Monday, July 26, 2010

Acceptable Breaks from Reality

As often happens, I recently ran across yet another chorus of comments decrying the unrealistic nature of Barbie dolls (this time it was in the comments of a Basic Instructions comic, but it really does happen with suprising regularity. I have no idea if this is reflective of Barbie's social significance in the regular world, or if I just hang out with people who think waaaaay too much about the implications of children's toys. I realize the existence of this blog argues the latter.) and the effect this portrayal has on young girl's ideas of womanhood.
(For those who haven't come across this discussion weekly since age 10: Barbie has an unrealistic body, and apparently at some point a large number of people agreed that this makes little girls think this is the way they should look and so eventually leads to anorexia and depression and fad diets and, presumably, Nutrisystem ads with that disturbing squirrel-cheeked woman who inexplicably wants me to look at her butt. So, you know, atrocities.)
I'm not going to contradict the idea that the art and artifacts of our culture shape our expectations. I mean, that's part of the point of a culture, to train its members to look for certain patterns. But I do wonder why Barbie (and lately, Bratz) gets all the warping-our-daughters'-minds flak. A small sampling of my own dolls, from wee girlhood, would include:
A pillow with a face and yarn-loop hair
A green plastic Gremlin- yes, the monster- that was bigger than me when I first got it
A fuzzy pre-wetting Gremlin plush, also from the movie
Fisher Price Peg People
A couple "fashion dolls", because I was way too broke to have actual Barbies
A little red plastic farm woman bravely continuing her career without a head
aaaand a porcelain milkmaid with a candle in her skirt, who I was inexplicably allowed to use as a toy.

What I'm saying is, my dolls represented an exciting range of utterly unrealistic and often inhuman body portrayals. I've seen the same thing in children's toys over the years. I'm sure the constant stylization in toys has to do with both the Uncanny Valley and McCloud's observation that identification is easier with less realistic "people", plus 5 year olds gnawing on lifelike minipeople would be very upsetting.

But why are fashion dolls the only ones held up as a bad example? If little girls are having their body image set by playthings, why aren't they growing up expecting to be peg-shaped, or eternally baby-like, or possibly ponies?* Why are pillow-dolls safe, and Barbies Eeeeevil? I suspect Fashion Dolls get the blame because their deformations are seen by some adults as being sexy, or maybe they're seen as more realistic? And frankly I find the whole thing a bit disturbing- images do have some power, but ascribing them high levels of soul-destroying control leads to iconoclast madness.

Do you remember considering any toys as a Future You?** Which ones were they? And what do you think about the whole Barbie thing, anyway?

*I confess to still being somewhat disappointed that I am not in fact a green reptilian monster. That would be SO cool.

**I would also have accepted Giant Robot T. Rex! Alas, puberty failed me.


  1. I read Basic Instructions, too! I think he mad a great point in that comic -- it's ridiculous that society acts like girls are so fragile and our self esteem is ruined by growing up with Barbie, but boys can grow up with Superman and sports car Hot Wheels and be fine.

    I had Barbie when I was a kid. I never recall thinking that I could or would grow up to look like her. After all, I saw lots of real women in the world and none of them looked like Barbie. More importantly, at an early age I realized that each of Barbie's eyes were bigger than her mouth. Clearly she was not built on normal human proportions, and that was ok because she was a DOLL! I also didn't think that ponies were really purple with sparkly manes and tails and jewels on their bums.

    When I was a little girl I wanted to grow up and have a horse ranch. Barbie was a horrible role model for that, because her stupid legs wouldn't spread far enough or bend properly to ride the generic-brand Barbie-sized horses I had. My toy horses contributed to infinitely more impossible dreams of adulthood than Barbie ever did!

  2. The thing about dolls is they're cyphers- no inherent personalities. The girls I knew who spent all their time playing dress-up with their dolls, had moms who spent all their time playing dress up and emphasized appearance and consumerism to a huge degree. Which: I don't necessarily think there's anything wrong with that, presentation is a vital social skill, but man, don't take your girl out shopping for clothes every weekend and then blame Barbie that she's obsessed with clothes.

    My fashion dolls had super powers. Tragically, my mother never effectively modeled telepathy for me growing up, so I have as yet not realized this full potential. Curse the social construct!

  3. Hey Cara,

    not sure if you're in this space anymore but you won the giveaway at ecomilf. Shoot me an email to get your prize! xo m.


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