Say yes to female empowerment, and give a Barbie girl a break!

     Barbie dolls are shown at a Walmart store in Robinson Township, Pa. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, file)

    Barbie dolls are shown at a Walmart store in Robinson Township, Pa. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, file)

    Say what you want about the Barbie doll’s out-of-proportion female physique, but give her credit for a strong back and shoulders.

    After all, the poor girl’s been carrying around the combined weight of American female insecurity for at least four decades now, and she’s still standing tall. (And in high heels, naturally.)

    Earlier this week, an EssayWorks contributor criticized the Girl Scouts of America’s “Be Anything” merit badge, dismissing it as a glitter-washed Mattel branding effort only meant to encourage girls to buy Barbie products.

    While I agree with her take on the creepy corporate synergy that begat this misguided attempt at female empowerment, I can’t blame Barbie. As with any other product, ever-changing public sentiment is the wind that steers the ship of Barbie’s sales, and right now even the whiff of “girl power” is enough to move units, regardless of quality.

    Just ask the makers of those GoldieBlox building toys, which were marketed to girls with messaging, packaging and branding every bit as savvy and aggressive as, say, the Barbie Dream House. Except, in the weird world of “empowered” little girls, it’s OK for your daughter to engineer, design and build the dollhouse, but not for her Barbies to live in it as princess, queen or Mom. Because in our attempts to undo decades of gender-normative role messaging, we’re instead heaping a whole other set of rigid norms upon little girls.

    These days, it’s OK to be a princess, but only if she also kicks butt, rejects traditional gender roles, starts a business or takes other fully “empowered” action. It’s OK for Disney heroines to be pretty, but not too beautiful, lest they become classified as just another surrendered princess waiting on her Prince Charming.

    I wonder if it’s actually helping, or just creating a newer category of one-dimensional female role models for our girls to imitate.

    I survived childhood; so will other little girls

    Like the writer of this week’s Barbie-phobic piece, I grew up playing with the dolls, even as I took note of their physical dissimilarity to any actual woman I’d ever seen. The scenarios and adventures my best friend and I invented for our dolls were reflective of our times — we were both children of the 1970s, so Barbie was a Charlie’s Angel-style crimefighter, or a police detective, or a beautiful prom queen in a Qiana wrap dress like my older sister.

    And also like the writer of the earlier essay, I somehow managed to grow up to be a successful, educated woman with a fairly well developed sense of self and no more than my share of body image issues.

    Yet unlike her, I didn’t feel the need to create a no-Barbies rule in my house when it came time to have children around. My plastic BFF is still in my life: As I write this, a trio of dolls (Penn State Cheerleader Barbie, Barbie For President 2004 and Millennium Bride 2000 Barbie) look down on me from a shelf.

    The only message ingrained on my mind from my years as a Barbie girl was that it is possible for a woman to be and do whatever she chooses, and to look fantastic while doing it. In my world, a biochemist Barbie’s ability to discover a cure for cancer isn’t lessened by wearing stilettos with her lab coat.

    Holding on to old ideas of ‘beauty’

    Today, though, the message to little girls seems to be that being conventionally beautiful will somehow undermine and cheapen your success — a destructive message, itself, it seems to me. And as our idea “conventional beauty” evolves away from just blondes with perky hair and blue eyes, why does Barbie’s California Girl look still bug us?

    Clearly, it’s the breast-to-waist ratio. Those “Monster High” dolls look like goth kids on a weekend bender, and American Girl dolls come out of a factory in China, but Barbie’s bodacious breasts and tiny waist are the real threat here!

    OK, then.

    Funny, I don’t remember anyone ever asking whether my son’s Lego guys present a realistic portrayal of male human anatomy.

    Girls and women can be, and are, smart and beautiful — whatever “beautiful” means to them — at the same time. Why are we afraid of that?

    When my nieces were younger and I kept a toy box at my house for their visits, both WNBA Barbie and her Malibu-tanned, swimsuited gal pal were in it. My nieces were girls of the late ’90s, so their Barbies’ adventures reflected that time — the dolls were environmental warriors and video vixens and athletes.

    When my son was a toddler, those dolls were still in the toy box, and he’d play with them in the rare moments when SpongeBob Squarepants didn’t have his full attention. He’s 12 now, and I suspect our culture’s oversexualization of ever-younger female stars will have skewed his view of womanhood and femininity more than any near-Barbie experience could have.

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