Barbie World: Is It What I Thought It Would Be?

“I played with Barbie as a kid, and I turned out fine.”  If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that. I could say the same about myself, and minus a few insecure moments about my muscular-and-not-thin thighs, I have by and large turned out okay. My Barbies used to have awesome adventures, mixed in with my LEGO, My Little Pony, and my brothers’ GI Joe. I remember liking the safari outfit just as much as the sparkly ballgown. I never had a Ken doll, my Barbies were far too busy career building and adventuring to worry about that nonsense. I have a more tolerant palette for Barbie than I do princesses, but I think that is in part because princesses weren’t big when I was a kid in the 1980’s (the Disney Princesses weren’t a brand yet) and my Barbies came ready for adventure and didn’t have a pre-written story to be reenacted.

You’ve seen my evolution with Barbie and my daughter play out here. Amelia was six when she got her first Barbie – a mermaid Barbie. She now has several, and plays with them when she is in the tub or pool. Her Barbie collection totals seven dolls: five mermaids, one Surfer Barbie, and one Sea World Trainer Barbie. She also has a Barbie knock-off dolphin trainer from Shedd Aquarium, and a Bindi Irwin Surfer Girl.

While we have stayed far away from sexualized dolls and remain adamant they will not come into our home, I have been able to wrap my head around some of the Barbies. Consider it the “How to be a fan of problematic things” approach. I know the body image issues with Barbie and I have discussed them many times with Amelia, to the point that she can articulate them for herself. As mentioned above, most of her Barbies are mermaids so I didn’t have to worry about sexy outfits because these dolls are half-fish. The Surfer Barbie has a tankini painted on her body, and the Sea World Trainer came in a wetsuit, water shoes, and a fanny pack of smelt.

So I’m not as anti-Barbie as I used to be, but my daughter is older now with more developed critical-thinking skills. The child is an aquatic humanoid and needed dolls that could go in the water with her. She plays for hours swimming with her mermaids, training large imaginary marine animals, rescuing Arctic seals, training her little brother to be a merman, you name it. Her Barbie Mermaids are floating in the pool nearby, helping to create the stage her imagination plays out on.

I know a lot of other people’s girls move beyond the fashion-wedding world of Barbie into true adventures fit for girls ready to take on and take over the world. We had a great discussion on the PPBB facebook page last week about the good that can be extracted from the Disney Princess brand. A ton of parents said that was really helpful, so I’d like to do the same for Barbie. I’ll compile all of this next week into a blog series, because there are some seriously helpful insights to be shared.

So what I’d like to know is:

1. For those of you whose daughters have Barbies, what kind of stories do they play out with their dolls? Where do they play with their dolls?

2. What kinds of tweaks and changes to the story/character development of Barbie could be made to help parents to be more comfortable with the brand? So, maybe we can’t change the physical appearance of Barbie, but much like we did with LEGO when the Friends line was released, what is a “To Do” list we could create to post for parents to see ways that Barbie could be improved and develop more creative play? More adventure outfits and accessories to use in play? New friends to introduce? New story lines?

Amelia's Barbie collection, which now resides outside by the pool for the summer.


  1. Heh. My kid has both colored her dolls’ hair (with permanent markers), and shorn it. Most recently:

  2. Defending Traditional Girly says:

    I sure don’t want to ruffle any feathers and I do enjoy your view on girly not having to be the “traditional girly”. My first daughter is a “non-traditional girl” (never did like princesses – enjoyed the movies, but not the brand toys, clothes, etc.), but my second daughter much to my surprise, is a “traditional girly girl”. She wanted Cinderella everything. If it wasn’t Cinderella, it had to be pink! She has passed the Cinderella stage, but it still has to be pink, even at 7 years old. I have worked really hard at allowing both of them to be who they are. That being said, I am a firm believer on not pushing all this pinkness on any girl, just because she is a girl! My first child was a “girl” on the ultrasound, but came out all boy. My babyshower made me want to puke pink. I knew then that until my child chose pink on her own, I was not going to buy or use ANY pink! That being said, I have a hard time with anyone who won’t allow their little girl to be that Cinderella loving, pink loving traditional girl…….if that is what they really are! What is wrong with dreaming about your wedding day, being a spouse, or mom? Isn’t that an “true adventure”, too? It certainly is for me! You can dream of being a wife or mother ans STILL take on the world (or not loose your own identity). I agree that not all girls will feel the same, but some do. I certainly did as a child and still do as an adult. So, why can’t the ones that want the bride barbie to be their childhood dream/adventure, have that? Isn’t it doing the same thing by not ALLOWING them to be girly, as pushing too much girly on them?

    On another point. I wouldn’t care so much about the Barbie misshapen figure if it weren’t for the sexy outfits they put her in. After all, not many dolls are actually proportionately shaped, are they? However, there is no need for Barbie to wear such short shorts or string bikinis. They can be more conservatively clothed and still be fun. But, I have to politely disagree with your view on the Mermaid Barbie’s outfit not being sexy. She is still wearing a skimpy bikini top on her human portion of her body. Couldn’t she wear a bigger top? Tankini perhaps?

    • DTG –
      Two questions:
      1) When did I say I wasn’t allowing something for my daughter or forbid her to like or play with something?
      2) Why is being girly defined as marriage and princesses? My daughter IS being girly with whatever she is doing because she is, empirically, a girl.

      My daughter’s favorite color is blue. That is girly. She loves science and art. That is girly. She loves swimming and mud puddles, both girly things. She likes dress up and nail polish and bugs and snail hunting. Girly, girly, girly, girly. You bet not allowing a child to be one thing or another is detrimental to them. So are limiting stereotypes.

      But she doesn’t much care for pink. She has no interest in getting married. Zip, and she’ll tell you all about it in one of her tiny feminist rants. I am married and I am a mother. Being married is not even on my Top 20 list for adventures in my life. I love my husband, but I’m 35 and have done a lot of living.

      All of that said, this post was asking for ideas on how girls play and create with their Barbies, what stories or adventures do they go on? If you have anything to add to that, I’d love to hear it.

      • Defending Traditional Girly says:

        I do appologize. It seems that I have ruffled feathers, exactly what I wanted to avoid! I am not very articulate, which is why I rarely comment on anything I read. As far as forbidding something your daughter likes. I really, with all honesty, never meant to imply that! I have been reading many of your posts lately, after a friend suggested your site mentioning that we had a lot in common. After reading them, I have just felt like you think that if a girl only likes the “stereotypical” girl toys, colors, clothes, etc., then they are merely victims of the stereotype. They couldn’t possibly like them, just because they do. That is what I meant by all that. As you can see in my reply to Robyn’s misunderstanding, I have spent 10 years defending my first daughter against the label, “tom boy”. Watching her feelings get hurt every time she is called that. And having to answer the question, “Why do they think I am a boy, when I am a girl?” Now, I am feeling that I have to also defend my second daughter from people saying she can’t like those things on her own, society must have made her like them. I in no way “defined” girly as being “marriage and princess”. If you re-read the post, I have one daughter that is not the “stereotypical girly” and one that is. So, I completely, and utterly, agree that being girly has an infinite amount of definitions. But, my point was just that those things like marriage and such can ALSO be adventures in someones life. Marriage in my life is on the top of my list of adventures, along with traveling abroad, feeding the poor, raising my family. I have one also that doesn’t talk much about getting married and I certainly don’t even bring it up with her, because I know that isn’t in her priority list right now (if ever, who knows). Her list consists of saving the animals, and well, that’s it! My other daughter, however, dreams of the man she will marry some day and where she will live and what her kids will be like, just like I used to. That is why I tried to make that clear (but, evidently failed miserably), that I accept both types of girly and anything in between.

        As far as sticking to the Barbie questions, in the second paragraph, I was answering #2 in your list of questions. I guess that wasn’t what you really were looking for. I was just telling you what I would change about Barbie (her clothes), because that is what I thought you were asking in that second question. As far as, changing her story/character developement……I don’t know. I only see her in the toy aisle of the store. So, I don’t know what her story would even be about. As far as question #1, I didn’t have anything really interesting to add. My first daughter never really played with them. My second daughter liked playing “house” with them, which included marriage, children, saving animals, teaching school, etc. My oldest boy would occasionally play with them, with my second daughter, but he would usually just have them blasting off into space, spying on someone, racing in a car, or shooting each other in a war zone until she lost interest and went to play something else.

        Again, I apologize for offending you. It was certainly not my intention, as I have spent a lot of my time and effort trying to re-explain to you.

        • You have nothing to apologize for, its no worries. You haven’t ruffled my feathers, I’m just trying to have a conversation. Sometimes emotion is implied or read through online comments that isn’t there. I promise, my reply to you was far more neutral than it might have read.

          As I type this, I’m wearing a raspberry-colored top with gold sparkles flecked throughout the fabric and raspberry colored sandals with little leather flowers all over them. I’m about to stand up and put on some makeup before going out. Yesterday I was in yoga pants, a tank top, a ballcap over messy hair, and makeup free.

          There are many ways to be a girl. That is the only message I want people to walk away from here with. 🙂

    • Your first child isn’t “all boy.” She’s female right? That makes her a girl, no matter what her interests are. So is your other daughter. Princess loving, tree climbing, pink/blue/green/silver-adoring, skateboard riding, math obsessed, can’t-get-a-book-out-of-her-hand, insect catching…
      There are a MILLION ways to be a GIRL!

      • Defending Traditional Girly says:

        I am sorry. I should have typed that more clearly. My first child was in fact a boy! The ultrasound said, “girl”, but it was wrong. My second and third children (of 5) are girls. My point was just that I was disgusted (as are most of the people reading this blog) with the overwhelming amount of PINK that I received at the baby shower (before we set eyes on the proof that the ultrasounds are not 100%). In fact, my favorite color has always been pink, but couldn’t stand the sight of it by the time my little bundle of boy entered my world. So, when I finally did have girls, I purposely chose other colors for them and tried my hardest to avoid my own favorite color. That is, until one of them chose that color for herself. I have spent all 10 years of my first daughter’s life defending her version of girly from people that insist on call her a tom boy. I hate that term because I have seen the look in her eyes when someone calls her that. I make sure the each of my children knows that I celebrate and enjoy each of their individual likes and dislikes.

  3. When I was a kid, the Barbies I actually played with were all mermaids. I had one with sparkly hair, and a Skipper mermaid with twin babies. (I think she was like a mermaid baby-sitter). Although I had other Barbies, I rarely played with them. It was more fun to have Barbies in the pool with me! I also had troll dolls, and I used my Barbie clothes/jeep/limo with them more than I actually used Barbies.

  4. Christine C. says:

    I love the dialogue that is being started on this thread. I have two girls. One is two and one is not even one yet. I can already see the differences forming. I can already see that one will be more “girly” from the world’s perspective and that they definitely have two very distinctive personalities. But, you know what, that is what I love about this website/blog – it focuses on letting your child be his/herself, not some whacked out version of what society thinks he/she should be, that it views each child as an individual who need to learn to think for his/herself. You can be a girl who loves Barbies or a girl who loves Cars – it’s all good. I loved Barbies growing up. I also have issues with body image (that I strive not to pass down to my girls). Are those linked? Maybe… do they have to be for my girls? Not necessarily… this is about starting a dialogue and setting an example! Thanks for being a bit of moral support in my quest to support my daughters in becoming wonderful women who are not bound by stereotypes and who do not view themselves through the world’s poor lens, but who strive to be themselves, pefectly, imperfect. 🙂

  5. I’m not sure that this helps in a practical way with your specific questions but your tweet/blog post inspired a blog post of my own in reply! I’ll post the link but here’s a quick and dirty summary:

    1) yes, we can project our own narratives on Barbie–Clare’s in a space phase at the moment (and have you seen the Barbie in a priest collar? very popular among my clergy friends!)
    2) the limit to Barbie’s malleability is her non-alterable hard plastic shape, with all its troubling implications for universalized and ideal feminine beauty (including racialized ones)
    3) Clare’s really into taking them apart and mixing/matching parts and making not-normal constructions and all sorts of alterations, and this might be the best (only? maybe too strong) way to play with Barbies that minimizes internalizing damaging body-image messages

    thanks for the question–I had fun rethinking my failed “Great Barbie Project of 2010!”

  6. I would say that Mattel should add more colors to their palette when it comes to designing outfits and accessories for Barbie…I was browsing the toy aisles at Target and noticed that the “dolphin trainer” Barbie comes with PINK DOLPHINS. Also, while they have a great beginning of an idea with different career Barbies, there seems to be an overwhelming focus on traditionally “feminine” jobs (baby doctor, teacher, baker) and washing everything in pink and/or frills. How about Barbie “I Can Be…A Scientist” who comes with a mini chemistry set? Paleontologist Barbie would be another good one (as long as she’s not digging up pink fossils).

    Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a girl liking pink. Or blue, or green, or a different color for every day of the week. But when pink is presented as the ONLY option, and real-life things are “pinkified,” then we have a problem.

  7. My daughter plays out all sorts of stories with her dolls. Most recently she’s going through a “pirates” phrase (inspired by her older brother no doubt, who recently saw the entire Pirates series with us and now wants to grow up to be just like Jack Sparrow). Before that she dressed up all her dolls in white and cut out wings for them and made them “angels”. We let her play whatever she wants and don’t try to influence her. So far she hasn’t gone through a princess phase yet.

    Reading through all the other comments, there are two points I’d like to add that I think are relevant:

    First, I had a few Barbies and Barbie imitations growing up (imitations were cheaper… 🙂 , but I never had any issues with my body. I’ve always been curvy and never wanted a Barbie kind of body. I know different people perceive themselves differently, but I feel it’s important to bring this up: not all girls who played with Barbies wanted to look like Barbie.

    And second, I’m with other commenters who don’t particularly care for the color pink. Initially, we didn’t announce our second baby’s gender for the baby shower because we foresaw an avalanche of pink stuff. Some people were upset because “they didn’t know what to get”. We had a lot of gender-neutral gifts. It was quite fun to see what our friends came up with.

  8. First of all I’m 16, and what I will say is what I did when I was younger.

    1. That’s a great question. I played many ways with my Barbies, but I still prefered playing with Polly (easyer to create a world, and had much more. To say the truth I didn’t create many different stories with my sister. But I followed one with a bigger plot.

    So Barbie is mother of two twin girls. She shares her house with her two sisters, since they don’t have anyone else in the world. They all have magic and go in adventures to find rare flowers. While this her talking pets take care of the twins that secretly have powers too. And the pets try to take care and trying to keep the house in place.
    Barbie friend Nolee has two daughters, that are adorable and funny.

    With my Polly Pocket, I made the story of the book I’m writting, most recent there is a island (the carpet) where Polly and other girls take care of rare animals, that have diamonds in their eyes and they talk. They have lots of things in the island and the pets have the funniest adventures, while avoiding the evil Rosa Bianca that wants the pets diamond eyes for herself.

    Yeah silly but I passed the best hours with my sister.

    Mermaids can do anything like humans. Since for what I read your daughter like sea creatures. I believe that her mermaid dolls can scientists, like missing little drops of shampoo with the water? Or even since she likes Jake and the Neverland Pirates the mermaids could be helping Jake, finding something or helping him?

    I’m glad that you are accepting more Barbie. Hopefully other doll brands, that are more special than you think.
    I know that you have some dislike towards Monster High, but Mattel just launched a spinoff line called Ever After High. The dolls have few makeup, more realistic bodies and wear a little longer skirts and all of them have tights. Also like Monster High they have a message, but this one is about Following your own destiny.
    Also any of them, even being daughters of iconic fairytale characters, the main four girls, none of them are wainting for their prince charming.

    • Camila –
      I just took a look at Ever After High and I think they look exactly like Monster High. Same amount of makeup, same disproportionate bodies with giant eyes and heads, still categorizing girls and pitting them against each other as “Royals or Rebels”. Sorry, I’m not buying it.

  9. I have a 6.5 yo daughter, and an almost 2yo son. Both wear pink, blue, sparkles and trucks. My little girl used to play with barbies when she was about 3-4, they were her ‘babies’, they were the perfect size to fit into her hand and she used to put them to bed every night. However, she no longer plays with any kind of dolls. She LOVES to look at them in the shops, and said to me the other day “Mummy, if you buy me that barbie I will try really hard to play with it! I WANT to like it Mummy!”. She is fascinated by the clothes and colourful hair/makeup, but also finds it a little creepy.

    On the other hand, she watches the (older) barbie movies a lot, although she will tell me that their bodies have been changed on the computer and they don’t really look like that. She loves fairies and adventure, and the barbie movies offer that whereas the dolls don’t.

    A final (unrelated) thought: a good friend asked me the other day if I wasn’t worried that my little boy would resent me one day because I put him in ‘girl’ clothes. Should I be?

    • Josie –
      Do your instincts tell you that your son is going to resent you? Or do you think your good friend was implementing the social norm of gender policing on you and your little boy because any amount of straying from the status quo causes some people to recoil in fear and concern?

      My motherly instincts tell me your son will be just fine.

  10. mistakesweremade says:

    Through some garage sale magic, my daughter (age 7) just got a Max Steel doll — er, action figure. He is Barbie-scale, and he came with a diving mask, scuba gear, flippers, and a great surfboard. More importantly, the doll itself is very posable: his knees hold their bend better than Barbie’s, his hips have more movement, and his ankles, elbows, waist, and wrists are all jointed. As a result, the doll can balance in a very sturdy pose, especially on the surfboard. He quickly usurped all our other Barbie’s, even the mermaids, in all my daughter’s summer adventures.

    I know you said we couldn’t change the look of Barbie, but I really think she would be a better doll if she were built to *do* more things, regardless of her looks. With respect to Mattel’s efforts, none of the great Barbie ideas, like astronaut Barbie or computer programmer Barbie, resulted in a doll that was any more fun to play with. They don’t stand on their own feet. Some come with bicycles, but the dolls can’t really be made to sit on them. Roller skates or hiking boots look silly on those tiny little pointy flaps Barbies use for feet. No matter how awesome her accessories are, the doll itself is really only good for posing in clothes, which is pretty much all they are designed for. In my experience, girls are drawn to the dolls because of how they look, but after changing the dolls’ clothes a few times, they more or less run out of things to do with them.

    So, when it’s time to head to the park or the pool, Max Steel is the doll that comes with us. I think that’s because that doll was designed to *do* things, and at this age, that’s what most children are inspired by. I wish Mattel would put out a female Max Steel who could hang with Barbies when she’s not out climbing mountains or rescuing wild animals, but that’s just not how Mattel rolls. 🙁

Speak Your Mind