I’m 50-something and saw the Barbie movie with my girlfriends in the first few days it came out. We dressed in pink and piled into the Barbie box to take photos. The opening scene, mirroring 2001: A Space Odyssey, hooked me and cleverly introduced the movie’s theme of individuality and identity. The costumes and Barbie world captured my attention. I giggled at Stereotypical Barbie’s arched feet falling flat, and applauded America Ferrera’s monologue about womanhood, but I grew bored with the movie as Barbie became more involved with the complexity of human problems. Barbie, for me, is a loved toy. She encouraged me to access my imagination and, when I became a mother, reminded me to allow my son to nurture his.
As a little girl, I dreamed of owning a Barbie Dreamhouse for my Superstar Barbie—the Barbie with the hot pink silk dress and arms permanently bent at the elbows. My best friend Karen owned the Dreamhouse, the Dream “Vette,” and the same Superstar Barbie. Despite my persistent asking, my mother refused to buy me any of the Barbie accoutrements.
My older sister started the Barbie box house as an alternative to the Dreamhouse. She created a maze of varying sized boxes; cut doors and set the boxes next to each other, so Barbie could easily pass from room to room. She even made a sink by cutting a circle in a small box and inserting a Dixie cup. Then, she found an empty bottle with a nozzle that bent open and shut and filled it with water. The bottle hid outside the box, so the nozzle only showed. When the nozzle was open, water dripped into the Dixie cup. When she outgrew Barbies, I inherited the box house and added my style. Small homemade pillows became couches and chairs. I scoured magazines for photos to cut and glue to the walls as art. To simulate a waterbed, I used Ziploc bags filled with water. Scraps of fabric became a bedspread and toga-style dresses for Barbie. I glowed when Karen said, “Your Barbie house is way cool.”
My son and his friends embraced Nerf guns instead of Barbies. (Yes, I agree, a stereotypical boy toy.) Remembering my mom’s practice of encouraging problem-solving and inventiveness, I put refrigerator- to shoebox-sized boxes in our empty basement for the boys to use as barricades and forts. They cut shapes from some boxes and, with confiscated duct tape, then fastened the cardboard pieces to make armor—chest plates, wristbands, and sleeves. Hearing their shouts and laughter from the basement brought me back to my Barbie playing days with Karen.
Karen and I were lucky to have play time. Because of my mom’s example, I purposely made time for my son to play, but it wasn’t easy. We hurried him from school to soccer practice, grabbed a quick dinner, focused on homework, and tucked him and ourselves into bed; rinsed and repeated day after day. There simply wasn’t ever much time left for play unless we planned it.
Long before COVID, the American Academy of Pediatrics conducted a 2007 study on play that noted colleges are witnessing a generation of students who are exhibiting heightened signs of depression, anxiety, perfectionism, and stress. The same study advocated for child-driven, rather than adult-directed play, allowing children “ample, unscheduled, independent, nonscreen time to be creative, to reflect, and to decompress.”
The Barbie movie has sparked conversation. Dialogue about our humanness is good, but let’s not forget Barbie is a toy. The best toys stimulate our curiosity, creativity, imagination, and problem-solving, which are essential skills all humans need to navigate and function in our flawed world. I’m grateful my mom didn’t cave to my desires and the pressure I felt to keep up with Karen’s Barbie world. Instead, she simply let me play Barbies.