The Trouble With Barbie

I’m not much of a political animal. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m not apathetic – I vote; I can gripe about specific politicians as much as the next person (yes, Michael Gove, I speak of thee); I’ve even been known to watch Newsnight occasionally (generally when AP’s hogging the remote and won’t let me watch Cherry Healey on BBC3). Still, where most things are concerned, I embody the word ‘moderate’ – my dislike of conflict and tendency to see both sides of an argument hardly make me a political firebrand. As a rule, the things that really bug me are more cultural than party political. Barbie is one of those things.

More about Barbie later. In the meantime, let me tell you about Mikayla. I taught Mikayla a couple of years ago, and she was brilliant – feisty, funny and, when she chose to be, extremely charming. But, boy, was she a handful. At the start of the year she refused to do a single thing I asked of her. “Talk to the hand!” she’d say when asked to tidy up after herself, or, most memorably, “You’re not the boss of me. Mummy says only I’m the boss of me.” (Gee, thanks, Mum.) At barely five, she had already opted out of education, and could see absolutely no point in learning to read, write or count.

It so happened that Mikayla was obsessed with all things Disney. She spent virtually all her time at home watching Disney DVDs, and knew all of the songs off by heart. Many a lesson was disrupted by her alarming tendency to belt out a word-perfect rendition of ‘A Whole New World’ at regular intervals. She owned an entire wardrobe of princess and fairy dresses, which she’d invariably wear to school on non-uniform days. And once in school, all she wanted to do was play ‘Barbie Princesses’ in the role-play area. Her mother was wholeheartedly in support of this. “She’s my little princess,” she told me when I mentioned it at parents’ evening. “And she’s pretty. Surely that’s what counts?”

Dubious career choice

Faced with the Sisyphean task of actually getting Mikayla to learn something, I sought advice from a couple of senior teachers. They advised me to find out what Mikayla wanted to do when she was older, and link this to her learning. So one day I sat her down for a good old heart-to-heart.

“Tell me, Mikayla,” I asked, “What would you like to be when you grow up?”

She stared at me like I’d just crawled out of the primordial swamp.

“A princess, of course!” she replied disdainfully.

So I tried my best to play along. I personalised (or, more appropriately, ‘princessified’) all of Mikayla’s learning.

“It’s important that princesses know how to count,” I said. “They need to count up all their sparkly jewels.” We did princess counting, princess reading, princess phonics (A is for Aurora…B is for Belle…) You name it, I tried it.

Mikayla, though, quickly tired of my efforts.

“I don’t want to be a princess any more,” she announced after a couple of weeks.                       “I want to be a mermaid.” And back to square one we went.

“So what?” you may well say. Surely Mikayla’s just a classic example of a ‘girly girl’? Possibly she is. But I think something else is going on here, something a little more insidious. Because, for Mikayla – and for a significant number of girls I’ve taught before and since – Barbie, Aurora et al were more than playthings – they were role models. This is all fine and dandy for girls who have other influences to balance out the pink fluffiness: parents who value education; female relatives with worthwhile careers; access to books featuring strong female characters. But kids like Mikayla often don’t have these things. In Mikayla’s world, girls didn’t learn to read, or travel the world, or go out to work. They dressed up in sparkly dresses, sat about in castles singing wistful songs about true love and waited for their prince to come.

Remember My Little Pony? I was a big fan back in the ’80s. In fact, the first film I remember seeing at the cinema was the My Little Pony movie, which must have been a pretty traumatic experience for my parents. A while back, we had an interesting discussion about them at Birkbeck. Why? Well, here’s what they used to look like, back in the day…

Oh, the nostalgia! This one’s Cotton Candy.

…And here they are in their most recent incarnation…

Princess Celestia

Interesting, isnt it? I wonder what sort of message this transformation gives out to the (principally girls) who play with them? That society’s current conception of female beauty boils down to a bizarre hybrid of a mutant Bambi and an anorexic Olsen twin? (I hasten to add that we don’t spend all of our time on the MA deconstructing 1980s kids’ toys. Some of our discussions are actually quite intellectual.)

It’s not just My Little Pony, though. My heart would always sink a bit when someone in my class brought in their Barbie for Show and Tell. And not just because Show and Tell itself is earth-shatteringly dull. Up the boys would come, with their Transformers and their Lego Pirates, explaining what their special powers were, and enthusing about the exciting imaginary adventures they’d been on together. And then up would step Rhianna with her Fashion Fairytale Barbie. “And what special things can Barbie do?” I’d ask. A pause, while Rhianna pondered this (evidently quite challenging) question. “Well,” she’d finally say, “You can turn her dress inside out. Look, it sparkles!”

And we wonder why society has a problem with girls who aspire solely to be WAGs. Maybe I shouldn’t take issue with this. It could be that I’m still bitter that my own mother used to dress the four-year-old me in brown corduroy dungarees and checked lumberjack shirts, so that I ended up resembling a slightly effeminate ’80s version of Bob the Builder. I fully accept that boys and girls are different, and that some of our children’s choices and preferences are dictated by their chromosomes. My point, though, is that a a lot of them aren’t.

Me at four

Our society loves to put things into neat little boxes, and children are no exception. “Boy or girl?” we ask breathlessly, as soon as the birth announcement comes through. There’s nothing harmful in this per se, but it’s at that point that the social conditioning starts. Much of the time, we do it without thinking, because we’ve been enculturated in the same way ourselves. That’s what social conditioning is: it subliminalises ideology so that it seems like received wisdom – the received wisdom that girls like pink and boys like blue; that girls like dolls and boys like racing cars; that all boys must be football fans, but sport for girls isn’t ‘ladylike’. From the moment expectant parents opt to paint the nursery pink or blue, our children are delineated along gender lines.

Take Mothercare as an example – while the boys’ t-shirts feature superheroes or adventurous, derring-do slogans like ‘Let’s Go Camping!’ and ‘I Do All My Own Stunts’, the girls have to make do with insipid, saccharine messages about ‘Bunny Hugs‘ and Hello Kitty. All in pink, naturally.

But what if a girl doesn’t want to be ‘Daddy’s Little Princess’? What if she’d rather be over in the boys’ camp –  not hugging that bunny, but skinning it? Ah, well then she enters the liminal space occupied by The Tomboy. It’s not so bad being a tomboy – I should know; I was one. OK, so your more traditionally-minded peers might find you mildly eccentric; teachers may not be quite sure what to do with you – but your ‘odd’ tastes are generally tolerated. Plus, you have some great literary role models – George from The Famous Five; Little Women‘s Jo March and, latterly, Katniss Everdeen of Hunger Games’  fame. But try being the male equivalent – I’ll call them ‘sissies’, which is a trifle old-fashioned, but less controversial than many of the other names that are bandied about in the playground. As a teacher, I’ve had plenty of anxious parents come to see me because their son likes dressing up, or would rather read or draw quietly while his friends play outside, or even (look away now, those of a nervous disposition) Doesn’t Like Football. Never the other way around, mind – like I said, tomboys are tolerated. What, I wonder, are the wider implications of the fact that it’s still considered far worse to be a boy who likes ‘girls’ things’ than the other way around? Surely our blythe acceptance of the situation suggests that society still considers ‘boys’ culture’ superior to that of girls?

Whatever you do, don’t cross that line!

I hope this post doesn’t make me come across as a militant, bra-burning feminist – I like shopping, a good gossip and a trip to the spa as much as the next girl (or guy). But it worries me that today’s children seem to be becoming more, rather than less, strictly divided by gender, and I wonder what this will mean for children like Mikayla who grow up on a diet of Barbie, Disney and the Rainbow Fairies, without alternative role models to emulate. Toys, clothing, books, TV programmes – trivial on their own, perhaps, but they all add up. And they all represent values that, to a greater or lesser degree, influence our kids.

So if I ever have my own children, I’ll be eschewing pink and blue and painting the nursery a fetching shade of yellow or green. And if I end up with a daughter, I’ll be all about those brown dungarees.


3 thoughts on “The Trouble With Barbie

  1. Great post Zoe. We have the Happy Hooker pony (not bought by me, I hasten to add) and to add insult to injury she says things like You’re Byootiful and I’m a Princess, Are you a Princess? in a Jersey Shore accent. Luckily daughter was all over her at 3 but now at 4 seems to have moved on…

  2. Yes, Zoe – It’s much worse now – I think you’re right. Our girl is a now a teen but she struggled with exactly what you discuss at primary school – She did have (and does still have) her princess dresses and she does know ALL the Disney songs – from Mulan to Pochontas – every girl loves them – but as a small child she was also mad about films such as Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean and couldn’t get any girl friends to go with her – She also liked Marvel comics and didn’t want all things to be pink or wearing dresses too much – some girls said she was ugly and and so – in the daily imaginary play games – she always had to play the prince or at times she might get to be ‘the princesses friend’ – and worse was when she could only join the play if she was the dog 🙂

    She suffered a lot & often played on her own or joined football with the boys – never really found her place.

    Girls brought up to be their parents little princess can be so mean and overly self entitled – But our girl was often the only girl who would be invited to the boys birthday parties which was great – great, except that she wasn’t really that into football.

    Female identity seems more nebulous these days – if you aren’t interested in being the princess – if you aren’t ALL about ‘being pretty’ and sexy then you’re out.

    However, at an all girls secondary school our girl has thrived socially because she’s found a group of brainy ‘fangirls’ who are less bothered about ‘being pretty’ and more bothered about being funny and interesting and interested. 🙂

  3. Your daughter sounds really cool! I’m glad she’s found her niche now – although it’s a shame that being brainy and interesting and enthusiastic about things is still regarded by many as a ‘niche’, rather than being the norm. Glad to say that the overly princessy girls aren’t the majority among those I’ve taught – there are many, many girls like your daughter out there – but it’s definitely more of a phenomenon than it used to be, and seems to be fuelled by lots of well-meaning but misguided parents (“I just want my child to fit in!”) and all the weird gender-specific marketing that’s out there. This seems to have blown up as an issue some time between when I finished my own school education (late ’90s) and when I returned to the classroom as a teacher (2007).

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