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Defending Barbie in the age of Kardashian

Unlike you and me, when Barbie finds herself in the wrong outfit, she lacks the agency to go home and change. So I felt for her when leopard-skin pants, a pink bob and tattoos creeping up the neck – the look of the limited-edition Tokidoki Barbie – led to global pearl-clutching in newspapers and online. Holly Lebowitz Rossi, a writer for, called the doll "overly sexualized and inappropriate." An anonymous poster on Ms. Twixt griped, "Mattel, why not put a cigarette and a beer bottle in her hand while you're at it!" (You can actually make those yourself with a lollipop stick and a gummy-candy pop bottle, as I recall.)

This new Barbie, however, isn't actually out of line with Barbie's many shifts since her debut more than 50 years ago. Barbie has always been impossibly proportioned and anatomically freakish, but, other than that, she's not a fixed entity. She has had hundreds of incarnations, often clearly pointing to where women are at in the culture.

Within a few years of her launch, Barbie lost the exaggerated makeup and changed her facial expression from a sideways glance to a more direct gaze. She started as a teen model, but she's also been an astronaut, a doctor, a NASCAR driver, an American president and Beyoncé (the all-shopping, midriff-baring, diva-ing Bratz dolls, Barbie's evil successors, have no such aspirations). And she can be infuriating: Her shorts are too short for a paleontologist and she deserved the backlash when some of her first words were "Math class is tough!"

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This 2012 Barbie, a $50 (U.S.) collector's item designed by L.A.-based brand Tokidoki, embodies a clash of high and low culture, a fantasy of extreme wealth crossed with flamboyant sexuality. She's tattooed, but she's no Occupy Wall Street Barbie; she's a rich doll, with a dog, called Bastardino, who wears an anime-style cactus suit and a diamond-studded leash (another clue that she won't be available at Toys "R" Us). The new Barbie appropriates street style but is clearly on the street only while her driver is circling the block. She's classy-trashy. She's a Kardashian.

Of course, the Kardashians – the toxic epitome of fame without accomplishment – offer a deeply troubling set of values to pass on to little girls. But Barbie's no role model; she's a toy. Good toys have multiple uses, which is why the cardboard box is the best toy ever. Barbie's ever-shifting fashion accoutrements can limit imagination or expand it, but, mostly, she's naked. The little shoes and purses get lost pretty quickly, and naked Barbie can be anything. A good parent will assure her kid that, no, that's not a real woman's body, but neither is your stuffed moose a real moose. Kids have the intelligence to use their Barbies in their own fictional worlds. In fact, research has shown that Barbies are often taken apart and mutilated – goodbye, unrealistic beauty norms.

What's really bothering the bothered-about-pink-haired-Barbie are the tattoos, which apparently cannot be separated from sex, cigarettes and beer. But this is an antiquated impression: Time magazine reported that 25 per cent of those under 30 have at least one tattoo. On, tattooed moms cheered that their daughters could finally have a doll who looked like them. In the documentary Covered, about female tattoo artists, women talk about why they are tattooed; a common answer – after self-expression – is "empowerment." Some have struggled with body image, and mark their skins to reclaim them. In an online outtake from Covered, a beautiful, heavily tattooed woman says of her parents, "I wanted them to see me. I didn't feel seen by them."

But what's confusing is that the same tattoo that feels personally empowering can act to objectify the tattooed woman. A tattoo on the lower back isn't called a "feminist recovery of the body politic" but a "tramp stamp." In her book Bossypants, Tina Fey writes The Mother's Prayer for Its Daughter, which includes this wish: "First, Lord: No tattoos. May neither Chinese symbol for truth nor Winnie the Pooh holding the FSU logo stain her tender haunches." Tattoos scare parents because they freeze forever that which seemed like a good idea at the time. We gave birth to these girls, who are perfect in their bodies, and those bodies, as is, should be enough.

But if inadequacy sets in over the years, we can't blame it on a doll called Barbie – or not solely anyway. She's there reflecting and refracting our own fantasies and realities, for better or worse; it's up to us not to be the dolls we fear.

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