Barbie is a girl with a Reputation: She's big-breasted, man-mad, and a bad role model. No wonder she is an unwanted guest at some birthday parties, where mothers of 4-year-olds frown at the sight of the dreaded pink box. Barbie's long been in trouble with feminists, educationists, and snooty middle-class parents.
And yet, she's still selling by the millions. When I revisited Europe this year after several years of living (and raising a daughter) in the States, I realized why. Barbie's only problem is an American inferiority complex. In the rest of the world, Barbie is seen as one of the USA's great exports. She is brash and colorful and plastic and American, and she makes proper European craftsmanlike toys seem dull or flawed in comparison. Here's a rundown of the competition:
- The German firm Playmobil makes expensive plastic people. They're very nice toys. But count how many of the figures are women and how many are men. Then check out what the handful of women models are doing—playing tennis, being nurses. The much more numerous men are busy slaying dragons and driving tractors.
- The same thing goes for the ever-popular Danish Lego building sets. One reason Harry Potter Lego was so welcome was that it included a female figure, Hermione—big news in Lego's mostly male universe.
- Brio wooden train sets are aesthetically very pleasing, crafted with care, and have high prices to match their high quality. But children want electric trains and flashy colors and get bored with Brio very quickly. If ever there was a toy bought because the parents like it, this is it, and the neglected boxes in the playroom—representing many hundreds of dollars of investment—are a sad sight.
- Or consider those lovely wooden dollhouses from Europe. They come with families that look strangely old-fashioned—women in knee-length skirts and aprons doing housework. Barbie doesn't do housework and her mansion is an outrageous, nouveau riche dream, not a boring Swedish chalet.
- Among the many popular British toys that come from TV series or books—Thomas the Tank Engine, Bob the Builder, Thunderbirds—there are no substantial female characters, nothing for little girls to identify with.
- The only real competition for Barbie in England is the "Sindy" doll—and she is such a close copy of Barbie that there were lawsuits from Mattel (Barbie's manufacturer). Sindy struggles on, but she cannot be sold in the USA, and she cannot compete with Barbie for the hearts and minds of British girls.
In Seattle, where I raised two kids, mothers say proudly, "My daughter was never interested in Barbie. We don't really care for pink, and we prefer non-stereotyped toys." (Their daughters are always the one who spend the entire play-date at someone else's house fiddling with Barbie's hairdressing salon, while the dolls' owner gets the toy trucks out.) But Barbie is a feminist, the best kind: She's self-actualized, gorgeous, and gets on with life. Ken is an irrelevancy—far less important than Barbie's friends, interests, and careers (which range from dinosaur hunter to doctor to film star).
Barbie is cheap and cheerful. There are many Barbies for under $10, and you can usually find one (currently Surf City Barbie) on sale for $4.99. But, the complaints continue, what about the cost of the clothes and accessories? Well, any child who saves her allowance can buy herself a boxful of Barbie getups at a garage sale: Girls grow out of them and they last forever. And at the risk of sounding too Little House on the Prairie, the two generations of girls with whom I am most familiar made things for their Barbies. Of course they liked to buy pink plastic junk, but at home it's easy to make clothes and shoebox rooms for Barbie: You don't even have to be able to sew, you can glue clothes together.
The age of Barbie users has fallen drastically. Girls used to play with them into their early teens, but modern girls are ready to give them away by around 8. I'd defend Barbie for any age group, but it is especially hard to imagine her doing any harm to these little ones. They're playing with a glam big sister who looks good, has fun with her buddies, does wild and exciting things, comes in every race and color imaginable, and has a great job (paleontologist Barbie wore the neatest shorts as she looked for fossils). European families have no problem with their daughters emulating a happy, confident, good-looking, American girl. Patriotic homegrown parents could learn to love her too.