When little girls play with their Barbie and Ken dolls and have the couple drive around in their sports car, if they get a flat, which doll do the little girls expect to fix the tire? This week was Barbie’s 50th birthday. It was also the week I ran across “Should you be reading that magazine?” which is about an article in Popular Mechanics, “100 Skills Every Man Should Know.” By the authority of Popular Mechanics, Ken should be the doll that knows how to change a tire. The editors believe Barbie should acquire her life skills by reading their sister magazine, Good Housekeeping, but I bet Barbie studies Cosmo.
During the same week President Obama created the new White House Council on Women and Girls. The council is charged with making sure each federal agency works to improve the economic status of women, develop policies that establish a balance between work and family, prevent violence against women, build healthy families and promote women’s health care. It doesn’t sound like the White House is trying to rekindle feminism, but rather make paternal laws to protect women.
This week President Obama also made moves to change the Bush’s policies that were anti-science by signing a memorandum “directing the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making.” Obama wants to make vast changes in education, including a renewed emphasis on science and mathematics.
Now all of these diverse topics might sound unconnected, but I see a thread. Fifty years ago Barbie caused a controversy because parents wanted their little girls to play with dolls that looked like little babies, expecting their daughters to grow up to be mothers. Little girls wanted to play with Barbie because they wanted to grow up to be big girls like Barbie. They wanted long legs, a nice rack and lots of fashionable clothes, and of course a boyfriend that can change a tire on her sports car. Was there ever Nobel Prize winning Barbie, or even aerospace engineer Barbie? There was an astronaut Barbie, but I get the feeling little girls didn’t imagine her being a shuttle payload specialist, but instead just pictured her as a cute space girl like Barbarella.
If President Obama wants to empower little girls, should he encourage them to play with Hilary Clinton dolls? Should his White House Commission come down hard on the editors of Popular Mechanics? Should girls take shop class with the boys in school? When I took shop in the 8th and 9th grade there were no girls in our class. And us boys never saw the inside of a home economics class. Is that still true today?
According to Natalie Angier’s The Canon we’re having a damn hard time getting boys or girls to stick with math and science. Understanding science means understanding reality. Science can explain why little girls play with Barbies and why the writers and readers of Popular Mechanics expect men to know their 100 specialized skills while women should study Good Housekeeping for important skills that all females should know.
If girls and women must fulfill their biological programming as well as the meet the biological expectations of men, while following guidelines for living set down by ancient patriarchal religions will they ever be free? And fifty years ago, did Barbie reveal a shift in girl’s behavior? Was Barbie a step forward in feminism? Barbie throws off the burka of playing the mommy role to play the part of the hot babe, which is astoundingly documented in the history of the cinema and television since then.
President Obama campaigned on the promise of change, but our society is changing all the time. The question is how much can we change. Are there limits? Will there one day be a new fad doll on the market that little girls take to like Barbie? A doll that reflects a new generation of women? Are the sexy outfits Western women wear the burkas imposed on them the males of our society, or do they reflect what women actually want to wear? (In other words, does Barbie reveal that girls want to grow up to be the Sex in the City girls?) Does the political shift in the White House towards women represent a new deal for women? Is it a liberal step forward or does it merely add more protection and care of females? Is that the role women want? The majority of women pulled up on the reigns on feminism well before Bush.
Now that Obama is in the White House we can go back and pick up where liberal progress left off, but will we? If you analyze the undercurrent of change, we only want progress in certain areas and not others. Even in liberal times there are conservative genes in us that never get turned off.
JWH – 3/13/9 (revised 3/18/9)