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Barbie girls play rough

Barbie at 50
Barbie is celebrating her Golden Anniversary

Her real name is Barbie Millicent Roberts and she is 50 years old.

She has been an icon to millions, but is an object of controversy for feminists.

But do all little girls love their Barbie doll? Author Dr Agnes Nairn reveals some surprising research about the blonde-haired doll.

We simply gave groups of primary school children a picture of a Barbie doll and asked them whether the doll should be counted as a "cool" or "not cool" thing to buy.

The ensuing discussions were passionate and fierce and we realised that we had not only stumbled into a turbulent inner child's world but also a ferocious billion euro rivalry between two toy companies.

It is natural for dolls to evoke strong feelings. For many people, our closest toy, doll or teddy bear, stays with us for life, whether in memory, in the attic or passed down to the next generation.

However, the reaction of these contemporary girls was not quite what we expected.

She "should be a human", as one girl put it, but clearly for the children she is not. Losing any individual warmth she might have promised, Barbie symbolises excess and disposability
Quite simply, far from being loved, Barbie provoked reactions of rejection, hatred and violence. The reactions were quick. One girl immediately responded "Urgh, no, please turn the page, no, please!"

A second joined in, saying: "That is so not cool! Ugggh!"

A third pleaded: "Turn the next page, so not cool at all!" Another simply said "no!"

Maiming, decapitation

But it did not stop there. The girls went on to share, one after another, how they had turned their dislike of the doll into play where they tortured their Barbie. Maiming, decapitation and being put in the microwave were just some of the punishments used.

Sold as cute, feminine and beautiful, Barbie was dropped out of windows, burnt, broken and had her hair shaved off. One girl seemed to sum up the situation: "I still have loads of them so I can torture them." Her friend agreed: "Me too, coz they're not particularly cool unless you torture them."

Even though some of the girls actually did play with Barbies, there was an agreed code that it was not cool to admit to enjoying playing with them. Playing with Barbie was presented as a last resort option, rather than a toy of choice.

For most, this was a toy they felt they had outgrown - as though disavowing Barbie was a rite of passage and a rejection of their past. As one girl, age seven, said: "I think I am a bit old for Barbie now. I have got a whole box of them but… they're under my bed."

Barbie in 1959
The original Barbie doll sold for $3
In a commercial world where kids are encouraged to grow up fast, Barbie is hated because she is babyish. She is hated also, because, although promising to be a playmate or friend, to love and be loved in return, she is a commodity. There is no magic, only betrayal.

While Barbie masquerades as a person, she actually exists in multiple selves. The children never talked of one, single, special Barbie. She was always referred to in the plural. Most children not only had more than one Barbie, they had a box of Barbies: and not just a box, a very large box. A box is a place to put things, not a cherished friend.

Barbie has become inanimate, an 'it'. She "should be a human", as one girl put it, but clearly for the children she is not. Losing any individual warmth she might have promised, Barbie symbolises excess and disposability. When they talked about owning a Barbie, the implication was always one of excess - having too many Barbies.

But having too many Barbies is, of course, just what the marketers at Mattel want, particularly when there's a new kid on the block. MGA entertainment's older, sexier, sassier, doe-eyed Bratz dolls began to take the little girl world by storm just as we started to write our book.

And as I write this the two corporations are battling in the courtrooms...


Consumer Kids by Ed Mayo and Agnes Nairn looks at the slew of time children now spend as consumers. This world of consumer kids is not just about toys, shopping and advertising, but about playgrounds, streets, bedrooms, friendships children make and the new technologies they embrace.




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