Thursday 22 August 2019

Fiona Ness: I know Barbie is just a vacuous clothes horse - but maybe she's perfect so little girls don't have to be

Barbie dolls have been controversial for the unrealistic expectations they put on girls. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News
Barbie dolls have been controversial for the unrealistic expectations they put on girls. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News
Fiona Ness

Fiona Ness

Poor old everyone's ultimate fantasy female, Barbie. What has traditionally been her most popular time of year has turned into just the worst time of the year (a cold coming she had of it, a poet might say) as this December she is again the focal point for all society's ills.

When it was announced earlier this month that US comedian Amy Schumer was to play Barbie in a new Hollywood film Schumer has co-written, the internet's little trolls got to work.

Schumer didn't look like Barbie. She was older, smaller, and fatter. Schuman hit back, saying she was proud of her body. She posted a picture on social media to prove it. The anti-body shaming elves mobilised in support.

Amy Schumer. Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images
Amy Schumer. Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images

So far, so plastic fantastic. However, this week the story took a twist, with former Schumer supporters accusing her of being complicit in the great big female lie (only thin and pretty people are worthy), by putting out the 'I'm actually skinny really' picture of herself in response to the trolling.

Yes, we agreed: Barbie. Not our horrible selves or our inherent longings, but Barbie was to blame for our fixations on how women look. A burning at the stake was ordered forthwith.

But pardon me if, like little Cindy Lou Hoo in 'How The Grinch Stole Christmas', I put up my hand and question, "why?"

I get that Barbie's proportions are all wrong, and that she's a vacuous clothes horse who presents an unattainable vision of ourselves. I got that aged seven and I get that aged 40, as I help my daughters squeeze their Barbies' tiny butts into their tiny fashion victim clothes.

Is she the primary architect of a culture that sets women up for a lifetime of being less?

Well, no, actually, she's just a doll. And kids play with dolls. They have fun with them, construct their own realities for them, and then, when it's time, they shave their heads, put them in the attic and move on.

By this stage, they have learned that from megalithic man to Matisse to Mattel, society has always cared about how women look. Through a variety of resources (of which play is one) they have begun to filter these messages in a way that hopefully enables them to live within that society, without it tearing them apart. Far from giving girls unrealistic expectations for themselves, playing with Barbie might just be the outlet you need to escape from them. Barbie can be perfect, so you don't have to.

And yet society tells us it's criminal to let our girls play with Barbies. Even if they want to. For some kids, that's fine. They don't want to play with Barbies anyway.

But others actually like Barbie - not the anatomically correct Lottie or dinky little Playmobil, but Barbie. Are we to tell them that their natural instincts are wrong? That it's not OK for them to be them - the very message the Barbie haters are working to dispel?

Free play, we are told, is the elixir of childhood. Play therapy, meanwhile, is a therapeutic tool where children are given free rein to act out their anxieties through imaginative play. And whatever beef you have against Barbie, you can't say that she doesn't facilitate imaginative play.

Absolutely, we should introduce our children to new play ideas and concepts, but we should guard against micromanaging how our children play, creating a whole new problem in the process.

I recently overheard one mother tell of how her children were obsessed with 'Minecraft'. This was a great thing, she said, because they lived in a digital-first household, and her child wanted to be an architect. When the child wanted more tech time, she was allowed it, but only if she listened to educational TED talks at the same time.

To me, this has the potential to be a whole lot more harmful than Barbie.

But now, full disclosure: Back in December, 1980, I was the proud recipient of the last Barbie in Scotland.

This was the pre-ZX Spectrum days when, if you wanted to be an architect, you took to pen and paper. There were no pre-orders on Amazon or weekend shopping in New York, just days of driving around in my granda's brown Ford Cortina, going from toy shop to fruitless toyshop in search of this new US import.

Sold out in the city, we made one last deflated stop before heading home in the dark and rain. And there, from the basement of the local Dalziel Co-Operative, my gran emerged clutching Barbie, in all her canary yellow, satin-trousered glory.

With her tightly permed, short blonde hair, she wasn't quite the Barbie of my dreams, but I had her. I took her home, and went back to playing with Sindy.

Sindy was, after all, easier to dress, better made and her feet tasted good when you chewed them. Sindy and I had history. We'd gone to countless balls together, on horse-riding trips and to the beach. She also had an extensive wardrobe, created by my mother one morning when, instead of undertaking her usual forensic cleaning routine, she sat at the sewing machine making tiny ball gowns in her dressing gown. And yet it was neither Sindy nor Barbie who was the bedrock of my education in female adulthood. It was the women - my mum and my gran - who allowed those dolls to move through my life.

I don't know. Maybe the first start to socially engineering away our fixations with the perfect female form is getting rid of a doll. And after Barbie, we could tackle all the Renaissance paintings, then Kim Kardashian and Zoella.

But for now, they have come for the Barbies, and even though I'm not remotely like her, I feel I have to speak up.

Irish Independent

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