Barbies & Bratz: an ideal toy for toddlers…really?

Barbie

Today I had an interesting discussion with a parent regarding how to stop her two young girls (age 2 and 4) obsessing over their Barbies dolls:

“At the beginning I didn’t give so much weight as it started gradually, but now I am at the point of almost wanting to bin their whole Barbie’s collection at once! They rarely play with anything else, I think they are getting pretty obsessive over them, constanlty changing clothes and then bringing the dolls with them everywhere…sometimes I feel like I am a bad mother allowing this…I think we are playing a dangerous game with the toys we hand over to them”.

This is nothing new: socialisation into stereotypical gender roles through playing practices, “let the girls be girls and the boys be boys”, many conservative parents would have no problem with it. However, I know even very conservative parents who will argue that the extent to which girls are trained into the role of “beautiful dolls” is getting far out of hand these days.

Young girls must be looking around, finding very little alternative to this role. Starting from the innocent comments received during family reunion (“Oh…she’s so beautiful” “she’s such a pretty girl”), the message is then reinforced through several hours of Barbie or Bratz play, possibly accompanied by some indoctrination into the glittering world of Disney’s princesses cartoons, merchandise and bedroom paraphernalia.

Interestingly – and more worryingly so- Barbie/ Bratz and the like have now become in many countries a must-have early years’ toy for girls age 2-6. Most of the girls I’ve talked to throughout my project (girls living in UK, age 8-11) were ready to dismiss the toy as “babyish”.

While there’s a lack of research on the direct effects of this playing practice from such tender age, it would respond to logic to think that handing out a skinny doll with unrealistic body proportions to 2-6 years old doesn’t represent the wisest educational choice. Let’s also consider the fact that playing with this type of dolls involves mainly changing them into different clothes, outfits, make-up and hair styles to make them more beautiful and sexy (possibly to attract the only man character in Barbie’s world, Ken!).

Now, developmental psychology tells us that toddler years are a time of great cognitive, emotional and social development, with children playing practices shaping their believes and attitudes for their later life: so let’s stop a minute and think “what are the attitudes and believes we promote in our girls by a regular daily dose of Barbie/Bratz play at this particular stage of their development?” And what if this practice is accompanied by Disney princesses’ cartoons and strict gender stereotyping in marketing and media?

This is a far cry from the traditionally feminine practice of playing with baby dolls, although I am aware that many feminist would equally class that practice as limiting, stereotypical and damaging, at least when not mixed with other types of play.

But surely you would think that pushing baby dolls on a pram, or pretending to feed them or change their nappy is a “parenting role play” which can develop a caring and nurturing attitude in children, so potentially nothing too wrong with that, right? (For the same reason I would be extremely happy to see as many boys as girls engaged in this type of play…but of course this would make uncomfortable too many parents who still firmly believe in the benefits of stereotypically gendered socialisation for their boys and girls…we have a long way to go I think!)

To conclude, shouldn’t we be a little more considerate in deciding which toy would be best for a 2-6 years old child? This is such a delicate and important phase of a child development… I contend that the effects of such universal play practice – especially in cases where it tends to monopolise girls’ attention and when not compensated by a diverse range of activities – should be really considered much more seriously.

27 thoughts on “Barbies & Bratz: an ideal toy for toddlers…really?

  1. Very thought-provoking message. Let’s use our feminine creativity to come up with some innovative solutions to change the play practices of young girls.

    • Yes Anna Lin, I want to be optimistic on things and I like to think that together we can really make changes happening. I think we need to start to build awareness of these issues: in the end both media and marketing respond to customers needs. If consumers are educated to understand the negative impact of certain types of toys, playing practices, tv programs, videogames, ect..then in the end they will reject these products and the lack of demand will steer marketing and media towards better practices. We do have the power to change things, we just need to be pro-active in engaging parties in the debate & diffusing the knowledge to fully embrace the opportunity 😉

  2. Strangely enough I was watching a documentary the other night on steroids and how so many young boys are turning to them in order to get bigger muscles and become physically stronger. A clinical psychologist on the programme was showing one young man how G.I Joe has morphed in the last 20 years from an average build to suddenly having a six pack and huge bulging arms, explaining that the effect on young males is to value masculinity only in terms of size and strength and that this evolution in the way males judge each other has contributed greatly to the rise in steroid use,eating disorders and exercise addiction.
    As an aside, I have to say I have always been uncomfortable with seeing little girls pushing around baby dolls as I feel it is conditioning them to think that it is their only role in life, leaving women who unfortunately cannot be mothers for a variety of reasons, to feel even more inadequate as a woman, when we have so much more than our reproductive capabilities to offer. I have always felt that girls and boys should be encouraged to explore a variety of toys in order to allow them to feel that there is no gender divide, wishful thinking maybe.

    • Hi Sam, yes I always felt unconfortable with any type of stereotypical gender socialisation: imagine how better this world could be if we were allowing our children to grow up playing with any toy they wish, without pushing them into “this is for girl” “this is for boy”. The issue has now been exacerbated by current marketing practices and media messages surrounding every child’s move. And it’s true that body image’s problems are starting to affect increasingly boys and young men too. I have a 10 year old boy and I can see that he’s already very mindful of his body shape and size. The “six packs”, as they call it, is becoming more and more a necessary requisite for masculinity in their mind and no doubt this phenomenon is pushed by commercial interests (cosmetic/fashion industry colluted with media and celebrity culture): we are turning into a society generally obsessed with appearance! How do we stop this downspiral process? I think we need to be much more pro-active in talking to kids about how media and society norms around gender, sexuality & beauty are generated. We need to give them the tools to understand and dispell the many myths created by the “media & marketing machine” to really liberate them and allow them to grow into happy, competent and confident men and women. 🙂

      • Last night I watched Brene’ Brown’s presentation at the Emerging Women event. She said the number 1 shame trigger for women is our bodies. The number 1 shame trigger for men is weakness. These dolls are appealing to a false sense of those qualities ~ training children to believe that what’s important is their outward appearance of strength and beauty. In truth, these are inner qualities we all need to recognize and affirm.

        • “These dolls are appealing to a false sense of those qualities ~ training children to believe that what’s important is their outward appearance of strength and beauty” –
          Absolutely spot on, you said it perfectly! This is the main message we are giving out as a society and the training our children go through: how damaging, how limiting, how frustrating is this! Instead of teaching our young men and women to believe and nurture their inner wisdom, creativity, generosity and compassion, we teach them that appearance and “getting ahead” are the pillars of success. We are setting up the premises for insicure, narcistic, competitive and, in the end, unhappy and frustrated human beings. 🙁

      • Wow!! You said, “Imagine how better this world could be if we were allowing our children to grow up playing with any toy they wish.” That would truly be the ideal.

        I think it’s amazing how the parents jump in right away and try to control the toys that the children play with. But I also think that it’s obvious that they do so automatically, without thinking.

        I knew some people who had premature twins, one boy and one girl.

        Professionals in the world of assisting premature kids have two ways of calculating the age of premature kids. One is to say their actual age from their date of birth to the present. But another way is to subtract the developmental time that they missed in utero. So if a kid is premature by one month, he or she is actually, say, one year old minus one month.

        When professionals evaluate kids, they see what components are missing from what would be considered normal development for that age. For example, if a kid can’t sit up by the age at which kids normally learn to sit up, the therapist might make sitting up a fun game or suggest adaptive pillows that help the kid stay in a seated position. Now, don’t quote me on this exact procedure, because I’m by no means a parent, therapist, expert, etc. I’m just laying a foundation for what I’m going to say next about reinforcing stereotypical gender roles.

        This couple had a speech pathologist (and other professionals) who came in once a week and played with the kids. This guy would use toys to teach words, because these kids really didn’t use words compared to other kids their age. So he would position himself across the room from a kid and say, “1, 2, 3, Go!!!” and with that, he would launch a toy car with wheels to one of the kids and they would squeal with delight. This was a really simple way for the kids to learn the word sequence, “1, 2, 3, Go,” and start to use it. In this game, a kid would then have a turn to say, “1, 2, 3, Go!” and roll the car back to the therapist. It really worked in a great, fun way, and the two kids started using words more.

        After awhile, the girl child wanted to play with the cars all the time. She didn’t gravitate to the other toys. She loved the cars!! The little boy went along with the program and played with all the toys as they were presented, but the little girl really loved the toy cars, trucks, and buses. The speech pathologist even had a name for the kind of attachment that the girl had for cars, because it was significant. It wasn’t “fixation,” or “obsession,” but the attachment was significant enough that the professionals had a name for it.

        But when the father learned of this, he completely ignored it. That wouldn’t be such a big thing, but when I mentioned it to him later, he literally didn’t even remember it. I truly believe that he blocked it out because it didn’t fit his definition of “girl.”

        The speech pathologist had dealt with many, many kids and had a way of teaching kids to focus their attention on all different kinds of play, so it never became an “obsession” that would cause any problems in life. (But maybe there was nothing wrong with her loving cars so much! Fostered and nurtured, that love might have turned into something wonderful.)

        I just got the feeling that this father would have screamed with delight if he were told that his son had a fixation on cars.

        Over time, I noticed that neither twin had ever picked up a stuffed toy and played with it since I had known them. They had tons of them, but the only toys they played with were hard, and none were “characters,” per se.

        I taught the twins to put a little blanket over their teddy bears at night, talk to them during the day, give the teddy bears their own voices/point of view, etc., and we had fun doing that. One day, the father observed his daughter doing this and (with real intensity) said, “Oh, my gosh! It’s almost like she KNOWS she’s going to be a MOTHER!!!!” I believe that there’s something kind of wacky about that, since she around two years old. And, guess what? If the little boy did it, it was ignored.

        The parents do what was done to them. They don’t give it any thought. And the earlier it was done to them, the less thought they give it when they turn around and do the same thing to their own kids.

        Whether for better or worse, we all have ingrained habits that we forged through our own personal journeys. If it makes it easier for parents to simply say, “Playing with dolls is bad for boys!” and “Playing with cars is bad for girls!” the sad truth is, the parents will do what comes naturally.

        Thanks again for this wonderful blog where we can examine our own “realities.” 🙂

  3. All true but I did find one upside to Barbie dolls when my daughter was little. I noticed that she and her friends used the dolls in scenarios that reflected their real lives – ‘Mummy Barbie is dropping the kids of at nursery, ‘She’s been at work all day,’ ‘She’s got a babysitter because she’s going out with her friends tonight’ etc.

    It’s definitely a challenge to bring up girls in the face of this onslaught – I wrote a post about it on the blog we now write together! http://www.veggierunners.com/2013/03/12/girls-running-and-body-confidence/ – but there are some positives. My daughter and her friends seemed to transcend, at least in part, the socialisation of Barbie world and position the dolls within their own experiences, rather than the other way round.

    • Yes, there is a strong element of role play and that is positive. This is the way I remembered myself playing with Barbie (at the age of 8-10 I became mildly obsessed with it). There were not Barbies cartoons around so me and my sister used to create our own script.
      Today I find that there is unfortunately a proliferation of Barbies/ Bratz/MonsterHigh animated movies: girls seem to re-create with their dolls the stories and scripts they see on these programs and this ruined unfortunately the whole imaginative component of this type of play. So perhaps one suggestion could be to try to steer away from combining the two (Barbies/Bratz dolls and cartoons), so that the girls can actually use their own creativity a lot more in their playing. There are some interesting videos in You Tube of young girls making clips of their Monster High dolls collection (the new comers from Mattel): in some of them the girls were simply changing clothes/handbags to the dolls routinely to attract the boys-dolls attention (Monster High has a full set of boys dolls too), I think this was quite disturbing to watch but that’s how this play practice can turn out to be when combined with other influences..

      I read your blog article with interest and I have to say this is my experience too: girls are bombarded by media and marketing messages these days, all about being sexy and beautiful, but I don’t like much the moral panic created around it as I am firmly convinced that the media influence is relatively powerless compared to the power of good parenting (with one element of it being parental mediation in the consumption of media – parents watching programs with their daughters and encourage critical thinking), good education and healthy, exciting endevours. This is also what my research with young girls seems to suggest: the girls more involved with extra-curricular activities or with a particular passion in their life were far less “sucked” into the beauty trap!

      As parents we have far more power that we actually think: ultimately we are the real role models our daughters grow up with. Through open dialogue, sharing experiences and a little sense of humour we can nurture that sense of belonging, confidence & purpose which make our girls and young women much more grounded and resilient in the face of marketing/media pressure. Thanks Janey, you seemed to have done an excellent job with your daughter so kudo to you! 😉

  4. I don’t care for them either. I realize they are just dolls; however, I don’t like the excessive makeup or clothes either. I don’t think they are appropriate and I want my girls to have some modesty and self respect. I don’t think these dolls teach that at all.

  5. I think they are both just as bad but Barbie has something that Bratz doesn’t, a good name and a reputation for trying to empower women rather than objectify them as most people assume.

  6. My daughter has just started getting into Barbie’s and I’m good with that. The original Barbie was brought out to show that women can do anything they wanted to and Barbie was proof. The real problem here is with dolls like Bratz, Monster High and the other “unsavory” characters of the doll world. They dress like prostitutes, act like Kardashians and have unlimited budgets from seemingly no employment. What will I say when my daughter comes to me asking for the map to the money tree that these socially inept stereotypes make them believe that we all have? I don’t quite know yet, but I am sure that day will come very soon.

  7. I always wondered why boys very rarely feel the need to play house with characters but girls seem drawn to it. I have two sons who spend all their free time playing with Lego building these elaborate cars and then taking great joy in smashing them together.
    Where do girls get the ‘home’ role-playing gene from? Is it just from being introduced to these toys at such an early age?

  8. Let’s “let kids be kids.” I recently babysat a girl of 6 years old who wanted to play Barbie. I of course offered to play and got into it and encouraged her brother to join in too – I bet seeing a grown man and her brother playing with it was good for her. It also gave me a chance to moderate the context of how we played – less emphasis on the hair, clothing, etc. and more on the role-playing, interaction and “playing grown-up.” There was one worrying trend when she put on a fake American accent (being Australian) typical of a spoilt teenage girl but that’s a sign that more involvement will be good – get her to voice a second character without this attitude, perhaps. Hopefully she will learn that not all girls have to sound like that or act that way.

    The comparison often used to write these claims off as feminist propaganda is the He-Man figuring that was popular when I was a kid. If girls are to compare with ultra-thin but well-developed Barbie how come men are not blubbering wrecks unable to emulate the walking six-pack and biceps that is He-Man? Aside from other arguments like He-Man being set in a fantasy world and Barbie being used to role-play more true to life situations, I think this is another area where parent and peer input can help steer kids in the right direction. Maybe sometimes the girls can play with He-Man too as he cooks for his significant other’s return, while Barbie is off battling a wizard atop a dragon.

  9. A strategy I am fond of is quite simply, “less toys”. Obviously this is challenging when family and friends go overboard at Christmas and birthdays, however in my household our children grew up with things like musical instruments, toy animals and sports equipment – non “gender specific” toys if you will.

    At the time it seemed like the best way for us to “let them be who they want to be”.

  10. I used to love Barbies!! I’m sure there is some truth to “children playing practices shaping their believes and attitudes for their later life” but honestly…I think it’s just overthinking this whole situation. It is just a toy. I don’t think I’ve ever met a girl who didn’t play with a Barbie growing up. We all turned up okay didnt we? Kids outgrow these things eventually. I think we are now in a world where people just love to do experiments and psycological tests on everything making things a bigger deal than it really is. There are tests on how does eating butter affect life, what does your favourite color say about you, how does playing barbie dolls affect the mind of children, and so forth. These topics were not as big of a deal back then and it is only gathering much attention because this generation has become more vocal and curious. We are living in a generation where people are not scared to object to things and question things that they think are not proper or don’t know much about. It is a good thing.

    Anyway going back to the topic..I’ve always obsessed with Barbies when I was at that age and so did many of my cousins and friends. It is part of growing up. Did it shape my future? I’m not sure how I can even measure such an intangible effect. All I know is that the friends I hang out with, my instructors at my school, my co-workers or the TV shows that I watch have all far greater influence now than the barbie I played with when I was 5. 🙂

  11. While I personally think Barbie is a bit of a tart, I don’t know that we can blame Barbie for our problems. When I was growing up in the 80’s, I played with Barbie because everyone played with Barbie. I thought she was tedious. I preferred being outside with my horses and making mud pies with my cousins. I believe I made that choice for three reasons:

    1. There weren’t a bunch of Barbie movies and a website reinforcing that I should be playing with Barbie.

    2. I thought my mom was the coolest woman in the world, and she liked to be outside with the horses and working in her garden.

    3. My folks didn’t spend their resources on Barbie. If I wanted a Barbie Dream House, I best get to building.

    When there are supportive parents in the home who choose to put value on things outside of possessions and popularity, Barbie becomes a non-issue and just another toy in the toy box. Without the option to enjoy the Barbie Lifestyle through movies and an interactive online experience, she looses much of her power. She’s just that one doll who makes you wonder what it’s going to be like to have boobs, lol.

    I’m not casting judgement on parents, or those who really enjoyed playing Barbie growing up and now enjoy doing it with their daughters; only you know what is right for your home and your daughter. I do think that we should look at where we put the emphasis in our lives and see what kind of examples we are setting for up and coming generations of girls.

    • I was about to post a comment similar to yours. I had one Barbie that my parents bought after weeks of crying and begging but I only played with her a handful of times. Most of the times I was outside playing with our two dogs or in the tree house my dad built for me and my sister.

      I found the doll boring and quite unappealing but my sister turned out to be a big fan of her so I gave it to her.

      Today the Barbie doll serves more as a base for unhealthy body image, irrational conception of what beauty means and even an unjustified crave for super-long hair. It’s nothing wrong in playing with dolls if you do just this, but if your kid tries to morph herself into Barbie and sees her as a role model, this would prove to be very damaging.

  12. I totally agree with you Penny — I don’t see Barbie as a problem toy in itself. If the rest of a child’s life is balanced, a bit of imaginary play with dolls won’t hurt her (though I do agree that a more realistically sized Barbie would be more appropriate).

    As for talking to little girls, we should be careful. I thought this article was really thoughtful: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-bloom/how-to-talk-to-little-gir_b_882510.html . I don’t think that we can’t tell girls they’re pretty, but I do think that it shouldn’t be the only type of compliment they receive.

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  15. I am a parent of a 5 year old girl. She does have some princess style barbie dolls. She rarely plays with them and usually only when a neighbor girl who enjoys them comes over. But, i have sat down and played with her and them before. We had a good discussion about the barbie and how unrealistic it is. My daughter understood. She said “I know mom, it’s just pretend.” We talked about some of the clothing and which pieces were modest and even though barbie dresses immodestly sometimes, we don’t. I think it is good to teach her that although others do things, we don’t have to. That is life. I think it’s more about parenting and being involved with the child and teaching them, than it is about Barbie. Thanks for this great article.

  16. I am not a parent yet but I consistently go back and forth on whether or not I want my children to play with toys that are gender specific. As a child I played with Barbie and consistently complained to my mother that she did not resemble me nor her. I was also a natural born questioner which made it hard for me to simply comply with the “let kids just be kids” notion. For me it was more than just a toy, it became an identity that I could not relate to.

    Back to my original sentence, I remain uncertain to whether I want gender specific toys in my home. It is not just for my daughters to build healthy relationships with themselves and their bodies but for my sons to also not be limited by what society says they should want to be. That includes jobs and body perfection as well.

  17. I’ve stated on another comment that I was always at odds with my husband because he didn’t want his son playing with a doll. He didn’t want him to dress up like a ballerina. Many somewhat loud altercations came up during this time, and it go to the point where my husband when to a psychologist, to state is claim.
    Long story short, he lost. As the psychologist said that it’s healthy for them to play with all kinds of toys. She did then ask about my daughter and if she was living up to his playing standards. He went on and on about how she loved to play with toy guys, trucks, play in the mud, etc.

    The psychologist told my husband that he should let both of the kids be who they wanted and needed to be at that particular moment. When we finally got to talk after the session, he was very standoffish and said, “I’m not quite sure what’s wrong with that woman, she just wants them to have play time in the way they want. What if gets all feminine and all?”

    When I brought up my daughter and her ‘boyish’ toys she plays with, his rebuttal was just as close minded. “Oh heck, she’s just gonna be a tom boy. And before you even say it, there is no such things as a tom girl!”. And then he promptly left the room and the focus on this false issue. I did notice that he gradually laid off the toy ideas. With the years passing by he eventually noticed that what he thought was going to be a ‘tom girl’ was just a mimicking “monkey see monkey do”. He was simply playing with the toys that his big sister were playing with.

  18. I think it is inappropriate for a child under the age of five to play with a Barbie doll. The reason: safety. Also, I believe that children from age one to four should have baby dolls first. Mostly all Barbie doll boxes clearly state : “Not intended for children age three and under.” so it should be really not allowed in the first place.
    Anyway, thank God for Bratz dolls! I chose to buy more of these dolls for my child because the clothes were stylish, funky, and the features of these dolls are beautiful and unique. The eyes are exotic and the lips on these dolls are beautiful and full.
    I even purchased my child a beautiful Ru Paul doll. Everything was cool about the Ru Paul doll, until my mom hit the roof. My child really enjoyed playing with her new doll!
    Because of my mother she almost stopped playing with it. I wanted her to enjoy her new Christmas doll without discrimination. Then, when she got a little older I was going to explain some differences about some people.
    As a result, I ended up having to explain to her waaay earlier than I intended. Man, everything was going so well. I played with dolls until age sixteen. Also, all of my dolls were kept in perfect condition.
    I was saving them to pass them all to my daughter. Unfortunately, my youngest sister raided my beautiful doll collection and tore them all up. It was such a tragedy.

  19. The Barbie conversation is always interesting, but when you think about the whole purpose of toys, I think a new perspective can be gained.

    Parents give kids toys to distract them and to keep them from disrupting what is going on in the parents’ immediate lives. When parents want to be engaged with their children they take the toys away and demand their attention. I think that parents and children should play with toys together. Toys shouldn’t be a means of pacifying children or getting them to go in the other room while you do whatever you want to do.

    My step-daughter spends a lot of time doing arts and crafts and playing outside. She loves to be read to and she’s fast learning how to read. She has toys but we tend to encourage her to engage with people and not things. I’m not saying that we have the perfect parenting situation, but we are doing our best to ensure we raise a well adjusted, thoughtful human being.

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