Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Destroying Barbie

There was an interesting article in the Domion Post today. Unfortunately it's not on Stuff, but here's the jist:

Barbie that plastic icon of girlhood fantasy play, is routinely torutred by children, research has found.

The researchers had not intended to focus on Barbie but they were taken aback by the rejction, hatred and violence she provoked when they asked children about their feelings for the doll. Violence and torutre were repeatedly reported across age, school and gender. No other toy or brand name provoked such a response.
Now obviously this shows how smart and cool 7-11 year old girls are. There are a number of different theories given about why people might hate barbies so much, in the article possible theories suggest included: that girls are rejecting adulthood, rejecting childhood, rejecting unsafe body images, or rejecting mass-produced crap. Now I think in a lot of cases it could be any or all of these.

If I was going to offer an explanation based on my own experience with Barbie. I'd say girls are violent to her because she is an object, in a way no other toy was. I was a kid who gave personalities to everything. Toy cars would have personalities, duplo people would have distinct personalities, anything which I had more than two of had personalities. But Barbie always looked the same, and she always looked blank, so the only Barbie I ever owned (it was a present) never got a personality, and I did treat it like an object (I don't know if I was cruel to it, but I think legs did end up coming off, and there was probably some hair cutting).

This could have been a reaction to my parents; while there was no shortage of toys when I was a kid (there are four of us, which means toys start breeding in a middle class household), we were never allowed the mass marketed toys. There were no Barbies, no Strawberry Shortcakes, no My Little Pony, no Care Bears and no Cabbage Patch Kids at our place. I wasn't alone in this I had a friend who had a collection of Strawberry Shortcake figures (which all had their own personality and which we'd take around the neighbourhood in a thrilling game called 'throw the brick), and I'm pretty sure my best friend had a my little pony. But generally my friend's parents looked down on (and probably, more importantly, couldn't afford) these sorts of toys. I'd internalised this value system from a pretty early age.

But the Strawberry Shortcakes and the My Little Ponies of my friends all had personalities, and were looked after lovingly. So I do think it was the very blandness for Barbie, for me.

But I do wonder if part of the reason that the researchers sort this attitude was because: "You might expect little girls to love their Barbie and expect an imaginary love in return." (from the article). Perhaps the reason people seek explanations for girls not treating barbies like little babies is because we're supposed to nuture everything. Sometimes you just cut off barbies hair because it's fun to experiment with hair. Sometimes you pull her leg off, because you can. Sometimes Barbie gets used to stir paste for paper machie, because she's quite a good stirrer.

I think the reason Barbie, in particular, gets treated with some violence is a complicated combination of all the ideas raised in the article. But I think the reason girls treat some toys with violence, why they try to modify them, why they treat them like objects, is probably exactly the same reason boys do the same thing: because experimenting on toys is a way of learning.


  1. Anonymous10:20 am

    It'd be interesting to know if by 'Barbies' they mean those kinds of plastic dolls generally. I kinda assume they do, unless the researchers are talking about brand violence - which is kinda funny.

    I did have a My Little Pony - actually I had 2, one my parents bought me after much pleading (it had pink and purple hair and a star on its butt!) and then I was given another one when I was in hospital once, which was all PINK! (eeee!) I guess they had different personalities in that the all pink one was the insanely pretty one(?), but the white one with pink and purple hair was more mysteriously beautiful (did I mention it had a star on its butt?)

    Anyway back to the Barbies, so if you were going to do a literature review of analysis of the body over the last 20 or so years and then come to conclusions about how the body is viewed (say), then maybe its partly that kids modify them because they can like you said. But also I think kids, like everyone, are curious about bodies and what you can do to them, how far you can push them and they want to know more about them so they are able to control them through this knowledge. And that knowledge necessarily fractures our bodies and is at times violent and damaging (or loving and nurturing). Hee. Or not.

    Wah! It's too hot to put shoes on and go to school.

  2. Anonymous10:25 am

    Hi! Again!

    Oooor, like me when I was given a Barbie by my aunt and uncle when I was 8, you could just hate it because your parents were really anti-Barbie. Also hello! I was 8! I was too old for dumb dolls!

  3. Anonymous11:07 am

    I got my first barbie at age 10. I bought it myself. I'd wanted one ever since I started school, because ALL my friends had them - my best friend even had the Barbie car! I was insanely jealous. Anyway, after I bought it, I didn't really play with it, surprise surprise. But, interestingly enough, my Barbie never really had a personality either - she was all about clothes and accessories and looking pretty.

    My mum told me a hilarious story about me when I was a wee toddler. Someone gave me a doll (not my parents), and although I can't remember her name, she did have a personality (along with a hole in her mouth and in her butt, where 'food' could be fed/excreted - ew, ew, ew!!!). Anyway, my mum says I scared her one day by telling my dolly that she was very naughty, and then giving her a hard smack (mum described i as more of a round-house swing) on the bottom. My mum said she was shocked because they never smacked me (mum did a few times when I was a bit older, as a result of losing her temper, but never as a pre-school child), so she couldn't understand where it had come from. Hee.

  4. Anonymous4:33 pm

    Oh, and, um, is the title of your post 'Destroying Barbie' or 'De-storying Barbie'? It reads quite nicely either way I think, hee.

  5. I should have called it De/Storying Barbie - nothing is quite as post-modern as a back slash.

    Or possibly it was a typo

  6. We got a Barbie for my son when he was two, mainly I suspect because my wife had never been able to have one when she was a kid due to them being outrageously expensive. He ignored Barbie and her boyfriend Action Man completely, (fatally undermining my cherished beliefs about nature vs nurture in the process) and we took it upon ourselves to see if we could turn her into Goth Barbie by colouring her hair black, giving her some skull earrings and making her a black dress. Unfortunately plastic hair doesn't take colouration as well as real hair (duh-uh) and she ended up as Purple-Face Barbie. My daughter on the other hand, now 6, has worked her way up to about 3 Barbies, an Ariel, a Tinkerbell, 2 Fairytopias and a Fulla (the local Middle East version - "with new Abaya" or "with prayer shawl" being popular items), who are like a big and bitchy cloned family. Purple-Face Barbie is still among them and doesn't seem to suffer any discrimination due to her terrible deformity. I guess it says something about our family that up to this point, the only people in it to have "tortured" a Barbie are the parents...