My 20-year-old daughter became quite indignant listing in the car to radio discussions about the new Barbie film. Did the doll create image problems for young girls? Should it promote feminism? Was the film accepting Chinese control of the South China Sea?
As I listened, I could see her point. Are culture-war-obsessed adults in danger of drowning out the joy and creativity children can have playing with dolls, or that young adults can have in remembering their childhoods?
I fully accept that a doll can have some influence on children’s perceptions of normal, but let’s be realistic. I remember my surprise as a 7-year-old when a doll with dark skin appeared in our house. However, I also remember how my daughter ignored Barbie’s appearance and used and adapted her Barbie dolls to fit in with what she wanted.
She got two Barbie’s one Christmas – one of these she christened ‘Ballerina’ and the other identical female doll became a boy called ‘Tom’. When I put her to bed I would watch as she got Ballerina and Tom playing together, often irritating her because I could not work out which one was Tom. Eventually she drew a small green moustache on Tom so that I could tell them apart, but her imagination was in control and she was shaping the dolls to meet her needs.
Tom and Ballerina stayed with her for several years, even going on holiday with us to Scotland where she lost Ballerina in Holyrood House. Luckily, we were rescued by the security staff who put out a radio message to search all rooms and Ballerina was recovered safely.
The Barbie film provoked nostalgia in my daughter and myself. She told me that she used her dolls most evenings to act out scenarios from books, school or TV, apparently including one occasion where Ballerina and Tom had to decide whether to have an abortion. (Perhaps we were lax in supervising her TV viewing.) She would report that playing with dolls was a great way of letting her imagination take control and allowed her to explore issues. She told me that girls just like dressing up dolls and doing make-up, etc, that femininity and feminism are not mutually exclusive.
Perhaps, we old people should just relax and let the young people enjoy their nostalgic reunion with Barbie.
Arnold is a retired teacher from Belfast.