Girls playing with frilly dolls makes my feminist blood turn cold

Article by Amanda Dunn /
The Age /
February 28, 2015 /
Click here to view original /

Have you seen the Tree Change Dolls? Testifying to the power of a good idea, Tasmanian mother Sonia Singh has drawn much applause for her upcycled dolls, in which she removes the nightclub make-up and clothes from Bratz dolls, among others, and remodels them into fresh-faced plastic girls in tree-climbing gear.

Facebook users have clasped Singh’s dolls to their online bosom, praising her for offering a more recognisable image of girlhood than the tarted-up Bratz, and she in turn has released videos showing people how to upcycle their own dolls. It’s an excellent idea, cleverly executed and generously shared.

It helps me feel a little better about my 15-month-old daughter cradling a baby doll, courtesy of a loving, but persistent, family member who knows I’m not wild about the idea.

Like a lot of parents of daughters in particular, I worry about their sense of body image and self-esteem. I am constantly astonished by how heavily gendered everything in the children’s industry is, thanks to clever marketers who realised they could make more money that way, and a host of subsidiary businesses that specialise in princesses, pirates, fairies, dinosaurs and all things pink and blue, glittery and noisy.

Plus, I have a thing about dolls. To me, they’re right up there alongside clowns and John Travolta on the creepy scale. I didn’t like them when I was a kid, and I don’t like them now. The sight of little girls pushing around dolls in plastic prams makes my feminist blood turn cold. But what do I do if it makes my daughter happy?

I know a lot of other mothers, and no doubt fathers too, worry about the same thing. Doll play is probably pretty harmless in itself, but we still live in a heavily gendered and in many ways unequal world. I want my daughter to be as equipped as possible to thrive in it, to believe that she can do anything and that how she looks is more interesting than consequential.

What concerns me more than the overt sexualisation of girls – I tend to agree with Melbourne University academic Lauren Rosewarne that this is often adults overlaying their own anxieties onto children – is the idea that what matters most is how they look (though, of course, at some point the two intersect).

I am a relative newcomer to Facebook, and I have been astonished by the number of young women, and sometimes older women, who have an am-I-hot-or-what profile picture, with big doe-eyes looking into the camera, pouty lips, a suggestive stare. Rosewarne says this is part of the “pornification” of popular culture, where those sorts of images have become entirely normalised.

Again, it’s not the suggestiveness that bothers me, but the “aren’t I pretty, say I’m pretty” aspect of it. This is a criticism not of them but of our culture, and it’s a really difficult issue for parents to negotiate. Being the great mimics that children are, it’s not long before girls want to wear make-up, clomp around in heels and endlessly apply lip gloss, because they have equated all of this in their heads – how could they not? – with attractiveness.

It would be easy to dismiss this as hand-wringing, overeducated parenting, and it might also be tempting to think that all of that gender-role anxiety is behind us, that girls are stronger and more powerful than ever. But we live in a time when a famous writer’s obituary kicks off by commenting that she was “plain of feature”, a senator at an committee hearing tells an interviewee that he thought she “might like to hear a man’s voice”, there’s a new teen film coming out called The Duff (designated ugly fat friend), and the Royal Children’s Hospital is treating more eating disorders that ever before. Not to mention the daily horror of the family violence stories coming to the fore.

It certainly matters. But you soon realise as a parent that you have to let your kids figure out some of these things for themselves. You can guide, you can be that dreadful term, a “role model”, but ultimately you have to have faith that they will navigate their own paths through it.

Although if my little one is having princess parties at 20, we may need to talk.