I’ve heard a lot of people complain that Barbie is an unrealistic role model for girls, but I think maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe she’s not real enough. Not too long ago, the crowd-funded Lammily doll got a standing ovation because she was a doll based on the proportions of the average 19-year old, using body information from the CDC. That might seem like a great idea to make toys more normal, but does every kid want realistic toys? Boooooorrrrring!
BARBIE IS TOO REAL
Barbie is a teenage astronaut, NASCAR-driving fashion model and more. Her resume sounds like something the worst bro would use as a pickup line in a romantic comedy. The audience presumably assumes only the dumbest girls on the planet would fall for it. But the list of jobs is not impossible, merely implausible. Compare Barbie to the other toys marketed at girls like My Little Pony, Care Bears, and Smurfs. How unreal does Barbie seem compared to BBF unicorns who battle Nightmare Moon, talking bears with tummies that shoot rainbow magic, and little blue forest gnomes who live in toadstools and are each limited to one character trait (like being handy with tools, or a girl). Barbie seems soooo mundane. Forget the sky’s the limit. It’s more like the glass ceiling is the limit.
Sure, in 2001 they started making movies and dolls that cast Barbie in the roll of fairy tale princess, but there are several generations of kids for whom she is firmly rooted in a more concrete world. And casting Barbie as Rapunzel isn’t the same as her being Rapunzel. It’s easy to see her as a character who is acting in a make-believe world instead living in one.
And compare Barbie to the toys boys play with: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Star Wars, and Marvel & DC super heroes. As a boy, looking at He-Man, I never thought I could be like him. He comes from Eternia where even boney skeletons are ridiculously ripped. That world screams MAGIC and NOT REAL from the top of Snake Mountain. Even GI Joe moved away from realistic army dolls during the 60s to avoid the all-too real Viet Nam War. They started to encounter mummies and yetis in their play sets. In the 80s they added ninjas and a guy who was made from the DNA of Hannibal and Attila the Hun. Barbie is just a much hotter and smarter Doogie Howser. She’s not cloned from the DNA of Cleopatra and Joan of Arc. She doesn’t try to woo Ken away from a felonious fembot. She doesn’t become super-duper attractive when she feels love, thanks to a super dose of gamma-radiation. She is just a girl. If Barbie is to be a better role model, she needs to stay in the world of make-believe and not come out.
BARBIE GETS NAKED
Barbie gets naked so you can mix and match her outfits without worrying about bra straps showing up on strapless evening gowns. What that really means is that you are forced to consider her naked body. Part of playing with her is looking at her molded plastic anatomy. Ever since Star Wars figures set the benchmark in the late ’70s, action figures have been nevernudes. Once again, GI Joe dolls gave up on realism of removable clothes in favour of unmovable plastic costumes. And this doesn’t mean that action figures are any less obsessed with wardrobe changes than dolls are. It’s just that boys’ toys make you buy a whole new figure to get Mega-Punch or Winter Fresh Batman. When a character is always clothed, it stops being just a character and becomes a symbol. You don’t think about their flesh and bones because they are an ideal.
Barbie’s one constant outfit over decades is naked. The naked Barbie doll is iconic as Spider-Man’s red and blue wrestling uniform. If you had to imagine Barbie with clothes on, do you think you’d picture the same outfit as anyone else? Probably not. She’s not like She-Ra or Jem who have uniforms. She is a chameleon who’s always updating her look. As surely as Batman’s pointy head and cape represents the dark side of justice, and She Ra’s red cape is a flag of hope in the face of evil, Barbie’s naked plastic body represents the base on which a beautiful and powerful female is built. She is the starting point. Instead, we need Barbie to comes with some clothes that don’t come off, even if her accessories do. She needs to be an icon of something beyond nakedness as beauty. Kids respond to symbols, so going the opposite route, and trying to make Barbie a more realistic symbol, is moving towards an oxymoron. It saps the toy of its usefulness to children. Which I guess could be a valid tactic? But maybe it’s better for Barbie to stand for something and be beautiful whiles she does it (just as Superman stands for something and gets to look handsome while he does it).
BARBIE HAS NO STORY
As much as people complained that Transformers and Care Bears were just 22-minute advertisements for toys, at least they gave the toys a story. Barbie doesn’t have a cartoon series. Sure, she has some direct-to-DVD films, and an online series you can get through Netflix, but she hasn’t had that ongoing story that many other toylines have had. Now, at first you may think that could be a good thing. Kids get to make up their own story with Barbie and aren’t railroaded into thinking of Barbie as the hero and Skelebarbie as the irredeemable villain. But maybe by having no story she becomes the vacuous character people complain she is? Or maybe kids, who have trouble forming narratives, look to TV shows to help them formulate stories. They usually play act things they’ve seen, rather than made up whole-cloth.
And of course she has an implied story. Barbie comes with lots of clothes, hairbrushes, hand mirrors, a boyfriend, dream cars and dream homes. A creative kid might make her search for clues and solves crimes, or see the dream house as some Inception-deep mind twist. But more likely, they will see a pretty girl with no personality who is into playing dressup in order to achieve her dream home and vehicle. She has no origin story like how Jem is bequeathed her late-father’s hologram technology which she must keep out of the hands who would abuse it. Or how Batman wants to save other kids from losing their parents too. Despite being over 50 years old, Barbie has no identity. No well-known personality. Let’s hope Barbie keeps having a TV show, and that her story has lessons about learning, being brave, funny, a good friend, and all things cartoons usually explore.
BARBIE IS A ROLE MODEL
In fairy tales there is often a wise old woman who helps the young girl reach maturity, like the fairy godmother in Cinderella, or the mother who warns Little Red Riding Hood. Boys had Obi Wan Kenobi, Splinter, Nick Fury, and Gandalf to aspire to be, if they outgrew with the cool, younger heroes. Barbie doesn’t have a seasoned mature woman to look up to. In fact they made a younger Barbie named Skipper which positioned Barbie as the role model. Barbie is what you grow up to be. You don’t get older than that. It’s a bit like Batman and Robin but at least they had Alfred in the house to show that you could grow old with dignity, and be trustworthy, helpful, and kind. Maybe Barbie is a bad role model because she is a role model? Maybe she should be the protege? What if Barbie had a fashionable, smart, caring mother or grandmother doll? Then being young and beautiful forever isn’t the end-game, it’s just a highlight on the way to becoming a worldly wise, old woman. As much as I made fun of old man “action” figures, they do serve a purpose, and we should have more older women toys. Even if they aren’t played with, it’s important for kids to know they are a valued part of the world.
So yeah, Lammily might make little girls feel better about their body. But maybe they’d be just as well off playing with a nevernude sorceress’ apprentice with her own TV show, and have a lot more fun while they’re at it? Recently there’s been I Am Elemental, a crowd-funded action figure line for girls. They don’t get naked. They have super powers. They don’t look completely human (thanks to their oddly-coloured skin). And they have lots of points of articulation which is cool. The downside is the first batch are pretty dull when it comes to costumes. One has wings, and one has fire, but mostly they look like day-glo skinned fitness experts. The second series is a little better. The default body type doesn’t allow for there to be a huge Hulk/Ram-man, or small Wasp/Orko character for kids of different sizes. And there isn’t a story so much as a suggested personality. It’s not perfect, but they seemed to have learned a lot about what makes a kick butt toy. So if you are looking for a Barbie replacement, you might give it a look. If not, dig up She-Ra, Jem, Golden Girl, and other dolls that get to look awesome and do awesome stuff.