank you for the Winnie the Pooh receiving blanket, but is there a receipt for that? My child would not be playing with the toys meant for the masses; she was special, yes? And, therefore, she would require special toys, like ones made of wood, and wool, and fairy dust. There would be no Barbies for us. Yes, I am aware that I was an impossibly tedious and insufferable first-time mother. I apologize.

I understand why women are loath to hand their brilliant, special, imaginative daughters a Barbie. I, of course, speak only for myself, but it felt like I would be opening the door to a whole new landscape, and we would be leaving behind the innocent world, where dolls are babies and sleep in cardboard boxes, carefully covered with a dishtowel, or where a string of green Mardi Gras beads in a little wooden bowl is really a dish of peas. The new place, where dolls wear lingerie and eyeliner, and come with a microphone, and platform boots on their little bound feet, seemed cold and sexy, and not very welcoming to a girl who still had the chubby hands of a toddler and a sturdy little girl body.

There are a few things that always come to mind when the Barbie debate arises. First, this type of concern places those of us who worry about such things into a very lucky class of people: those who don't have enough to worry about. Secondly, most of us feminists played with them when we were kids. They may have had less makeup, and perhaps a more carefree, sporty demeanor, but they still had impossibly huge, nipple-free breasts, and teeny weeny waists and feet.

My friends and I loved to play with Barbies. We made endless houses for them, changed their clothes over and over, and sent them on forays into the nether worlds of the basement where the boys had their own manly boy-doll set-ups. There was the occasional kidnapping, and the inevitable kissing, plastic arms outstretched, the grizzled, bearded soldier face against the smooth, tanned plastic of Malibu Barbie, and then the daring escape in the Barbie jet. Did all of this Barbie play affect my self image, and send me down the path of anti-feminism? Nope. I was born a feminist, and no doll, magazine, TV show or music was likely to change that. Is it different for our daughters? I'm not saying that I have never had major moments of self-loathing and feelings of dissatisfaction with my body or appearance, but can I blame that on Barbie? No. That I blame on a little thing called the sixth grade.

The other argument I trot out every time this subject comes up is what my very own wise child said when we went through this. When she was about to turn 4 we asked her what she wanted for her birthday. Hoping she was going to say "an aquarium and a bunch of books," which is what we had gotten her, we were thrown off balance by her request for a princess Barbie. We talked about it with her, why I felt the image Barbie presented was damaging to girls, blah, blah, blah. My daughter thought for a moment and then said, "But, I don't want to be Barbie, I just want to play with her." Point taken. She got the Barbie, resplendent in its pink princess gown.

Once the floodgates were opened, Barbies entered the house in a steady stream. For the first five years of the invasion, all of them, from Barbie to Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl, ended up in the same situation: naked, bald, in a sopping wet heap in the bathroom. But that was one end of the spectrum. The middle road was filled with all sorts of play, most of it motherly in nature. Barbie became a sister to the babydolls, who didn't seem to mind that she had a freakish body. She was put to bed, cared for, toted around and loved. And then she got her hair cut off, was scribbled on with Sharpies and tossed into the heap.

My daughter is now recently 11 years old, so there is not as much Barbie playing going on in her life, at least not out of the confines of the royal bedroom. She has a few Bratz dolls (which caused another round of soul searching and flexibility on my part), some My Scene dolls (Barbie's answer to Bratz), and a set of dolls called "my three friends" or something, that were bought to counteract some of the hyper-sexuality of the Bratz-style dolls. She plays with them as I did, changing their clothes, and acting out scenarios, such as slumber parties, skating, playing, shopping and living in a house together. The last time I eavesdropped on a doll-playing session, and not all that long ago either, she and three of her friends were playing something having to do with magical sidekicks and spells. Fashionably dressed sidekicks, of course.

Will playing with Barbies turn today's girls into shallow, anorectic, clothing obsessed twits? Can it really be that cut and dried? Let's not forget who we are talking about here. Girls are not stupid, nor do they live in a Barbie vacuum. Why would a child who has always been thought brilliant by her parents all of a sudden be rendered senseless and shallow, because of a toy?

If a girl is given only two role models to guide her into womanhood, one of which is a Bratz doll, and the other a real live, loving person, who is in the world every day doing what she can to fight the good fight, and is available at home for all types of fun and work and play, including doll dressing, I'm going to put my money on Mom. Good old book-reading, unfashionable, opinionated Mom.

As I've said, I'm on the other side of this decision. What are some of the things that those currently living with little girls can expect to see as a result of having Barbie in their lives? From my experience with all sorts of girls, not just my own, all of whom have smart mothers and have had a healthy dose of Barbie (some who only played with Barbie at other's houses) a lot can happen:

cursive handwriting
fairy village making
excessive swinging
blanket stitching
international travel
zine distribution
harmonica/recorder/kazoo playing
finger knitting
clothes changing
bottle cap collecting
Neopet ownership
band naming
the care and keeping of dragons
hairbrush avoidance
books (reading and writing)
a sense of outrage towards littering
electronic handheld gadgets, games and devices
political awareness
dance moves
tricks, both magic and practical
bike riding
encouraging parakeets to stand upon the palm of one's hand

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Results may vary.

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About the Author(s)

Lori Upchurch lives on the far Northwest Side in a house that's overflowing with books, kids, pets and too much stuff from the thrift store. She is a proud member of Team Upchurch, a family of multi-talented unschoolers. She can generally be spotted driving around with a bunch of kids, not all of them hers, looking for someplace fun to get out and play.

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