In Praise of Barbie

Close up image of a female doll wearing a pink dress

This is a guest post from Mairi Campbell-Jack; a poet who lives in Edinburgh with her daughter. Mairi tweets as @lumpinthethroat

Being a good “feminist”, when my daughter was born three and a half years ago I was determined to bring her up in the feminist mould. Her father and I tried our hardest not to gender her. She was dressed in blues, greens and oranges. We made sure she had toys that were appropriate to both genders, and a range of books that weren’t just about glittery princess ballerina bunnies.

Then comes nursery, and contact with other girls. She explodes into a deep and long love affair with all things pink. She tells me she is not pretty unless her hair is in a bobble. Last month she asked me why I wasn’t beautiful, and on further questioning explained to me that I wasn’t wearing a skirt. Then two weeks ago I finally gave in. At her nursery fair she was very keen to get a hideous “singing lady” which turned out to be some kind of Bratz doll and, believe me, compared to that doll five second hand Barbies or Barbie-likes for £1 was much more acceptable.

I’m afraid to admit, that of all the toys I have purchased her, those ultimate anti-feminist icons have been the best. Why? She used to get up early. Very early. For the first six months of working after maternity leave I was regularly up at 4.30 am. Recently I have made it to 6 or 6.30am before she rushes through, demanding that I get up immediately and make her breakfast… until I wearily give in and get out my warm bed to do so. How has Barbie changed my life? She now gets up and plays with her dolls. She plays quietly – sometimes until 7.30am! She never did this before, because she hadn’t been allowed a toy that she loved. Really loved, loved so much she wanted to be with it more than with me.  At the end of the day, I was forcing my own political beliefs on my daughter and not letting her follow her own interests and her own paths.

I realised that my child does not grow up in a vacuum, and if I try to mould her to my world view then I am not letting her be herself or discover things for herself either, and we all know what lies down that road – rebellion – that’s how Artists end up with children who become Accountants.  It’s also not about feminism, which, to my mind anyway, is less about telling women or young girls how to behave or what to be (no matter how left-wing your ideas are) and more about letting them make their own choices and mistakes.

This isn’t to say that just because I’m getting more sleep I suddenly think Barbie is a good role model, either boys or girls. Or that I have given up hoping to teach my daughter how to become a strong and confident woman. I’ve just decided to do it a different way, through my actions rather than consumerism. By surrounding my daughter with other strong and confident women, and men who know how to respect them (and do). As well as people who generally have bodies in realistic proportions.

It is not a bad or unrealistic thing to try to raise a feminist child, whether they are male or female, but to constantly fight the world by trying to push them down a path that is not yet theirs to even tread lies frustration.  She’s only 3 and a half, she has plenty of time to discover it.

Photo by XINYI SONG on Unsplash

7 responses

  1. Great post – reminds me of my own mum. When I was about 3, to her horror, I went through a phase of refusing to wear any trousers other than a pink pair of dungarees. When she asked me why I replied, “How will they know I’m a girl?!” A 3 year old diva I was – but my mum always let me choose my own clothes and eventually I rediscovered my love of jeans.

  2. Thanks – yeah my daughter refuses to wear anything but skirts or dresses, whereas one of her friends refuses to wear anything but trousers. I reckon they just need to assert their individuality, and apparently toddlers have a very strong gender boundaries – I’m not sure if this is more to do with an individual person trying to work out where they are in the world, as much as society putting pressure on them to be a certain way.

    • Thanks for the link Ruth. It’s really interesting to read as I was remembering only this morning, that when I was 3-5 my biggest wish in life was to be a princess, and that I really, really wanted to live in a tower and have very long hair. (Milla currently wants to be a butterfly when she grows-up). So I was wondering what the difference was between me and my daughter and I did come to the conclusion that a lot of it is marketing, and the way children are now a market force and market too.

      However what I also find interesting is that there is a massive interest and a lot of anxious column inches written about this issue in relation to girls, but I don’t see so much anxiousness over boys. Are the roles that they are given more acceptable because we have less ambition for our boys? Do we feel that because they are men they will automatically have more choice and end up fully developed – not always the case – than girls will, or do we care less about their development as people because we unconsciously see them as part of the patriarchy? Is this anxiousness just another way of saying “girls” need protected from life, whereas boys can just get on with it? Is it just another form of sexism?

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