I was watching this viral ad on my laptop a few nights ago, and found myself tearing up. Just then, my teenage daughter walked by: “Oh! Was that the Barbie commercial?! Play it again,” she implored. I did. We watched together.
Soon, we were both crying!
It’s a pretty great ad, but not for the reason that’s been getting most of the attention—that it sends a girl-power, career-focused message. If you haven’t seen it yet, set aside all your preconceived heebie-jeebies about the sexist dangers of fashion dolls’ biologically impossible curvature and Kardshian-esque klothes. Tamp down your wariness of Pepto pink. And get ready to be reminded of what childhood is all about.
First come the words, “What happens when girls are free to imagine they can be anything?” Then you see a series of super-cute little girls living out real-life dream jobs—professor, veterinarian, coach, museum guide, executive—amidst bemused grown-ups. (“Hello, my name is Gwyneth, and I’ll be your professor today.”) Finally, the ah-ha switch-up: Back to the first girl, the professor, who still looks and sounds the same. Only now, we see she’s holding a Barbie, who’s really the one giving the lecture, to a class of fellow dolls.
Why were my daughter and I tearing up? Because the ad captures the essential things that girls love about—and get from—dolls.
And that goes way beyond its you-go-girl tagline, “You can be anything.” There’s a lot of chatter about the fact that Barbie has had a zillion jobs, from pediatrician to policewoman. She beat Hillary Clinton to the presidency and Neil Armstrong to the moon. All those pre-packaged costumes and careers send a fine, aspirational message.
But here’s the real doll-power: the magic unleashed inside a girl’s head.
Dolls fuel the IMAGINATION.
As grown-ups, we often fixate on what dolls literally appear to be. We see their physical attributes, their clothes, and the backstories they increasingly come pre-packaged with. But when girls start playing, they take off in their own stories. The dolls get new personalities and names. A shoebox is their car, a bed, or their classroom seating.
Let’s face it: In their everyday lives, kids are pretty powerless. Dolls give them the chance to be in charge, direct the action. To be omnipotent!
It’s not just a Barbie thing. The effect is pretty much the same whether the doll is a Disney Princess, a Lammily, an American Girl Addy or Julie, a baby doll, or part of a tiny wooden family.
Sometimes a child playing with a doll is a tender caregiver, tucking dolls in and giving them baths. Sometimes she’s a bossy dictator. Sometimes they’re equals and confidantes; sometimes they meld into one person. A doll is a blank piece of paper. A live-action movie. A mirror. It’s a portal…to anything.
Dolls are amazing brain toys.
That cute Barbie commercial hints at other reasons girls love dolls that they’re utterly unaware of but moms can appreciate. Doll play is fantastic “brain work.”
It’s not a coincidence that doll play begins around age 2, child development specialists say, as toddlers begin to imitate and role play. (That’s why they love baby dolls.) By age 4, they’re acting out family, school, and social roles. (Enter Barbie.) And by kindergarten and into elementary school, girls use all kinds of dolls for elaborate fantasy play.
Just look at the ways they fuel development:
Dolls build social skills, whether when playing dolls with others or making the dolls interact.
Dolls let kids figure out how the world works (what professors or coaches do, how houses are organized, what babies need).
Dolls help kids work through their feelings, like play-acting a “mean mom” or confiding in a doll after a sad day.
Dolls are great for language skills, as kids narrate their play.
Dolls exercise fine motor skills, as they dress and manipulate the dolls. (Well, hey, there’s one up side to those tiny Barbie shoes!)
Time spent with dolls is brain time OFF the digital grid.
Then there’s this truly wonderful thing about watching a commercial of a girl playing with dolls: She’s. Just. Playing. With. Dolls!
Un-wired dolls. No lights, whistles, pixels, or plug-ins.
(Sorry, Hello Barbie—you might be a smart toy, but you’re utterly stupid.)
Dolls have always been a huge part of how girls think and play.
I also love the commercial for reminding everyone that there’s nothing wrong with doll play.
Maybe you’ve heard this adage or seen it in action, because scientists believe it’s rooted in biology: Give a boy a stick, and he turns it into a weapon; give a girl a stick, and she cradles it and tucks it in. A remarkable study on chimpanzees in Uganda showed that the boy and girl chimps did the exact same thing!
I’m 100 percent for supplying girls with sports equipment, building kits, blocks, and other STEM-inspiring playthings (preferably NOT in gender-segregated pastel-tones).
I just hate seeing dolls marginalized because they’re just a “girl” thing.
They’re an essential childhood thing.
This might be a good place to stress that the benefits of dolls are the same for boys. Their imaginations soar, too, whether it’s little green army men, Mr. Potato Head, G.I. Joe—or Ken or Barbie. (Though for every boy willing to play along conventionally with his sister’s Barbie, there’s another who turns her upside down, splays her legs, and shoots artillery out of her perma-pointed toes.)
Dolls are us.
Okay, I have a confession to make: My old Barbie still sits on my office shelf. No, I don’t “play” with dolls any more. It’s just that I don’t want to forget those magical days of imagining other worlds and other lives with my most enduring toys, my dolls.
And THAT’S what I see in the viral Barbie commercial: just how cool and fun and transportive and, well, how formative doll play can be. I saw my old self. My daughter saw her old self. That’s why we got choked up.