Biting Barbie’s Head Off: thoughts on how childhood play informs ideas about gender

art and article by Anna Lee

I was a tomboy. I played with trucks, cars, trains, and Tinkertoys. I enjoyed making toxic goop out of household materials and putting my concoctions in the freezer for my mother to find. I didn’t like Barbie dolls. I made two failed attempts at ballet and tap dancing; I quit after the first class, just a clumsy freckle-faced kid in a leotard. In kindergarten, my best friend Lola and I were the only girls to play soccer with the boys, and Lola ran the whole operation—she selected the teams and positions, while I was her henchwoman. I was the first girl to infiltrate the all-boys knockout game in recess (most girls didn’t want to get sweaty in their Christian-school uniforms, but I didn’t mind), and Lola and I were the best Lego builders in our first grade class.

Lola had Barbie dolls, but she didn’t play with them the way you were supposed to, and that’s what made it cool. When you went down to the basement of Lola’s house, you’d see headless Barbies, feet bitten and hair chopped, strewn across the floor. I still remember the sound as Lola and her sister bit their heads off—pop! We loved it.

I never bit the heads off, though, or if I did, it’s been wiped from my memory. Decapitating Barbie dolls seemed a little too anti-establishment for my six-year-old self, and I was never really into violence. I’ll admit to some foot-biting though, whatever psychological quirks that may imply.

An article in a Women’s Liberation-era journal sheds some light on why girls enjoy mutilating our Barbie dolls. In her 1973 article for the journal Young Children, writer Edna Mitchell discusses the intended use of toys made for boys versus that of toys made for girls. She writes: “Girls’ toys are not made to be constructed, taken apart, or repaired by a child. Boys’ toys, on the other hand, encourage manipulation, construction, and destruction. They seem to appeal to power, as contrasted with girls’ passivity.”


The common game of mutilating Barbie dolls can be seen as an attempt to render so-called “girls’ toys” able to be constructed, destroyed, and manipulated in spite of the societal norms that do not give girls that option. Girls are taught to play along with Barbie, dress her up, create backstories. We are taught to cherish and preserve Barbie—but that’s boring, so instead, we tear her apart. When a girl mutilates a Barbie, she derives power from a toy that was meant to encourage passivity. For tomboys like me and Lola, biting Barbie’s head off was the first of many acts of rebellion, big and small, against a set of gendered ideas that dictate who we are and who we can become.


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