Girl Power! (aka: Barbie, What on Earth Happened to You?)

Techie BarbieFirst of all, let me just say that I was a total Barbie girl. I was one of those girls who stubbornly refused to stop playing with Barbie dolls until long after my middle school peers had already lost interest. I adored her pink, perfect world of glittering outfits, miniature accessories, and stupid plastic shoes that would not stay on her dainty little feet. While other young teens were busy flirting with real-life boys and experimenting with styling their own hair, I was locked away in my bedroom, acting out these same things with Barbie, Ken, and the gang (including a few unfortunate punk haircuts).

Barbie careersTo me, however, Barbie was about much more than wearing cute clothes and having pretend sex with Ken (oh come ON…every girl in the history of Barbie fandom has tried that at least once). Barbie was the ultimate symbol of Girl Power. We girls can do anything! We can be teachers and doctors and zoologists! We can be high-powered office executives by day, and all dolled-up for a smokin’ hot date by night. We can work hard, and then buy ourselves a dream house, a townhouse, a pink camper, and a matching Corvette. If nothing else, the Barbie campaign of my childhood taught us girls that we could have it all and be it all, and still look great doing it.

So what on earth happened?

Computer Engineer Barbie

Just in case you’ve been living in a cave that is deeper underground than my cave, here’s the scoop: Mattel had a book, published in 2010, titled, Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer. Like me, many people cheered the concept. Hooray! Barbie is helping to encourage young girls to consider STEM careers, which continue to be largely dominated by men. Good for Barbie! However, as you read the story, you are met with the sad reality – Computer Engineer Barbie is a fraud. Sure, she comes up with a cute idea for a video game, but then she explains to Skipper,

” ‘I’m only creating the design ideas,’ Barbie says, laughing. ‘I’ll need Steven’s and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game.’ “

Seriously, Barbie?! You’re a computer software engineer and you can’t do the coding for your own game without help from the men? What’s happened to you? And as if that weren’t disappointing enough, Barbie inserts her flash drive into Skipper’s computer and – whoopsie – ends up infecting the computer with a virus. So, does Computer Engineer Barbie use her brain and her education and disinfect the computer herself? Of course not! She calls the boys, who eagerly offer to remove the virus for her.

” ‘Hi, guys,’ says Barbie. ‘I tried to send you my designs, but I ended up crashing my laptop — and Skipper’s, too! I need to get back the lost files and repair both of our laptops.’

” ‘It will go faster if Brian and I help,’ offers Steven.”

Ugghhh!!! I am guessing that clueless Computer Engineer Barbie had fake sex with her boss in order to be hired for her IT job. Luckily for girls everywhere, Mattel has pulled the disaster of a book and apologized for supporting such garbage. And luckily for everyone, an awesome IT consultant named Kathleen Tuite created the Feminist Hacker Barbie website, where users can edit the original text of the story to create a better version. Twitter users have also chimed in, with their – uh, more colorful editions of the story, using the hashtag #FeministHackerBarbie. One of the coolest things to come out of this whole fiasco has been the number of really smart women, many with IT careers, who have stepped forward to rewrite Barbie’s airhead words (and the patronizing responses of her male coworkers) with much more appropriate and witty dialogue. Now that is true Girl Power.

Toy Crazy

Apple Store Playmobil for Grownups I like to think that I am not a materialistic person. Really, I try hard not to place too much value on things. But the truth is, I have one great weakness. Okay, maybe two, if you count books. Oh fine, three, counting my beloved iPad. But my other great weakness is toys. That’s right – you heard me – toys. I am kind of toy crazy. When I was a kid, I loved dolls of every kind. (My daughter, unfortunately, never quite took an interest in dolls, despite my best efforts to spark her enthusiasm).

Like most Americans, I gave my three kids more toys than any human child could possibly need or want. I’m not really sure why we bothered – pressure to conform to the norms of middle class society? Some ridiculous urge to give our kids every bit of the luxury we enjoyed during our own childhoods? Whatever the reason, our children’s toy organizers were often bursting with cheap plastic McToys and battery-operated garbage, until I finally made them throw away or give away all but the most essential, most treasured items. The funny thing is, the toys that remained, for the most part, are the few which I consider to be among the top toys ever invented. If I could rewind the clock and give to my children only the toys which add value to their play, only the toys which spark the curiosity and imagination, these are the toys which I would choose:

1. Playmobil $$$

The wonder toy of open-ended imaginative play, Playmobil has been my favorite toy since my own childhood. No matter your fancy – pirates, astronauts, fairy-tale princesses who battle evil dragons – there is a Playmobil world of characters and accessories at your fingertips, ready to be played into being.  The downside? Thousands of teensy-tiny accessories which fit perfectly into the figures’ hands, but have a terrible tendency to be sucked into the vacuum cleaner.

2. Lego $$$

Lego probably has just as many open-ended realms of fantasy, but this time, you get to build it. Follow a plan or dream up your own designs. Extremely educational without the obvious academics. Versatile and fun for either gender. The downside? Stepping on Legos in bare feet in the middle of the night is excruciatingly painful.

3. Rokenbok $$$$

I am amazed whenever I meet people who have never even heard of Rokenbok. Then again, it is only available through specialty toy shops. Basically, Rokenbok is like Lego meets Erector Sets crossed with remote control vehicles. Okay, that isn’t quite accurate. You see, you build this construction world with blocks, and then operate these R/C trucks to move “Roks” around, and…oh shoot, I am not explaining this well. Here, just watch the videos. I swear, it is super-awesome. Downside? Super-expensive.

Building Our Rokenbok WorldMy boys (and a neighbor) playing with Rokenbok

4. CitiBlocs $$

Exactly like their more expensive predecessor, Kapla Blocks, CitiBlocs http://www.citiblocs.com/ are narrow, lightweight wooden blocks that can be stacked in various, creative ways to create structures. Simple fun, no batteries required. Downside? The structures break rather easily.

5. Unit Blocks $$$$

Simple, perfectly-cut, smooth blocks of wood that can be transformed into castles for your soldiers, skyscrapers for your Playmobil figures, parking garages for your Hot Wheels vehicles – the sky’s the limit. The downside: Building a decent collection of unit blocks is very costly. I highly recommend collecting them a few blocks at a time over the years, as we did with our children. (The Lakeshore Learning Store sells blocks by the unit).

6. Wooden Railroad Sets $$$

I nearly wrote Thomas Trains, because these wooden railway sets are high in quality and play value, and the fun faces and stories capture the imagination of the youngest train engineers. However, our family is quite fortunate to have also collected a few very high-quality pieces from Brio, which I personally prefer due to their low commercialism and high value. Downside: A play table is practically a requirement.  I built one for our children for a fairly low cost when they were preschoolers. When they were older, we used the table to build Rokenbok sets.

The best toys last forever

In addition to these few expensive Super Toys, I would add a few small essentials, such as vehicles, dinosaurs, and a couple of high-quality dolls and doll accessories (if, unlike me, you have a doll enthusiast). These are the toys that lasted. These are the toys that were used the most and loved the most by my children, and by many children around the world and throughout the decades. I know, I know, trendy toys come and go. We have lived through My Little Pony, Bakugan, Squinkies, and then some. But the funny thing is, our children seemed to enjoy wishing for and collecting these trendy toys much more than they actually played with them. There were no tears shed when they were finally lifted away by the garbage truck. But as for the Super-Toys, I don’t think I can ever bring myself to part with them. Once my children grow up and head off to university, the toys will be neatly packed into indestructible plastic tubs and saved for the next generation. Then again, maybe I will convert one of the spare bedrooms into my very own Playmobil world of fantasy.

Weapons, Wars, and Wicked Witches

Andy FairhurstOur family has quite the stockpile of weapons. Last time I checked, we owned three swords, four handguns, one rifle, one crossbow, and one rather large scythe. My sons are becoming quite skilled at using them. In fact, just yesterday —

Oh relax. They are toy weapons. You know — Nerf guns, foam swords, etc. Yup…our household is a never-ending battle zone of good guys vs. bad guys, superheroes vs. supervillians, humans vs. giant alien robot vampires. Thanks to my 8 and 12 yr.-old sons, my peace and quiet are constantly disrupted as wars break out and foam bullets whiz past my head.

In the public schools where I teach, weapons play is strictly forbidden. But in our house, it is not only allowed, but I am happy to supply the toy arsenal and provide ideas for war strategy. Too violent? I disagree. Through their play, children work through the issues that frighten them, and have the ability to overcome or understand their fears. When my son swings his foam sword and slices off the head of the imaginary zombie, he then becomes more powerful than the creature in his imagination. When my daughter assumes the role of antagonist and becomes a wicked witch, the reversal of roles allows my daughter to lose her fear of the witch whom she portrays. And when my oldest son aims his gigantic nerf blaster at his me and shoots me in the forehead with a suction dart, he learns that I can become a monstrous creature who snarls and shrieks and takes all the weapons away.

(Well, okay. That’s a different lesson. No shooting mothers or other unarmed civilians). Andy Fairhurst

This Halloween, like millions of other typical American children, my three kids will dress up in costumes and go out to beg for candy. My youngest son, who was The Grim Reaper last year (hence the scythe in our arsenal), has decided to be a protagonist this year — a good king who only fights bad guys with his sword. My daughter will be a witch. My oldest son has decided to be a spooky ghost. As for me, I am thinking of dressing up in costume too. Maybe I will duct tape our entire collection of weapons to my body and go as a contestant in the Hunger Games.