The Dharma of Barbie

Karen Maezen Miller was torn when her daughter entered the Barbie stage. But what was worse—the doll’s commercialism or Mom’s grownup judgments?

Karen Maezen Miller
21 July 2023
Barbie wears a shirt that says  be yourself
Photo by Sandra Gabriel.

My daughter has 35 Barbies. This is a known fact, because I just pulled them out from under the bed and counted. Counting them is something I have been reluctant to do over these last five years, while Barbies have multiplied far beyond the furtive certainty that my seven-year-old has too many. I like to keep them out of my sight, a swarm of tangled limbs and hair in an underbed bin. The bin is my way of keeping a lid on it all: the mess, the excess, and the incorrectness.

“She’s one of those mothers,” I imagine you thinking. One of those witless ones who buy toys without giving intelligent thought to the underlying message, the implication, or the outcome. A Barbie mom.

Barbies don’t look like us. That’s the truth. After you wrangle them out of the package and onto the floor for a time, they don’t even look like Barbies anymore.

I can’t remember exactly how it all began, but I’m sure it began with me.

It is captivating to see a tiny child fall into pure and uncomplicated love. My daughter Georgia’s first major heartthrob was Snow White, who was just one in a color-coded sequence of princesses to be cherished, outgrown, and discarded, but we didn’t know that then. We didn’t know and we didn’t delay. When we took our daughter on her first trip to Disneyland, we strode right up to the real-life Snow White and watched our two-year-old flirt. Then, we bee-lined to the souvenir racks and forked over the bucks for a Snow White doll.

I knew better: when we ripped through the packaging in the car on the way home, I knew it wasn’t a Snow White doll. Under the camouflage of the costume and written in the fine print of product licensing, this was Barbie, the modern Pandora, her box now torn asunder in the backseat.

Little girls of her age were going through the same initiation. At my daughter’s nursery school the devotion seemed to spread like an early spring virus. For her third birthday, her classmate Kelsey had one of those mythical oversized parties with a gargantuan fantasy cake—a rococo confection with Barbie rising like Venus from its crested center. It was magnificent. My daughter didn’t have to ask for the same cake at her party, although she did. When her birthday rolled around a few months later, I got the baker’s name. The price quoted was outrageous, but it wasn’t the money that dissuaded me. It was the mileage. The bakery was twenty miles away, and they didn’t deliver, not even for $175 cake.

I resorted to a neighborhood shop that promised they made real Barbie cakes. When I picked up my order on the morning of the party, I discerned otherwise. There, stuck into the middle of this knock-off concoction was a cheesy, phony, fake Barbie, a dime-store hottie with limp hair and kewpie cheeks. I was furious and shouted at the counter clerk.

“She won’t notice,” said my childless, still-sane sister, predicting my daughter’s reaction as a way to subdue mine. I shook my fists and took the cake.

Once home, I yanked the offending head off the centerpiece doll and replaced it with the head of a real Barbie culled from my daughter’s nascent collection. The skin tone clashed. The proportions were wrong. It was a crime of passion.

My daughter never noticed. To a three-year-old, “same” doesn’t mean “same.” And to her, Barbie clearly didn’t mean all the things it meant to me.

We think we know what things mean, and on the rare occasions we admit we don’t, we aim to find out. We study; we gnaw. We gauge the impact and the consequence. We make deductive leaps and draw foregone conclusions. Among all the puzzles and predicaments, the best guesses and good intentions of child-rearing, there are a few universally accepted truths. One of them is this: Barbie is bad.

How troubling when our daughters reach so readily for those eleven inches of molded plastic; the slender body that fits so easily in their still-dimpled hands; the far-from-lifelike doll that survives every kind of fashion torture, burial in sandboxes, drowning in bathtubs, and disastrous haircuts administered in secret with forbidden scissors. How mortifying when, among all the more sensible offerings, all the appropriate and sanctioned playthings, our daughters more or less universally agree: Barbie is good.

It’s in that rub, the eternal struggle of bad versus good, right versus wrong, that I see the hidden dimension of the icon under the bed. It goes beyond the unassailable ideals of gender neutrality and healthy body image. It’s far subtler than choosing sides with demons or innocents. It’s not us versus them; it’s neither black nor white. It’s dharma, the dharma of Barbie, available for as little as $5.99 at the discount superstore.

“Does Georgia like Barbie?” the girl quizzes me. She is four and eyeing the pink vinyl lunch kit that my daughter carries into the preschool yard each morning. It has a picture of a modish Barbie in fringed vest and bell-bottoms. The cultural reference is lost on my daughter, of course, but not on me, the consumer target. I’d purchased it to ease us past this next major milestone: eating lunch at school.

“Yes,” I answer, “Do you?” I can tell by her upturned face and direct gaze that she has something to unload.

“My daddy says we don’t like Barbies because the company that makes them wants to take our money and they don’t look like us.”

We carry lunch, I’m thinking, and she carries that.

It’s such a burden, our high-mindedness, and it gets us nowhere. Oh, we might inch along far enough to trade one idea for another, but that’s nowhere new. We’re still bogged down by our biases, hamstrung by principles and blinded by the inviolability of our opinions. Then our children, so open and eager for an explanation, swallow it whole. They spit it out in bits and pieces, a defense against a pink vinyl lunch kit that can never be theirs.

Barbies don’t look like us. That’s the truth. After you wrangle them out of the package and onto the floor for a time, they don’t even look like Barbies anymore. I try to match the outfits; I try to pair the shoes; I give up on the hair. I sweep through the room after playtime and reorganize. It is my private pain. My daughter’s doll play has nothing to do with the way her doll is supposed to look. She does not elevate the ideal; she does not see the difference. In her games, nothing is precious, nothing is permanent, nothing is taboo. One afternoon I hear her and a friend exploding in glee. They are playing Barbies. Their game consists of throwing all the dolls over the bed. When they finish, they throw them over the other side of the bed. It doesn’t seem right to me. Before I realize what I’m doing, I go in and put a stop to it.

The company isn’t stupid. They make a nod to diversity, to differences in hair color, skin tone, gender, and even age. They offer up cute career scenarios and a panoply of Grimm princesses. It is a clever nod. It gives my daughter more things to wish for, and her coterie, more things to buy. But Georgia isn’t fooled by it. She follows no one’s script but her own. Regardless of any message encrypted in the stylized dolls and intricate accessories, every game ultimately devolves into the same storyline, an original melodrama of Georgia’s own creation, wherein her heroic character is betrayed by friends, abandoned and left to sleep outdoors where she is “bitten by raccoons” or meets some other tragic fate, but ultimately rises in time for the story to end. I recognize the classic arc of fable in her tale. I see how densely human she is, how eternal and unknowable her mind. I stop trying to make the game be nice, quiet or amiable. I stop steering it by my own notions of fairness or morality. I let it be.

Among all those in her collection—some dolls newer, shinier, more fashionable, each in turn birthed by a product launch and attendant marketing campaign––she has one favorite. Indistinguishable to me, it is one of the older ones, hair now ratty and coarse. It wears a dingy and torn gown, her favorite dress. The doll has no special features. No razzle. All the other ones play interchangeable supporting roles, mere retainers. She will tell you that she loves this Barbie because it is “pretty,” but relatively speaking, it is not pretty in the way I use the term. It is not pretty in the way I recollect that split second of youth by which standard I now remember my finest hour. I come to see that “pretty” is not comparative for her. It is how Georgia describes that capacity in her to love. Barbie is pretty, rocks are pretty, and lizards are pretty. I wish I too could see how pretty everything is, how pretty I am.

Some of Georgia’s friends have Barbies. Some do not. Those who do not have them sometimes come to our house for the sole purpose of playing with what is outlawed at home. This is how one of my neighbors straddled the issue. Her daughter wasn’t allowed to own Barbies, but was granted unlimited visitations to the dark side just down the street. I could understand why. It is hard—quite nearly impossible—to live with the craving that prohibition can produce.

On one of these visits, the girls were playing hard at Barbies, and we moms were sitting nearby, futilely sorting a mound of miniature clothes and shoes to bide the time. My daughter asked the other mom why her little girl wasn’t allowed to have dolls like these.

“I don’t really like Barbies,” the mother replied. I could see that she was treading lightly.

“What don’t you like about them?” my daughter asked.

“I don’t like their legs,” my friend answered. “They’re too long.” She had delicately tried to put in concrete terms the ideological essence of her objection.

My daughter considered that for a moment.

“But you like me, right?” Georgia was four or five at the time, and her question seemed silly at first. Then I realized that she was working through the unfamiliar business of liking and disliking someone because of how they look—her legs, after all, were short. Was that likable or not?

These friends moved away two years ago and recently returned for a visit. The Barbie ban had been lifted, exempted as a one-time payoff for a tooth filling, then obliterated entirely by the overwhelming force of pent-up desire. The mother was circumspect about the early years and her intentions. By banning the Barbie she had been trying to prevent in her daughter a recurrence of her own adolescent self-loathing. It wasn’t about her daughter at age four, but age fourteen.

Wouldn’t it be simple if banning a doll could directly prevent adolescent self-loathing; if that were all it took to guarantee that our teens would be happy and self-assured; if with such a simple act they could bypass the lifelong debility of self-criticism and bound into unshakable equanimity? How ironic that for the sake of liberating our daughters from the injury of self-loathing, we ourselves introduce the insult of persistently dualistic views.

In a few years, I’ll probably have a different perspective on this. My daughter will no longer view herself so guilelessly. Perhaps by then I’ll accept my middle-age paunch, my flab, my waddling neck, and my hips. Perhaps by then I can teach her something worthwhile about the delusion of self-image; the trap of egocentric thinking; the twin torments of like and dislike; the penitentiary of good and bad. Perhaps by then I will have mastered the dharma of Barbie. Until then, I’ll reach under the bed and manage the inventory.

Karen Maezen Miller

Karen Maezen Miller

Karen Maezen Miller is a priest in the Soto Zen lineage of Taizan Maezumi Roshi and a student of Nyogen Yeo Roshi. In daily life, as mother to daughter Georgia and as a writer, she aims to resolve the enigmatic truth of Maezumi’s teaching, “Your life is your practice.” Miller is the author of Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood, and most recently, Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden.