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From Barbies to Bratz: The debate over dolls

Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer whose work places a feminist lens on a variety of topics, including motherhood, maternal health, gender, and reproductive rights. Her work has been featured in Bitch magazine, Cosmopolitan.com,...

Will a new generation of toys fix the problem with dolls?

Dolls. The girls' section of the toy aisle is littered with them, from the ever-present Barbie to the traditional Cabbage Patch and hypersexualized Bratz. In the last couple of years, toy makers have started producing dolls that are more realistic, less "girly" and offer something different from what kids have been playing with. But what was the problem with dolls beforehand and will these new ones actually catch on?

Growing up in the '80s, I loved Barbie. I had about 10 or so of the iconic dolls, with a Skipper and a few Kens thrown in for good measure. As a preschooler and then elementary-age kid, I concocted all sorts of fantasy play scenarios for my Barbies to act out. Then, as a middle schooler, one with burgeoning thoughts and feelings, my Barbies took on a different role, allowing me to act out more risqué scenarios in a safe space (and speaking with many women of similar age, it sounds like I was certainly not alone in this behavior). Throughout all that play, I can't recall thinking too hard about Barbie's body — unless it was to cut her hair or cover her in "tattoos." Yet, as an adult, I look at Barbie and a few of her contemporaries and wonder what impact she may have had without me even realizing it.

Look through the doll aisle in stores today and you'll see a range of options from softer, more baby doll types to ones that would seem more at home in a night club. Bratz and Monster High Dolls are both notorious for being hypersexualized. These plastic dolls have faces full of makeup, wide eyes, pouty lips, bodies completely out of proportion in a way that would put Barbie to shame and clothes that look like they came off the set of Pretty Woman. What types of messages do these dolls send to young girls about their worth and value, especially as it relates to their looks and body image? How much do these types of dolls — that litter toy shelves — impact young children?

Melissa Atkins Wardy, author of Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween blogs about these issues frequently at her site Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies. "When we look at what messages and influence a toy like a doll might have on a girl, we need to be mindful of representations that lack diversity in body type, race, hair type and style, ableness, etc.," Atkins Wardy shared with me. In addition to her blogging, Atkins Wardy consults and advises various toy companies to work on the limitations seen in current popular dolls. Speaking of these companies, she noted, "They have limits, which is why we see often only one body mold on a brand of doll. This is true even for the less problematic brands. But can these companies do better with diversity? Yes. Absolutely yes and I constantly encourage them to as representations of beauty and what is 'desirable' by society are far too narrow and damage the psyche of young girls."

And the potential for damage is all too real. A recent study out of Oregon State University that explored the influence of fashion dolls (like Bratz and Barbie) found that girls who play with these types of dolls see fewer career options for themselves than for boys.

According to Atkins Wardy, one way to combat the negative stereotypes and lack of diversity in the more popular dolls is for parents to ensure that there are a variety of dolls in their homes. To that end, there are many new dolls emerging that stray from the problematic pattern of their predecessors. Companies working on shifting the limited offering of dolls include Lottie Dolls, Go! Go! Sports Girls, Moxie Girlz, Hearts for Hearts Girls and even Goldieblox, which recently announced a new action figure.

Will a new generation of toys fix the problem with dolls?


Image: Lottie Dolls/Arklu Toys

Lucie Follett, co-founder and creative director of Arklu, the toy company behind Lottie Dolls, said that she purposefully went against the stereotype when designing Lottie. "Lottie is different in that she represents the realities of a real child, and all the multifaceted ways to be a girl," Follett explained. "We believe that children shouldn't be vilified for not fitting a certain ideal; we have incorporated choice and diversity, so that girls can enjoy Lottie dolls which engage in a wide range of activities to fit every personality, be they activities typically perceived as 'girly' such as ballet, fancy dress or tea parties, or science-based themes, as well as those which are engaged in sports and literacy, amongst others."

Lottie, as well as some of her new contemporaries tend to have a wider range of body types, ethnic backgrounds and interests that better reflect the girls (and boys!) that play with them. Hopefully this new wave of dolls will offer more options for both parents and children alike.

More on dolls

Waldorf dolls: Are they worth the cost?
Girl-doll playdates that moms can organize
Dolls with Down syndrome characteristics spur questions

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