The Great Doll Hunt

When asked where he keeps his Oscars, Pixar’s John Lasseter said, “We discovered that Barbie clothes actually fit pretty well.”

As far as I’m concerned, that’s the best use for them. Here’s another good thing to do with them.

Unless you know a little girl in your life, you may be forgiven for not keeping up with trends in dolls over the decades. I certainly wouldn’t blame you for avoiding the pink aisle at Kmart. So you might not be aware that dolls, for little girls, have been sexified. This is particularly obvious if you look at 1980s dolls side-by-side with dolls on sale now.

The other change that’s happened since the 1980s is that these dolls have got cheaper in real terms. You can buy a Barbie doll for less than 20 dollars, so little girls often have a lot of these dolls. I saw three Barbie-type-things for $18 last week in Toys R Us. Little girls don’t just have the one Barbie doll — they own many, many.

I don’t want to focus too much on Barbie, because actually, she’s the most wholesome of the lot. Have you seen Bratz?

Another change since the 80s: little girls are now playing with these sexy-looking dolls from a younger age. My three-year-old daughter was given her first Barbie doll for Christmas last year. I was given my Barbie when I was about 10. Both of us are typical for our era.

I’m not entirely against Barbie dolls. Not quite. But I don’t think three year olds need them, especially when they’re very attached to their stuffed toys. So I have taken my three-year-old’s Barbie doll and put her in the drawer. She has since found it.

For reasons I probably don’t need to go into, the reason I’m not a fan of Barbie dolls is because of body image issues young women somehow develop. It’s almost impossible to make it through female adolescence without a certain degree of body hatred, and there must be reasons for that. Barbies can’t possibly help.

What’s not clear is whether forbidding the damn things will make my daughter covet them. Toys that we can’t have often carry a magical allure which evaporates as soon as the plastic in question turns up in the Christmas stocking. So I’m not clear on what I’m going to do (if and) when our daughter asks for sexy dolls. She is now playing with her Barbie doll, mainly in the bath, because it came with a bikini outfit. She has it drive her huge yellow truck which also lives in the bath (leaving very little room for her own self.)

So she’s playing with the Barbie doll, and I even went ahead and bought her a Ken doll. Ken dolls have also changed since the 1980s. They no longer look like buffed Dads. They look like Justin Biebers.

On the side, I’ve been doing a bit of research, trying to find a doll for a girl which is both appealing yet not sexy. By sexy, I mean:

1. Secondary sex assets are not exaggerated out of all natural proportion. (This is what crosses Barbie off the list.)

2. Is not posing in a sexual fashion, as if for a Playboy fashion shoot in the 1960s. This one’s harder to explain in words but easy to see. Even the dolls which are in the shape of children (with no secondary sex characteristics to speak of) fail on this point.

It’s disappointing that, in this, our culture is slipping backwards. Even though feminists have been pointing out this issue since the 1960s, things have gotten worse not better, and the sexualisation of girly dolls is now mirrored by ridiculously muscled action figures for boys, sporting physiques which could only ever be achieved on steroids. So now our little boys are subject to this rubbish too.

On that note, if I were buying a doll for a boy, I’d buy him a Ken doll before buying him one of those ridiculous action figures. Actually, I did. I bought a Ken doll (named Ryan — there’s an entire series of them now) for a little four year old this month. His manly-man father is not impressed, but this thing has become a favourite toy, so he hasn’t had it taken off him, yet. (Little girls playing with dump trucks in the bath are less of a problem because girls are still the lesser gender.)

In case you’re interested, I still haven’t found a doll to replace the Barbie. I see no reason why preschoolers should be encouraged to stop role-playing with stuffed toys. Stuffed animals were doing a fine job until Barbie jumped out of the drawer.

I have provided our preschooler with a few sets of Sylvanian Families, known as Calico Critters in America.

These things are creepy in their own right. Made in Japan, they come in boxes of nuclear families. As a friend quite rightly pointed out, there are no broken families, no only children, no same-sex partnerships, and no intermarriage. How is that less unnatural than a sexified Barbie doll with the waist circumference of an apple?

Here’s the difference in my mind:

Our girls see nothing but sexy (unrealistic and idealised) images of women whenever they turn on the TV, look at a highway billboard or, dog forbid, open a magazine. They can’t get away from this Western Beauty Ideal even if they wanted to.

Real life families, on the other hand, are diverse and complicated and when she starts to make real friends she’ll see that they come in all shapes and sizes. She’ll forget over time that her Sylvanian Families came in boxed sets of nuclear families, and if all goes to plan, her imaginative play will better reflect the real world. There may even be a little help from her mother in that respect, with a few well-timed questions. After all, it’s not about the toys; it’s about the actual play.

Related Links

1. Does Discussing The Sexualisation Of Girls Further Sexualise Them? from Mommyish

2. Have you heard about ‘reborn dolls’? Jezebel has collected some of the most horrifying images. Even creepier than China dolls, which I find super creepy, almost to a phobic level. (I may have seen too many horror films.)

3. Plucky Protagonists for My Preschooler Princess, for little girls who are into princesses regardless. It’s a short list of plucky princesses. Anyone have any to add?

4. My (Sexy) Little Pony? Teaching Toddlers Sexual Objectification, from Beauty Redefined.

5. Six Dolls Mommyish Would Like To See On The Shelves.

6. The New Gender-Neutral Toy Department At Harrods Sounds Like A Magical Place, from Jezebel

7. Barbies have got better over the years, believe it or not. Compare many modern Barbie dolls to ‘Slumber Party’ Barbie, who comes to the party with bathroom scales and a diet handbook. That woman sounds like FUN.

8. (A few bizarre) Women Are Turning Themselves Into Barbies In The Ukraine. An extreme example from Jezebel, with freaky pictures. I hope those were Photoshopped at least a little.

9. The Most Baffling Career Barbies from Cracked.

10. A lot has been written in feminist literature about Barbies and how these dolls have been linked to body integrity identity disorder in women, who feel that because they can never live up to the Barbie doll ‘beauty standards’, their own bodies are irretrievably disgusting to themselves. Less well-known perhaps, is ‘Ken-doll BIID’, which I learned of while listening to an iTunes lecture delivered by Prof. Richard Wasserug at LaTrobe University on ‘Modern Day Eunuchs’. (Lecture available via iTunes U.) I learned that far and away the largest number of modern day ‘eunuchs’ (not a term embraced by most of the castrated) are that way due to prostate cancer, but then there are the men who have become eunuchs by (a kind of)choice. Some of them have seen a Ken doll (or the smoothness of a sister, even) and wanted that for themselves.

10. Becoming Barbie: The pros and cons of female stereotype, a talk during the 2009 Cambridge Festival Of Ideas

11. Daily Rant: I hate Barbie from Women and Hollywood


1. Artist repaints dolls to make them look like celebrities, from Lost At E Minor. See, dolls do have their uses.

2. Woman Is Addicted to Smelling Scary-Ass, Disembodied Doll Head, from Jezebel, because sometimes addictions are like sexual fetishes — completely and utterly inexplicable.

3. Over Half Of Mommyish Readers Would Buy A Presidential Barbie. (I’m not one of them.) Are we missing the point entirely by dressing Barbies up in presidential garb?

4. Arty Photos of people posing as Barbie and Ken, by Dina Goldstein

5. On the subject of toys and photography, 10 Best Flickr Groups Featuring Toys, from Inspired Mag

6. The Gender Politics Of The Dollhouse from The Society Pages

7. I Am Not A Doll! — from a six year old girl, described by her mother at Bosom Buddies Tackle Parenting

8. Creepy Alert! These 25 ‘Twisted Bean Stalk Nursery’ Dolls Will Haunt Your Dreams, from Babble

9. Eerie Photos Of A Subculture Devoted To Lifelike Baby Dolls from Co.Design

10. Black Is Beautiful: Why Black Dolls Matter from UTune

11. This Creepy Real-Life Barbie Infographic Makes The Doll Ideal Very Unappealing from Frisky

12. Here is a 3D printed doll, cloned from a real human’s head, that you can never unsee from Messy Nessy

13. Let’s Talk About American Girl Dolls from Thought Catalog

14. Lifelike baby dolls and the people who love them from Kottke

15. Sexy Halloween Costumes Are Just Like Doll Costumes, points out Rebecca Haines

institutionalised racism dolls

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