By Dr Melane van Zyl

I first need to declare that I:
a) Have not seen the Barbie movie
b) Never played or owned a Barbie doll
c) Found all these criticisms about Barbie:

1. Unrealistic Body Proportions: One of the most pervasive criticisms is that Barbie’s traditional proportions promote an unrealistic and potentially harmful standard of beauty. If translated to a real human, her proportions would be nearly impossible to achieve and sustain.
2. Influence on Body Image: Linked to the first criticism, many believe that playing with a doll with such proportions might lead young girls to develop body dissatisfaction or even contribute to eating disorders, though the direct correlation is a matter of debate.
3. Reinforcement of Gender Stereotypes: Early versions of Barbie were often associated with traditionally “feminine” roles and careers. While Barbie has since taken on a multitude of professions, early critiques focused on how she might reinforce limited views of women’s potential.
4. Lack of Diversity: For much of her history, Barbie was predominantly Caucasian with blonde hair and blue eyes. This led to criticisms about lack of racial and ethnic representation. Though Mattel has made significant strides in this area with more diverse dolls in recent years, early homogeneity was a point of contention.
5. Materialism: Barbie’s world, replete with dream houses, cars, clothes, and endless accessories, has been said to promote materialism.
6. Questionable Careers and Representations: Some Barbies have been criticized for their portrayals or choice of career. For instance, a talking Barbie once said, “Math class is tough!” which led to concerns about reinforcing stereotypes that girls struggle with math.
7. Environmental Concerns: As with many plastic-based products, concerns about the environmental impact of producing and disposing of Barbie dolls and their accessories have been raised.
8. Cultural Insensitivity: Some editions of Barbie have been criticized for cultural insensitivity or appropriation. For example, certain dolls intended to represent various cultures have been accused of promoting stereotypes.
9. Oversexualization: Some critics argue that Barbie’s attire and figure oversexualize the doll, which is aimed at young children.
10. Economic Concerns: The frequent release of new versions of Barbie dolls, outfits, and accessories can place economic pressure on parents whose children wish to keep up with the latest products.

So while bearing in mind that there might be positive things we can learn from Barbie, the most interesting I came across was the benefits of playing with a Barbie doll- even for boys:

Benefits of Playing with Barbie Dolls:
1. Encourages Imagination: Playing with dolls, including Barbies, allows children to engage in imaginative play, creating stories and scenarios which can help in cognitive development.
2. Introduces Various Careers: Barbie has been portrayed in many different careers, from astronaut to zoologist. This can introduce children to a wide variety of professions and inspire them to see the endless possibilities for their futures.
3. Skill Development: Playing with Barbie dolls can help in developing fine motor skills, especially when dressing the dolls or using small accessories.
4. Social Play: When children play with Barbie dolls together, it encourages cooperative play, turn-taking, and can help develop social skills.
5. Empowerment and Representation: Modern Barbies come in diverse body types, professions, ethnicities, and have narratives focused on empowerment. This can provide positive role models and representation for children.
6. Open Dialogue: Playing with Barbies can provide a platform for parents and guardians to discuss topics like body image, professions, and more with their children.

Why would some boys enjoy playing with Barbie dolls?
1. Exploring Imagination: Just as with girls, boys can use Barbie dolls to engage in imaginative play, create scenarios, and explore different narratives. This play is essential for cognitive development and creativity.
2. Breaking Gender Norms: Historically, certain toys have been labeled as “for boys” or “for girls” due to societal gender norms. A boy playing with a Barbie might simply be expressing his interests outside of these traditional norms.
3. Empathy and Care: Playing with dolls can help children develop empathy and nurturing behaviors. By caring for a doll, children can practice kindness, understanding, and other social-emotional skills.
4. Understanding Roles and Identities: Playing with dolls, including Barbie, can allow children to explore various roles, relationships, and identities. This can help them make sense of the world and the diverse people in it.
5. Influence from Environment: Children can be influenced by their surroundings. If a boy has a sibling or friend who plays with Barbie dolls, he might naturally be drawn to them out of curiosity or the desire to engage in communal play.
6. Aesthetic Appreciation: Some boys might appreciate the design, colors, and fashion associated with Barbie dolls.

In conclusion, Barbie teaches us:
It’s essential to understand that toy preferences in childhood don’t necessarily predict or define anything about a child’s future personality, gender identity, or sexuality. They are tools for play, exploration, and learning. All children, regardless of gender, benefit from a diverse play experience that helps them develop a broad range of skills and understandings. Parents and caregivers should be supportive and avoid making assumptions or judgments based solely on a child’s toy preferences.

So- do not judge Barbie, her followers or her haters!


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