Becoming a Barbie-wise mother

(Fetish: object worshipped by primitive peoples for its supposed inherent magical powers or as being inhabited by a spirit).

Parenting books don’t talk about the Barbie thing. They’re full of advice about tantrums and bedwetting and vegetable-aversion, on spending sticky hours with playdough and sleepy ones with storybooks. But when it comes to making an ideological call on toytime’s blonde plastic fetish, you’re on your own.

We resisted as long as we could, which wasn’t long at all. Our then four-year-old femme informed us tragically that any girl without Barbies (note the plural: purchases must be multiple so that visiting friends can play Barbie at the same time as the hostess) was a social pariah.

“What about the huge box of Duplo that kept your brother and his friends so happy when he was your age?” we inquired hopefully. (We like to think of ourselves as an equal-opportunity household.) No go.

Mindful of the psychology studies that say children pick up color-coded messages about which toys are appropriate for each gender, we bought a set of Duplo houseblocks in girly pastel colors. Our princess unwrapped them, swallowed her disappointment long enough to thank us politely, and handed them over to her brother (who did pay attention to the color-coding and never touched them again).

I didn’t get it, this Barbie thing. My childhood had been a Barbie-free zone. I vaguely remember a dolly called Diane dressed in royal blue velvet, whom I carried around out of a sense of duty – I knew little girls were supposed to love them – but in whom I had no real interest. Post-dolly-depression, perhaps. No doubt she came to a bad end.

But my daughter and I trawled through the hot-pink aisles of the local toy department and finally compromised on Dr Barbie, with a white coat and a stethoscope. At least there was an element of positive role modelling, even if the overall effect was of a blonde bimbo from a daytime soap moonlighting as a Chicago Hope wannabe.

Of course, we had to throw in a few disco-glitter minis for the kid, and personally, I couldn’t resist the wedding frock – to the point that, when we finally got home with the feminists’ nemesis, we fought over what to put on her first (mortifying for me, gratifying for my daughter; it proved her point about the need for a reserve bench).

Now I get it. Barbie isn’t about playing mummy to a baby, the way other dollies are. Barbie is about wanting to be a big girl – maybe even a thoroughly modern princess, glamorous and admired – and trying that role on for size. Not too realistically, of course; comedian Wendy Harmer used to do a routine about how Barbie’s teeny-tiny accessories should include itty bitty tampons, but for some reason Mattel has been slow to pick up on the idea …

(Although Barbie has turned out to be a useful starting point for home-based health-and-relationships studies – you start with analyses of the bits she is missing, above and below the waist, and gradually move on to their functions).

I still feel guilty about the doll’s platinum hair and impossible body and the way she encourages the child to be preoccupied with clothes and appearance. I still worry that the doll reduces “womanhood” to something that is shallow and vacuous – and hopelessly unachievable, this side of plastic surgery.

But the doll is only one half of the relationship. She takes a form decided by the wider world, but the spirit that inhabits her is actually the individual child’s, and some important things are worked out in the process.

My daughter is a bit older now, but still young enough to feel quite unselfconscious about bare bodies. She knows, though, that a time will come when her body changes and she will feel differently.

Recently she locked herself in a bathroom, something she has never done before. We inquired as to whether everything was all right. It was. Barbie was having a bubble bath in the hand basin, and “Barbie likes her privacy”.

I get it.

First published in The Age.