In the last two weeks, I received a link in my inbox from at least four different sources for the new Mattel ad for Barbies that “empowers girls to be anything they want to be”. I had, of course, seen it ample times on my Twitter and Facebook feeds by then, and smiled to myself.
The ad has been playing out in my house for a few years now. In just a few thousand forms. Except the chief protagonist is a boy. And he happens to be my child.
I did notice that the ad didn’t feature a single boy and that got me thinking more than its unpinking. Or its alleged attempt at turning Barbie into a feminist.
It is more happenstance than design, but our family of dolls now includes three Barbies, four Disney Princesses, four magiclip dolls, one mermaid and a few others (Re will be upset I don’t remember their names, but I don’t). I also learned fairly recently that Barbies and Princesses were two different breeds and mixing one for the other was sacrilege. In our home of course, they all play with dinosaurs and wear Playdoh dresses.
Together, and with a real cat thrown in every once in a while, as well as other toy animals, puppets and random toys, they have been part of several adventures that include (but are not limited to) extempore plays, concerts, various rescue operations that involve fire, building collapses, a vet’s clinic, a hospital, a warship, a shipwreck, a chef’s kitchen, a submarine, a traffic management situation, a construction site and several others.
When Re likes someone enough to want to include him/her in his universe, the first thing he tells them is that he likes playing with dolls and has ___ of them (again, I cannot be accurate about the number). This has not been choreographed by me or his father, but I guess after being mocked and ridiculed to some extent by his peers about his preferences of play, he has realized that he would rather be choosy about his friends and that they should have full information when they choose to be friends with him. We now have a select, but beautiful universe of friends that he would like to keep for life, although not all of them like playing with dolls; it’s just that they don’t judge him for doing so.
I was a little amused that people were celebrating Mattel for finally getting it right. One website actually said: “After 59 years, Mattel gets it right.” What are they getting right anyway? That girls have the power to be anything they want to be? But didn’t you already believe that? And if you didn’t, and it took a toy company to tell you that, I would worry more about you than the toy company.
All around, I see mothers frothing at the mouth when their girls go through the princess or Barbie phase, wondering what the hell went down when they had done their best to simulate conditions for this not to happen. When mothers who have been so conscious about the whole ‘no princess’ thing, yet discovered that their three-year old daughter obsessively wants everything to be pink and loves “tacky Disney Cinderella”. Mothers say it quite proudly when their daughters don’t like pink, or that they prefer green instead.
And oh, in case the ad got your hopes up, “Barbie won’t be turning into a feminist anytime soon,” warns Jessica Valenti in this Guardian piece.
Interestingly, the same mothers that are allergic to their girls veering towards girls stuff wouldn’t have minded if she had an obsession with robots for instance. Some blame it on schools and peer pressure. But why must it be the product of external pressure? Isn’t it possible that a girl might just really like princesses? Or pink? I do get what “normative gendering” is all about; what I don’t get is pushing girls who love dolls towards building model planes or trains or some such. It seems to be some sort of denial of her female-hood.
Much like I didn’t see the point of pushing Re away from dolls either. And if you are the mother of a boy, you would know that the world is more accepting of a girl playing football than a boy playing with dolls.
Here’s the thing: What Mattel or Disney is selling you is just a structure. What you make of it is entirely your imagination. What about the immense value of role play with dolls in developing relational skills and empathy? I see those as priceless.
Removing boys from the context entirely and pretending they don’t exist is not helping at all. It is just genderization in an entirely different way. What I would be more concerned about is a child self-selecting out of anything on account of gender (whether it is toys, play, sport, ballet, science, math etc). The sooner we give up trying to control how their personalities SHOULD form, choreographing their likes and dislikes, the more fulfilling this parenting ride will be.
Not all girls who like princesses at age three grow up to be senseless bimbos, just as not all “tomboys” (although I detest that word) who love decapitating dolls grow up to be independent and strong.
The only reason there are “girl and boy toys” at all is because adults decided what girls and boys should be like, how they should act, and what they should play with. If we let the kids decide, I doubt the division would be so clear.
Perhaps it would be interesting to note the original intent of Barbie creator Ruth Handler, who wrote in her autobiography: “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”
Sure, Barbies and princesses are way too skinny for my liking, but it is for you to decide if she is a role model for your body image. I don’t think any girl is unrealistic enough in today’s times to let her body image be affected by what a doll looks like. Just like it is unrealistic for us to want to date boys with six pack abs.
Toy shops and supermarkets categorize things as “boys”and “girls” so they find it easier to keep inventory. Would you find anything at all if you went shopping and the men’s and women’s stuff was all mixed up? Every girl’s parent who complains that all the interesting toys are in the boy’s section, well, who’s stopping you from shopping in the boys’ section? On the rare occasion that Re and I go shopping, we still get asked if it’s for a boy or a girl. I have learned to keep my calm and say we are just browsing thank you, and Re invariably goes to look in the girls section.
My point is, if you are constantly looking for subtext, you will always find it. As long as we let our children do their thing and keep those conversations open and going, we are fine.
(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 26th October, 2015)