No nipples, but her legs go on for ever

Women think Barbie is an unsuitable role model because she is artificial: little girls like her precisely because she is

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As a parent, one strives to protect one's offspring from malign influences, but despite everything my youngest daughter has succumbed to the most common cult of all. She has entered "the magical world of Barbie", and try as I might I can't get her back.

At least I know that my eldest daughter went through the same thing and has now been so successfully deprogrammed that the only game she plays with Barbie is one she calls "Barbie commits suicide". As a toddler, she would wail night after night for "a bender". This was her name for these dubiously flexible creatures.

I gave in. Most of us do. Forget gender stereotyping, ideological objections, crass consumerism - harassed mothers hand these toys to their kids as if they were supplying them with crack. "I know it's not good for her, but all her friends are doing it." Don't worry, we say, it's a phase, she'll grow out of it.

I told myself this only last week when I was purchasing Jewel Hair Mermaid Barbie. Her hair is 38cm long and full of star-shaped jewels. She has no nipples, but her earrings stay on for ever. She cannot walk because her golden dress fans out into a mermaid tail. She is beautiful and she is desired. By my five-year-old, anyway.

My daughter wants to say she has got another Barbie in order to be part of the Barbie economy that dominates the playground. She wants to put her to bed in between Paul (Sindy's boyfriend) and Aladdin. She wants to take her clothes off with her fat little fingers and then nag at me to put then on again. Of course, I shall reluctantly stretch lycra over the Barbie bosom until the inevitable day that I find Jewel Hair Mermaid Barbie, naked accept for a coating of felt tip and biro, legs askew, hair mussed up by having been washed one too many times with real shampoo, at the bottom of the toy box.

You won't find Abused Barbie in the shops, though, for Barbie is pure. Her royal pinkness exists in a world of pre-adolescent girliness. She is a princess, a mermaid, a gymnast, a songbird, a ballerina. She goes on picnics. She has a horse with hair as long and blonde as hers. She lives in a plastic Tudorbethan palace. She has a boyfriend of sorts, but what can you say about a man who calls himself Shaving Fun Ken (he has "real" hair and a beard to really shave)? Ken is also prone to dazzling us in his "sparkling holographic" beach shorts. Fag Hag Barbie, it would appear, lives in a dream house with a gay man and a couple of little sisters that she has picked up along the way (Shelly and Stacie) - Single Mother Barbie is not on the agenda as yet.

Her friend Ken is not exactly in the closet, anyway, as anyone who enters the Barbie pages on the Internet will realise. Here he is engaged in all sorts of acts that one would imagine require genitals. Fortunately, neither Ken nor Barbie herself possess these. Still, who needs genitals when you can have ridiculous pert breasts and legs that go on forever and can ride a songbird carriage that features decorative birds that flutter their wings as you move along?

Watching little girls play with these creatures, one realises that Barbie is both Babe and baby. She is exactly what a woman should be, and yet small enough to manipulate in every way. Her lifestyle doesn't involve work but endless fantasies of feminine fun.

Sindy, an Essex girl version of Barbie, meanwhile, is more down-market, and, it has to be said, a lot cheaper. Sindy is, how shall we put it, more athletic, endlessly disco-dancing in her playhouse, doing somersaults or cruising around in a speedboat. Sindy is romantic but practical.

Sindy, for instance, has a magic dreamboat, a plastic gondola that transforms itself into a dining table and chairs. Sindy really does a lot of things. Sindy "really dances and her jacket lights up". Sindy "really pedals". Sindy "really spins". Sindy, one feels, could easily see off a Dragon Flyz Riptor Dragon or a Mighty Roar Goliath or Big Slammu or any of those macho boys' toys.

If Barbie is ensconced in a retrograde view of the world, it doesn't show saleswise. She is more popular than ever. Her Aryan perfection will be found in many a Christmas stocking. A consumer boycott is not likely. Barbie deprivation is a crime that few of us are prepared to commit.

Nor are there any real alternatives on the market. What would we prefer to give our little girls - PMT Barbie? Benefit Barbie? Bobbit Barbie, complete with accessorised kitchen knife?

Women think Barbie is an unsuitable role model because she is artificial; little girls like her precisely because she is. Grown-ups see nothing but blonde passivity; little girls see a powerful figure who rules her world according to fantasy, not fact.

Barbie does what the hell she likes, and what she likes has little to do with the adult world of work and money and sex. If we moan, as we continually do, that children grow up too quickly, then why do we want them to have toys that reflect the tensions of the adult world?

Ah ... but what about the fantasy of femininity that Barbie promotes? What happens if you are not white, not blonde, not a ballerina? What happens if you are not going to grow up into an adult Barbie like Claudia Schiffer? Are we permanently damaged by these oppressive little dolls? Were the generations that grew up with Tressy, the doll with a hole in her head and a key in her back that made her hair grow, forever disturbed by realising that she was, in fact, a mutant, that real women didn't have holes in their heads?

Barbie lives in a dream world because it is a world that elevates an idealised view of femininity at the same time as denying its fleshy reality. Is this really a dream world, or an accurate reflection of what society continues to demand from women? Barbie is merely ruler of the realm of living dolls, a world where decorative women are not allowed appetites of any description.

As always, it's the little girls who understand. Eventually, most of them will reject her as merely "sad" and ridiculous. They are growing up expecting to engage actively with the world. Barbie's pastel passivity will be abandoned Sadly it is we, the adults, to judge from female anxiety and male taste, who are guiltily enthralled by the possibility that she could be real.

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