Dang! I forgot about feminism!

“Barbies? Seriously?!”

My friend Rachel and her kids are over for a play date.  Rachel’s daughter has just walked into the room with a naked Barbie Doll in her hand.  Rachel is not amused.

I don’t need Rachel to explain that I’ve committed a serious feminist faux pas. But she still feels the need to explain.

“Dolls like that have can have a huge negative impact my daughter’s body image! They’re completely idealized, anorexic, anatomically impossible…”

I know all this already.  And I don’t disagree. 

My first response is to make excuses: “Oh, my cousin brought some Barbies over in a big box of hand-me-down toys.  I never would have bought them.”

She is not pacified. “Couldn’t you have just thrown them away?”

I try another tack:  Get real, I say. Images like this are everywhere. You can take away Barbies, you can take away television, but your kids will still see Barbie-style bodies on the sides of city buses, and on the magazine racks at the grocery store.  “We have to teach them to view these images critically, because they’re going to see them.”

Again, she’s not buying it.  “But that doesn’t mean you encourage it! Do you know how many young girls have eating disorders?”

We debate for a while.  Even though I mostly agree with her, I can’t bring myself to back down, because as the mother of a trans daughter, when it comes to gender, nothing is ever as simple as Rachel wants it to be. 

I look across the room at her two kids: Little 5-year-old Maya is wearing a pink shirt.  Little 3-year-old Sam is in blue, and playing with one of the few toys in our house that my daughter, M., has no interest in: A race car.  Thus far, both of Rachel’s children appear to be conventionally gendered kiddos. Unlike my “girl with a penis,” her kids have gender identities that align neatly with their “parts.”

As Rachel continues to lecture me, I start to get mad.

“You have no idea what it’s like to have a transgender child,” I say. “You can’t possibly know how hard this is, or what I’m trying to juggle.”

She softens slightly, but she doesn’t get it.

I can’t really blame her.  I’ve been wrestling with this issue for two years, and am still trying to wrap my head around it. 

Here’s the part that really makes my brain ache:  How do I raise a strong, feminist daughter without invalidating her desperate desire to identify with the conventional trappings of girlhood?  I feel battered by the competing demands of two progressive impulses:  One is pro-feminist; one is pro-trans. Every day, these two liberal bullies are doing battle over my precious child.    

Wait, you say: These forces shouldn’t be in competition!  Just encourage her to be strong AND a woman!  Won’t that work?  In theory, yes.  But in practice? Not so simple.

Example: What do you say to your young trans daughter, who regularly tells you about her anxiety and despair at not being seen as a “real girl,” when she wants the Barbie dolls and princess toys that all her little girlfriends have? 

What response will best support her in becoming a strong, self-confident, self-loving woman?  

Do I wear my trans-ally hat and agree to the Barbie doll in order to validate her heartbreakingly fragile sense of entitlement to membership in the girl club? (Every single time we enter a women’s bathroom, she looks up at me and says, “Is this the girls’ room, Mama? We’re both girls, right? Right?” I look down and see more anxiety and longing than should be possible on such a small face. “Of course we both are,” I say, “Of course.”)

Or, do I don my feminist hat and say no to Barbie, thereby limiting the possible negative effects on her self-esteem and body image? 

If you know the solution this conundrum, folks, I’m all ears.

The truth is, I’ve been so immersed in supporting her in accessing the world of girl-dom that I kind of forgot about feminism for a while.  And I’m sure there are things I would have done and said differently if she’d been born with a vagina like Rachel’s daughter Maya. I’m sure I would have taken a harder line on the Barbies, done more grrl-power talk, downplayed the obsession with princesses, pushed harder for sports and math games.  

I know I need to pay more attention to this. Trans women are subject to all the misogyny, negative body-image messages, and low self-esteem that plague the rest of womankind.  Hanna – the teen trans girl M. fell in love with at the Gender Odyssey conference – is rail-thin and told me that she runs seven miles a day to keep her figure. Sigh.

I also know I’m not alone in this struggle. Trans women have long taken heat from feminists for reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes about women. Like me, they simply can’t win: If they are too feminine, they’re seen as socially regressive. If they’re not feminine enough, they’re accused of not being real women. (I wrote in a previous post about how this issue affects my kiddo.)

I know I’m going to need to figure out how to crank up the feminist volume while still keeping the pro-trans station blaring loud and clear.  It’s probably going to continue to be a tricky line to walk. 

Among the treasures that came from my cousin’s box of hand-me-downs was a book about Disney Princess Weddings. Each page features a different glittering, gowned princess marrying the prince of her dreams. Even I have my limits.   

“I don’t like this book,” I told M. “I’d like to get rid of it.”

“Why?” she says, “The dresses are pretty.”

“Because it’s just about girls getting married, and getting married is OK, but girls can do a lot more than that.”

“Right,” M. agreed, “Like being important presidents and rescuing fairies who are in terrible danger.”

OK, maybe I’m not doing such a bad job after all.


14 thoughts on “Dang! I forgot about feminism!

  1. Decided to throw in my two cents.
    I think in this case, regardless if your pro-fem side is saying “Ehh …”, you should let M have toys like Barbie. M is a young child still learning many things, and even though Barbie isn’t the greatest role model, it doesn’t need to be seen that way. It can just be a girl toy – which will help others see M as more of a girl, I think. She wants people to know that she is a girl, and that she’s just like everyone else – Barbie has been a longstanding girl toy since she first hit the shelves, so what better way to support her growth than with a traditional toy? There are countless other opportunities to make sure M grows into a strong, feminine girl – but maybe this one thing could be the exception?
    Just my thoughts – thanks for sharing with us! 🙂

  2. I’m probably a bad feminist too, but I have just never been able to relate to the hubbub over Barbie. Yes, she’s thin and unrealistically fashionable, but so are Winx dolls, Tinkerbell, etc. I once asked my then-four-year-old sister if she wanted to be like Barbie, and she said “No, she’s a doll” and that pretty much settled it for me. I just can’t bring myself to be that upset about Barbie, when on the totem pole of Bad Things it’s somewhere around eating Pop Tarts for dinner.

    For me, I find it less important to worry about what kids enjoy and play with, and more about whether or not they can view those things with perspective.

    • I totally agree with you. It is not the toys that do the damage it is the perception of them. Teaching our girls that Barbie is just a doll, that she is not real and never could be, and allowing our girls to go all out on the girly things they want is best in my opinion. We can show our daughters plenty of real, strong, beautiful women that they can be like. Barbie is not real, she is plastic and no one enjoys being around a “person” who is plastic.

  3. I’m a trans woman who’s a feminist. I don’t see a dichotomy.

    My 24 year old son is a cisgender straight guy, and most of his friends describe him as a “raging feminist.” My 21 year old gender-fluid offspring is sometimes my daughter and sometimes my son, has a huge Disney princess coloring book, and is probably even more of a raging feminist than their older brother.

    Yes, you can give your trans daughter Barbies without betraying feminist ideals. They’re toys. They aren’t miniature versions of reality.

    Growing up male, I had “action figures” (dolls for boys). These manly heroes had chests so hugely muscular, they literally could not stand up. What kind of message do these figures/dolls send to boys about body image? What about male role models in TV and movies and ads? Why are these questions that so few feminists are asking? The guys who usually represented me in media when I was growing up weren’t the heroes. They were the loyal sidekicks.

    We as parents can give our kids gendered toys and still educate them to view these things critically. Yes, it’s not easy. But it can be done. If and when they start to question their body images, we show them or describe for them images that are body-positive.


  4. I think the mentality that’s ‘Barbies are bad’ is a little too Machiavellian for me. Yes some kids are negatively influenced, but for other kids it inspires them to be fashion designers. Or there are kids who just couldn’t be bothered with Barbies unless they are teething (I’m guilty of that). I think it’s just important to judge the doll’s value within your own family’s context. If it makes your daughter feel more comfortable, what’s the harm?

  5. Can you look about the world and find role models who are successful, intelligent and attractive women and tell m all about them? It’s ok to be both. I’m a woman. I can build an engine from the ground up, I can weld, I can sew and cook and I can also wear a little black dress and killer heels should I wish to do so. Welcome to new feminism, baby! Oh, regarding ‘real’ women, as portrayed by the media. Try to make sure that m looks, really looks, at images in the media and encourage her to equally really look at real people, and notice that they are not the same. If she says someone is pretty, encourage her to quantify it. Help her not just to look, but to see.

  6. I think that you are doing a wonderful job of being a great mother. Your friend doesn’t realise it but she is being a bit of what I call an energy vampire. You were being supportive of your child and happy to allow your daughter to play with Barbie and identify with her friends who also play with Barbie but by making an issue of it she sucked out some of your energy and has made you spend unnecessary time wondering if you were doing the right thing..You obviously have a brilliant and close relationship with your daughter. I am sure you will discuss with her how to be a proud confident woman. It is all about good communication,support and love and by reading your. post it is clear you have that in abundance. My advice to you would be to have faith in yourself ,you are doing a great job.

  7. I’m a feminist and I buy my girls all kinds of toys. Dinosaurs, dragons, cars, Disney princesses, Barbies, tea sets, soccer balls, and so on. Merely saying “Barbies are bad” is lazy feminism to me. My child doesn’t develop her gender or feminist identity from a toy. They may play with Cinderella, but I’ve made it clear to them that we are commoners, and neither of them will ever be princesses. And if they want to grow up to be Barbie, then they better go to grad school and get excellent jobs, because a dream house in Malibu is expensive.

  8. I don’t get the whole anti-barbie thing. I had 7 barbies when I was a kid. I loved them for the fact that one had cowgirl boots and tan skin, one had red hair with flat feet (mermaid), I loved them for their differences, but never once was their size or shape taken into consideration.

  9. I don’t think that “girl toys” such as Barbies are a bad thing as long as children have a wide range of play experiences in addition to them and feel that they have a choice in what they play with.

  10. The whole Barbie, princesses, pink thing is a real problem, and is damaging. It sounds like a lot of commenters here are being either naive about it, or are trying to make you feel less guilty. Since you brought up the issue, I suspect you’re not going to buy it though. It’s also clearly a problem that’s closely related to trans issues, so it’s one that you’ll have to think about sooner or later. If people weren’t so obsessed with training their kids to fill one or the other social role, maybe it wouldn’t seem like such a big deal that there are people who don’t fit so neatly. So it’s in your interests, and your child’s interests, to do what you can to fix this problem. I think it’s wonderful that you’re thinking about how to be both pro-trans and feminist, even if you haven’t figured out how to do it.
    It does sound like your friend was being unfair. When your kid doesn’t have problems fitting in, it’s easier to be courageous about this sort of thing. With a cis-girl, it’s easier to teach her to be a feminist. When your kid is pretty, it’s easier to pretend that looks aren’t important. Rejecting pink is easier if you have a lot of money to spend on clothes, etc. One simple response that seems totally fair would be to say that you’re picking your battles. You’ve already got your hands full with one problem, and for the moment, can’t quite handle adding another one to your plate. I guess that’s basically what you told her.
    You seem to already have some ideas about how you might manage to combine feminism with being pro-trans, and there surely are resources out there that you can find, so I’m sure you’ll figure it out. Or at least you’ll try, which is as much as anyone can expect.

  11. So, I’m coming to this post quite a while after you wrote it. And I hope that you’ve come to some sort of happy conclusion about it.
    My wife has had a lot of difficulty coming to grips with the fact that our kids are falling into gender stereotypes seemingly intrinsically. My 7yo daughter is a lover of all things pink, frilly and Disney Princessy and my 3yo son is a lover of dinosaurs, marine animals and Peppa Pig. We don’t encourage this, other than to buy them the toys they ask for. they happily will play with each others toys: E2 even goes as far as to insist that the baby dolls are his and to change nappies, run madly around the house with the toy stroller, etc. E1 is also strongly minded about her participation in traditional gender stereotypes being mostly helpful for others to start to understand that she actually does love those things, but not because she is a girl but because they are fun.
    I think you hit the mail on the head when you told your friend it’s about teaching your child to critically assess the images they see and to realise that toys aren’t real and never can be a role model you should follow (unless they want to grow up to be Emporer Zorg from Toy Story, that’s ok!)

  12. I think blaming Barbie for anorexia is as silly as blaming the cookie monster for obesity. Giving your daughter Barbies isn’t going to doom her – just make sure she knows that’s not what most “real” women look like. She shouldn’t have much of an issue accepting that, since she’s not a conventional little girl. She seems so mature from your writing, and I think its absolutely beautiful that she is mature enough to be transgendered at such a young age. Kudos to you!

  13. I am feminist and had an eating disorder for decades. It was never in any way related to seeing dolls as role models. I was brought up in the Seventies when toys seemed to be more gender neutral (no pink lego etc) and was never a girly girl/never wanted to be a princess etc. Eating disorders stem from a particular type of psychological/neurological makeup triggered by environment- far more likely to be caused by family relationships, obsessive/perfectionist tendencies, black and white rigid thinking, family attitudes towards food etc. In my opinion it would be more damaging to let your daughter think there is something wrong with her for liking Barbies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s