Reservoir Dolls?

A new study finds that little girls torture their Barbies. At least they know the difference between fantasy and reality.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

Life in plastic? It’s certainly not fantastic, if you’re the unfortunate Barbie doll belonging to a seven-year-old girl.

Psychologists and management academics at the University of Bath have released new research into the role of brands among children aged seven to 11; and Barbie, it appears, has a special function, as a focus for little girls’ ‘violence and hatred’. Far from using the dolls to play-act such sugar’n’spice things as princesses or pop stars, the researchers found that poor Barbie was routinely tortured by children, using methods of mutilation ranging from scalping to decapitation, burning and microwaving.

As with most academic studies, the Barbie doll researchers feel compelled to draw a fancy-pants conclusion. ‘The girls almost always talked about having a box full of Barbies’, one of the researchers, Dr Angela Nairn, told The Times (London) (1). ‘So to them Barbie has come to symbolise excess. Barbies are not special; they are disposable, and are thrown away and rejected.’ Hmm. Or maybe young girls simply take a perverse delight in torturing their toys? It wouldn’t be the first time in history that observations of little girls’ playtimes have put a dent in rose-tinted gender stereotypes; and we are all surely familiar with that trite-but-true maxim that ‘children can be very cruel’.

In fact, if you translate the University of Bath researchers’ conclusion from the language of symbolic consumption into the language of common sense, it seems fair enough. Angela Nairn admitted that a key factor in the antipathy demonstrated towards Barbie by seven- to 11-year-olds might be simply that they had grown out of the toy – ‘the right age for having a Barbie now seems to be four’. So while adults may find something disturbing in girls’ destructive behaviour towards Barbie, the child might simply be imaginative in getting rid of a toy they no longer want.

From this we can assume that microwaving Barbie is not exactly pathological, and take comfort from the fact that kids as old as seven know that toys don’t bruise or bleed. But if the reality is so banal – Kids in destruction of unwanted toys shock! – why bother studying it in the first place?

The University of Bath researchers seem rather more sensible than many of those embarking on academic studies of Barbie. Angela Nairn found no evidence to support previous research from the USA, which suggested that prepubescent girls destroyed their Barbies because she reminded them of adulthood at a time when they were still clinging to childhood. She also rejected the notion that overweight little girls might be jealous of Barbie, because she is thin and has it all. (Yes! Except a life!)

There must be other studies, in psychology and social science journals across the globe, constructing such fantasies about Barbie and The World – for there is a long and dubious tradition of watching what little boys and girls play with, and purporting to draw Earth-shattering conclusions about why it all really, really matters.

There’s that familiar argument about boys who play with guns being transformed from sweet, sensitive little darlings into aggressive, violent bullies. There’s the feminist complaint that girls who play with toy washing machines and ironing boards will grow up thinking that their fate lies in the kitchen. And, moving out of academia and into the even less reliable world of crime and punishment, where the consequence of errors is rather more severe, there was the widely used (and now discredited) process of using ‘anatomically-correct’ dolls to encourage children to report details of alleged sexual abuse.

In all of these things, there is presumed to be a direct relationship between what toys children play with, how they play with them, and what is going on in their own real lives. Which is nonsense, of course – as anybody who has ever been a child ought to know. My friends and I ‘tortured’ Sindy dolls – I cannot remember exactly why, but so far as I know none of us has yet become a human rights abuser. There were plenty of cap guns among the lads in our street, and the village has yet to become the site of a massacre. Everybody was obsessed with sex at that age, but reports of a paedophile ring have yet to emerge.

There were simply lots of kids, with lots of kids’ imaginations, playing games for which there was no justification or hidden agenda. Another trite-but-true maxim: ‘children say the funniest things’ – including such things as ‘I’ll tear your head off, Barbie bitch’. I can’t imagine that much has changed since then – except, perhaps, that there are more Barbies about, and They Deserve to Die.

(1) Barbarism begins with Barbie, the doll children love to hate, The Times (London), 19 December 2005

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Topics Politics


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