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January 19, 2015

So How Good is Barbie, Really?

What’s this?  A post on a brand of toys?  That’s gotta be a first for me.

Well, I suppose it’s more tangential than anything.  I haven’t actually bought or played with any Barbie dolls (that I know of…), but I need to get a post like this up and running.  The reason for that is because in order to talk about other stuff -- things that I’ve had in mind since before this past December -- a quick look at Barbie and her plastic empire is in order.  Plus, I could use a bit of an outsider’s perspective -- so if there are any lovely ladies out there who’ve stumbled upon this post and/or have a vested interest in Barbie, here’s your chance to weigh in.  Or, you know, if you’ve got sisters or nieces or friends or whatever.

Okay?  Okay.  

Now then.  Time to dive head-first into the madness.

Or, alternatively, hold on to your butts.  (Here's hoping the new Jurassic Park movie isn't a total load.)

I should probably start by saying that the inspiration for this post didn’t come from the Barbie toys themselves, but from something (unfortunately) related to the franchise: the children’s book Barbie: I Can Be a Computer EngineerIt’s taken no shortage of heat, apparently; the big issue is that instead of showing Barbie act as a competent member of the field, she gets a bunch of hunky boys to do her work for her -- because she’s actually incompetent -- and takes credit for their work with a smile on their face.  You don’t need to be a Barbie fan to know that that’s not exactly an ideal scenario.  Mattel apologized and pulled the book from Amazon, and while I’d hope that things will get better from here on, there’s been damage done.

Still, I don’t think that the damage is irreparable.  The children’s book strikes me as something lacking in execution, not in design; the title alone says that Barbie can be more than just a pretty face who loves clothes and shopping, so that has to stand for something.  And besides, I’m guessing that’s just one instance of what Barbie’s done over the years.  How many things has she done in her time?  Be a doctor?  A teacher?  A soldier?  A damn superhero?  Wherever Barbie started back in the day, she’s not there now.  Inch by inch, she’s moved away from the stigma.  Well, probably.

And really, why should a company be the one who decides how children imagine what their toys (and the characters by extension) do?  Back in the day my brother and I used to have our toys -- more than a few of them superhero-based -- go on wild and increasingly-stupid adventures; somewhere along the line our interpretation of Superman became a selfish manchild who sang in the shower about all his heinous crimes, and two of our three Batman toys turned into idiots who hardly remember their names.  I’d assume, then, that Barbie is more of a totem than a commandment; she’s a means to get a child’s imagination going, meaning that any given girl could take any given doll and do whatever the hell she wanted.

In theory, at least.

I’ve never been a little girl, so I don’t know how their play sessions tended to go.  Sure, I was lucky enough to be able to create the “stories” I wanted, even if the best props my brother and I had were our imaginations.  Playsets and outfits aside, were Barbie fans given the same luxury?  Are Barbie fans given the same luxury?  They’re not forced to conform, but the costumes and dolls at large make some pretty heavy suggestions, I’d bet.  (My Superman toy had muscles on top of muscles and a detachable cape; I’d wager the average Barbie doesn’t have a build that lends itself to combat.)  You can do anything with Barbie, but why bother with anything when Mattel’s whispering “Clothes!  Princesses!  Regimented gender roles!” in your ear?  What does it say about Barbie’s potential and cultural impact when one hand is offering a heroine with hundreds of potential roles, while the other is offering -- in a modern-day context, mind you -- a game like this?

The question that needs to be answered, I think, is “What do girls want?”  Speaking personally, I think that the answer isn’t all that different from what boys want: cool stuff that gets them excited.  What that entails for each gender opens up this writhing mass of interconnected mini-questions about social mores and nature vs. nurture, but in the interest of simplifying things (and not forcing myself to eat a foot sandwich), I’ll say this: I think princesses are cool.

You can chalk that up to me being converted by the likes of the Smash Bros. series and Princess Peach (and the Mario canon and Rosalina…and more recently Hyrule Warriors and Zelda), but I’m not repulsed by the presence of a princess like others are.  It’s a role with potential, because from a story perspective it gives the royal in question something to care about, protect, and even fight for.  It doesn’t have to just be about sitting around and looking pretty.  But even if creators aren’t willing to go that far -- which is pretty understandable, all things considered -- the question at hand is, “What’s wrong with being pretty and having fun?”

I don’t mean that in a way that reduces the fairer sex to a bunch of grinning mannequins.  I mean that, hey, maybe girls just want to enjoy clothes and fashion and princesses and sparkles.  And that’s cool.  Maybe they don’t need their dolls to go on adventures, because just exploring semi-real scenarios is more than enough.  That’s cool, too.  I understand that.  What’s important is that A) there ARE options being offered, and B) they’re explored meaningfully for the sake of the audience.  So while Barbie and Mattel may have stumbled in the past, the fact that there’s something for any given little girl to enjoy means a lot.

Besides, the world of fashion offers plenty of lucrative careers.  Why devalue that for someone who’s actually interested?

Well, that’s enough out of me.  Now I’ll turn things over to you guys, starting with the question of the day: how good is Barbie, really?  Is she the toy we all need, but not the one we deserve?  Or is she a menace to society who belongs behind the bars of a plastic prison?  Is her cultural impact a boon, or a bust?  Are things looking up for Barbie and friends?  AND, for fifteen million bonus points, what’s your experience with Barbie?

Grab your prettiest hat and hold on tight.  Ready?  Set…comment!

Also?  Now I can’t help but wonder if my love of superheroes comes from days spent playing with toys.  Then again, their personas got so distorted that you could hardly call most of them heroes.  Clinically-depressed Spider-Man, anyone?

Oh, wait.  Is that actually canon and I didn’t even know it?  It would kind of make sense, huh?

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