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.