Hey, what do you know, it’s time for the annual intersection of culture, consumerism, privilege, gender, guilt, and opinions, accompanied by an orchestra of commercial jingles, cash register rings, and Salvation Army bells. I’ve already seen several articles and blog posts arguing about the evils and redeeming features of various toys, as little symbols and child-size servings of our societal dysfunctions.
It’s a rich mine for (self-)reflection. Today’s topic: princess culture, and parental guilt. Our symbol and meditation focus: Mattel’s “Walk Lively Miss America” Barbie doll, 1972. Because, you see, my mother had sworn never to get me a Barbie doll. Barbie was both tool and symbol of cultural oppression. But if my grandma (mom’s own mom) got the memo, she didn’t care; so for Christmas 1972 Miss America was under the Christmas tree, waiting for me.
My parents were of a generation full of hope that our world would march forward and come to its senses. Wealth could be spread more justly, gender and race inequalities had no basis in reason and logic, we had the technology to provide a better life for everyone around the globe so surely we would roll up our sleeves and do it. They most definitely weren’t hippies, mind you: they were mentally built around principles of work ethic, personal responsibility, and fairness. They were both the eldest children of their respective families, and in turn I was their first child, so there was always this sense of having to set an example.
They raised me and my siblings to believe utterly and completely in equality. Not “Women are people too,” not “Brown-skinned folks are people too,” etc. but the kind of complete, innate equality of fact that only gets highlighted much later when you start encountering people for who this is a startling concept. And they were very careful never to dress us in gender-assigned colours (they mostly dressed me in blue because they felt it brought out my eyes) or gender-assigned toys (I got dolls and Legos, stuffed animals and toy trucks, etc.)
There was no way I was going to get a Barbie doll, and in fact I only had the vaguest idea what one looked like, from the commercials during my carefully rationed hours of television. As an additional character flaw, Barbie was American and my parents were very concerned with cultural imperialism.
Then grandma had to give me one, and all their efforts were for naught. Once you have Barbie, you need accessories, right? And my grandparents, uncles, and aunts kept them coming: Barbie’s beauty salon, Barbie’s Corvette, Barbie’s clothes, plus of course Barbie dolls for my little sister. Mom was clearly gritting her teeth and felt like a failure.
Except it all worked out somehow. I had no idea who or what Miss America was (cultural imperialism!) so I thought that was the doll’s name. Barbie is not a name in French and it sounded stupid to me, it never occured to me that it could be anything but a brand like “Mattel.” Therefore, my doll was called Miss Susan America.
She had a crown on her head so she must be a queen, and of course having read tons of fairy tales, I knew that queen or princess were the best thing you should aspire to be. Princes and kings were pretty boring, they mostly showed up at the end but princesses and queens had stories! So crown → queen → ruler of a nation. There had to be a nation. Which was promptly name the Island of Barbicia, neatly explaining the weird name.
But wait! Even at age seven, I had already absorbed way more of my parents’ values than they probably realized. I was already a firm believer in democracy, so the queen of Barbicia had to be rightfully elected. Just had to be. Every year. My sister’s dolls represented the opposition, and eventually we had to get her an island of her own to rule, because ever year somehow Barbicia re-elected Queen Susan.
In tangible terms, she didn’t keep that crown stitched on her head for very long. I had to remove it, as it interfered with the rest of her garb — like when I made a spacesuit out of leftovers of silver lamé. To go with the flying saucer made of family-size take-out pizza plates. I did a lot of arts and craft projects for Queen Susan: not only did I learn to sew and replicate the year’s fashions from catalogues, but also build furniture and houses.
Using end pieces of 2x4s and surveyor’s stakes which I joined together using 1½” nails, or dad’s power stapler or glue gun, I created a, shall we say, rustic decor—everything from tables and chairs to beds, sofas, lamps, and coat racks that seem to come from the world ugliest Ikea. I built an entire ranch out of cardboard file cabinets, the kind you use for temporary field offices. Because of course by then Queen Susan and her friends had horses.
At the end of her career, Queen Susan found another monarchy to be elected to: by 1978, we were in the Star Wars craze and my little sister desperately wanted SW action figures for her birthday and Christmas. I couldn’t afford them on my allowance, but by then I was well used to making presents from scratch; I made an R2-D2 model with an empty tin can as the starting point, I recycled a 12″ Iroquois action figure to make Darth Vader (did a pretty darn good job on that mask and the clothes, if I do say so myself), and Queen Susan was re-dressed and coiffed to impersonate Princess Leia Organa. By then I was too old to play with dolls anyway at 13… My little sister’s friends were all jealous of her custom action figures.
My point with this ramble?
My parents didn’t fail to give me pride and self-confidence just because I played with a Barbie doll and pretended to be a princess. They were worried at first (after all, I was their first attempt at parenting…) but I think they soon realized that they had given me plenty of other things to fill my world. Playing with dolls was actually an opportunity to learn to make a lot of things myself, and I had lovely times asking mom about the secrets of sewing properly, and spending time with dad in his workshop.
Don’t worry if your kids naively embrace the stereotypes they are force-fed by the media. Just give them lots of other things to go with that, talk to them about the values you hold dear, and watch them make magic out of the world.