What Girls Learn From the Top Selling Dolls

I saw those in the store the other day and I just. don’t. get. it. All of these toys look the same, regardless of brand – tiny bodies, flimsy limbs, huge heads, huge eyes, sexualized clothes, retrograde story lines and identities… I walk through the all-pink-all-the-time aisle at the stores and see the same thing repeated over and over and over again. When a doll makes it seem like Barbie has the proportions of someone who could be a human, something has gone terribly wrong.

In response to the growing frustration I experience every time I walk past or through a toy section, I just took a few screenshots of the top doll brands I see in each store. Feel free to share this with every single person who says, “If you don’t like it, just buy something else.” Because what else is there?   -Bailey Shoemaker Richards



PPBB Community Member Bailey Shoemaker Richards took screen shots of the top selling dolls. What common denominators do you see?

What are our girls learning about femininity from toys?

What are boys learning about girls?

Why aren’t we demanding better?

We seriously need to Redefine Girly.


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.

Fathers Playing Toys With Daughters

My husband and I are some of those “hypervigilant parents” as described in the article from the New York Times. You know, we encourage our daughter to play with toys that help her develop as a whole person, and this includes math and science skills. Neither my husband nor I deem math and science to be “boy subjects”. We have not bought into the gender stereotypes being sold to our girl, and she is a better person for it. Her interests are diverse and her imagination knows no bounds. She is a science and mermaid loving, glitter-sparkle shoe wearing, mud puddle jumping first grader who likes to walk through grave yards and never met a lip gloss she didn’t like.

During these six years of her childhood, I’ve never had to prod or plead with my husband to play with her. He just does it. Why? Because he is her father. He doesn’t find her dolls or tubs of plastic whales or tea sets or art projects or dinosaur towns or puzzles or Legos boring. She is his daughter. She is his world.

Most of the dads I know are engaged, hands-on papas who share responsibilities around the house, share in the care of the children, run errands, and are generally great with their kids. My husband doesn’t get a ticker tape parade when he bathes the children, makes dinner, or washes the dishes. He is my partner, I expect his involvement in these things.

While my husband may not sit down to a fancy tea and little cakes on his own, when Amelia asks him to play he happily obliges. Benny is fast to be in on the action, too. And I’ve never had an issue playing blocks or Legos or pirates or cars with Benny. I’m not sure when we started thinking of the sexes and separate species, but somehow I’ve found a way to make excellent fake explosion noises and I am one fierce pirate, let me tell you.

During the discussion on the PPBB facebook page the NYT article was described several times over as a “steaming pile of crap”. I agree. It was unclear from the article what the Mattel psychologist and the NYT writer deemed “man territory”, but my husband sees the whole world as open to his children. I think someone from our community (waves to Julie Smith) said it perfectly, “Clearly, they are jumping on the ‘girl power’ bandwagon without really understanding what it is really all about.”

My husband gets what it is all about. This is what it looks like when fathers play with their daughters, no Pantone 219 or marketing gimmicks needed.

Two Worlds of Doll Shopping

I had an interesting experience this weekend while I shopped for the 18 inch doll that the OPP wants for Christmas. First, the obvious stuff like there were no boy dolls, most everything was pink and in the designated ‘girl’ aisles, and at one store all of the dolls were blonde haired and blue-eyed. I was looking for a doll with olive skin, black hair and brown eyes to look like the OPP who looks like her partial Lebanese heritage. The OPP has outgrown her handmade dolls, and wants one of these “big girl” dolls very badly.

But what really struck me was the feeling I got as I looked at the dolls (similar to American Girl except in price), with sweet makeup-free faces and cute, age-appropriate clothing and great story lines behind them. I felt nostalgic for my baby dolls from when I was a girl, and all of the adventures I took them on like 1840’s frontier school house or rescuing them from a sinking cruise ship and living on a deserted island. The doll I was looking at for the OPP just felt like a perfect fit for my almost-seven-year-old and seemed like she would become a great pal for the OPP during her girlhood.

And then I turned the corner to the dolls that don’t look like little girls. The dolls with impossibly thin bodies and giant heads and breasts, dressed in skimpy clothing and heavy make up and sexually fetishized footwear, and I sucked my breath in. I saw a little girl, maybe eight or nine, dressed like a small woman in a tight shirt and short skirt and heeled shoes, drooling over these dolls. Toys are media, and media is a diet. I wondered what this little girl had been taking in, silently hoping not all of it was toxic. I hoped she was getting messages or was involved in activities that counteracted the awfulness comprised in these sexualized dolls. One doll and one outfit certainly doesn’t make nor undo a girl, but a girlhood full of those messages is harmful.

Those are not messages that I accept for my child.

It disturbs me when parents opt into this problem by purchasing the toys and clothing that carry those harmful messages. Sexualization is a pestilent beast.

I looked down at the doll I was about to purchase, and the little travel suitcase and passport accessory, and was content knowing that this doll, the story that came with her (an animal and marine lover who wants to travel to South Africa), and the way she looked represented the messages I want my little girl growing up with and internalizing.

The day may come when Amelia wants to wear revealing clothing and chase romantic interests or go out partying. I did when I was a young adult in college. But not when I was almost-seven-years-old.

I want my little girl to be six going on seven. I don’t need her rushing into young adulthood, and all the pitfalls it can bring if you aren’t ready for it and don’t have a sense of who you are.

Six going on seven. The rest will come, or not, in time. But it is these days of her girlhood I find so precious in this space, in this time.


The Journey Girl I purchased for Amelia, the 6yo OPP.

The Monster High doll the 8yo girl in the aisle with me was looking at.

Boys Can Play With Dollhouses

Lindsay Kolk, a PPBB Community member, sent these pictures in saying she had never seen a dollhouse packaged and marketed with a BOY playing with the toy. I think it is great that the company who makes this toy is able to envision a boy playing with it. His shirt is even colorful, a rare find in boys’ clothing these days. It makes perfect sense to me that a little boy would want to role play what he sees of his family life at home. For my children, that means a work-at-home mom and a very hands-on loving dad .

As I was downloading these images from Facebook to post here, the 6yo Original Pigtail Pal was sitting next to me on the couch and looked over my shoulder. What she said saddened and surprised me, but it is a good reminder that no one is safe from this gender stereotyping and the counter-message from parents is a constant multi-layered conversation:

“A boy shouldn’t be on that box!” -6yo OPP
“What! Why? It looks to me like he is having fun.” -Me
“Because boys don’t play with dollhouses. It is pink.” -OPP
“But I thought colors were for everyone. Benny plays with our dollhouses.” -Me
“Well, colors are for everyone, but not for toys. Everything that is pink and purple is for girls, and everything else is for boys.” -OPP
“Amelia, that just is not true. Most of your toys are not pink. If people played by your rules, do you think they would tell you that all of your whale and ocean toys and science stuff is not for girls? None of that stuff is pink. How would that make you feel?” -Me
“No! That would be SO  unfair!” -OPP, getting teary eyed
“You are right, it would not be fair. But you are very wrong regarding what you are saying about toys and colors. It is great for boys to play with dollhouses. Isn’t he learning how to be a good daddy and husband when he plays like that? Our daddy is good at those things.” -Me
“Welll……..” -OPP
“Amelia, I think the people who make the toys just assume girls want pink and purple and no other colors. They are not very creative to tell you the truth. They tell kids what to play with and what to like, but you know even in our family, we don’t follow those ideas. They limit kids and their imaginations. I just don’t think that is cool.” -Me
“It juss ibsn’t cool.” -4yo Benny Boy
“Well I just don’t know about that. Can boys play with princesses then, too?” -OPP
“Yes of course. All toys are for all kids. You can like and play with whatever you want.” -Me
“It doesn’t show that on the commercials.” -OPP
“Amelia, the commercials are bogus. You know you’ve been taught to think better than that.” -Me
“Nam, dee commashells are juss bullshit.” -Benny Boy

Image via Lindsay Kolk

Image via Lindsay Kolk.