Saturday, August 05, 2006

Toys for a Hypothetical Child

I must have a masochistic streak I wasn't previously aware of. Two nights ago, while electroman and I devised ways of entertaining ourselves that didn't involve spending money in any way (ah, the continuing adventure of being twenty-something and broke), we decided to go to a Super Wal-mart. Since we really didn't have anything better to do, we decided to check out the toy aisles, where I decided that I would look around for a suitable doll for my hypothetical future daughter. See, although I'm pretty anti-child right now, sometimes I like to punish myself by imagining how I might try to be a good parent to a child. And it dawned on me that I hadn't really thought of how to address the "toy problem" for when Jenn Jr. comes around. I grew up wanting Barbie dolls (although mine were always hand-me-downs from neighbourhood garage sales, dressed in their birthday suit and usually with squat necks from having their heads crudely shoved back onto their bodies) and one of my favourite "doll games" was playing pretend with a Barbie and my knock-off Ken, a cowboy action figure who was about one-and-a-half Barbie's height. Barbie and "Ken" would spend their days spying on villainous stuffed animals, playing doctor or nurse (not in that gross way) or just going shopping. I enjoyed "accessorizing" Barbie between her day-outfit and a ballgown I got once for Christmas, and (as feminist as I claim to be) part of me wants to make sure that Jenn Jr. gets an opportunity to enjoy that fun should she so desire. And of course, all of these dolls only emphasize outward appearance, fashion, and other girlish notions best left to the 1950's. It is, obviously, troubling that buying Jenn Jr. a Barbie would only perpetuate existing gender roles that only serve to oppress women by encouraging self-hatred and anti-intellectualism. But, at the same time, I want to make sure that Jenn Jr. gets dolls as well as action figures -- what kind of message are we sending to our kids if we try to deny them these sexist toys and end up preventing them from having any toys they can identify with on a gendered level? I don't want Jenn Jr. growing up thinking that women are completely absent in her make-believe world, and only men can achieve the heights of her fantasy. Which left me in the aisles of Super Wal-mart looking for a progressive female doll that could encourage hypothetical Jenn Jr. to be all that she could be. To one side, there were the Bratz dolls. With their super collagen-ized and Asiatic eyes, it's nice to see such visibility of multiracia... wait, I don't think the Bratz are supposed to be multiracial are they? Besides, their heads are freakishly big and every single doll comes with fashion or hair/makeup accessories. I could only imagine Jenn Jr. having her Jade or Sasha Bratz (electroman and I both insist that our hypothetical future children must have toys that reflect their racial identities) with a closet-full of itty-bitty clothes, learning the importance of not wearing white after Labour Day or matching denim jackets with belly rings. With their obsession with shopping and being rockstars, it was obvious that the helium residing in the heads of these Bratz was all that was keeping their heads from snapping their haute-couture, emaciated-chic necks. So, all that was left was the Barbie aisle. At least Jenn Jr. would develop a realistic self-image with Barbie, who has been modified in recent years to have navels that could actually support internal organs. Unfortunately, I did come across the Barbie MyBlingBling line, a line of Barbie dolls that look like Bratz knock-offs, with their own overly collagenized lips and Asiatic eyes. These dolls encourages young girls to use revealing club clothes to obtain sparkly jewels. Obviously, this was a no-go. I did appreciate that Barbie had, in recent years, diversified her circle of friends. Now Barbie is hanging out with an Asian girl named Nolee and a Black girl named Madison -- even if their interests haven't really diversified (shopping, shopping, shopping). So, we'd found the doll, but something felt wrong about just buying doll clothes for accessories. I saw several box sets for sale which included changes of clothing for your Barbie doll. And they were all very fashionable -- but none of these clothes had any meaning; they emphasized teen girls going shopping for clothes for the sake of buying clothes. Didn't we have dolls that aspired to a higher ambition? Why can't we buy clothes for Barbie that encourage the child to become different careers? Instead of three-quarter trenches and purses with little makeup kits, I wanted to buy Jenn Jr. a doll that she could pretend was a scientist, a doctor, a construction worker -- any career that she might, herself, aspire to be. There were a few Barbie dolls being sold as part of career sets; I found teacher Barbie (who wore a little housedress and came with a chalkboard), pediatrician Barbie (who came with a little baby that wasn't hers), housewife Barbie (who came with a little baby that was), stablekeeper Barbie (who came with a blowdryer for her horse's mane) and zoologist/veterinarian Barbie (who came with little plates of food and three plastic animals -- by far my favourite set). Okay, now we were getting somewhere, but I still found it interesting that Barbie only aspired to "caretaker" jobs where she placed her life in service of other small (occasionally furry) creatures, as if they were all variations on the same thing: mother. While there's nothing wrong with encouraging Jenn Jr. to motherhood if that's what she wants to do, I wanted to give her other options. Where was lawyer Barbie? CEO Barbie? WNBA Barbie? Sure, sure, Barbie is a fashion doll, so we can't expect too much. But, then, if Jenn Jr. arrives, what kind of toy can I buy her that would promote a positive self-image both as a woman and a person of colour? So long as parents are still limited to these pathetic options, is it any wonder that the patriarchy remains live and well? (Incidentally, perusing the Barbie website, I came across the "World Cultures" section of the Barbie collectibles. Gotta love the descriptions of the geisha Barbie and the African "ethnic princess" Barbie.)


Anonymous Loren said...

I become so anti-Barbie (actually, anti-Mattel) after the whole 2000 Barbie for President line came out in which they woefully neglected to release an Asian American version...just white, black and Latino. While I would have probably just rolled my eyes and thought, "Denied again!" BUT, Mattel had to respond to the reason why they didn't have an Asian American doll and their answer was...well...STUPID. They basically said that while Latino and black girls normally want to play with dolls of their ethnic background, Asian American girls are fine with playing with white dolls.


8/05/2006 09:01:00 PM  
Blogger James said...

I would love to see the market research that led Mattel to such a bizarre conclusion. That's like saying that Asian Americans possess some intrinsic desire to assimilate, regardless of American social programming. Weird.

8/05/2006 09:13:00 PM  
Blogger James said...

And Jenn, I have to be honest... I've never expected Barbie to promote women in the sciences or in law. It's Barbie. If she were human, she'd be the stuck-up, self-centered useless blond, blue-eyed fembot that I neither respect or desire. She's the counterrevolutionary, the system construct, so hopelessly dependent on the established order that she can't think without MAC eyeliner and her favorite Prada handbag.

Barbie's basic Mary Kate and Ashley demeanor opposes everything I stand for. Barbie, and the real-life Paris Hilton knockoffs that realize her pathetic dreams, exude anti-feminism with every step in their overpriced, sweatshop stiletto heels.

Think about it - every time some cornfed Midwestern Barbie redux gets lost in America, the entire society halts all production to locate her crazy cracker ass. No one sends search parties for Shaquanisha, or Mei Lei, or Maria Conchita. Affirmative action benefits Barbie's daughters, not us; hell, you can't go to a woman of color feminist blog without reading some angered diatribe on how blond Barbie feminists hijacked feminist ideology to wax philosophical on the morality of fellatio when Black women now boast the highest rates of new HIV infections and Asian female executives face incredible glass ceilings in the corporate world.

Barbie was and is a White woman's toy, designed to socialize White women into their privileged place in society. No wonder the architects at Mattel never drew a study or a laboratory in that pink palace. No wonder Barbie only discovered Black and Asian friends over forty years past integration. No wonder you and I can't find Barbie's we'd want our hypothetical daughters to own.

8/05/2006 09:35:00 PM  
Anonymous baishplease said...

i hate barbies. they make better chew toys for my shih-tzu/lab mix. plus i had more fun as a child depicting them as dirty fucking whores in lesbian orgies and interspecial secks (of course, i didn't know that at the time).

i personally preferred the dolls from the philippines, albeit they were pasty maria-clara white >_< what happened to t'boli or aeta barbie? too moro or afroasian for "white is right" philippine neocolonial society?

8/06/2006 01:31:00 AM  
Blogger spotted elephant said...

"Barbie was and is a White woman's toy, designed to socialize White women into their privileged place in society."

My hope is that Barbie will be discontinued due to lack of consumer interest. The Barbie line is all about white privilege, as reflected in the never-ending eurocentrism of the product. However, Barbie doesn't just reflect white privilege, it reflects male privilege. Barbie is nothing but an accessory herself, subordinate to her ultimate dream: the white male Barbie-man. (Isn't Ken gone?) It's a disgusting toy.

8/06/2006 01:36:00 PM  
Blogger Cocacy said...

Hey Jenn!

I agree with you on two points. I share your sentiments on being "anti-child" as you put it. I have no desire to now or ever have children for a number of reasons. Secondly, I think its a very important question that you raised when you asserted "what kind of message are we sending to our kids if we try to deny them these sexist toys and end up preventing them from having any toys they can identify with on a gendered level? I don't want Jenn Jr. growing up thinking that women are completely absent in her make-believe world, and only men can achieve the heights of her fantasy".

About a year ago, I read a biography of Audre Lorde entitled Warrior Poet by Alexis DeVeaux (which I highly recommend). As you know, Lorde was a Black lesbian radical involved in lesbian relationship with a white woman. She had two children by a previous relationship, a boy and a girl. Lorde made a conscious decision to raise her son outside of the bullshit notions of masculinity that our society places upon men. He was raised in a pro-woman, pro-feminist household that questioned daily the idea of what it is to be a man. As Jonathan grew older, he was extremely conflicted about his masculinity, asserting that he wished he'd had a male figure with which to base his own experiences of maleness and that the way in which he grew up directly conflicted with the real world. The ideals with which he was taught of masculinity contrasted with the masculinity that he saw in males in school, work and everyday life. In short, how can you raise a problem posing child, that recognizes bullshit when she sees it and is able to confront it both intelligently and aggressively yet can comfortably move through the social mores of society at large.

8/06/2006 02:22:00 PM  
Blogger Rachel said...

I just had a quick Google around to see if I could find the doll that was most important to me in my childhood (I'm 22 and British), but had no luck. Perhaps they do still make something of the kind - they bloody ought to.

"Vicky" was a Barbie-sized doll, admittedly blonde-haired and blue-eyed but not styled as though just popping out to a fetish party - she even had freckles. The doll came with the first issue of a monthly magazine and each month's copy, over two years, came with an outfit appropriate to her latest adventure. Typically Vicky would take a trip to another country (I remember Japan and Russia), visit another time period (e.g. taking a job as an Elizabethan maid) or try a new career (vet, mountain climber, journalist).

Vicky was wonderful because the magazines were full of information, creative activities and a story too, and of course the clothes were versatile. I remember dressing my multi-ethnic family of secondhand Barbies up for games of cat burglars and industrial espionage...

Sorry for the long post of reminiscence. What I was trying to say was, as a kid I wouldn't have been interested in any of the ridiculous shopping-and-primping that's all Barbie is meant to aspire to. My Barbies would have "led" interesting "lives" anyway, but Vicky was a wonderful toy that made this sort of play a lot more interesting and actually gave an intelligent female character for girls to identify with. I'll be disappointed if my hypothetical daughters don't get a chance at something similar.

Er, and hello. Long-time, occasional reader, first-time commenter

8/08/2006 09:08:00 AM  
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