This year P has been adamant that she is asking Santa for Barbies. This makes sense, as nearly all her friends have them and there’s nothing like peers to create a need where one didn’t previously exist. I vowed I wouldn’t cave in to things I really disapprove of but I do have a number of good memories playing with my Barbies—if you except wishing I had a super camper van like my neighbor and playmate Laura Holman. (This is the girl who received two cabbage patch kids during the launch year when parents were lining up around the block trying to get their hands on a doll—the precursor to black Friday mobs outside Walmart.)
I don’t ever remember thinking that I wanted to look like a Barbie. I even seem to recall thinking her body was sort of strange, particularly the missing nipples. I don’t think a doll in and of itself creates negative body images. Now if I sat down to play with my kid and Barbies and harped on that Mama still hasn’t lost the baby weight and why don’t they make Barbies with cellulite…then I could see where damage might get done.
So far, we haven’t really bought many dolls. Most of what we have are stuffed animals, which both my girls love. C traipses her Penguin around everywhere and P, when I’ve inadvertently called her my little princess always answers, “No, mama, I am a puppy dog.” The dolls we do have are bald baby dolls. Most of the characters the girls like are based around movies and programs they have seen and, up until very recently, these were limited to Sesame Street characters, Caillou, Tchoupie—I am not even sure what he is—Thomas the Tank, and the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse gang.
It’s only in the last six months that we started working our way through Disney movies including Mulan, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. Unconsciously, my husband has generally chosen leading ladies who are dark haired or at least not blonde.
Imagine my surprise when, laid up sick in bed, snuggling with my daughter and watching some random YouTube cartoons, having no energy for anything else, she requests a Barbie movie. She had recently watched part of one movie at a play date and had resented my dragging her home before the end. I was loathing every second of the film as I kept an eye on it from my pillow half listening to her constant commentary—she likes narrating through programs, which will someday make her a terrible movie partner but currently makes me feel she is doing more than just vegging out in front of the tube. Then she says something that makes me bolt upright in bed. She points out that one of the characters is a bad person. When I asked her why, she responded, “Look she has black hair!”
And a piece of me died.
My husband has blue-black hair. Most of the people closest to my daughter are dark. I am probably one of the lightest, having been white blond as a child. I now have a light chestnut coloring so how on earth did she come up with the association that all dark-haired characters are the evil ones?
I composed myself and proceeded to explain that she was wrong. I asked her to think about Mulan, Jasmine, and Belle. I explained to her that just because someone isn’t blond, doesn’t mean they are bad and similarly just because someone is blond, they are definitely not automatically good. I then struggled to find any examples of ‘evil’ blond characters she would know. In a couple of years, there will be Draco Malfoy and my jogged memory recalls a number of blond villains in the old 007 movies. The only ‘bad’ blond characters I can think of are male and generally they are nearly albino opening another can of worms around our culturally embedded stereotypes.
Why are there so few evil blond characters? Is it just that people fear night and night is dark and so we associate it with evil? It is something more sinister and based on inherent racism? All of my daughter’s much loved caregivers have been dark haired and often dark skinned. We live in Asia where dark hair is the norm and white is often a color associated with death. So how does this deeply engrained notion of light & dark, good & evil persist? And how do we fight against it? I guess I can answer this question by constantly reminding our children that goodness is on the inside, not the outside. That it is based on actions and not on appearances.
With Christmas around the corner, I ended up in a discussion with a Dutch friend about the origination of Santa Claus, and in particular, his red fur-trimmed outfit, rotund waistline and white beard. As it turns out, the germinating seed took place with Saint Nicholas of Myra, a fourth century Greek Christian in Byzantine Anatolia, who later became the Christian figure of Sinterklaas with various strands of other cultures and folklore folded into the mix. Saint Nick was and continues to be celebrated in some places on the sixth of December. In the Ukraine, the story goes that he delivers presents to good children and a gold switch to naughty children. In the morning children always find both toys and the switch because we all have good and evil inside; no one is intrinsically one or the other.
Well the Christmas gifts are purchased. Little C, now just over two years. is getting a Hello Kitty play-set since she loves little figurines. P is finally getting her long desired Barbie–in fact two of them. (I learned long ago to make sure to buy in twos if not threes to accommodate for a friend and/or her sister). I was appalled at most of the dolls on display. The large majority were the traditional blond version, usually sporting what can only be described as sluttish frocks and for every doctor Barbie, there are six more hair salon, beach babe and fashionista Barbies. After a little digging, we found two palatable dolls. The first is a Mexican Barbie, wearing a beautiful traditional dress with long, deep brown locks.
The other, another brunette, is in a long gown, mostly chosen for her dog accessory given P’s canine obsession. Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-blond, most of my family is fair from our Normandy roots. But clearly las rubias need no assistance in maintaining a good reputation, so I am compelled to help out my morena sisters. I am still at a loss about the origin of her comment and I should probably put my apprehension aside and ask her about it.
And on the topic of Barbies, if anyone is listening, Mattel can you please bring back this doll who is in my opinion by far the most beautiful version ever created:
© 2012 – 2013, Cordelia Newlin de Rojas. All rights reserved.