Put Down That Barbie (2013 Edition)–And Find Empowering Dolls!


Video Girl Barbie and Photo Fashion Barbie

For centuries, dolls have helped children develop their socioemotional skills by teaching them how to empathize with others. Last year, dolls raked in nearly $2.7 billion in sales, making them one of the toy industry’s biggest items.

However, not all of today’s dolls offer emotionally healthy experiences for children. Increasingly, parents are speaking out against how mainstream toys send children negative messages about such issues as gender, body image and race.

The last few years have seen several sexy head-to-toe makeovers of popular children’s characters. Dora the Explorer, once hailed by parents everywhere for her stereotype-bashing, was transformed from a cute toddler to a Barbie-in-training. Strawberry Shortcake used to be most recognizable for her frumpy hat and green stockings, but now she sports pink locks and long lashes. Even gender-neutral trolls have been reincarnated as hip and sexy Trollz, rivaling Bratz, the Winx Club and Monster High for the title of “sexiest dolls on the block.” The list of sexualized, feminized toys goes on: Holly Hobby, Legos, My Little Pony, Polly Pocket, Rainbow Bright. Even the Care Bears are now more pretty and feminine than they are fun and fluffy.

When it comes to their effects on children, particularly young girls, these sexualized makeovers aren’t all fun and games. “When we give a child a doll, what we’re saying to that child is ‘This is what people look like, this is what women look like, this is what you might aspire to,’” says Susan Linn, executive director of Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC). With dolls getting prettier and skinnier than ever, it comes as no surprise that, by age 3, girls begin to equate thinness with beauty and popularity. By age 5, they express dissatisfaction with their weight, and by age 9 many experience the onset of eating disorders.

In addition to sending unhealthy messages about body and beauty ideals, today’s mainstream dolls continue to offer a limited range of racial diversity. “Part of what is lacking and is hard for children of color is not seeing themselves [reflected] in toys or in popular culture,” says Linn. Study after study underscores the importance of cultural representation, yet options for parents who want to buy their children black dolls remain sparse. And when mainstream ethnic dolls do exist, they’re often made from the same mold as their mainstream, white counterparts. This move reinforces racist messages that whiteness is the ideal, or that black women are beautiful only insofar as they look like white women.

The problems don’t stop there. Linn notes that in today’s media-saturated climate, the best-selling dolls are increasingly based upon characters from popular movies and TV shows. From Disney Princesses to Angry Birds, these commercialized toy lines do more than sucker parents into making further purchases—their already-established characters and storylines also impede the emotional and cognitive benefits of imaginative play. “The best toys,” says Linn, “are ones that children can transform into something,” not ones that come with prepackaged plots.


Go! Go! Sports Girl

Fortunately, parents are pushing back against the commercialization, gendering and whitewashing of toys. Earlier this year, a New York mother petitioned Mattel to include more racially diverse doll products. This spring, parents successfully protested Disney’s feminine makeover of Merida from Brave, a character who had previously been lauded for her rare lack of sexualization. This summer, the grassroots group Let Toys Be Toys succeeded in petitioning UK retailers to stop separating toys into “boys” and “girls” sections, inspiring Ms. magazine to launch a similar petition in the U.S.

In addition to protesting and petitioning, Linn underscores that parents can weed out unhealthy children’s products by posing a few key questions before making purchases. First, parents can think about the play value of the product, such as Can it be used in more than one way? and Does it encourage or discourage creative play?

In the meantime, here are some resources to help parents locate child-empowering doll and toy options amid the commercialized and sexualized likes of Barbie and Bratz.

Put Down That Barbie! 2012 Holiday Gift Guide
An interview with Jenn Pozner, founder and executive director of Women in Media and News (WIMN), on empowering gift ideas for toddlers through adolescents.

A Mighty Girl
A Mighty Girl features hundreds of toys, including books, movies and music, aimed at helping foster confidence and empowerment in young girls. Go! Go! Sports Girls and Eeboo’s Poet & Astronomer Paper Dolls are just two examples of  toys that present girls as leaders, heroes and adventurers, rather than fashionistas or damsels in distress.

Recognizing the critical emotional benefits of cultural representation, 4KidsLikeMe.com offers nonviolent, multicultural toys aimed at helping foster children’s self-esteem. Its philosophy is simple: Children of color need positive images that look like them.

Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood’s (CCFC) Annual TOADY Awards
CCFC’s Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young Children (TOADY) awards help parents identify the toy industry’s worst offenders when it come to commercialized, sexualized and unhealthy products that impede creative play. The 2013 TOADY Awards will be announced by late November.

Photos from Flickr users Meester X and jill under license from Creative Commons 2.0

http---s3.amazonaws.com-pmbucket-site-users-42495-originalRenee Davidson is a feminist writer and activist living in DC. Her work has been published by Salon, Bitch, PolicyMic, Fem2pt0 and more. Follow her at @reneetheorizes.


  1. Eric Hamilton says:

    Great Article…

  2. Yes!!!! After being appalled by the idea of my daughter getting her ideas of women in the world from the likes of Barbie, I searched high and low and found Lottie dolls in the UK for my daughter, they’re way better. Normal proportions and equal opportunity roles etc.

  3. I’ve heard good things about Lottie dolls!

  4. karly torres says:

    OMG it’s frikkin dolls. It’s not that serious.

  5. What on earth did they do to my beloved Rainbow Brite?? I refuse to acknowledge the revamp as anything like the original I grew up with in the 80s. Thank goodness I was more interested in reading anything I could get my hands on and making my own paper as a child that I was in dolls. The last toy I bought for my three year old niece was a doctor playset that, of course, had a boy on the cover. She had a blast taking everyone’s temperatures and learning how to test our kick reflexes. I much prefer that over the hypersexualized Barbies her mother buys her or the always lovely “My First Dirt Devil vacuum” someone bought her for her birthday.

  6. Absolutely. It is so frustrating to shop for toys for girls, I completely support the movement to stop gender-aisles in stores – way to go, UK. It is so difficult to understand how loving, caring parents would hand a Monster High doll that looks like a prostitute and seems to clearly exude Goth culture to their precious little girls and what that teaches them to admire and aspire to in the future. I’d love to have them permanently removed from the shelves of every store.

  7. Historic Props says:

    If you look at the toy section of an old Sears or JC Penney catalog from say, 1970, you’ll see that “girls” toys are pretty much the same things they were BEFORE the womens’ movement, but back then, they were mostly realistic, and were made in normal colors. Now, in the allegedly “post-feminist” world, girls’ toys are cartoonish, and almost always bright pink, usually with white or powder blue accents. In other words, they’re MORE sexist now, than they were 40 years ago.

  8. I also LOVE these “Frontline Hero” dolls: http://gifts.worldwildlife.org/gift-center/gifts/Frontline-Heroes.aspx

  9. I’ve raised 3 girls over the past 34 years (youngest now 17). All of them have had dolls – including baby dolls (whatever happened to those?). With the youngest I have had to navigate through this whole “princess” pitch to girls. All I can say is that DOLLS DON’T EMPOWER GIRLS, PARENTS EMPOWER GIRLS!!! We’ve had many teaching moments wandering the aisles and talking about family values and which dolls may/may not fit those. But, we live in the real world and we can regulate the doll market, maybe, but every single magazine out there, every TV show they watch AND parents watch, will send that message. Put down your cell phones and stop texting and talk to your kids. Don’t expect your toys to give the messages YOU need to be telling them. It takes time, it’s not simple, but if you want empowered children you can’t get them by being digitally plugged in – or plugging them in. This is a fine article, but the target audience already knows it.

  10. Hey someone’s gotta clean the house! What are you saying, looking down on people who clean up after themselves? I say make those toy vacuums WORK!

  11. While Barbie’s lack of diversity and adherence to traditional standards of beauty is definitely problematic, I think something should be said in its defense if only for the sheer, overwhelming number of options it puts forth. Be an astronaut, or an Olympic champion, or President of the United States–Barbie can literally be anything she wants to be, in a way few other toy lines manage. If that’s not a positive message for children to receive, I don’t know what is.

    • Yes, I agree with this. Barbie was able to be a doctor before any real woman ever was allowed and she could look fabulous while doing it!

  12. The main problem with Barbie is that almost all barbies seem to be made from the same mold. BORING!! Why can’t different barbies have different head molds, hair, eye-shapes, freckles and expressions?

  13. Nathanael Jackson says:

    If you are looking for a non-idealized/sexualized representation of women in toy form, you might want to support this campaign. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1732159183/marauder-task-force-valkyries-1-18-scale-female-fi/description. It appears that this toy company is trying to represent women in an honest and empowering way.

  14. Thank you for this article, its a great start as my wife and I look for a doll that can help our children learn empathy and catering without pushing gender and racial prejudices.

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