recommended for ages twelve and under
November 18, 2002 06:10 PM

To continue on the play theme, let's talk about Barbie.

I saw a holiday Barbie (you know, the one with the big velveteen dress) yesterday and almost cooed. I have an abiding fondness for Barbie.

I grew up with a lot of Barbies. This didn't damage my self-image or teach me crazed notions about gender roles. In fact, I think it was quite useful.

Of course, I'm a white woman. I think that's pretty important to the Barbie discussion - but I'm going to put that aside a moment and focus on my experience. I'll get back to the race question. [And yes, I know that the very fact I can put it aside and get back to it is, in itself, part of the race question.]

There were a lot of confusing things going on when I was little. If you went to a public school kindergarten in the early eighties, you'll know that a lot of time was spent with Officer Friendly, McGruff the crime dog, puppets with morals, stop drop and roll, et cetera. If you remember these things, do you also remember how scary they were? Kindergarten-level safety training leaves one thinking Please, God, whatever you are, don't kill me tonight. It's scary as hell.

Many things are scary as hell when you're five. Things like being able to find your way home, playing with other kids, doing homework - they're all easily amplified into crises. Being a kid is just plain frightening sometimes.

So. I had Barbies. I mostly had ten different Skippers (Barbie's flat-chested kid sister). An assortment of Strawberry Shortcake dolls, some He-Man action figures. And one, largely ignored, Ken. My Barbies had housefires and were kidnapped when I was five. They were in abusive relationships when I was six. They were Pocahontas, Helen Keller, and Abigail Adams when I was seven. They were lesbians when I was eight. I think one of them may have had a drinking problem.

They were, essentially, whatever I needed to think about at the time.

And they were always adults. Even my baby-shaped dolls were adults. My mother wrote in my baby book when I was two or so that I had a bean-filled doll who was "twenty-two". Sounds like I grasped at a pretty young age that being an adult (like my parents, who were conveniently turning twenty-two that year) was the goal.

None of this is being told for the purpose of cuteness. In fact, quite the opposite. My Barbie play wasn't cute at all, it was solemn and serious. It was important stuff.

I'm fairly certain the same is true of just about anything kids, especially very young kids, play at. I remember doing similarly serious things with the jungle gym, trucks, GI Joe, sandboxes. But I think the magic of Barbie is that she is such an obvious tool for this type of play.

That's valuable.

And of course, we as adults see play and toys in completely different light. We see gender roles (there may be some) and violence (some of that, too), but we get so uptight about what toys represent that I think we fail to see what is actually happening with play.

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your wicked thoughts

For some reason this reminds me of the time my then eight year old sister read the Famous Five for the first time.

She was so pissed off at how the girls in that book were treated and represented that she hurled the book right across the room in a fit of rage.

I have seen the Famous Five fly.

She also hated Barbie as well.

But what you're saying about play is absolutely right. It was bloody serious.

Still is.

Even if you are an adult.

these are the thoughts of Baldur on November 19, 2002 01:20 PM

Sounds very much like my reaction to a certain segment of a Harry Potter book I picked up on a long flight - 3 pages of description of HOW FAT someone was. I tore it out and deposited it in the airplane's trash.

Of course, I was 27 and not 8, but the same principle applies - to an extent. I think kids are more willing to overlook the shortcomings of their toys (I present, as my limited evidence of this, my black and asian girlhood friends' eagerness to play with the then all-blond all-white Barbies). But I could be wrong. Limited evidence, all that.

these are the thoughts of april on November 19, 2002 03:44 PM

It described how fat she was? Which volume were you reading anyway? And as much as I hate to admit it, I used to love Barbie at one stage. But of course, it wore off. Strangely though, I never thought much of Enid Blyton's portrayal of girls in her books. I suppose it's the wrong era that makes it seem so "anti-feminist".

these are the thoughts of Prue on November 20, 2002 05:31 AM

Oops, not "she", I was looking at something else just now. Well, I suppose that's why it's a children's book... and besides, look at the kids in the UK, many of them are overweight. Though, I suppose she could have been a bit more delicate about the subject of body weight.

these are the thoughts of Prue on November 20, 2002 05:34 AM

I don't think it had anything to do with how the character's were supposed to look (my sister having always been relatively tall and slim, and blonde, the nordic stereotype).

What annoyed her, and this is way before anybody had a talk with her about feminism and self-image, was how helpless and stupid the girls were portrayed (in her opinion).

The boys were arrogant, brash gits, who had all the fun, and the girls were simpering little idiots.

What made it worse was that the only female character who was clued in had to "want to be a boy" before it was accepted that she could do anything or have any smarts.

I personally had read all of these things without nary a shred of criticism.

I suppose it points out how seriously kids take play, the most grievous crime was to be excluded from the play.

Enid Blyton apparently hated writing those books but they were one of her most popular series.

these are the thoughts of Baldur on November 20, 2002 06:25 AM

For the record, I was pointing at the similarities in the action (throwing books out for their irritating qualities), not the content of the books that irritated.

I would add (this is to Prue's comment, which came close to being deleted) that to stereotype all British kids as tending towards fatness seems somewhat narrowminded, but I suspect it's just a result of lack of experience and not a prejudice on your part, Prue.

There's a huge - I mean huuuuuge, actually - difference between being indelicate about someone's appearance and spending three pages detailing the fatness of a "bad" character as his definining trait - making him a symbol of greed, laziness, etc. by using every negative stereotype of fat. I find that particularly upsetting when the character in question is the only fat person in the book, but I also find it symptomatic of Rowling's simple-minded approach to prose.

However, if the character had been thus described as gay, non-white, jewish, etc, I suspect there would have been some serious uproar about Rowling polluting young minds with prejudice. And instead, nary a word - in fact, outside of the fat activist community, when I point this out as an annoyance about that book (the 4th one?), the general response is that I'm reading too much into something meant "just for kids", etc. - yet, many video games are "just for kids", and people are quick to criticize them, too - for better or worse.

these are the thoughts of april on November 20, 2002 12:18 PM

On a lighter note, two of the comments on this entry contain the word "nary".

We are so literate over here. I think my site should get an award for this. ;)

these are the thoughts of april on November 20, 2002 12:20 PM

I also find Blyton's attitude to anyone who doesn't 'fit in' in general offensive, and did even when I was a kid myself. In her stories, children who have difficulty expressing themselves, or who are 'over-mature' for their age (by the sorry standards of sentimentalists and kids who don't want to grow up), or who boast (complex motivations for boasting are not even hinted at in a 'childlike' way) are judged by their classmates almost universally as objects not only of ridicule, but of prudish moral contempt. Blyton clearly relishes this.

Over the years, this inappropriate attitude has probably encouraged Blyton readers to make the lives of such so-called different kids a misery (many children need no encouragement to pick on or judge other kids). I'm talking particularly about the St.Clares, Malory Towers, Naughtiest Girl series, though the plotlines are good.

For an adult to condone bullying and social ostracisation is disgusting. Also Blyton savages child characters she calles 'prudes', 'prigs' etc. while always having an often spitefully priggish tone herself. It's a pity she ruins classic children's stories with these spiteful, 'ganging-up' attitudes.

these are the thoughts of Adrian Fynes-Clinton on July 19, 2003 07:08 PM

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