Pink: The Reason Why Barbie Is Not Easy to Trash

Margaret Somerville
Originally published as:
"Untrashable Barbie guardian of wonder",
National Post, October 2, 1999, B8
© Margaret Somerville
Reproduced with Permission

There is a subtle tension between the title of Catherine Ford's article, "Barbie is easy to trash, but why?" (National Post, September 11, 1999, B8) and what she wrote. The cause is that Ms. Ford touches on some deep and important reasons why Barbie is not at all easy to trash.

First, Ms. Ford writes about Barbie in relation to the colour pink: "Pink is the sine qua non of femininity. Girls love pink". She confesses that "for Barbie's visit ... this blond [Catherine Ford] can certainly break out of the black and grey pallet and wear pink." Although, she says: "Pretty in Pink. It is to gag." But should we gag on pink? Might this colour have a special and valuable role?

In dealing with many of the difficult ethical issues that we are facing in our societies, we need to structure the tension between conflicting views, which we often describe as the black and white poles of a spectrum. In order to do this, we must establish a middle space where we can live comfortably and creatively. But the middle of such a spectrum, is grey, the colour of depression. Not many of us want to live in a grey, depressing middle.

If, however, we change the colours of the poles to red and blue, the middle becomes purple-pink, the colour of imagination and creativity. These are essential components of the intellectual space that we need to inhabit to address ethical issues.

This change can also alter how we view our opponents and their values, attitudes and beliefs, which, in turn, can affect the outcome of a debate on ethics. First, it eliminates disagreement over whether we or our opponents are black or white. We usually see ourselves as white, right and good, and our opponents as black, wrong and, sometimes, evil. Most of us would not care whether we were perceived as being red or blue (traditional political affiliations of one or the other colour aside). But the same is not true of white or black, mainly because these have been used to symbolize right and wrong, respectively. Second, we may be more open to others and their views, if we do not perceive them through a lens of their being wrong.

Exploring pink could also provide other insights. Ms. Ford points out that we strongly associate pink with femininity. Could the exclusion of boys and men from pink, or at least a metaphorical pink, indicate that we have been depriving boys and men of some means of access to their imagination, creativity and intuition? Traditionally, intuition has been thought to be stronger in women (or, more accurately, less repressed in them) than in men. Do we repress intuition in little boys, and could this be to deprive them of an important "way of knowing", in particular, in the area of moral intuition? Do we, as communities and a world, suffer because of this?

It is almost impossible to imagine toy soldiers dressed in pink uniforms and, even less so, real soldiers. What would be the effect of doing this? One Australian company, that provides wet cement to large, building construction sites, painted all of its fleet of huge, cement-delivery trucks, pink. A national, tongue-in-cheek debate ensued: Should any self-respecting construction worker be expected to accept wet cement from a pink truck?

Another reason why Barbie is not easy to trash, is the way little girls relate to Barbie. For instance, Ms. Ford writes that they see Barbie with "the same child-eyed view that makes all mothers beautiful to their children". This is a non-judgemental view, one based on unconditional love. The challenge to us, as adults, is to retain the ability to relate to others in such a way. If we could do this, and add to it other, more "mature", ways of relating, our most intimate relationships might fare better. In short, Barbie is the vehicle through which a child can express emotions that we should emulate not trash, and it is difficult to trash Barbie without also trashing these feelings which she elicits.

For little girls, Barbie is the concretization of their "fantasy of having a princess dress and a tiara and gossamer wings that fit". However, Ms. Ford says, we leave Barbie behind "by graduating to reality". This concretization-of-fantasy function of Barbie, is related to two important human attributes with which, as adults, we can lose touch: a sense of wonder and a sense of play.

We all need a sense of wonder, and even more so when, of necessity, we graduate to reality. We may be able to retain or find this through characteristics that are childlike, which are to be contrasted with those that are childish. Childlikeness encompasses a sense of wonder at the fact that we exist at all, and at everything which surrounds us. The Barbie doll elicits a little girl's genuine sense of wonder. It is not only very difficult, but also would be wrong, to trash this.

Little girls' interaction with Barbie, also reminds us of the power of play. Play gives free rein to the imagination and creative urges. Having access to a playful attitude is a necessary pre-condition for fully "experiencing" the world, not only as children, but also as adults. Such an attitude means that we are open to "ways of knowing" in addition to pure reason. As well as imagination and creativity, these include "examined emotions" and intuition, especially moral intuition. It also means that we are curious, and regard experiential knowledge as important. Such knowledge is not just personal, but includes our collective, accumulated, experiential knowledge. The latter is expressed as the values, beliefs, myths, stories, history and expressions of culture, on which we base our society.

The greatest challenge we face, at present, is to create structures in which we can both personally identify and feel we belong in small groups, and yet recognise ourselves and all others as part of the one human family. We each need to be able to see ourself, simultaneously, as an amazing phenomenon - a genetically unique (cloning aside!), thinking, feeling, creative being - and yet, at the same time, as a mere temporary speck in an overwhelmingly vast, complex, almost unimaginable universe. We cannot do this through reason alone. It requires us to have access to our individual and collective imaginations and creativity. Among the important tools for gaining such access, are an openness to wonder and a deep understanding of the concept and function of play. The essence of little girls' reactions to Barbie are wonder and play. This is why Barbie - and, perhaps likewise, the Pink Panther! - is difficult to trash.