Barbie, the iconic doll of my childhood, celebrated her 60th birthday this year on March 9th. This celebration, a day after International Women’s Day, is cause to pause. This is particularly the case for me. I was well versed in the world of Barbie long before passionately embracing the quest for gender equity. International Women’s Year was not declared and the March 8th day celebrated, until 1975.
The 1908 garment strike for better working conditions for women in the United States precipitated the first National Women’s Day in the United States in 1909. The 1910 Socialist International Meeting in Copenhagen brought the quest for rights for women and suffrage to the international stage. By 1911, the first International Women’s Day marked the right of women to vote, hold public office, work and participate in vocational training in Austria, Denmark, Switzerland and Germany. It would take Nellie McClung and her Manitoba suffragists until 1918 to secure the vote for women in Canada and make it clearly understood that “nice women” did want the vote. Susan B. Anthony would be hard at it, for another two years to secure the right for women to vote in the United States.
My sister had one of the first Barbies. No bendy legs or moving wrists but a doll that brought the promise of the empowerment of being a grown-up who could make all her own decisions. She was pretty and had flipped up hair like our mother. Barbie liked nice outfits, shoes and accessorized, just like our mother, our aunts and our step mother. Her store-bought clothes were expensive, so my grandmother would design and make clothes with the scraps of material from other sewing projects. My grandpa made clothes chests for Barbie and Ken from wooden Japanese orange boxes. My Barbie also had a car, so she was not limited in her travel. My mother did not learn to drive and get her white, Maverick until the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I knew a car meant freedom. Barbie also had a carrying case so I could bring her with me to the park, the beach, houses of cousins, my friends and my father. Her wide range of clothing allowed her to be dressed appropriately for any activity.
It was not until I went off to university and cut my feminist teeth that Barbie fell out of favour with me. I baulked at the notion that society had limited expectations that women should look, act, and present in a deferential way or conform to the expectations of others. By then the slam was no longer that of Manitoba Premier, R.P. Roblin, that “nice women don’t want the vote.” It was the notion that a woman voicing her opinion was less than desirable. A man could assert strong opinions and be celebrated as “assertive”. A woman doing the same thing was labelled with “aggressive”.
As a teacher and a mother, I worried about helping young girls to find their voice and embrace the many opportunities open to them. I bemoaned when my students wrote Barbie adventure stories, especially when I was framed as the Barbie or her friend. I refused to buy my daughter a Barbie. When all she wanted for Christmas was a Barbie, my friends rallied and bought her several “Go, Girl” dolls. I loved them. They came with a themed sports outfits and gear, had flat feet and looked athletic. My daughter politely said thanks for the hiker, the soccer player, and the skier snowboarder dolls. She was clearly not impressed with these dolls, although she loved participating in all of the activities. She was thrilled with the one “real” Barbie from the Fashionista line, with long blonde hair and accessories. She was delighted that my “retro” Barbie collection of clothes and shoes fit her so Barbie could have some variety in her outfits.
As generations of Barbies have emerged, so have the varieties of skin colours, abilities, and interests reflected. There is the notion that little girls need to see themselves reflected in the doll. I don’t refute this. However, my experience is that of my daughter’s selection of “the doll” makes me wonder. I mean the special doll that takes a significance beyond all others. This is the doll elevated to a position of human status. The doll that is cared about, nurtured and even her feelings worried about. For my daughter, this was Ruby. I even feel somewhat guilty referring to her in the past tense. She was an ever-present member of the family who biked the Kettle Valley Railway with us, travelled to through Italy with us, saved our son from a concussion when he fell from the top bunk, and attended weddings with us. Ruby is a Cabbage Patch doll with black skin, short curly hair and brown eyes. The minute my daughter saw her in my friend’s garage, it was clear she was the one. My friend, Jan, saw it immediately and gave her the doll. At that time, Cabbage Patch dolls had seen their day. My fair skin daughter with long blonde hair and blue eyes did not see herself in the doll. Yet, Ruby was the one who allowed learning that my daughter was ready to embraced. She is the one doll that continues to reside in my cedar chest because she is too treasured to part with.
For me, I didn’t want a Barbie that looked like me. I wanted a Barbie who could go out dancing, drive a car, wear nice clothes, walk-in grown-up shoes, and make her own decisions. My frustration with the pace of my physical development wasn’t an issue with looking like Barbie. It was an issue with my cousin, my sister, and my neighbours who looked older than me and could do things that I was not allowed to do. It was people treating me like I wasn’t very smart because I was a pretty little girl with blonde ringlets, a shy demeanor and a goal to please. Barbie was the one with the power in my world. A power that I wanted.
My older sister and I both grew up to be fiercely independent. Our mother, Barbara, chose a different path that most as that time, by choosing to leave a marriage that did not encompass the kind of respect and trust she wanted in a relationship. She taught us that we deserved respect. The financial challenges we lived with taught us the importance of getting a good education and being able to take care of ourselves. Yet my Mom did look like Barbie and did defer to men in a way that women in the secretarial pool did in the 60’s and 70’s. However, she was that person and a “steel magnolia” at the same time. As little girls, we were able to identify where we were going and what we wanted to take with us.
Sixty million barbies are sold in 150 countries each year. The “Go, Girls” dolls went out of business. Clearly the Barbie appeal meets some desire of our girls. Perhaps what Barbie provided for me was the opportunity to explore through play what I wanted to incorporate into my adult life. For me that still includes reading and playing at the beach, working at my own job, me deciding, travel, as well as appropriate clothing, foot ware and accessories for any occasion. I will be curious to see how Barbie contributes to opening up the possibilities our girls. Clearly, she is not going away. Happy International Women’s Day, Barbie.