The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Quest For A Perfect Doll
They say parents willingly fill up kids’ rooms with toys that Mom and Dad missed in their own childhood. It is probably true for me. I have a three-month-old girl, and I can’t wait for when she will be big enough for our first visit to a toy store. In the meantime, I stroll around “pink aisles” wondering which doll would compensate for a shortage of toys in my childhood and considering how it correlates with my perception of a proper companion for a modern girl.
So that’s how I wound up in an average New Jersey Toys”R”Us with my smartphone camera ready to snap everything in search of a perfect doll. Let’s see what they have to offer.
The girls’ toys aisle, all pink, nice, and sweet, starts with a dazzling variety of baby dolls. These plastic infants are supposed to be a girl’s very first doll, and they can do a lot of things: talk, cry, sing, pee, and eat. One doll can even get hurt and has a toy bandage in a box.
I don’t remember having a baby doll when I was a toddler, but I do remember how I hated them when I was a preschooler. Even then these dolls conveyed an idea that people saw me as a future mother and nothing else. I didn’t like that pressure. Moreover, I was convinced that only very small girls play house. In a way, pediatricians justify this: playing with baby dolls is essential for toddlers, because it helps them learn new words and obtain everyday skills such as dressing, bathing, and grooming. If this is the case, then why are all the baby dolls targeted at girls? Most baby dolls are unisex or female, because it is supposedly more compelling for a kid to play with a same-sex toy. Further, all these vinyl babies are arranged in the “pink aisle,” and you won’t find anything resembling a baby doll in the boys’ section of the store.
Looking at this, I have a strong feeling that I need to avoid pink in my daughter’s gear and clothes as much as possible. And when I buy her a baby doll, I will try to make it her first learning toy, not a doll that conveys a “know your place, you little woman” message.
Cabbage Patch Kids
I’d never heard of Cabbage Patch Kids, though they say these dolls are familiar to most Americans born in and after the 80s. Honestly, I don’t find them attractive. However, they are big and soft and would be a great toy for an age when small parts and solid and sharp details are dangerous for a kid. Also, Cabbage Patch Kids don’t have the body image issues so typical to fashion dolls, but they are nevertheless heavily gendered. Toy girls wear pink, pale violet, or flower patterns. Boy toys hold champion cups and stand next to girls in cheerleader costumes. What, no female champions? So you want to teach my daughter that being someone’s supporter is the closest place she could have to the winner’s podium, right? And the best way to do it is to smile, dance, and wear a short skirt? No, thanks!
My Little Pony: Equestria Girls
These dolls are a human incarnation of the My Little Pony characters. You can recognize Twilight Sparkle, Fluttershy, Zecora, and others by the skin and hair color and patterns on outfits. The box says they are suitable for children five years and older. Obviously, the manufacturer assumes that’s a good age for learning about what society’s expectations for how women’s bodies should look. Just look at their appearance. I can understand these oversized eyes, exactly like the ponies in the TV show. But I can’t understand these slender bodies. They look even skinnier than the Equestria Girls movie characters.
Fluttershy-teen and Fluttershy-pony are sold together, but look very different. Fluttershy-pony is a funny, clumsy, and lovely anthropomorphic animal. Her body features look simplified, cartoonish. Is she fit? Is she muscular? Is she tall? We can’t draw any conclusions, because it seems pointless to approach a cartoon character with standards of real ponies. But it’s not the same for Fluttershy-teen. Her endless limbs and overly defined waist indicate that she was designed according to the common conception of feminine beauty. Cartoonish as she is, with her oversized head and big eyes, she nevertheless urges questions: why are her legs so thin? Are mine supposed to be like this? That’s the point. A toy pony, even densely gendered, doesn’t need to keep up with beauty standards for her kind, while an appearance of a toy teen girl answers the expectations of the society. It tells a tale. I only hope that children don’t fret about body issues as much as we, adults, think they might. And at least it’s not the creepiest idea of a human-like pony.
Frozen and other Disney characters
There are two rows of shelves with Disney dolls; half of them are from Frozen. As I walk past them, I remember how my niece used to adore toy cars, making her grannies concerned about this obsession. She had a big box with plastic trucks, sedans, jeeps, buses, and characters from the Cars movie. She used to arrange them in two room-length lanes and announce, “Look, traffic jam!” Now, it’s all about Frozen. She has dolls of Elsa and Anna, playing cards with Elsa and Anna, lunchboxes and rain boots with Elsa and Anna, and more. Apparently, there’s not an object you can’t put Elsa and Anna’s portrait on.
I love a lot about Frozen, but I hate that it usurps children’s minds. Besides, Disney practically hasn’t had competition in animated movies since 2006 when it bought Pixar. All the latest animations with a prominent female lead—Tangled, Brave, and Frozen—were made by Disney, but I’m trying to avoid this monopoly. On the other hand, Disney has resources to suit all ages and all types of parents. Thus, next to glamorous Belle, Cinderella, and Ariel, there are baby versions of these characters that are soft and cozy. Toddler Snow White and Anna look awesome, too, with their bodies resembling children’s proportions.
I love to stroll through Barbie aisles in stores. The price of Barbie in Russia during my childhood years was impossible for most families, so I’ve never had an original doll. Only a couple of my friends happily owned a real doll, and their bendable legs and arms seemed magic. The rest of us had copycats, cheap Barbie-like dolls which we kept calling Barbie. We didn’t have any extras either, and I feel grateful to my fake Barbie for encouraging me to figure out how to make a ballgown from my old joggers. Plastic heels were worth their weight in gold because they always got lost, and fake Ken was losing his head when kissing, literally. Nevertheless, I always felt “in” with Barbie culture. I even had a sticker book, though stickers were not sold in my town. So it seems like the real Barbie would be my childhood dream realized, easily brought to life with ten dollars at Walmart. But I don’t want it anymore.
The most alarming thing about Barbie is that she has so many occupations and is so darn good at all of them. People say it’s great, it teaches girls they can choose any job they want. For me, it means that all these jobs are already taken by a tall smiling blonde. She is professional and successful; she knows so much and never fails, and she smiles. Widely. A lot. Scary.
I’m not like her. Barbie is too untroubled. She learns new jobs easily. She owns cars, houses, horses, clothes. But, who pays for her education and belongings? She never had a rags to riches story, nor is she a self-made girl, so I always imagine a wealthy vinyl dad that is happy to give his beloved vinyl girl everything she wants. But things don’t go that smoothly in real life. Not all parents can afford a nice car for their offspring as easily as they can buy a fancy cabrio for a child’s Barbie. And a medical diploma won’t be as painless for you as it is for Barbie, because she comes with it in a box; she’s made to be a doctor.
Barbie is supposed to imitate real life and encourage girls to achieve their life goals, but her image promotes effortless living with good things just happening around. I’m afraid this rosy realm can contribute to feelings of unworthiness as soon as a girl finds out that the world is not the land of milk and honey. Another more scary thing about Barbie is the hidden message about being beautiful for somebody, not for yourself. Aqua nailed it: “Make me walk, make me talk, do whatever you please / I can act like a star, I can beg on my knees.”
Against this background, body proportions don’t seem the greatest pitfall. Actually in childhood, I never paid attention to my pseudo-Barbie’s waist measurements before Mom and Granny started the topic. Grandma used to call my doll “pigalitsa,” a puny brat. Mom argued that, according to what they said on TV, Barbie had perfect model proportions. Nobody really knew back then about the dangers of Barbie’s BMI.
Journey Girls is a brand sold by Toys “R” Us. They look pretty and modern with realistic children proportions and normal sized eyes and noses. Up-to-date teenager outfits are a smart solution, given that children love dolls that represent older kids. There are several girls of color in the collection, and they actually differ in facial features from the white versions. Compared to all other options in the store, Journey Girls would be the best choice for concerned parents. But as I write this, I find the dolls boring. They are just so average. I would be happy if my girl liked them, but I’m not sure they could really keep a child engaged.
I first learned about Monster High when my friend, who became a mother before me, posted a picture of centaur-looking Avea Trotter in Instagram. The friend wanted to share her disgust, but I fell in love instantly and googled more Monster High pictures. Since then, I have been a fan of these dolls, and I barely can stop myself from buying them now. They are not unblemished though. The very idea of Monster High is a compromise between a need to create diverse dolls, who have personality and flaws, and a commercial interest of making them conventionally attractive. “Ghouls” have skinny bodies and enormous eyes; they dress in revealing clothing and wear tons of makeup on their faces. But compared to slender Bratz and Barbie, these boho monsters have a significant advantage: they give you space for an explanation when your little one asks why she can’t have eyes so big: “They are ghosts and vampires, darling, not people. It’s all magic.” It won’t work so good with Elsa: “She’s a princess!”—what kind of explanation is it? And here comes the biggest fun—Monster High are fantasy and sci-fi inspired freaks! It makes some parents hate them. It makes me adore them. Ghosts, zombies, werewolves—what kind of comics and speculative fiction lover could resist? A toy that could encourage a kid to read Frankenstein and google about Medusa the Gorgon is a great toy! I’m not sure if I should approve Monster High as a feminist mom. But as a geek mom I definitely love them (and it’s not only me!).
Ever After High
After Monster High, Mattel took on creepy fantasy dolls and launched Ever After High, a line of freaky versions of fairy tale princesses. Or, to be precise, the children of princesses, villains, and sidekicks (Mad Hatter, Evil Queen, Chesire Cat, etc.).
They have the same problems of Monster High: controversial diversity, body issues, excessive makeup. Nevertheless, I would prefer these dolls over Disney’s characters not only for their looks, but because of the wider possibilities for children’s imaginations.
Sleeping Beauty’s and Rapunzel’s destiny is predetermined by well-known stories, while not much is known about their daughters, and a child can create any drama. Sure, Mattel releases webisodes about them, but it’s not carved-in-stone canon, especially compared to the legacy of original fairy tale princesses. Thus, Ever After High makes a better choice for me.
That’s what our local chain toy store offers to young girls. Certainly, on the web you can buy highly acclaimed “average Barbie” and other body-positive dolls, but friends and relatives are likely to look for gifts in chain stores, and I’m sure my girl will own Barbies and My Little Ponies or whatever comes to replace them. However, with neutral Journey Girls and weird Monster High, we’re definitely moving towards better toys for our kids, and therefore, to a better life for them. Maybe when my daughter will be old enough for fashion dolls, gender issues in our society will be solved. Maybe it will be quite a different world with quite different toys. Maybe our children will be ignorant about gender stereotypes we’re dealing with, and won’t understand what’s so funny about this video: