In October 2017, I had the chance to be at The Strong National Museum of Play as a research fellow collecting data for my Dolls in Focus project aimed at revisiting and expanding the findings of my previous linguistic investigation on dolls’ language. Surprisingly, what I thought would primarily be an exploratory incursion into dolls’ universe from an academic perspective turned out to be a rather touching and personal experience that allowed me to revisit my own childhood memories.
If someone asked you to name the types of toys girls played with, what would you say? Perhaps you would shout out “Barbies” or “baby dolls” or “pink cuddly toys,” right? Those types of toys have long been associated with girls, while trucks, cars, and blue toys made from hard plastic have been associated with boys. Meanwhile, the United States is struggling to understand why girls are not attracted to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects.
In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... the A-Team.
Mothers get their day in May. Fathers are feted in June. And what about sisters and brothers? Their turn comes on April 10—Siblings Day. Siblings Day hasn’t earned recognition as a federal holiday (yet), but since 1998, governors have proclaimed Siblings Day in 49 states. From experience and observation, I know that sibling relationships can take any number of different configurations. And that made me think about the famous siblings that come readily to mind from the world of toys, dolls, and games.
Barbie has raised eyebrows since her debut at the 1959 Toy Fair. Modeled after the German Bild Lilli novelty doll, Barbie provided girls a playroom outlet for their dreams and aspirations. Inventor Ruth Handler knew that girls wanted to play at more than being a mother to life-sized baby dolls, but Mattel executives were skeptical.
The Strong’s research fellowship program not only provides an opportunity for scholars to view rare material in the museum’s collection and archives, but it also expands the potential for the study of play in academia. Being surrounded by the artifacts of play with which we all have experiential knowledge helped me realize the importance of studying play objects and children’s culture. Although my research focuses specifically on Mattel’s historical production of Black Barbie dolls, The Strong reminded me why my research topic is significant.
Earlier this spring, the curators at The Strong gathered up items from the collections for a display we call “What Were They Thinking?” Although no one ever sets out to make a bad toy, the items exhibited included a number of toys, games, and dolls that make us wonder just what their designers and manufacturers thought about child safety, good taste, or the ways kids play.