from Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code
written by Laurie Wallmark
illustrated by Katy Wu
Sterling Children’s Books, 2017
My mom did not let me have a Barbie doll. She told me they were too mature. When Mom grew up, all dolls were baby dolls. Heck, when I was little, at least until I was 7, all dolls were baby dolls.
When Ruth Handler and her husband Elliot created Mattel in their garage in 1945, I wonder if they envisioned a global toy company that would grow to be one of the “strongest portfolios of children’s and family entertainment franchises in the world.” Their mission, “to create innovative products and experiences that inspire, entertain and develop children through play,” is noble.
The company has had iconic success, especially with their Fisher Price line including xylophones, snap beads, and corn poppers. One million Magic 8 Balls are still sold every year.
Then, in 1959, Barbie was born. Ruth, inspired by her daughter Barbara, recognized the opportunity to inspire girls to become anything they dreamed of. And grown up girls in the real world were, well, grown up. We needed, reasoned Ruth, a role model. Her new doll needed to be grown up too.
Indeed, Barbie can be and is everything to any girl with an imagination. Again from their website, [p]laying with dolls empowers children to develop empathy and social skills such as caregiving, friendship, collaboration, and conflict resolution.
Children's’ play is crucial to their development. Scholarly articles have been written after scientists have conducted extensive research. Books for parents and teachers are easy to find in bookstores and libraries. Most is common sense that most parents are doing, anyway and calling attention to how children learn is affirming to most parents and teachers. Here’s a whole collection of books and articles about the importance of play from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).
So why is the Mattel website gender specific? Probably not on purpose, but the children playing with Barbie are girls. The children playing with vehicles are boys. Action figures, boys. The girl playing with building sets is wearing glasses. (To show us she is intelligent?) OK, all that’s a subject for another day.
I just wanted to mention it because the Barbie Movie, distributed by Warner Brothers, is in theaters now. I saw it last weekend.
First, the movie is not a chick flick. It’s also not for children. And I came out with a lot to think about. Next, you will find no spoilers here, even though I was probably one of the last people to see it.
Stereotypical Barbie, the main character played by Margot Robbie, wanted to be everything to everyone until she realized she didn’t and couldn’t. As she experiences her existential crisis, she enters our real world to find herself. Of course, Ken comes with her and while Barbie is discovering the power of self-confidence, he gets a whiff of macho masculinity that goes right to his head. I’m not sure he ever comes to understand that he has no identity except to be Barbie’s boyfriend.
The movie is a spoof on our materialistic, consumeristic culture. It also makes a statement about the importance of reaching our potential, making goals and working toward them, discovering what (and who) we love, and that human ideals should not be gender-specific.
Didactic? a little. Funny? yes. Thought provoking? absolutely. From the opening scene to America Ferrara’s portrayal of Gloria in her speech toward the end of the film, the wonder of being female and the unlimited good that is possible when everyone’s success is celebrated is shouted loud and clear.
Part of the movie’s message echoes Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. But whether you’re a puppet who comes to life or a young woman who loses her stereotypicality when she gains her uniqueness, all of us who become “adults,” discover that being human is complex, ever-changing, and mostly pretty wonderful.
I’m ready to see this one again.
I’m still reading The Measure (Nikki Erlick, William Morrow, 2022) after not reading at all during a week of distraction. I told my daughter I was putting it down, but she encouraged me to keep going. More next week!
-—Be curious! (and look for your own uniqueness)