Muscle bound superheroes not bad for kids like skinny Barbies

I get a lot of comments on Reel Girl about how muscly superheroes promote idealized, unattainable body types for males in the same way that skinny, big-breasted Barbies do for females.

I’ve written about how rigid gender boxes are bad for everyone. They are limiting and repressive. That said, the toys and narratives around muscle-bound superheroes aren’t anything close to damaging the way the beauty based toys of girlworld are.

Muscles symbolize strength and power. Superman does not spend his time, in toys or narratives, brushing his hair, putting on make up, or gazing at himself in the mirror. Superman doesn’t come with a plastic comb or even plastic a gym set. Superman has muscles because he, like all supeheroes, is known for what he does, not for how he appears.

As a kid– or as an adult– what would you rather be valued for: your actions or your appearance? Which would make you feel inspired and which would make you feel insecure? Would you prefer that your heroic actions, bravery, courage, and your accomplishments helped to make you attractive to the opposite sex, or your weight and your outfit?

The related topic that comes up on Reel Girl is violence. Games marketed to boys are violent and that’s bad.

I don’t like gore; I don’t like how movies and toys marketed to boys predominantly feature war and battles. Toys should be marketed to all kids and have diverse themes and characters. But violence in imaginary play isn’t bad; it’s natural.

Good art evokes emotions in the reader, the observer, or the listener. All kids– and adults– experience intense emotions. Our internal, emotional world is dramatic. Art depicts that internal world, in part, though narratives and dramatic play. A child is ordered to share a toy and she may collapse in tears on the floor. She feels like her world is caving in. A narrative or a game will actually show the world caving in. You may feel like you had “the wind knocked out of you,” or feel like you are “being attacked.” Art shows that. Not only does art make emotional experience visible, but to be effective, it has to do so in a way that is universal. That is why, in art, you’ve got to raise the stakes. For example, for me, cleaning my closet is a monumental task. I approach it with fear and when I’m done, I feel as if I’ve scaled Mount Everest. But if I were to write a story about cleaning my closet, most of my readers would be bored to tears. Art creates a dramatic metaphor around an emotion that everyone can relate to. Instead of cleaning a closet, there is the Greek myth of Psyche sorting seeds.

People feel like the walls are caving in on them for different reasons, but every human experiences that feeling at one time or another.

As far as “boys make sticks into guns, girls make trucks into beds for their dolls,” I just think that’s bullshit. There are so many ways– books, toys, movies, TV, parents, teachers, doctors, and dentists– kidworld encourages and validates “boy” behavior or “girl” behavior. Wouldn’t it be great if all kids were allowed to be human?

26 thoughts on “Muscle bound superheroes not bad for kids like skinny Barbies

  1. I’m never really sure how I feel about Barbies. I don’t see them as icons of all that is wrong with society but then while I had a few of them myself, I never really played with them. I’d dress them in their outfits and then grow bored. But perhaps it did encourage my love of fashion and my desire to create designs of my own.

    Anyway, my question is this. Where do you come down on the issue of Barbie’s adopted roles? Doctor Barbie, Ballerina Barbie, Fairy Barbie, Teacher Barbie. I’ve made these up but I’m pretty sure that even if these aren’t the exact names there is some version of each of these. Does Barbie’s ability to take on all of the roles show greater potential than say a doll representing a defined character like Wonder Woman? Or does it trivialize her personalities/careers?

    • Hi Cat,

      I don’t like the career Barbies. When I look at them, all I see is hair. When Architect Barbie came out, I went to a talk on her by women architects and they said to buy your kids LEGO or blocks, that is what they were fascinated with. I blogged about this event and also the career Barbies that come with the Happy Meals. THere is a picture of a girl of color with a box of blonde Barbies on the blog, its pretty disturbing.


      • “I don’t like the career Barbies. When I look at them, all I see is hair.”

        I find it hard to negotiate this line myself. I would never think one of my fellow students isn’t as smart or doesn’t work as hard as I do because she’s attractive or takes the time to do her hair and makeup. Yet there are so many examples of female professionals in the media whose abilities you question because they look so put together. For me, it’s Mariska Hargitay in Law&Order SVU.

        And on the point of architect Barbie and blocks I would say, why is it that architect Barbie is not inspiring but blocks are. And why is it that architect Barbie is not inspiring while a Wonder Woman doll or a Jane Austen doll might be considered more positive. Don’t they play the same role in encouraging a child’s imagination? I’m interested in your perspective as a parent. If all dolls are a means of acting out a child’s fantasy life then why is one more valuable than the other and how does one doll with a prescribed role differ from another? In my mind, the most useful doll to give a child would be an American Girl doll (not the ones based on the characters but one you create) because it allows the child complete freedom. The child creates the doll’s entire identity and determines what their full potential is.

        • Hi Cat,

          Blocks teach kids spatial awareness and how to build, skills necessary for architecture.

          Some WW dolls are pathetic, some are cool and would be called “action figures.” Look at a Mighty Girl’s sight. These figures make you think about what they can DO.


          • I don’t know. I’m not sure I buy that. It sounds like personal prejudice. I think all dolls that come with a certain amount of backstory/meaning (this doll is a superhero, this doll is a doctor) are restricting unless you ignore that meaning which means you could just be playing with any doll. I can’t remember back to the point when I had a Barbie before I started to hear people mocking them for the way they look. I think a Barbie with a prescribed role makes you think of what it can do as much as any other doll.

        • Sorry for interfering, but “career barbie” is really “barbie with a different skirt color and glitter”, cover the names in the boxes and try to separate the president barbie from the sex worker barbie, you can’t. It’s just a way to sell the same toy with skirts in several colors and any kid should be wordly enough to realize that, no effort is made so that any characteristic of the profession or even the stereotype of the profession is translated to the acessories that come with the doll or the doll, it’s lazy…

          • I understand the marketing cynicism but from my perspective, it feels like Barbie has become such a negative cultural symbol that we begin to make arguments that stem from personal prejudices and not from logic. I see Barbie as an actress or a paper doll. You change the costumes and the doll is mean to represent a different person. To me, that frees the child’s imagination to see that doll in different roles more than having a doll with a static costume. I think we should be less concerned with prioritizing one toy over another when they’re very similar (like different dolls) and more interesting in what those specific dolls teach children and how we can use them to impart certain lessons. The doll is just a tool. It’s the imaginative work the child produces for the doll that’s important.

        • I understand what you’re saying, cat. But that’s the key of what I’m saying, they don’t change the costume enough that it significantly changes the perception of the role the doll is representing, in my opinion. The facial features remain the same, the pose remains the same, the body type, and the overall clothing. I’m not sure how that actually inspires anyone. Each doll should have at least distinctive qualities that are easily relatable to a job or hobbie, the mathematician doll should be visually very different from the mad scientist or the nurse. The concept of the same doll in various roles is good, but the team behind it just made a poor product line from it.

          • I’m not really sure how changing the facial features or body type would help because that would be producing a different doll. So, to take a different tactic, what kind of doll would you design that could do the same “work” as I think Barbie’s do? That is, a basic doll that comes with different accessories (sometimes sold separately) so the doll can take on many different roles?

        • It would be a different doll, but that’s kind of the point, because, as far as I’ve seen, they don’t sell the outfits separately, each career has a separate doll, they could at least be unique. If you’ve seen the outfits sold for a much lower price so the kid can have a single Barbie taking on each career my point about the designs really is moot. I still would want the accessories to be more varied, we could have a mini lab, a truck (firewoman), a microscope, a telescope etc. Thinking about it, they could go so far as to make a partnership with lego and do specific career sets.

        • “I have a feeling Barbie accessories are mainly created based on what’s easiest to manufacture ”

          I agree, I’d like for the creative team to either have more control or care about this product line.

  2. On this post: People say that marketing voilence to boys does not affect them much, but I think it does, and may also affect girls. When I was seven or eight, I watched an anime called D. Gray-Man (quite sexist). The irony is that the creater of this series is a female manga artist. I came across it on television when I stayed up late on one occassion. There are many scenes showing people being shot to death and slaughtered by Akumas (demons in Japanese). There was a lot of graphic scenes of toture, blood, and gore. Even after I’ve stopped watching it for years, whenver I’m furious at someone, I imagine myself killing that person ruthlessly like an Akuma. This shows that violence can also affect girls, and that girls are not naturally peace-loving, perfect little angels. Gender does not influence your preferences or personality, genetics (e.g temper) and your living environment does.

  3. Margot, please create your next post about Monster High. I can name a lot of the sexism in it, but I would like you to create a list of everything sexist in Monster High. Also compare the female and the male Monster High characters, and compare MH to its predecessor, Barbie. It’s a stupid reason, but I collect MH dolls just for the love of miniatures. MH girls wear pink, make-up, skirts, and revealing clothing. (Of course I don’t buy the exhibitiiobist dolls.) I hate it and yet tolerate it, because they’re just unanimated dolls. I won’t tolerate it if women do that all the time in real-life, and if these dolls make their way into the hands of young girls. If it’s not me wearing all that stuff, and if you’re a women sexist against your own gender, you can toture your own body however you want.

  4. Hi there, thanks for a great site.

    I agree that it is a poor response to a feminist critique to simply say: “well, boys are stereotyped too, so there’s nothing to complain about…boys and girls are treated equally badly, therefore no problem.”

    But I also disagree with your view that boy stereotypes are somehow less damaging than girl stereotypes. I accept the premise that we live in a culture in which boys and men are privileged over girls and women, but when we look at children and child development, I feel that there is a clear example of how patriarchy is bad for everyone. For example, I do not agree that the Superman image you show is empowering for boys. In fact, I do think that it represents a beauty ideal of sorts in our current culture (in which the body is objectified and controlled), and also that the type of power Superman has is the sort of emotionally constrained, impossibly invulnerable power that makes actual human beings feel inadequate and isolated.

    Of course, none of this takes away how horribly lousy it is to tell girls they can never play the leading roles. But I actually think the two problems are related: if emotion and vulnerability can be compatible with reason and power, this breaks down the stereotypes for everyone. In other words, boy stereotypes are damaging for girls as well. As you say, let’s allow kids to be human!

    • Hi Patricia,

      Thanks for your comment. I still disagree, strongly, that when people see Superman, beauty ideals are most important. Superman games don’t come with hundreds of outfit changes and narratives about beauty. He doesn’t come with mini lipsticks and hairbrushes. Kids can’t fly either, but flying symbolizes taking risks, exploring the world, and adventure.


    • Absolutely did not mean to give the impression that boys or girls are doing all right. My point was that male superheros don’t just come with muscles, they also come with the demand that they be emotionally strong as well. Superhero toys do, indeed, have lots and lots of little things you can buy for them. Instead of a lipstick, though, you can get a grappling hook or an axe or something to attack things with. I personally believe that girls are allowed to be strong (Mulan, anyone) as well as nurturing in the media.

      My family loves watching the Justice League cartoons. There are male role models as well as female role models. No one character is more important than another. There are two very strong female characters, both of whom fly, in addition to having many other admirable traits and powers. We love Justice League because everyone works together for the greater good. Yes, the female characters wear form fitting uniforms, but so do the men. I can imagine there are good reasons for not changing the costumes that I won’t expound on here. The characters, though, are very good role models for boys and girls.

      I wrote about what it’s like to parent a boy. I don’t mean to use your blog to promote my own, but here is a link. It gives a better view of my feelings on raising boys today than I should or can express in a comment.

      The short point here, though, is that we are all on the same side–wanting to raise children to be their best, individual selves.

    • I’m inclined to agree that there’s a lot of objectification and idealization of the male figure surrounding Superman. A lot of comic fans complain that the character is boring because of this. Superman is one of the most powerful superheroes but he’s also one of the least flawed. It makes it difficult to tell compelling stories, provide believable obstacles/villains, and build much depth to the character unless you take away his powers. Which I’ve gathered seems to happen a lot.

      Perhaps it’s just that I associate Superman with Tarzan and the idea that there’s an ideal male form.

  5. For every girl that turns a truck into a bed or whatever, there are girls like I was who turned their Barbies into super heroes with magical powers fighting crime and saving the world.

  6. Why do you think that violence in imaginary play is natural with boys? How we market what we market to boys is as insidious as how and what we market to girls. Boys are encouraged to be physical, not emotional, both by the heroes presented to them and the subtle ways they are aculturated. Boy babies are picked up less often. Boys are told to hold their emotions in check, to suck it up, to tough it out. Then they get into school and their physical behavior suddenly becomes a liability. They are expected to quietly sit in their seats, keep their hands off everything, calmly read books–when they haven’t seen these behaviors modeled to them in the media. You do say that we need to let both genders be human; I think we’re doing a much better job of that in marketing to our girls than our boys.

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