American Girl Doll’s decision to put its historical dolls in moth balls might be bad news for our American girls. Then again it might not. Blank-slate dolls, crying out for narrative, may be what our girls need. Maybe vapidity, not heroism, inspires most.
Around the time she turned two, my middle child, whose delicate sensibilities I was working to protect against the onslaught of pop-culture notions of femininity, decided that she had to have a Barbie doll. She’d seen an older girl playing with one at the park and it was toy lust at first sight. I was shocked. The plastic icon of chic-hood was not the role model I wanted my daughter to aspire toward. How could I convey that while shielding her from the very ideals of womanhood the doll represents to me? I could point out the feet molded to the shape of stiletto heels, the hourglass figure. What would they mean to a two-year-old? The time wasn’t ripe for an analysis of impossible standards of female beauty.
Whatever I sputtered that day, she didn’t get it. She didn’t want to know if I would get her a Barbie. She wanted to know when. The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. “I’ll buy you a Barbie,” I told her, “on the day I buy your brother a machine gun.” Now I had something else to explain: sarcasm, when she innocently began to tell people that her mother was going to buy a machine gun for her brother and a Barbie doll for her.
I didn’t get my daughter a Barbie. My daughter didn’t stop wanting one. At four she began to say that when her baby sister got a little older she’d tell her about Barbie, along with other essential information about being a girl. I didn’t even groan: my son did it for me. It isn’t all that tough to get an eleven-year-old boy to groan over Barbie. Once, after playing with a friend, my little girl remarked that she’d forgotten to ask the other girl if she liked Barbie. “She’s too smart to like Barbie,” I was quick to quip.
My daughter thought this over and smiled, utterly undaunted. “I’m smart and I like Barbie,” she announced.
What could I say? My razor-sharp girl had me. “That’s true,” I was forced to admit. “You can be smart and like Barbie.”
According to my daughter, all her school friends had Barbies. Some had dozens. One had a hundred, another had a life-sized Barbie. I took all of these reports at face value; I didn’t ask. I explained for the millionth time that we would never have a Barbie in our home. Famous last words.
Evidently five is the age when girly-gift giving explodes. For my daughter’s birthday, a relative gave her a full skirt and tight, low-cut sweater, enthusing: “You can be a cheerleader!” “I don’t even want her to know cheerleading exists!” I rudely blurted. A playmate gave her a toy makeup kit, while another gave her a kind of Barbie Junior that my daughter informed us was Barbie’s younger sister. I held firm: her birthday gifts from me included no Barbies. The occasion passed. I relaxed: our house was still, safely, a Barbie-free zone.
Which made it especially stunning when, one afternoon shortly after her birthday, my daughter got off the school van clutching a big, shiny Barbie shopping bag with joy and trepidation. The good news was that she was very happy. The bad news was that the van driver had given her a Barbie. Turned out for months she’d been confiding to the driver that she longed for a Barbie. Not that she wasn’t allowed to have a Barbie. Just that she longed for one.
I felt like I was caught between a rock and a hard place – to be more specific, between a floozy’s V-necked sweater and a Barbie. If I told my darling she couldn’t keep the doll, I’d teach her only that her mother was a troll who cared more about mysterious principles than her happiness. If I let her keep it, I’d be letting go of my own values where holding on to them mattered most – in raising my child.
I let her keep the doll. I told her that this was a one-time deal, and that if anyone gave her another Barbie, we’d give it away. Then I watched my little girl, with her athletically rounded body, brown eyes and wildly curly brown hair, play with her Barbie – anorexic-thin body, vacant blue eyes, straight blonde hair and all. My daughter immediately decided that her job was to make this hair lie very straight and very flat. Anything else was fashion aberration in Barbie-land. I felt like I was losing my little girl. Worse, like I was giving her up.
When I confided these feelings to another mother she told me that though she too had never bought her daughter a Barbie, their toy box housed a bunch, all received as gifts. “You know what?” she said. “She never plays with them.”
My own daughter played with her Barbie exactly once. She complained that she didn’t know how to play with Barbie, a problem she’d never voiced about a toy before. “That’s because Barbie doesn’t do anything but get dressed,” I offered, ever the kill-joy. But I agreed, at her request, to play with her. We spent an afternoon together with adult and Barbie Jr., and I spun out scenarios in which Evil Barbie imprisoned her smaller clone in a pink, frilly chamber. My daughter protested these scenarios with squeals of outrage and delight – and made me recast them as beautiful fantasies of a mother who gives her daughter just the pink, frilly birthday she’s always dreamed of.
I didn’t take away from this experience the belief that that surest way to get kids over an obsession is to give them whatever they crave. I did conclude that what you give your kids is more important than what you withhold. Now, seven years later, it is laughable that I once feared a doll could turn my little girl into a weak-willed feminine flower. Nothing is ever going to do that. She’s got a lifetime of flexing her muscles against me to make her strong.