I’ve been so distracted by minor but flashy news stories this year like the NCAA Finals, the nation’s finances, and the new Obama administration, I missed the big story of 2009. To help celebrate Barbie’s 50th birthday, Mattel came out with “Totally Stylin’ Tattoo Barbie.” She comes with a set of tattoos that kids can place on that iconic body. The doll also comes with a tattoo gun so children can stamp these washable stickers on themselves. Barbie with tattoos? I know what you’re thinking, “What’s next, Hooker Barbie? Pothead Barbie? Premarital Sex Barbie?”
Many parents had exactly this reaction when the doll came out a few months ago. They felt this would encourage kids to think prematurely about getting real tattoos for their real bodies. They thought that Barbie with tats was too slutty for their children. They were outraged that a “role model” like Barbie had sunk so low. Meanwhile, it became a big seller.
This wasn’t the first time that some adults have objected to Barbie. Some have felt that her unrealistic figure has made young girls yearn for an unrealistic figure of their own. Some parents believe that tattoos for Barbie continues this obsession with one’s body rather than other more important characteristics of a woman.
If you go to the archives of some universities, I’m sure you’ll find more than one thesis called something like, “Barbie and Body Image: The Downfall of American Womanhood.” I admit I was somewhat shocked when I heard about Barbie and body art. My first reaction was, “Now parents of 7-year-olds are going to have to deal with them wanting tattoos.”
But then I did something uncharacteristic for me — I started thinking. Maybe anti-Barbie papers aren’t the only theses in those dusty university archives. Maybe there are some with titles like, “Relax, Folks. Barbie Isn’t a Role Model. It’s Just a Toy.” Or if there aren’t any, there should be.
When you were a kid, weren’t you able to tell the difference between a toy and something real? When you played “war” with a friend, didn’t you know you were just playing? And did your putting on temporary tattoos make you get real ones? Besides, isn’t it a bit ironic that the anti-Barbie-ites who feel that the doll puts too much emphasis on appearance are concerned with the appearance of tattoos?
So it’s possible that the actual reason that Tattoo Barbie has some parents’ (old-fashioned) underwear in a bunch is because this kind of thing wasn’t around when they were kids. Maybe it’s like adults in the 1950s who were shocked by Elvis and convinced he would destroy our civilization. Or maybe they’re like parents like me who, in the ‘90s, thought video and computer games would ruin children forever. (I’m still not sure I was wrong about that one.)
Tattoos don’t have the same connotations today that they had when I was a kid. Back then, it seemed like only sailors, truck drivers, and other “tough guys” had tattoos. Certainly, we never saw a woman with one. Today, your doctor or your kid’s teacher is more likely to wear a tattoo than a hat.
I confess that I’m still getting used to looking at tattoos without making any kind of knee-jerk judgment about the wearer. Whenever I go on vacation where there’s a swimming pool, I’m still a little surprised by the fact that the nice couple we sat next to at dinner the night before has more tattoos than a basketball team. And guess what? Barbie’s the same age as that couple. She’s 50 now. She might not look like it, but many 50-year-old women don’t look their age these days. So maybe it’s fitting that 50-year-old Barbie has broken out the tattoos.
I also realized that mothers who have real tattoos might be embracing Tattoo Barbie. Maybe the doll helps their children understand that their mother is someone who just found a way to express herself rather than someone who hangs out with a gang during their naptime.
As a fuddy-duddy, it’s not easy for me to accept change, but I do — eventually. I accept texting, cars that talk, and milk in cartons. So I can certainly accept Barbie wearing tattoos. But I do think you have to draw the line. Where? I’ll tell you where, and this is a warning to the people at Mattel: Don’t even think about making a Ken doll with pierced nipples.
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from “Sesame Street” to “Family Ties” to “Home Improvement” to “Frasier.” He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his Web site at lloydgarver.com and his podcasts on iTunes.