Tuesday 28 January 2020

Tanya Sweeney: ‘Little girls don’t get brainwashed by Barbie’

Tanya Sweeney
Tanya Sweeney

Barbie may look bitchin' for 56, but the poor love has been through the mill of late. More recently, the Mattel doll has been criticised for her role in gender stereotyping, hailed as a vacuous, anti-feminist icon. Time, then, for Mattel's latest stab at image rehabilitation.

A new advert that has aired stateside sees Barbie's young fans in various professional guises: one little girl examines a dog in a vet's surgery, while another, dressed as an executive, chats away with some urgency on her mobile. Yet another little girl introduces herself to a lecture hall full of students as their new professor. The message at the end of the advert runs thus: "When a girl plays with Barbie, she imagines everything she can become… you can be anything."

Here's the thing, though: it was always thus. Dream careers were never out of reach for little girls who played with Barbie. Eight-year-old girls already knew that. It's now the parents that need to be talked back around to the brand. Like most little girls, I fell hook, line, and sinker for those eye-popping measurements, those benign doe-eyes and that waterfall of synthetic flaxen hair. I had an aunt who liked to bring me Barbie dolls when she visited, and once I received my first (Peaches & Cream Barbie), the collection took off at a rate of knots.

Nine-to-five Barbie, with her sharp suit and pink briefcase, soon joined the gang. I fashioned a home for my squad of Barbies out of two drawers, saving up so that I could furnish them with a bed (seven dolls piled in on top of each other; they didn't mind), a kitchen, and eventually, a dump truck pilfered from my brothers, so they could go from the drawers to my bedroom window.

As the collection of dolls expanded, so too did my imagination. I started creating dizzying narratives for each of them. Having been reared on a staple diet of Dallas and Dynasty, the stories were eye-wateringly risqué. In my tiny suburban box-room, I'd escape daily into a world of unbridled glamour, intrigue and suspense. The 'storylines' I gave each one were pretty out there. Little girls' imaginations are damn near limitless, and mine got the best of workouts thanks to my army of blondes. Ken eventually came on the scene, as did Rock Star Barbie. My imagination was officially off to the races.

A toy's influence is only as powerful as the child using it. But there was something about Barbie's world - the heady glamour, the worldly lifestyle, the perennial bachelorette, the colourful wardrobe - that taught me plenty. It was a gateway drug into my own thoughts on relationships, careers, infidelity, commitment, and wearing miniskirts. It was the first time that glamour was, to my eight-year-old mind, a tangible thing. Something to aspire to; not be brainwashed by. If Barbie could grow up to have a townhouse, sports car and rock-star stage, why couldn't I?

No-one at the time worried about the message that Barbie's pneumatic measurements were sending to young girls. No-one made any diatribes about how unsuitable a toy she was, how wayward a role model, or how she just couldn't get her priorities straight because she was designed only to wear heels (Barbie became able to wear flats last year). Hers wasn't an 'unrealistic beauty standard' foisted on us; the rest of the world took care of that one.

We underestimate little girls by assuming that they will fret over not having a curtain of glossy yellow hair, long legs and an unfeasibly tiny waist. I certainly didn't. Despite the bounty of similar dolls on the market, this is criticism ievelled at Barbie, and her only.

Researchers have even gone so far as to blame Barbie, on-record, for limiting the scope of young girls. A study by Oregon University found that girls who played with Barbie felt they could do fewer jobs than boys, regardless of whether their own Barbie had "a career".

To be fair, Mattel has widened its idea of what 'womanhood' means to Barbie; in recent years, her CV has plumped out to include 'computer engineer', 'presidential candidate' and 'palaeontologist'.

In 55 years, she's had 150 careers - now that's girl power. In a bid to move Barbie into more modern times, Mattel will release a talking Barbie soon, and it makes sense to make the doll relevant for a digital world, but part of me suspects a spectacular backfire. The whole point is that Barbie is not much more than a blank canvas on which little girls can project anything they want. Making Barbie a feminist icon or generational mouthpiece defeats that purpose.

Hoping that more gender-neutral toys will create more balanced, well-adjusted children is little more than wishful thinking. It's not a toy's job to do that, it's a parent's or teacher's job. Still, with the big 6-0 on the horizon, Barbie has had a mild lapse in popularity - but the figures still speak for themselves. In 2014, a Barbie doll was purchased every three seconds somewhere in the 150 countries where they are sold.

I just hope those little girls had as much fun with her as I did.

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