barbie turns 60 Life & Style

Is Barbie finally breaking barriers?

As Barbie turns 60, we look at the kind of impact she’s had on generations of women, and whether this ‘action figure’ does really call for all the brickbats she often gets

Shraddha Kapoor’s 10-year-old has a group called GAP: girls against pink. Kapoor is an associate professor in the department of Human Development and Childhood Studies, in Delhi University’s Lady Irwin College, but she says it really has nothing to do with what she does for a living or her own life experiences. Instead, she wonders whether this new generation of girls is inadvertently rebelling against associations with being perceived as ‘girly’, a label that Kapoor disses but that adults often impose.

Alexandra Jane Allan, in her paper ‘The Importance of Being a Lady…’ describes the ‘girly-girl’ as someone who has “a particular embodiment of hyper-femininity, both in terms of looks (‘pink’, ‘fluffy’ and ‘well made up’), and also in terms of behaviour (as ‘nice’ and ‘compliant’).”


Girls, boys, dolls

A doll occupies two ends of the spectrum: one of nurture when it is designed as a baby, and the other of sexualisation and the glorification of thinness when it is built in the image of Barbie. The former may reinforce the idea of women as caregivers, while the latter may lead to poor body image and low self-esteem. “Both are stereotypes, based on gender,” says Kapoor.

Can a doll have that great an impact? It all depends on the women a young girl interacts with, the most important being the mother. “She’s the biggest influence on her daughter. If a mother constantly says, ‘I’m growing fat’, it’s bound to have an impact on her daughter. Who the mother appreciates and why, what she herself does, are all absorbed,” she says.

On her birthday
  • As a part of this initiative, Barbie will honour more than 20 women across multiple countries and continents, ranging from 19 to 85 years old, and speaking 14 languages. Some of the women are:
  • Yara Shahidi (actress, activist for education of girls and founder of Yara’s Club), Adwoa Aboah, (model and activist, United Kingdom), Kristina Vogel (athlete, Germany), Rosanna Marziale, chef, Italy
  • In India, Barbie will present a one-of-a-kind doll to Dipa Karmakar, the first Indian female gymnast to ever compete in the Olympic Games and the first Indian female artistic gymnast to win a gold medal at a global event.

Dolls are ultimately playthings, just like balls or miniature cars. They encourage imaginative play and help grow creativity. They aren’t essential, nor should they be denied to children, feels Kapoor. “Offer choices: a doll, a ball, different kinds of playthings that bring out different aspects of a child’s personality. And offer them to girls and boys alike.” Also, expose your child to a variety of experiences, so she or he can choose what they like best to do. “We see girls with a lot of characteristics that were traditionally associated with boys, but we don’t see the reverse for boys.” In a social experiment in a school on a Delhi campus, teachers asked preschoolers to come dressed in clothes opposite to the gender they were born with. “The girls came in shorts; the boys just didn’t show up,” she says, emphasising that it’s often parents who reinforce gender stereotyping.

Future forward

Fashion designer Namrata Joshipura, who has a 14-year-old, would bring back fabric swatches and blingy accessories from the office, when her daughter was younger. Groups of school friends would fashion them into clothes. “It could be a future profession,” she says, of the girls who now come back to her to ask if they can come and spend a day at her studio to understand the work.

It’s ironical though, that Barbie (her full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts) was born when its creator, Ruth Handler “created the Barbie doll to be used as a medium for children to imagine different careers and paths in life,” says a study titled ‘Barbie: The Real Enemy?’ Ruth’s own daughter didn’t have options other than the baby dolls available at the time. “With more than 200 careers, six runs for president and a trip to the moon before Neil Armstrong, Barbie continues to evolve to be a modern, relevant role model for all ages,” says Lokesh Kataria, who heads marketing at Mattel Toys India, the global arm of which owns the brand.

Is Barbie finally breaking barriers?

The Mattel communication targets girls, and while it may feel empowering, the problem, feels Kapoor, begins when their property is given out to franchisees who may reinforce stereotypes by say, putting a Barbie picture on a pink bottle. Mattel though, has tried to make positive changes, most recently partnering with National Geographic to create a product line “to inspire young explorers to expand their horizons, including science, geography and history, through career dolls complete with relevant playsets and programming,” says Kataria. It’s not just careers. She’s also available in different body types and skin tones, with several hair styles and eye colours.

In the end, says Kapoor, it’s about conversations you have with your child. “If your child says she loves a doll, ask her why.” As long as your daughter or your son is well-adjusted, a doll or a ball don’t really matter that much.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 6:28:26 PM |

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