Monday, 16 February 2009

Is Barbie still a feminist issue?

This year the iconic plastic doll of many childhoods turns 50, (not that she looks it).

And Deborah's comment section has ended up straying into Barbieland, as readers debate whether Barbie really has/had such a negative influence as is so often assumed. Deborah initially writes in her post (actually about cellphones for children):
I had banned Barbie dolls in our house, for the obvious reasons, and I had told her that I would not buy her one. But one day, she sat at the lunch table and told us that she had decided she was not going to get fish, she was going to spend her money on something else, and it would be something we didn’t like.

“Bloody hell,” I thought. “That child is going to get herself a Barbie.”

I could have said no, that she was not to spend her money on a Barbie. But it was her money. Children have very little power, and and very little space in which they can make decisions for themselves. I thought that it was better for her to be able to have some area of her life that she could control, so I nodded my head, and agreed that she could get herself a Barbie doll, even though I did not like it.

And there have been many responses in comments asserting that Barbie is more about clothes than body-shape, and that many women have turned out pretty ok despite their childhood obsession with the disproportionate doll. I think I can count myself amongst that number, but I leave that to the dear readers to determine ;-)

Yet people seem to be pretty united in their disapproval of Bratz. What's the difference really? How is Barbie no longer so much of a worry for feminists, but Bratz is? Is it just because it is new? Or because the figurines are even more unrealistic than their evolutionary ancestor (see fuzzy pic to the left)?

(And in passing, I'm bemused to see a picture of both of these dolls seeming to stand upright without assistance. I'm pretty sure I recall reading that Barbie at least would topple over if life-size, and certainly I could never get any of my trio of the dolls to stand up, even with shoes on. It was a real pain in the arse.)

14 comments:

Anna said...

To my way of thinking, both Barbie and Bratz suck. Playing with the clothes is a lot of fun (I remember it fondly myself), but you don't need a doll with proportions that are a sexualised caricature of women to do that. A doll will normal proportions will do just fine.

I actually think I hate Barbie more than Bratz, for the reason of the silly, exagerated bodies. Bratz are objectionable in other ways - popularising mindless consumption and rude attitudes - but I can see why the fashion element appeals to girls, and at least they don't have absurd boobies.

Deborah said...

Thanks for putting that up here, Julie. I did think about putting the whole post up at THM too, but thought that it was a bit too much focused tied up with the mobile phone story to make sense on its own.

We've only ever had one Bratz in the house, bought by the same lass. My girls aren't so fascinated by Barbie's clothes, but then I'm not very clothes focused either, so I was intrigued to realise that other women (girls) had seen them simply as available clothes bearers, and made all sorts of clothes for them. Joanna of Hubris fame made a fascinating comment:

I also sewed my own Barbie clothes, and because I was so obsessed with American history (see: my love of Sunfire romance novels) she had Revolutionary War outfits, Civil War hoop skirts, prairie pioneer bonnets and many other periods as well. So I think I’m okay with barbies for girls (and boys too) if they can be used to encourage any kind of off-the-rack thinking.

Azlemed said...

miss 5 and miss 3 have 2 barbies, one was mine, one miss 5 was given, I have seen them play with them less that a handful of times, they just arent interested... miss 5 would much rather dress herself up as a princess or fairy or whatever is in her head at the time than play with barbie, they do play with their babies though, but that is possibly because they have a baby brother that they see me looking after.

cutely though they do feed their babies, "just like mama", i am pleased that they think breastfeeding is normal, I can only remember a handful of times that I saw any women breastfeeding.

Julie said...

I loved Joanna's comment too and I think "off the rack thinking" is going to be my new buzz phrase!

I never made clothing for my Barbies, and they didn't have many outfits beyond what they came with. I used them more as characters for storytelling, which again I could have done with any vaguely anthropomorphic toy. They lived in an apartment together (too much Three's Company as a youngster I think), which was the bottom cupboard of my desk.

The ex-expat said...

After cutting their hair, I used to pull apart my barbie dolls. I'm not sure what that says about me.

Tui said...

@Azlemed - my mother has a great photo of herself breastfeeding my brother while I and my other brother breast feed our own dolls. :) I was a bit jealous of him because his doll was much more realistically baby-like.

We never had Barbies in the house, but I have to say it's staggering how many of my friends played "Kill Barbie" games. Performative violence against women or an expression of frustration with conspicuous consumption that she represents?

Deborah said...

The Times has an article about dismembering Barbie.

Azlemed said...

i dont fit off the rack clothing, and most of my thinking isnt on the rack at times either so off the rack thinking is a great phrase.

Azlemed said...

@tui isnt it great how they copy positive images... but on the other hand how many negative images do they copy too....

this is one positive that I am happy to foster

backin15 said...

Barbie made her way into our house rather circuitously. Barbie was a picture on a fairy dress her father, me, didn't observe. Barbie also made it in through gifts from friends. Barbie's here now, for the moment at least, but Barbie and all Barbie's ridiculous accoutrements will be progressively purged and replaced by Dora the Explorer. Dora's cool.

hungrymama said...

Somewhere my mother has a photo of my friend and I wearing dress-ups and breastfeeding our barbie dolls :-)

Anonymous said...

Barbie was banned from our house as a child. Finally after many years of me whining over what evil parents i had a friend of mine gave me a Springtime Cindy for my 11th birthday. Now I'm a parent I can see where shes coming from. I do however think that it depends what context its put in by the family.

This past weekend I had a friend visiting with her two kids. One afternoon the TV happened to be on C4 in the background and she was mildly horrified that i was letting my 4 yr old watch music clips that were so sexual and objectified women (Beyonces put a ring on it and Lady Gagas poker face). I politely changed the channel but I did mention how i didn't think it was a bad influence at all. I don't think that there is anything wrong with adults being sexual. Children being sexual is a different matter entirely. Thats why I hate the bratz dolls with a vengance but only have a mild dislike for barbie.

Tui said...

I don't think there's anything wrong with adults being sexual, but I do think there's something wrong with the way women's bodies are sexualised in music videos - they are sexualised as objects, as property, as trophies of wealth, not as adult women in control of their bodies & desires. You can be sex-positive and still be objectification-negative!

Giovanni said...

I don't know about Barbie, but The Onion suggests that Bratz Dolls May Give Young Girls Unrealistic Expectations of Head Size.