Happy Birthday, Barbie!

On March 9, Barbie turns 56, and while the brand has come under a lot of criticism over the years, this is a wonderful time to take a step back and really celebrate her many positive contribution to the lives of girls everywhere.
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On March 9, Barbie turns 56, and while the brand has come under a lot of criticism over the years, this is a wonderful time to take a step back and really celebrate her many positive contribution to the lives of girls everywhere. As we always say, for the billions of Barbie dolls sold -- one every three seconds somewhere in the world, according to Mattel -- everyone is unique because every girl (or boy) brings Barbie to life in her own way.

Barbie has always been the catalyst for imagining possibility and for girls to imagine themselves as teenagers and grown ups, empowered by their imaginations and dreams. She may have started as a teenage fashion model, but she's kept pace with the times, and sometimes led them. In 1985, when the now-classic commercial called "We Girls Can Do Anything. Right, Barbie?" aired, Barbie really embraced her totemic power and was quite literally became the object onto which millions, if not billions, of hopes and dreams were projected. And it wasn't just girls. Tony Award-winning costume designer Gregg Barnes was inspired by Barbie to follow his career path and ultimately designed costumes for a Barbie stage show. We hear so many wonderful stories about Barbie and her positive role in girls' lives. Most of them are not dramatic but are rather cherished memories of playing with friends or alone and allowing imaginations to take flight.

So, it always breaks my heart when I hear Barbie criticized by adults for her proportions or body image or what she purportedly "represents." It always makes me laugh, too, because the people who do this are unwittingly continuing to project onto Barbie, just like kids do. Only this time, it's their own unresolved adult issues. Trust me, after decades working in the toy business and with kids, I can assure you that an inert lump of polyvinyl chloride (mostly) is incapable of teaching or modeling anything. If Barbie "does" anything, it's because someone's imagination has made her do it as a reflection of themselves at a given time. In other words, no one learns anything from a doll; they learn it from the culture and act it out with the doll. Children repeat in their play what they learn from parents, peers and the media, so if you don't like what they're projecting on a toy, it's time to examine what's being modeled and what's being reinforced and internalized as a "truth."

And criticizing Barbie is its own kind of sexism. It assumes that girls and women are neither smart enough nor sophisticated enough to embrace and overcome issues and are victims of an 11-and-three-quarter-inch doll. Ridiculous. After all, when were any negative perceptions of men ever blamed on the action figures they played with? Really. And one final thing, just to put Barbie in perspective, please think of her from a 4-year-old's perspective. Barbie is shaped the way she is because when you're 4 and don't yet have fully developed fine motor skills, Barbie's clothes are a tube that can be slid onto the hunk of plastic, and there's a little ledge you can rest the dress on while you snap it in the back. If that's not reductio ad absurdum, I don't know what is, but it nonetheless is true. And Barbie is supposed to be pretty. Kids like pretty. Kids just don't fantasize about being sick or ugly or "real" from an adult perspective, and any doll that has tried to reflect that has failed. Sometimes when I play with kids, I realize that they have a much greater capacity for abstract thought (imagination) than adults. They don't want or need a doll that looks exactly like them; they want a doll that resonates with their hearts.

So, on Barbie's birthday, how about thinking about all the positive contributions Barbie has made? For nearly three generations, she has been an anchor for positive social development, a catalyst for exploring the possible, for locating oneself in a culture and giving expression to a developing personality. Look at all the Barbie's that Mattel has produced. Have you ever seen one from Prom Queen to Paleontologist that doesn't have some kind of empowering message? No.

While Barbie, and the image of Barbie, may become fixed for each person as they pass into different life stages, she is brand new for each little girl. I was actually a little skeptical about the newest line Barbie in Princess Power at first. Why, I wondered, did Barbie need to become a superhero? And then I observed little girls of the right age interact with her. What became immediately obvious was that there had never been a superhero for preschool girls. (Most female superheroes have really been created as male fantasies previously, anyway.) Superhero play is so empowering for all kids, and here was a superhero with direct relevance with issues related to social interaction and conflict resolution at their level of understanding and experience. It's a long way from the teenager from Willows, Wisconsin, but it's also a wonderful reflection of how much culture and childhood has evolved in 56 years.

Shakespeare was talking about Cleopatra when he wrote "age cannot wither, nor custom stale, her infinite variety," but he could have been talking about Barbie. Barbie is -- and will always be because she can't be anything else -- unfixed in a role or image for everyone and every time. Her life, her "reality" and her magic, rest in the hearts and imaginations of every individual who plays with her. And that's something worth celebrating.