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article imageOp-Ed: Give a Barbie, give an argument — Mattel's icon still raises ire

By Paul Wallis     Dec 23, 2011 in Entertainment
Sydney - Barbie was the doll of the 60s and the feminist curse of the 70s. She’s been an aspiration, the wrong role model, and a cultural football for decades. Now, however, she’s being re-evaluated, and some interesting perspectives are emerging.
The re-evaluation is producing some interesting results. Barbie isn’t doing too badly for a 50-something. OK, the relationship with Ken didn’t pan out, but for a single she’s got her stuff together better than most. When she started out, she naturally started out in the image of the Perfect Woman. She had nice things, she was blonde, and of course she was the last word in style, glitzing up the doll’s house. She was the wardrobe department for generations. She had outfits for standing around doing nothing and outfits for standing around looking pretty.
She actually set a standard, which can be seen as banal or aspirational, depending on your views. The other side of this vacuous image was “You can have all this”, which wasn’t some mere disingenuous appeal to materialism, but a standard marketing ploy of the 50s and 60s. The great new world of having things and more things was upon us, and Barbie was marketed accordingly.
Like many kids toys, the social image is important with Barbie. If you were a rich kid, she was your basic friend. If you were a poor kid, she was something to which you could legitimately aspire. Like boys buying sports cars, the market psychology is that the toy represents the aspiration. Perhaps equally importantly, Barbie was herself a standard of acceptability in the difficult and somewhat bitchy world of having nice toys. The peer group effect sets defaults, and she was pretty much it.
As usual with kids toys the problem was adults, to begin with. If you’re looking for contradictions in social psychology, toys are a great place to start. Feminists, understandably, hated Barbie. She was the role model for hausfraus, for superficiality and gender stereotypes. She was out of touch, unrealistic, and a general traitor to womankind. After all, she was, more than anything else, a representative of a whole social structure. She was also considered an unrealistic body image for little girls.
Socially there’s a ring of truth. Barbie didn’t wind up as a single mother in a women’s shelter or in a hospital after getting beaten up. She didn’t go out and save the rainforests or do community work. She didn’t run for Congress or start an organized crime syndicate. She also didn’t do the compulsory “street thing” which has kept the 1980s going for the last 30 years. New pseudo hip dolls emerged like the Bratz, which were a direct reaction to a huge gap in girls’ toys between the toy stuff and the tweenie fashions which have done so much to anonymize the current generation into an instantly uninteresting mess of drab, tedious clothes and staggeringly boring rap nursery rhymes.
However, all of that history had another side- To the credit of girls everywhere, in the early 2000s a UK study found, to toy makers’ horror, that girls were bored to death with “girl’s toys”. They were lifeless, particularly compared to boy’s toys. That survey has never been repeated, or if it has, the results have never been published. The cliché ridden themes of girl’s toys and clothes are still a major topic, and someone’s discovered, ironically, that the “traditional” colours of blue for boys and pink for girls were actually reversed back in 1918, at least according to one writer.
Adults, who in their senility call “play” some sort of unspecified, almost meaningless activity, have rarely if ever consciously made the connection between play and mental development. This is the main reason toys are so important and why the argument about Barbie has so many truths and falsehoods built in. To play is to be required to think, but kids can and will do it on their own terms. This idea routinely misses most psychologists, particularly those who follow the “image is everything because of subliminal memory” turkey shoot.
In this almost incredibly lazy approach to psychoanalysis, behaviour is deemed to dictate mental development, because behaviour is usually dictated by the elements available. Give someone a spoon and put them in a sandpit, and you can brilliantly deduce that they like digging holes in things. Give them a doll and you can assume they will grow up to become a doll.
(This self-supporting roundabout is also part of the suite of non-thinking where the psycho-hacks got the impression they were superior to the rest of humanity. In terms of kid’s toys, it’s like the bestseller list- Crank out more of the same, and minimize any risk of originality, therefore reducing choice. The result is called “normality”. Keep up the great work, guys.)
No wonder the girls were bored. The contrast in the social mindsets about toys, however, is also interesting in its own right. The male cliché stereotype, reinforced by boy’s toys has never been a problem for anyone. Nobody has never complained about an almost compulsory childhood of boys going “Vroom, vroom!” which is obviously seen as a natural early childhood approach to a life obsessed with cars and other male stereotypes. As usual, the psych approach has come up with a great vision of humanity, based on nothing much but its own terrible logic. Add to this the fact that there’s no real debate or even a real topic range on the subject of men and gender stereotypes and the clichés roll on because there’s nothing to stop them.
The adult version of toys, interestingly, can be viewed as a very similar set of objects, simply expanded. New generation toys, particularly computer toys, simply expand the themes, and, predictably enough, refer adults back to their childhoods. The Sims, for instance, can be seen as playing with dolls in a soap opera context. World of Warcraft can be considered a cross between Paintball (itself a blown up version of childhood games) and Sword and Sorcery comics. Second Life is a more advanced version of a consumer society, with the advantage of being able to turn the damn thing off.
Actually, the tendency of toys is to operate as the working models for adulthood, and if you’ve ever wondered why boys obsess about shiny new cars and girls about multi-million dollar dolls houses, the sheer lack of choice in childhood is probably one of the main reasons. If you check out the Barbie website, you’ll find that the evergreen blonde with perfect everything has changed in one respect since her early days. She now has kids hanging around her, and if there’s a certain whiff of Maybelline looks, she’s also gone international. There’s even a Chinese Barbie, an Australian Barbie (naturally…have to get some class into the act) a Gaelic speaking Irish Barbie, and Argentinian Barbie and more on the way.
The global Barbie is likely to get as much flak as the original for different reasons, but she’s been quicker off the mark to grow outside her original social theme than most other media icons. Future arguments will probably include things like “You can’t wear things like that in Martian slums!” and “Barbie didn’t get the hyper-virus”, etc.
The great thing about toys of any kind is that they allow people to fantasize and use their minds. Barbie may be a bit over-structured and always in a single themed context in her lifestyle, but the lady gets around, and she’s outlasted the big toys of the last 50 years. She’s a survivor in one of the toughest markets on Earth. She’s also created one of the healthiest arguments in history, even among today’s stunningly apathetic adults, about how kids see themselves and their role models. Mattel may not have set out to create a social engineer, but they’ve created something which is at least reminding people of the social issues facing the kids of today. That’s not all bad.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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