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Barbie See, Barbie Do
By John Denning
October 07, 2006
Lilli comic strip
© Reinhard Beuthin
Lilli comic strip
© Reinhard Beuthin
Barbie has been accused of programming little girls since 1959 with everything from impossible body images to superficial consumerism. There is an ongoing assumption that the way dolls like Barbie are portrayed by companies shapes a young girl's idea of what kind of adult she is supposed to be. On the other hand, the only common criticism for boys' toys is the violent context. No one is saying that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are teaching young boys to see pizza as an all-purpose diet, or giving them unrealistic body images involving three fingers, green skin, and a half-shell. Of course, that's because toys for boys are more often elaborately fictitious, constructing worlds of high adventure that are far more exciting than the living rooms we used to imagine them in. From the beginning, Barbie has been presented as a model of real life, as a means by which to prepare young girls for becoming adults. In contrast, little boys are quite frankly given toys to keep them busy. What is the consequence of this division of toy functions, then, and what examples can be drawn from Barbie to provide boys with toys that might instill them with a culture's preferred social programming?
Not that Barbie's earliest origin would be a preferred role model in any sense. The Bild Lilli doll that inspired Barbie, and was eventually bought out by Barbie's creator, came from a newspaper comic strip by cartoonist Reinhard Beuthin in Germany in 1953. Lilli was an unabashed perpetrator of every female stereotype of the time, some of which are still with us today. Cartoons included Lilli clubbing 'til dawn, favoring men for their money, and obsessing over fashion above all else. The original dolls were first marketed to men in bars and tobacco shops, making it perhaps the first collectable action figure for adults. Popularity naturally spread to young girls instead thanks to pressures to mature that were present long before Barbie ever donned a bathing suit.
Barbie has always been a modern girl, however, and she changes with the times. She took part in most major action figure innovations as they happened. The original Lilli doll had several unprecedented design features, including legs that did not spread out when she sat, a necessity for any doll used to teach young girls how to be a lady. Barbie picked up the torch from there, developing a backstory long before G.I. Joe when she started dating Ken in 1961. She already had a diverse wardrobe by the time G.I. Joe hit the market, too, including her uniforms for various professions. While she didn't often set the bar for gender equality, she was always quick to perpetuate it, getting herself a spacesuit as soon as the first woman went into space.
Thanks to marketing that hinged on social trends, Barbie is a teaching tool for little girls, a means by which to practice adult interaction and grooming, thereby developing a sense of who they wanted to be at an early age. Boys seem to spend most of their childhood with toys in a fantasy world, and don't make any attempts at adulthood until it is already upon them. But how much influence do our toys leave us with? We may not expect to become a mutant turtle when we grow up, but most boys still grow up with a body image that hinges on physical prowess, even if a full-scale version of an exaggerated He-Man figure would appear freakish and painfully inflexible. We want to be heroes even though reality eventually teaches us that sometimes the bad guy is too big to beat up, or even worse, too hard to define.
Where Barbie directly links childhood play with adult behavior, boys end up with a solid distinction between adulthood and their youth. Which one serves us better? Girls certainly mature more quickly than boys, giving them better social skills, but they can also develop habits and opinions about adulthood before they gain the critical thinking skills to process them. While the outrage during the talking Barbie's "math is hard" era may have been overblown, the fact remains that children will internalize such influences more deeply than an adult with a better defined sense of self, and may assume they are no good at math before they get past basic arithmetic.
Maybe it's a good thing that boys separate their childhood from their adult lives, especially when Barbie's professions include not just astronaut, but also McDonald's employee and being a tourist at Disneyland. While a break from childhood is difficult during adolescence, it may be the most important example of Benjamin Franklin's statement "That which hurts instructs." While I'm not a proponent of corporal punishment, a shock into adulthood more firmly defines it in contrast with childhood things, perhaps making them more cherished for future generations.
We could find ways to make toys for boys that instruct them in how to be an adult, but maybe that would only solidify the separation between men and women, programming each gender with distinct social rules through their playtime. Instead, let's throw gender-specific toys into the mix with the more universal toys and make all of them available to everyone, allowing them to explore any way they want, which is the real reason to have a childhood in the first place. Anyone who says toy collecting is for men is forgetting more than 100,000 Barbie collectors, 99% of which are women whose average age is 40. We're all in this together, it's just a matter of personal taste. That said, young men should be wary of any woman that had a Barbie collection when she was young. She's had years more practice in dating than you have.