Welcome to WWAC Game Section’s summer Barbie series. These months are often the time that children are free from commitments, away from their friends, and ready to let their imaginations take over. For many of us that meant playing with Barbies, and over the next few weeks you’ll see the many different ways Barbies affected us.
This installation is a conversation about what it means to “Play with Barbies.” So far this month: Paige taught us about the history of Barbie, Jenny discovered all of the geeky Barbie designs, Christa told us how Barbies helped her become a writer, and Claire revealed a very serious issue about Barbie immersion. In the past, the staff designed SuperBarbie comics, and Wendy pointed out superior Monsters. Have something bright pink to add? Comment below!
When did you first play with Barbies? Do you remember who gave you your first Barbie?
Zoe Gray: I got my first Barbie at a thrift store when I was six or seven. My mom never really liked me playing with Barbies, for obvious reasons (I had lots of other toys, I especially loved horses, but the body image stuff didn’t sit well with her). But I really loved fairies, so she let me get this blue sparkly fairy Barbie. A year later, I had over twenty different Barbies and played with them pretty frequently.
Jen Gonzalez: I think the memory of when I first played with Barbies might be lost forever (or I might be doing my best to actively suppress it). I was extremely reluctant to play with them; I honestly didn’t see the appeal (yes, tiny three or four-year old me was a toy snob). I know I received Barbies as gifts for almost every birthday or holiday. The one Barbie I do remember wanting to play with, though it probably wasn’t my first, was my super awesome Cool Blue Barbie. If a doll allowed me to cut and color their hair, or change their appearance in any way, I was so into it.
Wendy Browne: I have a picture of myself scoring a huge Barbie haul one Christmas from Santa. I must have been around seven or so, and this was when we had moved to Canada. I never had Barbies—or any toy I could think of, for that matter, when I was in Jamaica. We weren’t underprivileged—in fact, quite the opposite, but our play consisted of the outdoors and roleplaying using my aunt’s make up bottles (until we spilled some and got in trouble).
Al Rosenberg: I had two kinds of Barbies. The kinds that could be played with and the kinds that stayed in the box, because eventually they’d pay for my college education (they most certainly did not, though they did float a few bar tabs). Mostly I got them from my Dad’s mom for holidays starting when I was two or three.
How old were you when you quit playing with Barbies?
Zoe Gray: Well, I stopped playing with them as much when I discovered Liv Dolls: a racially diverse group of girls with cool hair, cool clothes, and, most importantly, more bendy parts! They were my new favorites, and my best friend and I played with them religiously. I still used my Barbies sometimes, but not as much. I had pretty much stopped playing with Barbies altogether when I was ten.
Jen Gonzalez: Whoa! Zoe, I never knew about Liv Dolls, but they look so cool. I would have loved to incorporate some of those into my Barbie play. I’m pretty sure Spice Girls dolls replaced my Barbies after Spice World came out. I even had the carrying case that doubled as a stage. My Barbies would take turns trying out for the group, and, of course, never make it (I was creepily aware that I was replacing them?). I think I stopped playing with (or, apparently, kind of torturing) Barbies at around eleven or twelve.
Wendy Browne: When I was around ten maybe? By then, I’d moved on to My Little Pony collections, and my friends and I were watching shows like Transformers, G.I. Joe, Jem, She-Ra, Thundercats, Voltron. I had dolls for Jem and She-Ra, but I would have loved G.I. Joe and Transformers toys. Unfortunately, my mom thought those shows were too violent.
Al Rosenberg: Well, I was thirteen, almost fourteen, when I put my Barbies away for the final time. It was the summer before high school, and I knew my love couldn’t continue. (For more on this, see the upcoming essay “Age Appropriate Toys: I Was a Teenage Barbie Player.”)
How much Barbie stuff did you own? What was it?
Zoe Gray: Oh, man. I had so much. Not really any sets or furniture or houses, just the dolls, because I got them all at Goodwill. And I had no Kens or Skippers, just a bunch of different teen girls that came without names. I named them all, gave them each their own different personalities. I didn’t really care about the Barbie franchise or who they were supposed to be, just how they fit into my own little city.
Jen Gonzalez: For someone who started off completely disinterested in Barbies, I had a lot of Barbie merchandise. My favorite item was definitely the Barbie Motor Home RV Camper. As I’m looking at the pictures, I realize that I probably got this secondhand, because a lot of the pieces were missing (I was supposed to have chairs for that table). I didn’t really notice anyway; I mostly used the RV for locking away my only Ken doll when he said something upsetting to my Barbies.
Wendy Browne: I don’t think I had too many dolls, but I’m sure I had lots of clothes and at least one carry case. My mom loved dressing up dolls and went on to make porcelain dolls of her own in later years until she had grand daughters that she could dress up. Basically, any doll my sister and I had was for my mom, even though our names might have been on the package.
Al Rosenberg: Everyone in my family started buying me Barbie stuff for the holidays when they realized I loved them, and I have a huge family. My best friend and I would set up huge neighborhoods of Barbie crap in my living room and play a doll version of The Sims (the obsession that would replace our Barbie time in the coming years).
Did you play mostly alone or with others?
Zoe Gray: Mostly alone, I’d say. I did a little with other people, but I honestly enjoyed it more when I could just tell their stories myself without other people messing it up.
Jen Gonzalez: Most often, I played alone. I was horrible at letting someone else develop the stories I created for my Barbies. I got really upset when someone made a decision that I felt was “out of character.”
Wendy Browne: I was the last of four kids and came along ten years later, so my play was alone. My cousins had a big Barbie collection, and I’d always want to play with them when we visited, but I discovered later that they hated playing Barbies. Come to think of it, it seems like that’s all there was to play in my early years, other than board games.
Al Rosenberg: Most of the time I played alone, but whenever my best friend came over I’d boss her into playing with me. I’m not even sure she liked Barbies all that much, but I was probably the bossiest kid in the world. (Sorry, Tina!)
Who was your favorite non-Barbie Barbie?
Zoe Gray: I can’t find the names of any of them, but there were two really beautiful black Barbies that I loved. I treasured them especially, because they rarely ever had black Barbies at the thrift store.
Jen Gonzalez: The only non-Barbie Barbie that I ever had was Extreme Green Teen Skipper. I spent a lot of time trying to wash that green dye paste stuff out of her hair and mine.
Wendy Browne: My options were limited, so I guess I’ll go with that one Skipper doll I happened to have.
Al Rosenberg: The Barbie I played with wasn’t actually Barbie. She was a redhead. I’m not sure what her “actual” name was, but I named her Ginger, maybe that was her actual name. My best friend played with a brunette that she named “Rachel.”
Did you own any “knock-off” Barbies?
Zoe Gray: No, mostly just Barbies and Liv Dolls (which conveniently fit into each other’s clothes).
Jen Gonzalez: I’m not sure if she counts as a “knock-off” Barbie, but I had a Hey Macarena doll. She came with her own cassette tape that had the Macarena on both sides. This was my first (and only, I think) Latina doll. I had never seen a doll that even sort of resembled me, so I really treasured her.
Wendy Browne: Nope.
Al Rosenberg: I was pretty loyal to the Barbie brand, but my dad sent me a beautiful Pakistani “Barbie” in traditional garb when he was stationed overseas.
Do you feel like Barbie affected your body image? How so?
Zoe Gray: I don’t think so, because my parents and I were very aware of what the consequences of having Barbies might be, and we talked about it. I think all the positive influences coming in from outside overcame the harmful messages about body image that Barbie sends.
Jen Gonzalez: Growing up, I struggled a lot with body image; I’m not sure how much of that has to do with Barbies. The absence of Latina Barbies and dolls from my life probably affected me the most.
Wendy Browne: I spent far too much of my life wishing I had blond hair and blue eyes and was “pretty.”
Al Rosenberg: I was a fat kid who grew up to be a fat adult. I was blond and light eyed, but had to wear a bra in third grade and had acne by fifth grade. I would stare at my Barbies and feel so angry that I wasn’t thin and beautiful. But I think I would have done that without Barbie. My family is all thin, so I probably would have just glared at them instead.
Would you buy Barbies for your kids?
Zoe Gray: I wouldn’t go out of my way to buy Barbies specifically, especially because there are so many other, better dolls that you can do the same thing with, but if my kid wanted to have a Barbie, I wouldn’t deny them it. But I would sit them down and have a dialogue about what they think Barbie stands for, why they’re choosing it, etc. I think that it’s okay to play with Barbies as long as you know that the body image presented is an unrealistic expectation of women, and not one that you should strive to achieve.
Jen Gonzalez: I don’t plan on having kids, but I pretty much agree with everything Zoe said. If a child does not explicitly ask for a Barbie, I don’t think it’ll be my go-to gift.
Wendy Browne: I have two daughters, seven and nine, and they do have Barbies. I rarely buy the dolls for them, save for a recently requested Holiday Barbie. I like the designer collections and want them for myself personally, so I didn’t mind that request. But mostly, the princess and Barbie dolls that have come into the house have been as Christmas gifts. My husband and I learned that telling people we didn’t want our daughter to be all pink and princess-y was pretty much like laying out a challenge. We haven’t rejected any such toys and clothing that comes into the house, but we don’t actively buy it ourselves unless they ask. The girls prefer My Little Pony and Littlest Pet Shop toys anyway, and their doll choices lean now toward Monster High, which I’m quite happy with.
Al Rosenberg: I don’t know. Maybe? Like is mentioned above, maybe if they specifically requested them.
What does it mean, to you, to “play” with Barbies?
Zoe Gray: I don’t know how normal kids played with them, but I‘m not sure it was what I did. Pretty much, I thrived on their drama. They each were an individual person, with a personality and name, never different people for different stories. I would detail their individual relationships and have fights, friendship, and love. Yeah, a side-effect of having no boy dolls was that they were all super gay. It was great. But, essentially, I wrote a TV show around their “lives.” I’ve always loved writing and writing-related activities, including LARPing (playing pretend, when I was younger), and I think this kind of story-telling with the dolls just came naturally to me. Oh, and sometimes I’d act out entire Shakespeare plays with them.
Jen Gonzalez: I had an intense imagination when I was younger; I loved creating stories, personalities, and relationships for my Barbies. Actually, how I played sounds really similar to what Zoe described. Each of my Barbies had a distinct personality that remained the same, no matter how much the story changed or developed. They would argue, fall in love, cheat on each other, betray each other, save the world, and travel through time. Once I got my hands on my brother’s Hot Wheels, I opened up an entire new universe. My Barbies became explorers (who may or may not have eventually married some of the cars). I had one Ken doll and, for some reason, he was a real douche bag. Barbies would often leave him for other Barbies (or cars, I guess).
Wendy Browne: I don’t think my imagination really shone when I was roleplaying with my Barbies. I can’t really recall anything unique about that play. But my My Little Ponies were involved in epic wars and I built houses for them out of shoe boxes and apartments out of Kleenex boxes…
Al Rosenberg: Wendy, that sounds magical, and I would watch that if it were a show. My Barbies were super boring and obsessed with getting married and having sex.
Your favorite thing about Barbie?
Zoe Gray: They’re like people. Or, at least, they were to me. Yeah, dressing them up was fun, but letting them each have a distinct personality enabled me to have a whole little town of my own characters.
Jen Gonzalez: I could spend hours immersed in my Barbie stories. I loved having control over their personalities and relationships. Role-playing with Barbies definitely helped me work through arguments or issues I was having outside of their world.
Wendy Browne: Now, as I mentioned, I would love a designer Barbie collection. I’m not a fashionista myself and am quite content in clothes I wore years ago even if they’ve apparently gone out of style, but I love the glitz and glamour of the designer and celebrity dolls. I have a personal fondness for Scarlett O’Hara, and I really like the designs by Bob Mackie and Byron Lars.
Al Rosenberg: I LOVE BOB MACKIE!
The worst thing about Barbie?
Zoe Gray: God, their bodies. Why? Why is it necessary for you to have proportions so bad that if you were a human, you would have to crawl because you can’t support your own weight? And, you know what, it’s one thing when a doll’s proportions are supposed to be off. But Barbies are supposed to look like normal people. Sure, their heads are obviously a little bigger than normal, but their bodies don’t look that weird until you compare them to the bodies of a normal woman.
Jen Gonzalez: I feel like the most common answer to this question is going to be about bodies. Not gonna lie, I was really confused about human anatomy for a while because of Barbie. I spent a lot of time feeling like I was put together “incorrectly.”
Wendy Browne: The lack of diversity. Barbie has gotten better with representation over the years, but it’s still blond and blue-eyed Barbie at the forefront and the ads often feature young girls of the same.
Al Rosenberg: Yep, the bodies. But also, the fact that Doctor Barbie is more expensive than Magician Barbie, as pointed out in some Slate article years back, and she still wears heels in a lab coat. Why?
Did your Barbies “have sex?”
Zoe Gray: Yeah. Lesbian sex. Although, at the time, I’m not sure if I realized how cis lesbian sex worked.
Jen Gonzalez: Oh, YEAH. My Barbies had sex with each other, had sex with Hot Wheels, had sex with action figures. No one had sex with Ken, though (I’m really trying to remember why I hated him so much).
Wendy Browne: OMG no! Blasphemy! I was brought up in a good clean Christian home, and I had no idea what sex was until I got married. *Blush*
Al Rosenberg: That was the main mode of play. So much sex.
Did you ever play any of the Barbie video games? Read the books? Watch the movies?
Zoe Gray: I think I played a few of their online games (that one where you have to drive around and get party supplies or something), but I kind of despised the books and movies. I think that, by the time that I really got into Barbies, I was past the level where they would have been challenging or interesting.
Jen Gonzalez: I LOVED Barbie: Race & Ride. I was really into horses for a while, so the fact that you could pick your own horse, name it (I had several named Buttercup), give it snacks, and ride several different trails made this game so fun for me. I also got to live out my dream of riding a horse on the beach, my hair blowing delicately and neatly (I will not taste hair in this fantasy) in the wind. I never got into the books or movies.
Wendy Browne: I have two daughters, like I said. I have watched the movies and read the books. Oh gods, I have watched the movies and read the books. Over and over and over and over and over and over and over … Actually, Barbie: Life In The Dreamhouse is amusing satire. I’ll let that one slide.
Al Rosenberg: Those video games are sometimes so hard. Detective Barbie PC game, whatever it was, was really hard. I only watched the Swan Lake movie, and never read the books, but the video games were my jam.
Anything else you want to say about your Barbies?
Zoe Gray: When it comes down to it, Barbies can be used in a lot of different ways. How you use them influences the impact they have on you. But let’s not pretend that the body image presented in each and every one of them and the Barbie-related media created around the dolls doesn’t present a harmful message about what you should be if you play with them.
Jen Gonzalez: I worked through a lot of external conflicts using my Barbies. I think they allow for extremely valuable role-playing situations, but like Zoe mentioned, it’s impossible to ignore the body image issues created by Barbie bodies and the media surrounding them.
Wendy Browne: I appreciate that Mattel Inc. has tried to fix some of the problems that come with Barbie and that they work hard on their girl power campaigns, but I think there are better options for girls. I won’t deny my girls Barbie, but they have already outgrown her.
Al Rosenberg: My Barbies were actually incredibly important to me, and my development. I’m glad I had them.