Day 27: The Uncomfortable Truth About My Daughter’s Favorite Toys

By Farah Miller

glitter-handsWhen I was a kid I had approximately 15 different Barbie dolls, plus a Ken and a couple Skippers. I had a car and a house for them, a plastic box filled with outfits and tiny high heels. I didn’t own one of those oversized Barbie heads you could put makeup on, but that was okay because I monopolized my friends’ during playdates.

Then, somewhere between my childhood and becoming a mom myself, Barbie and I had a quiet, but vicious, breakup.

I didn’t even realize how mad I was at her — Barbie, I mean — until my mother-in-law brought a new one into my home for my daughter, who was 3 years old at the time. She was a dolphin trainer, this Barbie. Her wetsuit was a hot pink body part, made out of plastic like the rest of her, not an outfit my daughter could take off and play with. She had no waist. I don’t mean she had a tiny waist, like all Barbies did. She literally had a hollowed out waist area because that was where her dolphin training apparatus (two pink hoola hoops!) locked onto her. And, of course, she came with two dolphins, each of whom had big eyes and eyelashes painted on. They were dolphins with fake mascara.

“I really wish you’d asked me before you bought her a Barbie,” I told my mother-in-law, who, to her credit, seemed sorry that she’d bought a toy for my kid that I didn’t approve of and aware that my frustration with it had to do with feminism.

“But,” she countered, “she’s a professional. I thought you’d like that she is a career woman.”

Instead of explaining that what bothered me most about this doll was that she wasn’t age-appropriate because I couldn’t teach a three-year-old that real women don’t look like this … “woman,” I started plotting how to get rid of the thing.

strawberry-costume-2And yet, dolphin trainer Barbie stuck around our apartment for almost a year. My little girl loved playing with that doll. She tried to take her out of the house with us – to the playground, to the corner store, to school. All I felt when I looked at her was shame. I couldn’t stand being the mom whose toddler had a Barbie. It was bad enough to me that a year earlier, my daughter had been gifted a Strawberry Shortcake doll who looked nothing like the Strawberry Shortcake I remembered from the 80s. New Strawberry was not round or jolly. New Strawberry had a tiny body and a huge head with giant spaced out eyes. She was Barbified. But, my daughter loved her, and she came everywhere with us. Until dolphin trainer Barbie.

Finally, I came up with the brilliant idea of making Barbie live IN THE BATHTUB. Because aha! She is a dolphin trainer! She is a water toy! And once I moved her in there, it was only a matter of time before she faced the demise so many bath-toys face – death by mold. Bwahahaha.

Strawberry, on the other hand, has never gone away. My daughter is six now, goes to kindergarten, and we are on Strawberry number six, who my little girl pretty much never leaves home without. (Numbers one through five suffered fates such as losing limbs, being left at an airport, and accidental abandonment on a playground.) We also own mini versions of Strawberry’s besties, like Lemon and Cherry.

I wish Strawberry looked more like old-school Strawberry, instead of being one of the sexualized toys girls are presented with these days. I also wish my daughter had an interest in Legos that weren’t princess Legos – sets that came with Rapunzel or Elsa. Or, that she had a fraction of the interest in Star Wars that she had in Frozen .

Because I listened to “Free to Be You and Me,” as a kid, grew up with a badass single mom, and Sassy Magazine told teenage me itme-and-z was not only cool, but vital, to call myself a feminist. I want my daughter, and now her baby sister too, to know that she doesn’t need to be rescued, and nobody’s eyes are bigger than their waist. All of which is why I find princess culture deeply frustrating.

The thing is – this daughter is exactly like me. Not the 39-year-old me, filled with skepticism and concern. Kid me. The one who had the 15 Barbies, who loved dance class and costumes and fairy tales, too. I don’t remember being into Legos, and the uncomfortable truth is that I maybe would have been if they were purple and pink.

The latest doll to enter our lives is an American Girl doll named Rebecca Rubin. The brand launched in 1986, and became popular
with 90s kids, so I missed that wave in my childhood. I understand that it’s become something of a monster now, with a focus on “lookalike” dolls that children can dress up like over more educational dolls who come with backstories meant to educate their owners about American history. The first time I walked into a store I broke out in a cold sweat and couldn’t figure out what to look at first. But by my third visit, I paid ten bucks for Rebecca Rubin to get her hair done, and let my daughter buy her ice skates. Because ohmygoodness, fun.

We also do have a couple Barbies in the house now, who don’t have to live in the bathtub. Both were gifts. I can’t say I fully approve yet, but I am excited to check out the new dolls with some actual curves and different heights. It looks like Barbie and I might be on the mend.

As for Strawberry, she and Rebecca came with us on a vacation to Disneyland last week. I stood in line for 40 minutes before we could go into the Royal Hall to meet Belle, Ariel and Cinderella. We took photos. My kid was so nervous and happy and, for a moment, I stopped trying to reconcile being a feminist with being a girly girl’s mom. I pretended we really were in a castle meeting royalty. I always loved play-acting. I felt what it would be like to be a 6-year-old meeting these gorgeous women in sparkling gowns.

disneylandMy daughter got the princess’s autographs in a Minnie Mouse-themed souvenir book that she brought to school today. She is becoming an excellent reader and writer, who loves coming up with games that involve writing programs or tickets or signs – all imaginative activities I was drawn to also, and make me very proud. She showed each of the pages she had her friends sign as part of playing “Autograph,” and told me that her friend Josie doesn’t actually like princesses.

“Well, that’s OK,” I said, wondering if Josie’s mom had some better way of raising a girl than I did.

“I know… It’s cool,” my six-year-old said back, in a tone that told me she believes it is no big deal at all to have a friend who doesn’t care much for princesses even when you do. Which turned out to be all I needed to hear. Very cool, indeed.

2 Responses to Day 27: The Uncomfortable Truth About My Daughter’s Favorite Toys

  • So great. I was raised with brothers and had no interest in dolls growing up (much to my mother’s dismay) I have 3 doll-obsessed daughters now. We’ve had very frank discussions about Barbies and how they look, and I’m gaining confidence in my ability to raise strong feminist girls who can still like to play with Barbies.

  • Carson says:

    My husband and I struggle daily with the ambivalence you raise here. My question is why we “wish she had a fraction of the interest in Star Wars that she had in Frozen.” “War” is right in the title, and it’s geared around technology, battle, shooting, etc. It is dominated by male heroic characters with Lea as a side note. Why would this be preferable? There is some discourse about “gun culture” with boys, but we don’t generally discourage them from loving cars, which are polluting the planet. I’ve changed from thinking it’s feminist to discourage princesses to thinking it’s anti-feminist, since it’s sending a message to girls that what they like is wrong, and that to be approved of and accepted, they should be more like boys. As you note about your own evolution from Barbie lover to feminist, girls who are encouraged to do a variety of things and have strong female role models in real life pass through this developmental phase of loving princesses and mature into more nuanced views when the time is right.

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