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Barbie has Something to Say

Updated: Aug 12, 2023

When my daughters were little, we stayed away from Barbie dolls. They were too sexualized for my taste. The girls grew up with lots of stuffed animals, and a stable full of My Little Ponies. They played team sports and read The Giving Tree and Shel Silverstein poems.

When I reentered toy world as a grandmother, I discovered that Barbie had rebranded herself. Although she is still quite fashion-minded, there are now role model Barbies that are dressed for various careers. There are also Barbie’s dressed like inspiring women, such as Billie Jean King, Florence Nightingale, Maya Angelo, and Frida Kahlo. Putting gender itself aside, there is even an Elvis Barbie. Barbie’s dimensions have also become a little more like mother nature would have them.

So I was all in when my granddaughter wanted a Barbie for her fourth birthday. But did I buy her a first responder Barbie, or a skateboarding Barbie or a Ruth Bader Ginsburg Barbie? No. I went with a Barbie knockoff mermaid with a sequined tail, a merbaby, two combs for her hair, and a sparkly dolphin to ride. She also came with a wardrobe change that someone suggested would be the perfect outfit for when mermaid Barbie went clubbing.

My granddaughter loved mermaid Barbie. I got that grandmother high I was looking for - seeing her open something that made her very happy. But I was also left with a niggling suspicion that while Barbie had adapted to the world we live in, I had apparently gone backwards.

Fun Grandma thought “Is it so bad that I want to cater to the girly stereotype that has become so suspect in our culture? She’s four years old for Pete’s sake. Let her enjoy her pink and lavender underwater fantasy world while she can.” Then Wisdom Grandma popped up and found herself feeling a little remiss. I learned a lesson from Barbie. I can be both Fun Grandma and Wisdom Grandma. I ordered “Career” Barbie as a late birthday present. Both/And is going to be the name of the grandma game from now on.

Wisdom Grandma also wishes there was a Both/And for my granddaughter’s faith development. She is beginning to learn about Jesus in a very pink and lavender way. But I worry that the Church’s blind spot towards women will make religion irrelevant to her as she grows into womanhood. Just how long do we have to wait until there can be a “priest” Barbie, or a “bishop” Barbie? It’s a sad day when you realize that Barbie is doing a better job of lifting woman up than the Catholic Church. In the Church, women remain mermaid Barbies, held underwater by the intractability of the patriarchal structure. So we Catholic women hold our breath and turn to scripture:

I wait with longing for the Lord,

my soul waits for his word.

My soul looks for the Lord

more than sentinels for daybreak.

Psalm 130, 5-6

(Photo: Mattel, 2021)

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