Hello, Barbie!


Dr. Corinne Masur

Have you heard?  In November (just in time for the holidays), Mattel is introducing a new Barbie that doesn’t just talk, but talks intelligently!  She asks questions and, even more remarkably, responds to your child’s answer! The breakthrough offered by this Barbie is that she can actively listen. Even more amazing, however, is the fact that she can remember your child’s responses for future conversations.

Is this the end of pretend play? Or the fulfillment of children’s dreams?  Or both?

When I was a child, some dolls had pull strings.  They could say 5 or 10 phrases and we begged for them from our parents because they could speak. But inevitably we gave them a bath or made them go swimming and that was the end of that. We returned to giving them haircuts, performing surgery on them, or just changing them in and out or their outfits depending on our mood and imagination.

In those days, WE animated the doll or the stuffed animal with our imaginations. We gave them characteristics and, in some cases, full fledged characters. We invented their adventures and made up the story lines, dialogue, and plot twists. In fact, children still do this—it’s as natural and as much fun as play itself.

But these new Barbies will be playmates, not just play things. What will this do to play?  And what will it do to the children who play with them?  Will a little girl feel less lonely when she plays with her new Barbie?  Will she be less likely to invite her friend over to play? And will she become the passive recipient of Barbie’s (or, more accurately, Mattel’s) agenda?

Or will the inventiveness and imagination of children prevail?  Will mischievous girls and boys make their Barbies talk to each other to see what will happen?  Or will they make them talk to Siri and see if Siri talks back?  Perhaps a talking GI Joe will come on the scene and romance will ensue?  Will Mattel be able to keep up with THESE dialogues?

Let us know your thoughts on the new Barbie!

(And for more information on this topic see NYT magazine, Sept 16, 2015)


One thought on “Hello, Barbie!

  1. A comment from our colleague, Laurel Silber:

    I think the Barbie that has been artificially infused with intelligence interferes with children’s play. The emphasis in free play is it is intrinsically self-directed, so the idea of adults putting language into a doll is conceptually at odds with the notion of free play. It is another erosion of the space by the commercial interests. We are creating the notion that as adults we will do the thinking for you, the world is virtual, the expectation of human interaction is dimmed. The inner life of the child is not revered, rather the externally driven construction of the interaction at the child is the basis for the Barbie. I am horrified by the direction the toy industry continues to go in. Part of free play is being able to imagine the response of “the other” – to have it done for you is an interference. Children are not zombies but they are groomed to be by the cultural shaping of playing at a child rather than with a child.


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