The Barbie Project: Accessories Are a Girl’s Best Friend

We are in our final five days of summer, just a few sweet hours remain before the kids return to school. The memories have been made, trips taken, ballgames won, fireflies caught and released, trails hiked and lakes jumped into, bonfires burned, lemonade stands held, adventures with cousins had and more dinners allotted to the local ice cream joint than should be appropriate. Our summer bucket list is nearly complete and as we look down the home stretch to three glorious months…..

We can’t stand the sight of each other.

There has been a lot of “togetherness” this summer for the children and I, which is wonderful. And not, because I work from home and “work from home” with two kids + two dogs + two kittens is nuts. N – U – T – S.

So the other afternoon I had the kids go to their bedrooms with their kittens for some quiet time. An hour later I went to check on them on account of too much quiet – which is always unsettling for parents – and found Benny slumped over napping in a giant bucket of LEGO and Amelia sorting through all of her Barbie outfits and accessory pieces. Earlier in the day she had found a castle and furniture at a garage sale she just had. to. have. As her kitten purred in the background she dressed and redressed each doll as she planned out their role in the story she was creating in her head.

Kittens love Barbie.

Kittens love Barbie

I sat down and looked at the pieces around me which led me to think back on when I was her age and would have been doing the same thing during a rainy summer afternoon. I wondered what she was thinking about and if she would remember these lazy hours of her childhood like I do mine.

Amelia plays with her Barbies, obligatory Naked Barbie present and accounted for.

Amelia plays with her Barbies, obligatory Naked Barbie present and accounted for.

I asked her what she was playing and if her Barbies liked their new house. As we chit chatted, I surveyed the pieces around me.

The accessories around me gave me pause, they might not be what people associate with Barbie.

The accessories around me gave me pause, they might not be what people associate with Barbie.

The bright pink (SO much pink) accessories around me made me smile. They reminded me of the adventures my Barbies played out when I was a girl. They are bits and pieces to imagination. A key meant to unlock stories. A prop able to enhance a script waiting to be written and rewritten each time they were pulled out.

You know, Barbie takes a lot of heat for being vapid, focused on beauty, shopping etc. Maybe some Barbies facilitate that,  but I feel the dolls we’ve brought into our home for Amelia send a different message. I think it is easy to sell girls short and assume they’ll play “Wedding Day” or “Shopping Spree” over and over again with their dolls.

I think it is wise to expect more from girls.

Amelia's favorite dolls and their accessories.

Amelia’s favorite dolls and their accessories.

Pilot hat

Passport

Suitcase

Treasure chest

Ocean creatures and a bucket of fish

SCUBA tank, mask, regulator and fins

Briefcase, tablet, smart phone

Astronaut helmet and suit, air tank, moon boots

These things tell Amelia to go out into the world. To dive deep, soar high. To run a business instead of work for one. That the layers of the atmosphere do not confine her. They remind her girls are confident, competent, and courageous.

These items spread across Amelia’s bedroom floor could take her to a sunken ship full of treasure, an investment meeting, or a new planet waiting to be explored. Of course, those are the obvious uses and my eight year old would roll her eyes and says she is far more clever and creative than that. One of the things I like about Barbie is the outfits and accessories are interchangeable, meaning the stories waiting to be created during play are interchangeable as well. So the woman of color who is a pilot can easily change into the business outfit for a press conference because now she is the POTUS. YES. PLEASE.

And the astronaut suit could become a hazmat suit for compassionate health relief workers delivering a much-needed antidote to victims of a terrible epidemic or intrepid engineers who rescue people in danger on a broken space station who had been hunting treasure in space that is guarded by aliens posing as familiar sea creatures who cover you in goo and feed you to fury orange monsters who live in purple tents.

Listen, I’ve been critical of Barbie before and I probably will be again if need be. But I like the side of Barbie that shows girls they can dream and aspire to do big things in the world.

I guess sometimes I have to ask if it is Barbie who limits girls…..or the adults around girls who assume they know what will happen during play because girls are so……girly. I define “girly” as girls who see themselves as accomplished pilots, extraordinary ocean researchers, powerful businesswomen, and explorers of our world and beyond. Yeah, that’s VERY girly to me! More importantly, that’s how my daughter views being a girl and playing with Barbies has not come close to undoing any of that.

Amelia commented that she really really liked how the dolls' faces were different from each other.

Amelia commented that she really really liked how the dolls’ faces were different from each other.

The child’s imagination is limited only by toys that are limiting. The afternoon I spent watching Amelia play I observed Barbie as a great companion for story telling. Better put – Barbie was a vehicle for storytelling. When chosen with diverse storytelling in mind and with the idea that girls should know no limits, there are many Barbies that offer this type of play to girls. In our home I try to guide Amelia with choosing toys that reflect what real life looks like, so we make sure to have dolls that represent women doing a variety of jobs, experiences, and adventures. Equally important to us are dolls that represent women of color as the world is a colorful place.  I’d love for there to be even more diversity in Barbie’s appearance and body, and Amelia and I talk about that issue and how we’d like for Barbie to explore that more. Maybe some day they will.

I think there is a lot left to explore, including parents really exploring how their daughter’s imagination works and what stories unfold on bedroom floors or tree forts or where ever it is your girl’s dreams come to life and they use Barbie as a tool in that storytelling.

What stories does your daughter tell?

 

Learn more about The Barbie Project and meet the other bloggers on the project.

On twitter, look for hashtag #BarbieProject and join the conversation.

{Disclosure: This is a compensated campaign as part of The Barbie Project. All thoughts and ideas are my own.}

Barbie Project

 

Melissa Atkins Wardy owns and operates Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a small business in Wisconsin, where our shirts are printed and shipped with love. 

Find Melissa Atkins Wardy’s book “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, Birth to Tween” on Amazon.

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Comments

  1. Okay, Melissa, so is this a general change of view for you or does it just apply to Barbies? Because Monster High has a science lab set with a doll in a periodic table dress that I know my daughter would love, and their build-a-monster sets give girls the opportunity to play Dr. Frankenstein. It’s been said before here that, for monster loving girls, there aren’t a lot of choices for play unless they want to model themselves on the Bride of Frankenstein, and I’ve had the argument made to me that the dolls allow for a kind of storytelling that hasn’t been available to girls in the past. Because part of what I do at Monster Librarian is share views and reviews on scary stuff for kids, it’s important to me to be able to make sure that we find things that will appeal to girls who are interested. Is it time to get past the anatomically incorrect bodies and respect that girls will play with toys in exactly the ways they want to, or is Barbie the only fashion doll that gets a pass?

    • Melissa Atkins Wardy says:

      Hi Kirsten –
      Thanks for reading and I think those are very fair questions. I would feel more comfortable saying this is an evolving view for me on Barbie, rather than an about face. Barbie isn’t getting a free pass, and that has been clear in every post I’ve written. I think it is better put: Barbie + regard to ensuring my daughter is partaking in empowered play. If you read all of my Barbie Project posts very carefully, you’ll note that I didn’t just hand Amelia a pile of Barbies and say ‘Go play, everything’s fine now!’ Throughout this entire play experiment I’ve been guiding Amelia and using media literacy with her. I think if families are going to bring any brand of fashion doll into their homes that is crucial.

      That said, I’ve really enjoyed working with Mattel and the folks who work within the Barbie brand are incredible. I really enjoyed meeting the Barbie team at Mattel headquarters in June and seeing the brand behind the scenes. I could have happily stayed there for a week. I’m really glad I got to be a part of the Barbie Project and have been able to meet the other families participating and see how their girls play.

      I’m still uneasy about Monster High, but their monsterish (is that a word?) qualities are the least of my worries. That is actually what I like about them! I really like that aspect and so does Amelia. My reservation with Monster High has always been the sexualization, especially present in the early dolls. I will say — and I never thought I’d say this — the line has improved. We don’t own any and if Mattel had asked me to do the Monster High Project instead of the Barbie Project I would have declined. I think there are very different messages coming from the characters of those brands.

      And I think body image is still an issue for both brands. I don’t think we “get past” the body image messages toys give to kids. Amelia and I talk about body image and body diversity a lot, and she is able to use what she learns from those conversations when evaluating Barbie or any other toy. I would have concern for a girl who plays with these toys and has no one guiding her in that department. I think the body types are different and I see Monster High as scary skinny and I see Barbie, while still disproportionate to an actual human, looking more like a woman who is fit and has a healthy lifestyle. I wish there was body diversity in both brands so that one type of body frame was not promoted or idealized over another. We can have health at many different sizes.

      So let me say this — right now I’m wrapping my head around Barbie, I’m sorting out how my daughter plays with her, and I’m evaluating if my years of empowering messages and positive body image are sticking or if they are coming undone. So far, so good. I’m going to need a little more time before my brain is ready to digest Monster High. I do see improvements there, and when I met with the Monster High team at Mattel a few years ago they were very receptive to and respectful of my suggestions for the brand. I see positive changes, I want there to be more.

      Another point to consider is that my daughter is 8.5 years old, so our ability to use critical thinking and media literacy skills on these toys has evolved from when she was three, four, five and I was first writing about these issues. If Amelia were younger she would not be playing with Barbie yet, that is a decision I’m very glad we waited on. Will she ever play with Monster High or Ever After High? I guess time will tell. Right now I’m just telling our journey through girlhood one day at a time.

      Thanks again for reading and I hope you share my thoughts within your own community. Take care!

  2. Hi, my 10 year old is the one who has been talking with Kirsten about Monster High (I’m insanely proud of this). Before we first bought her a doll we told her our concerns about their look and body image. She assured us that she did not see the dolls as a realistic portrayal of any real body type because, at the very lease, they are pink, purple, green, blue and orange. It’s her firm believe that the dolls are so skinny, and the clothes are so skimpy to save the company on production costs. She also suggests that the clothes are skimpier because those are easier for little fingers to put on stiff dolls. I was really, really surprised by her observations.

    But I agree with your post here so much. Barbie and Monster High, Ponies and Littlest Pet Shops are her vehicles for storytelling. So much so that she’s started to follow people on Youtube who write and “act” stories out with LPS. She’s started writing her own stories and even begged my old camera off me so she can film her scripts. She’s pushed herself into learning how to write scripts, how do do sets and make up and is working on lighting for her stories.

    I understand we, as parents, need to be wary of the messages about bodies and consumerism that these products sometimes put out. But we also need to be wary of restricting our children based on our world baggage that they do not share. If I had never decided to loosen up a little and let her get what she needed from these dolls I also wouldn’t get the pleasure of being her editor, principal photographer, stage manager and biggest fan 🙂

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