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What Playing with Barbies Can Teach Us

“The idea of Barbie is to teach young girls that they can do and be anything.”

For over 60 years, Barbie has not just been a staple in toy stores all around the world but has since become a cultural icon. Despite this, the doll hasn’t been without its critics, and with the new movie “Barbie” hitting theaters this weekend, those critics are reviving these conversations on the internet.

Dr. Amber Nicole Pfannenstiel

With all the discourse (and memes) about the upcoming film on the web, Dr. A Nicole Pfannenstiel, professor of English at Millersville University, discussed all things Barbie.

The idea of Barbie is to teach young girls that they can do and be anything. While other dolls on the market were primarily baby dolls, Barbie was designed to let girls imagine themselves as something besides a mother.

“I played with Barbies growing up, and I still have a couple ‘collector’ Barbies in their boxes,” says Pfannenstiel. “I never had the Dream House, but I vividly remember building structures to be houses, offices, schools. I learned to hand sew so I could craft outfits for Barbie.”

“My brother was a fan of G.I. Joe, so we would incorporate his toys into our imagination world. I absolutely think Barbie allowed for creativity and skill development and was never a gendered toy in my childhood – which was the intention. I learned to incorporate action, fights and car chases when my brother and his friends joined us. We all found ways to play with Barbies, and I learned so much more than just the skills we typically associate with girls. I used tools to construct structures so I could play Barbie!”

In addition to her work as a digital rhetoric scholar, Pfannenstiel studies play theory, and how play can be incorporated in the classroom to assist learning. Drawing from critical play – the idea that play is an important tool to question social rules – Pfannenstiel explains that what makes Barbie special is that the toy allows children to break out of the gender norms and restrictions we begin to recognize and enforce with age, without children even recognizing this.

“In its simplest form, Barbie is a girl playing with a doll. With the variety of options available, and the ever-increasing inclusive nature of Barbie across jobs, cultural representation, disability representation and so much more, Barbie as a company continued to make money while simultaneously offering up material goods that could increase critical play for those playing,” Pfannenstiel explains. “That is what I think is so unique about Barbie. There is absolutely a capitalist drive to produce a product and accessories that will sell well. In this case, the increase in product offerings increased the ideological explorations possible.”

“The doll as material artifact offers a way for dolls to aid young girls to explore rule breaking, embodiment and cultural ideologies long before they have sophisticated language to explain the work of their play,” she continues.

However, Barbie has also been criticized for contributing to the negative self-image that many young women grow up experiencing, particularly regarding their body shape and size. Pfannenstiel argues that this view must be put into a larger overarching context regarding how society has perceived Barbie and assigns measures for women.

“Prior to Barbie, rags were made into dolls. At the time, culture wasn’t measuring rag dolls and comparing them to feminine body expectations of the time. Society chose to measure and compare Barbie’s build to women,” she explains.

Pfannenstiel adds that this comparison certainly impacted generations of women, and should not be devalued, but Barbie should not be blamed.

“Barbie became the material good used to discipline female bodies to fit societal norms and expectations. Honestly, Barbie is a victim here alongside people from these generations, in my opinion. She served as one more way for society to discipline female bodies.”

Along with the other conversations about gender that Barbie encourages, the upcoming film is advertising itself with the tagline, “She’s everything. He’s just Ken.” All the women in the movie’s fictional world of Barbieland hold positions of power, while Kens are another one of Barbie’s accessories. Pfannenstiel shares that she’s most excited to see how the film handles this subversion of gender norms.

“Myself, my sister and most of my friends maybe had one Ken doll within a household. Some families had no Ken doll. Ken was not required for play. Given that Barbie has been used as a tool of the patriarchy through clothing and body sizing, I find it so powerful that the male doll is so easily dismissed, and honestly ignored by girl players.”

“I am finding it very easy to explain how Barbie has been culturally analyzed as serving patriarchy and capitalism, as long as we ignore play,” she continues. “As soon as we consider what girls gain from play, how girls form communities through cooperative play with Barbie and how play then operates to help players understand themselves, I’m really struggling to see why we’ve ‘read’ Barbie as patriarchal for so long.”

“Saying all that, I also want to offer that my 11-year-old son wants to see the film with me in theaters. Men and boys are not being left out because the focus sheds light on the value of women and girls playing, and playing in spaces where the male is an accessory.”

Pfannenstiel concludes by saying that she hopes “Barbie,” and its depiction of Ken, will allow for cultural conversations about the important effects of playing with Barbies and what this type of play can teach us.

“As a society, we should value the work of play and the work of play with Barbies for how it allows girls to imagine and understand themselves as cultural actors in their everyday life. So much of that work happens without Ken, without a male figure. That should be instructive for what girls need as they grow and mature,” she concludes.

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