Does Barbie Inspire You to Be Whatever You Want to Be?

Barbie and me!

Barbie and me!

A few weeks ago I found Astronaut Barbie at an antique store in Nashville. I hope she winds up in the arms of a little girl whose imagination takes off like a rocket towards dreams of space. That's what she was made for.

I've always loved Barbie. As a feminist who believes that women should feel equally competent and valuable whether they're wearing hot pink glitter or scuffed combat boots, my hackles raise when I hear sweeping criticisms of Barbie and her girly ilk. I have many personal reasons for loving Barbie, but this Reddit thread and its comments offers some other people's stories. They express the idea that Barbie is inspiring at her best and harmless at her worst. You should read the whole thing, but here are a few of my favorite points (note: just in case the Reddit users don't want a lot of attention, I'm not going to link to their user profiles right now):

Barbie can be a good role model.

She's had every career imaginable and she looks fine as hell doing it. She's got a mansion, a car, a BOAT, tons of friends, and a happy life. She did this all on her own, Ken came after all that. She is an independent, fabulous, smart and educated woman.

Barbie doesn't "ruin feminism."

She decided, "I'm going to be a powerful bitch in charge and I'm gonna wear pink lipstick while I do it. My femininity does not reflect on my ability to get shit done.". [sic] I'd say Barbie is one hell of a feminist.

In fact, you could even make a pretty valid case arguing that Barbie's universe overflows with girl-power to the point of borderline misandry:

To quote my favorite blogger of 90s, Nikol Lohr: "It was Barbie who introduced the concept of 'man as an accessory.'"

As one commenter pointed out, the men in Barbie's universe serve only as foils for the women -- after all, this is a toy that is targeted at little girls, and little girls usually want to imagine people like themselves as the main characters and heroes -- er, I mean heroines.

Not all of Barbie's female friends have boyfriends, but all of the male characters exist only as boyfriends. 

Barbie's physical appearance doesn't "set unrealistic standards" for girls to aspire to.

Barbie isn't the problem, it's the twisted idea that we have to 100% emulate those we look up to. We are individuals, not mindless followers. We can be whoever we want. How does the waist/hip/boob ratio of a doll that likes pink, sparkles, and friendship have so much power over so many people? Why does everyone hate her so much for her body? Isn't that what we're against?

A girl's toy is a vessel for her imagination, and she is the captain of her ship; she can point it wherever she wants it to go.

My barbie was hardcore, we used to free (my little pony) hostages, repelling through windows. There were car chases too. Barbie could be whatever she wanted.

Most young girls are completely unaware of pressure and issues surrounding Barbie, pinkwashing, and "princess culture."

To be honest, I've never understood the hoopla around Barbie, I mean, I guess I get it on a certain level, but I don't recall ever thinking, as I grew up, that i was supposed to be like, look like, or dress like Barbie.

Some girls believe they have experienced emotional trauma from pressure to look like Barbie...

I do feel like I am a little messed up on body image because of the dolls I had growing up. It's not that she's thin or that her breasts are a certain size or anything like that, it's that she has IMPOSSIBLE measurements (or had, the body shape has changed a lot since I was a kid). Barbie wears a pencil skirt and still has (roughly) five feet worth of legs left over. I put on the same style of skirt, and I don't have a whole lot of leg left. And my legs are decently long even! I know it's unrealistic, but I do think I think I'm a little hard on myself sometimes because I'm comparing myself to some idea of body proportions I grew up with. This is coming from an adult, who knows it's silly. So imagine a kid who's still iffy on the difference between reality and make believe.

...but I suspect these girls are less common than the girls who saw Barbie dolls as one more tool in their imagination's tool box. Sure, a child can't help but be influenced by the imposed universe and values of her toys. But my experience and observation suggests that children quickly lose interest in playing with Barbies unless a. the doll easily fits into the child's preferred imaginary story lines or b. the doll's imposed story line jives with what the child already wants to enact.  As for how the child decides what story line she wants to enact and how much of that has already been influenced by her toys and culture... well, that's something I am not currently prepared to write about.

Of course, there are many other sticky topics related to Barbie, race, and gender that, due to my Barbie-fan-girl blinders, I often overlook. How would you suggest we explore them? What do you think about Barbie?