Barbie dolls have been the subject of scrutiny and controversy ever since Barbie and her posse of friends and family were introduced fifty years ago – and with good reason. Barbie’s unrealistic body proportions and consumerist, frivolous lifestyle gained national media attention when the Feminist movement brought the issue to the mainstream during the 1970’s. Parents and other interested adults were rightly concerned that Barbie would perpetuate patriarchal notions about boobs, butts and (minimal) brains and encourage tendencies toward endless shopping for outfits with coordinating accessories. If there was an outcry among men who were distressed by perpetuating the notion that men should be neutered and under female domination, the message never received serious attention. When a British artist produced Dungeon Barbie in bondage outfits in 2002, a Mattel tried to issue an injunction.
As someone who played with Barbie, Midge, Skipper and Scooter extensively while growing up in the sixties, I can say with certainty that GI Joe provided an attractive male alternative to Ken. There may have been controversy surrounding the idea that GI Joe was an early recruitment vehicle for the military industrial complex who perpetuated macho stereotypes. Nevertheless, no matter what any of the adults had to say about the subject and regardless of the manufacturer’s intentions, Barbie remained a naked slut in a pink convertible. As an early childhood educator with twenty-five years in the classroom and two advanced degrees, I maintain that naked sluts are a cause for celebration.
Early Childhood Educators know that the single most important aspect of child development between the ages of 0 – 7 years is play. Through play, children establish relationships, acquire language, and make sense of the adult world. When infants and children interact with their environment and subsequently the adults in that environment in order to successfully meet their needs, they exercise and strengthen essential critical skills, such as observation and evaluation, particularly in the area of making sense of grown-ups and their expectations. As children gain cognitive, physical and verbal abilities, they play games to test adults. A familiar example is seen when a kid is in the high chair and repeatedly drops something on the floor for the adult to pick up and put back on the tray. While discovering the reality that an item still exists even when you can’t see it, a concept described by Piaget as Object Permanence, the child engages in a social experiment to see how many times s/he can toss the cup onto the floor before the grown-up’s head explodes.
The child is not a sinister menace determined to drive the caregiver insane, although at times the adult may be convinced this is exactly the case. The kid is just playing, and adults must respond accordingly. Certainly, adults can be forgiven for losing their temper with little kids every now and then, but we should always reflect on our behavior. The good news is that any time an adult’s head explodes over something a little kid did, we have a window into the adult’s emotional gestalt. Interacting with kids, particularly your own kids, potentially provides a corrective, healing experience for adults who can then become more relaxed and accepting individuals.
When infants become preschoolers, we hear them making sense of the adult world by listening to the conversations they have with themselves or with their peers when they are playing. Clear illustrations of young children’s thinking about their world are seen in the Pretend play scenarios. As the lead teacher for a group of fifteen 3 ½ and 4 year-olds, I was able to closely observe pretend play scenarios created by a small group of girls during free play in the mornings and on the playground which typically centered on the Disney Princesses. Personally, I think the Disney Princesses are so much more damaging to children than Barbie ever was that we could easily conclude that the Disney Princesses are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. What is pertinent to this discussion, however, is that girls who prefer Barbie may exhibit higher order critical thinking than those who prefer Disney Princesses.
In this classroom were seven girls – four of whom wanted to play princesses the minute they got to school in the morning. The girls had the DVDs and they had plenty of merchandise. Disney Princesses were plastered over everything from bike helmets and backpacks to Pull-Ups. The girls would run into the classroom every morning and declare which princess they were going to be that day.
“I’m Belle,” one would say.
“I’m Sleeping Beauty,” exclaimed another. Or Cinderella or Arielle.
A girl I’ll call The Mermaid dominated the Princesses. She tried to get out of clean-up time once by saying, “I’m a Mermaid and mermaids don’t clean. We sit on rocks and sing.” Although The Mermaid knew how to say hurtful things to other children to make them cry, she could not recognize the letters in her own name until after her fourth birthday.
During free play times in the classroom, the other girls did not participate in the Princess play scenario. One, who I will call, Giggles, tended to choose individual activities such as painting or looking at books, while Math Girl and Pup gravitated to the block area. Through observing the children at play, as well as by making note of comments made during individual group discussions with their students, teachers gain insight into a child’s learning style. During a group discussion at Circle Time, a teacher was counting four plastic eggs with the group, and Math Girl pointed out that once she cracked them open, there were eight pieces not four eggs. This comment showed not only that Math Girl was one step ahead of the teacher, but also that she had the confidence in her own assessment and was willing to take a social risk by sharing her observations. The Mermaid, on the other hand, wanted to hold the pink one.
One day, when the Princesses were deciding who would be Belle, Cinderella, Ariel or Jasmine, Math Girl came over and said, “I’m Barbie.” The girls immediately accepted her into the gang, and they played cheerfully all morning. At the time, I thought it was interesting that the “Smart Girl” wanted to be Barbie instead of a princess. I later observed a difference in the behaviors of the two groups of girls at naptime. Three princesses settled easily into sleep just like they were supposed to. The Mermaid got friendly with the assistant teacher who monitored the class during naptime, and they spent the hour whispering together and combing each other’s hair. Pup, Giggles and Math Girl all masturbated.
Now, in any group of 10 or more very young children, there will be at least one masturbator. Sometimes they masturbate during more active playtimes; sometimes they masturbate as a self-soothing technique at naptime. As a teacher, I am content to ignore masturbating when it’s quiet and limited to rest time. We don’t have our hands in our pants at circle time, for example, because that sort of activity is private. Pretty much everything that goes on in your pants is a private activity unless there is a Situation that requires adult intervention and assistance. Since Masturbating is common in the early childhood classroom, I was not surprised to see a couple of the kids with their hands between their legs. I was surprised because there seemed to be a correlation between individual preferences displayed during free play and masturbation.
I was further surprised a month or so later, when one of the girls discovered she could hump the hell out of the round, plastic head of a baby dolls from the house corner. It was Math Girl – who liked Barbie. The other teacher and I watched in amazement at her advanced technique. Normally, we give the girls a few minutes and say that their babies have to rest too. There’s a limit to what you can do at school, after all. That day, however, we were so flabbergasted that we were curious to see how long it would continue, and besides, it was pretty funny. All three of us – the two teachers and Math Girl – were lucky that the nap assistant was out of the classroom at the time because she took a punitive stance about most everything, masturbating in particular, and told the girls they were going to hurt themselves.
When I started reflecting on Barbie and Sexuality, I remembered the scenarios my sister and I developed with GI Joe and all the Barbies behind the bushes in the backyard where a fully clothed G I Joe was a Playboy Magazine photographer surrounded by naked women. They weren’t doing anything besides taking pictures since neither my sister nor I had a clue what grown-ups did when they were naked, except take baths and get their pictures taken for Playboy Magazine. Similarly, when my son was about five years-old, the seven year-old girl across the hall brought over her Barbies and Ken. They proceeded to get the dolls naked and put them into the bathroom sink, which had become a Jacuzzi for the occasion. Again, neither my son nor the neighbor had any idea regarding the mechanics specific to adult sex, but they had a pretty good idea about the sort of things grown-ups like to do when they get naked.
Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky theorized that children acquire the cultural expectations about behavior in their society through play, in a process he called Enculturation. Despite the justifiably objections to Barbie’s physique and shopping habits, Barbie does allow children to explore the mysterious concept of Sexuality under natural, emotionally safe conditions. Since we know that children make sense of the adult world through play, and since Barbie’s physical design mirrors the idea of beauty put forth by the advertising industry which has been saying, “Sex sells,” for decades – it is no wonder that young children would organically act out cultural expectations about sexuality with a doll conveniently available in stores throughout the land.
Regardless of the original intention, Barbie has empowered young children to take control and master their own sexual ideas and impulses. Given that children play with anything they have at hand, whether it’s toilet paper, kitchen pots or a huge, pink plastic Barbie Dream House – it would be just as easy for children to employ Disney Princesses in the same way they use Barbie. But you never see Sleeping Beauty driving around naked in a pink convertible. Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella wait patiently for the Prince. Ariel, Jasmine and Belle may take a more active and minimally rebellious role when they are finding and securing the prince, but they still follow a path that has been defined and prescribed by a patriarchal culture. In all cases, the Prince follows his established role too, and we rarely learn whether he likes it or not.
Barbie, on the other hand, can go to school, work, stay home or go out into the world – and get naked with her gal pals and a few nonthreatening fellows whenever she feels like it. That is Choice and Empowerment. If children grow up to be mindless consumers, it’s not Barbie’s fault. We can trace consumer behavior to the grown-ups in the children’s primary environment.