Barbie dolls may be intended for girls but they’re an opportunity for dads to engage in supportive play with their daughters too.
To many dads, a ‘barbie’ is something you use in the summer to incinerate meat. But when Mattel invited me to try out their latest range of Barbie dolls it provided an opportunity to strengthen my bond with Kara.
Barbie has been around for the best part of 60 years – she still doesn’t look a day over 25 – and, even if you’re equipped with XY chromosomes, it’s hard not to be aware of her cultural impact. Mattel have sold over a billion dolls and their success has spawned both a slew of competitors from Sindy to Bratz as well as a never-ending stream of pop culture references, from the Toy Story films to The Simpsons‘ Malibu Stacy and Aqua’s chart-topping song Barbie Girl.
Even so, my knowledge of Barbie is sketchy. I’m aware of past controversies surrounding an unhealthy body image with young girls. (It’s estimated that a life-size Barbie would have vital statistics of 36-18-33.) Not to mention a slowness to embrace cultural diversity and expanding career opportunities for modern women.
Kara, however, is 4½ and knows nothing of such things. What she did know was that a big box of goodies had arrived for her and when she opened it she was excited by its contents: four new Barbies.
Although she has not previously been one to play with dolls, she was soon playing with her new toys with no small amount of enthusiasm and quickly picked up on the fact they were different types. Two were more ‘traditional’ fashion-based models but we also had a skateboarder and a scientist complete with her own microscope.
As much as she loves dressing up, Kara’s really more of an all-action tomboy at heart. So it was interesting to see that she was most drawn to the skateboarder.
On closer examination, I was pleased to discover that modern Barbie also embraces ethnic diversity and a more realistic range of body types. While one of the fashion Barbies was of classic catwalk model proportions, the other was a more ‘normal’ shape. And ‘scientist Barbie’ may have boasted long blonde tresses but her thighs were noticeably – what’s the polite way of putting this? – chunky. All four wore flat shoes as well – no six-inch stilettos or ridiculous platforms here.
Also included in our box were a couple of accessory packs – kitchen equipment and a pet dog set – which added to the fun. For a girl who has never really engaged with traditional girls’ toys much, Kara was quite taken with it all and didn’t seem to think it odd in the slightest when it was daddy rather than mummy who got down on the floor to play with her.
I have to admit I rather enjoyed it. Unlike the boys, Kara is not naturally inclined towards imaginative play (neither am I) but we both shared a lot of laughs role-playing together. Scientist Barbie became a doctor treating sick patients. Skateboard Barbie was out having the kind of adventures that in years gone by only boys might have explored. Having said that, her favourite scenario seemed to involve a puppy attempting to go full Rottweiler on one of the fashionista Barbies. Hey, whatever works.
It’s a good stimulus for Kara’s creativity and the variety of dolls gives her different options for role-playing and role-modelling that led to some interesting discussions about what she might want to do one day. It’s in keeping with the range’s contemporary motto of ‘you can be anything’. It also gave me some real insights into the way her mind works in a way that watching her play iPad games doesn’t.
Overall, both father and daughter were pleased with their new acquisitions. The dolls themselves have articulated limbs and seem well constructed. And with multiple dolls, costume options and accessories available, the only limit is a child’s imagination (and her father’s wallet).
Guys and dolls
As a footnote, I’ve always been a strong proponent of breaking down gender stereotypes. In just the same way that I want Kara to feel empowered and to believe she can be anything she wants, I want the boys to feel similarly unencumbered by notions of ‘boys’ toys’.
For a long time in his pre-school years, Isaac was obsessed with all things pink – something we never felt any need to discourage. As much as Kara enjoyed playing with her new Barbie dolls, both boys, if anything, were even more enthusiastic. Toby (who has never liked pink) soon paired the dolls with an old shape-sorter toy that we have been intending to get rid of. Lo and behold, we now have the ‘Barbie bus’.
Isn’t that how all toys should be? Yes, Barbie is always going to appeal more to girls. But if the dolls encourage imaginative play and exploration from any child, whether male or female, so much the better in my book.
Mattel have produced this video depicting real dads using Barbie as a means of stimulating their daughters’ imaginations and to strengthen the father/daughter connection. What right-thinking father wouldn’t want to play dolls with their little princesses, eh?
It has taken me 40-odd years to make Barbie’s acquaintance but I’m rather glad I did. If it helps strengthen the already close relationship between Kara and me, I’m all for it. Bring on play-time!
Disclosure: I was provided with products for free in exchange for writing this post and promoting the #DadsWhoPlayBarbie campaign. However, all opinions are my own.