Play Stuff Blog

Life in Plastic: It’s Not Just Barbie  

Masquerade Barbie, 1963. The Strong, Rochester, New York.

Like many Americans, I have been home with my children 24/7 for nearly six weeks. The experience has become an independent study for my job as a curator responsible for toys and dolls. I see how my kids interact with their toys and dolls and reflect on what these playthings teach my children. Adding to the mix, my mom has also started to drop off boxes of my childhood playthings, including a bin of Barbie dolls.

Barbie has generated criticism since her inception in 1959. She has embodied the epitome of popular gender expectations (and shifts in popular culture) for more than 60 years. In the 2018 documentary Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie, Gloria Steinem affirmed that for her team at Ms. magazine and their progressive readers, Barbie was “everything we didn’t want to be, but were being told to be.” As an American girl growing up in the 1980s, I think Steinem missed the mark in the 1970s with her contention that Barbie has been a metaphor for a culture that is fixated on female appearance. I loved to play with Barbie. She had adventures, conversations with friends, careers—I got to invent her story and it never had to do with her proportions. Yet, the media has consistently told Barbie how she should look. If you believe that Barbie is to blame for low self-esteem, here are two other modern dolls that can help to shoulder that burden.

Shibajuku Girls, Courtesy of The Toy Insider Through Creative Commons Attribution. Created by Madeleine Hunter, Shibajuku Girls hit the market in 2016. Inspired by Japanese Harajuku and Shibuya street fashions, Shibajuku Girls embodied kawaii, the Japanese word for cute that has connotations of vulnerability, lovability, youth, and innocence. Kawaii culture emerged from student protests of prescribed academics in Japan in the late 1960s. In the following decades, kawaii became a subculture expressed by childish products. Some scholars believe that Japanese women used cute to deny female sexuality and portray submission, while others argue that girls used cuteness to throw of the strict formalism of Japanese culture. In a New York Times article, Brian J. McVeigh, a scholar of East Asian Studies, explained that “cuteness is used to soften up the vertical society . . . to soften power relations and present authority without being threatening.” Some parents might venture to say that the big eyes, pigtails, kitten-themed knee-highs, and pink ruffles of the Shibajuku Girls prove too suggestive for young girls. Hunter told the Daily Mail that she “went back to that really natural and pretty face . . . there are a lot of monster dolls and vampires are a huge trend, but since Barbie there hasn’t really been a pretty doll.” Hunter’s sentiment seems like the antithesis of the feminist values many modern parents are instilling in their children.

L.O.L. Surprise! O.M.G. Royal Bee, 2019. The Strong, Rochester, New York. Also, in 2016, MGA Entertainment introduced L.O.L. Surprise! dolls. The company’s website describes the series as “a world where babies run everything, little Rockers rebel against nap time and Teacher's Pets become class presidents with ʻFree Pizza Fridays!’ In this world, all work is play and nothing is dull cuz it's all a lil' surprising and outrageous!” L.O.L. Surprise! grew to include boys, tiny toys, pets, accessories, and play sets, among other items. In 2019, the company released L.O.L. Surprise! O.M.G. dolls (Outrageous Millennial Girls). The line included Lady Diva, Royal Bee, Neonlicious, and Swag. O.M.G. dolls came packaged in a box that featured a darkened silhouette of the doll. When the side of the box was slid open, the doll’s personality and full figure were revealed. Royal Bee, for example, exclaimed that “I run the world. I create my own buzz.” Meanwhile Neonlicious asserted, “Bright colors. City lights. Selfie or it didn’t happen. Always extra.” In a press release, Isaac Larien, CEO and Founder of MGA Entertainment, touted “L.O.L. Surprise! O.M.G. dolls represent what has been lacking in the market today—real fashion dolls that are on-trend and relatable to kids.” Just a few months earlier, Victoria Bianchi told the Daily Mail she confiscated her four-year-old daughter’s L.O.L. Surprise! cards, claiming that they portrayed images of toddler-like dolls dressed “like prostitutes and wearing BDSM gear.” The trading card Bianchi referred to showed L.O.L. Surprise! doll Goo-Goo Queen, a toddler-like character dressed in a crop-top, hot pants, fishnet tights, leather jacket, and high-knee boots. This is not your mother’s Barbie, but it does reflect current fashions worn by many popstars. Kids’ lives are constantly infiltrated by images of Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, and Lizzo.

Patty and Debbie Aiello and Barbie Doll, 1962, gift of Carolyn Reno in memory of Tom and Nan Reno. The Strong, Rochester, New York. Despite the piling on by cultural critics and observers, when I look at these dolls, I see opportunities for play with creativity and individuality. I do not see the audacious pursuit of beauty or sexuality. Dolls have always reflected current trends and it’s up to parents to shape the messages these playthings convey. I will use fashion dolls as a tool to teach my kids that nobody has the right to tell you that you need to look a certain way to be acceptable. You’re awesome just the way you are.