Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Toy Stories, Part II

Photos: Sameen's project in Women's Studies.

This semester, I taught one section of Women's Studies. At the end of the semester, the students each did a presentation on whatever she would like. The Barbie project was done by Sameen, a young woman of Middle Eastern descent who has multiple Barbies. The Barbie for her project is decked out in stickers, saying things like "anorexia" and "hooters" to call attention to Barbie's potential negative influence on girls. As for Sameen, she said she used to dream of looking just like Barbie, although this could never happen since she is short and her skin and hair are dark. Sameen confessed to the class that she'd always felt inferior to the doll.

I must admit, I never liked Barbie Dolls. I never had one and I never wanted one. I didn't have anything in common with her at all and she didn't have anything I wanted: the fast-paced life, the fakey-looking boyfriend, the glitzy clothes, the pink plastic house. Even her name. Those dolls always had perky names, those "ie" or "y" names, like Barbie and Tammy. I wasn't a perky child. I was calm and quiet. In a group of other children, I'd sit alone and fold my hands in my lap and just observe. I didn't feel lonely or left out. But I did feel different, set apart, and this was a curiosity to me.

I visited a few friends who had a Barbie and watched with curiousity as they played with it. I just didn't get it.

Of course, I was the odd child who played with her stuffed, glass, and plastic animals, creating all kinds of adventures for them to go on. I even had a plastic turkey I was quite fond of.

This semester in Women's Studies, a number of my students admitted to having had eating disorders; at least two had undergone therapy for years. Not one of them blames Barbie completely, but Sameen, at least, felt Barbie with her waspy waist should bear at least part of the blame.

I know a number of people will think it's silly to blame a doll. Maybe you had a Barbie and you came out just fine. And, after all, I had a toy turkey: I never wanted to be a turkey, did I? But that would be missing the point; just like we miss the point when we say we play violent video games but never killed anyone. The point is, some children ARE suseptible to these things and we don't know the full extent of these influences yet.

Barbie has been a controversial toy for some time. One of the texts we used in class, now called Body Outlaws, first had "Barbie" in its title. The toy company sued and the author changed her title. However, the critical essay about Barbie remains in the text.

I wonder how many girls will receive a Barbie under the tree this Christmas. There are very few things as beautiful as children playing with their toys. But not all toys are innocent, I think.


Anonymous said...

The doll doesn't help, for sure. I had one with a platinum pony tail. She arrived on my birthday in the center of a cake shaped like a skirt. My mother worked for hours making that cake. But our family heritage (on mother's side) was Italian. No blondes among us, but my mother always made it clear that blondes were better. She wanted my brother to marry a blonde and he did, and later she told both me and my sister (separately) that my brother's wife was her favorite daughter. Self-hatred runs deep. Teagrapple.

Gannet Girl said...

Hmmmm. My stuffed, glass, plastic, and all other kinds of animals had many fantastical adventures as directed and accompanied by me. I never considered myself the least bit odd!

Cynthia said...

I had adventures with my animals, and I played with Barbies. This dichotomy in my nature is a long standing thing. Barbie is darker and more powerful than many would like to admit. With all the time I've logged in eating disorder clinics and support groups, I can assure you that your student's perceptions are very, very astute about her influence, and I admit that Barbie has influenced my feelings about physical beauty to this day. No, I'm not proud of that. Body Outlaws is a notable book. It can really make you think. I loved your student's project.

Tom said...

To add insult to injury, Barbies are often manufactured in developing countries by child labor. They couldn't afford a Barbie even if they wanted one, and they spend sixteen hours a day making them for American children.



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