May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
Despite (or maybe because of) media hype, the Barbie doll is doubtless the most overrated toy of modern times. Oh, sure, Barbie earns 1.9 billion dollars yearly for Mattel and has become the symbol of growing up for millions of four-to eight-year-old girls from Minneapolis to Moscow and Manila. Still, the idea of manufacturing a three-dimensional paper doll was hardly new to Mattel’s Ruth Handler in 1958. Handler borrowed the look from a German doll that she and her daughter, Barbara, saw on a vacation trip in Zurich; Mattel succeeded in taking this awkward figure in high heels and selling it directly to children via kids’ TV shows, bypassing the traditional role of the mother in selecting toys. In her early years moms hated Barbie—not because Barbie encouraged consumerism and an unrealistic body image in girls but because the doll did not look like their childhood dolls. Barbie took the girl out of an innocent child’s world and did not encourage nurturing. The fact that mothers bought Barbies is a testament to the power of advertising and a new willingness of parents to give in to their children.
In a way Barbie was a harbinger of modern feminism. She was an early rebel from the domesticity that dominated the lives of baby-boom mothers. To the eightyear-old of 1960, Barbie represented a hoped-for future of teenage freedom, not the responsibilities of her own mother. Still, Barbie hardly “taught” girls to shed female stereotypes; rather she instructed girls to associate the freedom of being an adult with buying and collecting stuff. Barbie’s fashions and play sets were often i much more expensive than the “hook,” the doll itself. Barbie also needed friends like Midge, Skipper, and Ken (each sold separately) to shop and have fun with. Barbie may represent marketing genius, a perpetual fad, but she helped reduce play to collecting and led kids into a fantasy world alien to the child’s world and their future lives. Even Mattel has seen the limits of the Barbie formula, recently buying the most successful anti-Barbie doll, a classic line of companion dolls, the American Girl Collection.
For generations the most common yet most diverse toy was the building block. Touted as a learning tool since the days of John Locke, the homely block was wed to educational play. Today we would find amusing and amazing Luther Gulick’s insistence that his children receive no toys other than three hundred uniform brick-shaped blocks for their first six years. This advocate of purposive recreation in the 1910s believed that simple toys made for complex discoveries as children progressed from “simply piling up the blocks and knocking them down” to building houses complete with doors and windows in symmetrical designs. The building block became the favorite of the earnest and conservative parent, and by 1950 Playskool catalogues insisted that the proper selection of blocks in age-appropriate sizes and shapes was crucial for maximizing a child’s creative and intellectual development. The child-development guru Benjamin Spock urged in 1961 that novelty dolls and cap guns be replaced bv blocks.
But fad-toy giants like Hasbro and Mattel prevailed, and in the 1980s they bought out educational-toy companies like Playskool. More to the point, the building block went the way of Victorian character building, and on balance that was a loss. Today the block is largely relegated to the baby’s playpen. Older children play instead with Lego systems, often doing little more than assembling fantasy spaceships from detailed instructions.
Friedrich Froebel, the nineteenth-century founder of the kindergarten, considered the plain block a divine “gift” and allowed five-year-olds to do projects with them only according to a complex set of rules. While blocks remain both a versatile and open-ended plaything, the demands of modern marketing and modern identification of childhood with novelty have led to their eclipse. It is hard to see how a video game could inspire today’s youth to the kind of disciplined creativity that the building block inspired in the young Frank Lloyd Wright, the founder of modern American architecture.