by James Zahn
It’s incredible how much things can change in what seems, on one hand, to be a few short years, but on another, the result of decades of struggle. As my wife and I celebrate our eighth year of parenting, it’s hard to believe that I, as the father of two girls, have already spent the better part of a decade invested not only in the development of two beautiful human beings, but also in carrying a torch for play.
I’ve long held the opinion that we’ve often bent “rules” that shouldn’t have existed in the first place. These are the archaic ideals of what society has stamped as a “norm,” when the reality is that adults are solely responsible for perpetuating stereotypes that generations of children are forced to accept. There should be no lines in play, and it’s up to us to follow what I’ve always deemed a “guide and embrace” approach, as opposed to the “push and pull” that sometimes comes more naturally. It’s the gender debate that rages on, and the bottom line is that our kids can be anything—and that starts by shattering the perceptions of who can play with what toys.
Not just our kids, but we as parents, too.
This week, during the NFL Playoffs, Mattel surprised viewers by launching a new campaign aimed at celebrating the special bond between fathers and daughters. #DadsWhoPlayBarbie presents real dads and their daughters, each playing Barbie in their own way. At the end of each spot, a tagline of “Time Spent in Her Imaginary World Is an Investment in Her Real World,” drives home just how important playtime is for helping to shape the person that a young girl will eventually become.
The existence of this movement is one that seemed far off just a few years ago, when Mattel was still marketing Barbie as a toy to be shared by mothers and daughters, just as their Hot Wheels brand was firmly geared toward boys and dads. Our girls love dolls and cars with equal passion. They always have.
And me? I played with dolls as a boy, and it made me a better man.
Looking back upon my own childhood, there’s two distinct things that I can’t remember. I don’t remember my parents actually sitting down and playing with me the way that my wife and I do with our girls, and I don’t remember ever being told “this is a boy toy, and this is a girl toy.” And this was 30 to 40 years ago.
My sister and I played together, and those adventures were largely self-guided. She joined me in playing He-Man and The Masters of the Universe, Star Wars, and Transformers, and I joined her in playing Care Bears, Barbie, and “house.” I had my own Cabbage Patch Kid (still have him, is name is Ollie), and have such fond memories of playing Barbie, that I tracked down a vintage “new-old-stock” Barbie and the Rockers “Hot Rockin’ Stage” play set for my oldest daughter a few years ago. Being a dad who plays Barbie isn’t a stretch, and seeing other dads and their daughters take the spotlight for doing the same is a huge step for perception—and perception of Barbie is something Mattel has been working to change. It started with the “Imagine the Possibilities” initiative.
“Over the past year, Barbie has enabled girls to imagine themselves in aspirational roles that range from the fantastical to feminist, from princess to paleontologist,” says Lisa McKnight, senior vice president and general manager, Barbie, in a statement. “Spotlighting father-daughter relationships through playing with Barbie continues to articulate the importance of imagination and creativity on a girl’s journey to self-discovery.”
While I applaud the overall movement as an important and welcome one, the first commercial is not without a bit of criticism. In some of my internet circles, I did see some rumblings about it still placing some of the male stereotypes front-and-center, and it does. From mention of being “a man’s man,” to “doing boy things,” and even one dad who says he “plays with Ken, only” (though two seconds later he’s shown playing with Barbie), that language is there for a reason. These are real dads, and those statements are a part of their personal story. When you’re dropping a spot such as this into the middle of a NFL game, there needs to be emotional language that connects with the intended audience, and in that, the first strike for #DadsWhoPlayBarbie is a success. It has people talking. It has people thinking. And, hopefully, it has parents and kids playing.
I am a dad who plays Barbie, and in time I hope that’s no longer considered a novelty. Same goes for boys who play Barbie and girls who play Hot Wheels. Imagination, creativity, and fun know no gender.