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When Children Become Parents: Reconsidering the Innocuous Act of Doll-Playing


Picture a marketplace. On the one side, are the buyers. On the other side, are the sellers. In our capitalist system, consumers have the right and freedom to choose which products they would like to purchase; suppliers produce goods to generate revenue. Although this may sound simple enough, in our scenario, the relationship between commodities, producers, and consumers is more complicated, as the doll-players' personal territories (the inward) and corporate / cultural politics (the outward) shape each other. While children's demand for dolls can create and influence supply, sometimes boosting Mattel's sales a result, the outward forces of corporate and cultural politics also invade children's personal territories by educating and socializing them sometimes in problematic ways, as the paper has demonstrated thus far.

One should further consider the nature of children as consumers who are consumed by the enchanting allures of doll-playing, as one examines both the supply and demand sides in relation to the mutual influence between the marketspace and the mindscape. Existing scholarship on "consuming kids", or children as consumers, is generally polarized between those who feel that vulnerable children's innocence must be protected from rapacious advertising notorious for the hostile takeover of childhood, and scholars who feel that children have the right and ability to make consumer choices. Often, the decision-making power to choose between protecting children from the evils of corporate colonization of childhood and granting them more liberty to make decisions as independent consumers belongs to parents. Indeed, at the heart of this subject matter, are parents and parenting.

Although girls are the direct consumers of Barbies, American Girls, and the joys of doll-playing, their parents are the ones that make the actual payment. Yet, that credit card swipe has broader implications: it transfers part of one's parenthood, including one's parental duty to socialize children through everyday interactions, to Mattel: the lucrative corporation to which educating children is a means to profit maximization and a sub-product of its doll products, instead of its primary objective. Mattel, the supply side, can be understood as an archetypal parent whose physical form -- the American Girl Place stores -- is not only a shrine worshipped by girl consumers, but also a dwelling: it is both a commercial and domestic space.

On the demand side, girls may also become parents when they create and shape identities for their Barbies and American Girls, often temporarily stepping out of their roles as daughters in the household as they mimic behaviors of their parents in role-play games with the dolls. Ironically, the girls' daughters in this game who replace their ordinary roles in the family -- Barbies and American Girls that serve as an imaginative outlet -- remain as powerful educators and influencers who are molding the girl consumers' identities and ideologies while the girls pretend to be shaping theirs through imagined parental dominance.

Although as consumers on the demand side of the market, girls seem to possess the power to choose which Mattel products to purchase, oftentimes, it is really the Barbie and American Girl dolls that are in control, even when girls embrace the role of the dolls' parents. At the marketplace, girls who are ostensibly only picking their playmates are actually choosing the way in which they want to be socialized: perhaps not even having the power to really choose, for however diverse the dolls and their stories may be, they share similar, often problematic ideologies reaffirming stereotypes and upholding dominant societal values and culture, as already discussed. Perhaps, there is something uncanny about Mattel's predetermination of the type of socialization that girl consumers are to receive through doll-playing.

So too, perhaps, is the cycle of "parenting": biological parents delegate some of their parental power of socializing their daughters to Mattel, whose agents Barbie and American Girl dolls, acting like "parents" to a certain degree, socialize and educate the children in spite of their own plasticity; young American girls, meanwhile, fantasize by imagining themselves as "parents" educating their "daughters" -- the dolls -- who in turn shape and mold their own identities...

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