There’s been a significant shift in our culture since I was a child. I’m not talking about pushing kids too hard (true), over-scheduling (true), or focusing so heavily on the future that we sometimes side step the present (true). I’m not talking about any of those things. Today, I’m only talking about toys.
Did you have a favorite toy growing up? I did.
My best friend and I collected Strawberry Shortcake dolls. Between us, we had them all. We had the strawberry carrying cases for storing and transporting, we had the berry café, and we even had some of the hard to find dolls (she had Angel Food Cake, I had Sour Grapes). We dragged those dolls back and forth between our houses (we lived on the same street) multiple times a week. It was our activity of choice.
My daughter recently asked about my favorite toys at her age (she’s on a quest to know the real me at every age, it seems). I told her all about the wonder of Strawberry Shortcake: The delicious smelling hair, the tiny pies to make at the Berry Café, and the hours of fun spent creating stories and trading dolls back and forth. She was mesmerized. “Do you still have them, Mommy?” she asked, with hope in her eyes. “I’m not sure, sweetheart, we’ll have to ask Mimi. But we can always get new ones for you.”
Have you seen Strawberry Shortcake recently?
Imagine my shock when I found that my favorite childhood doll (my only childhood doll, really, I was a bit of a tomboy) got a “makeover” and now looks more like a pop star than a Strawberry loving friend from Berryland.
The Strawberry Shortcake of my youth was of average build with wavy red (and fragrant) hair, adorable freckles on her cheeks, and wore a dress that spoke to her undying love of the strawberry. Was she a bit frumpy? Perhaps, but she was, after all, a doll.
This “modern” adaptation of Strawberry Shortcake (and a few select friends from Berryland) is very thin with long straight (Angelina Jolieish) hair, super long legs, and a dress that barely covers her rear. Did I mention that super hip (a couple of seasons ago, anyway) hat? This Strawberry Shortcake has stars in her eyes. This Strawberry Shortcake doesn’t want to go blueberry picking with Blueberry Pie. No…this Strawberry Shortcake wants to audition for American Idol or join the pageant circuit. She even has a poppy new theme song and a sparkly Strawberry guitar.
This Strawberry Shortcake has a different message to send.
This Strawberry Shortcake appears to say that skinny is better, smoothies are healthier, and skimpy dresses are always appropriate.
I don’t like her one bit.
But my daughter does.
My daughter can’t wait to collect all of the available dolls. She creates camping adventures, makes berry smoothies (evidently the new Berry Café has healthier options than just pies and shortcakes…are we still playing?), has them swim at the beach, and even practices back to school themes with them.
She enjoys the lovely scented hair, which I am happy to report remains unchanged.
What she really loves, it seems, is playing with something that she knows I played with as a kid.
The Women’s Studies graduate in me wants to throw these Strawberry Shortcake dolls overboard. But the Play Therapist in me is willing to take the good with the bad. Because play, no matter the props, is good for kids. It helps them learn, it helps them grow, it helps them work through their fears, and it helps them enjoy each day.
As we played with her dolls a few days ago, our conversation went something like this:
“Mommy, did you make lots of smoothies at the Berry Café when you and Sarah played these dolls?”
“Well, smoothies weren’t really something people made when I was 4, so we made more pies and cakes in the Berry Café.”
“Do you like smoothies better now?”
“Sometimes I like smoothies, but I really do enjoy pies and cakes for special occasions.”
“I think I will rather sell some pies and cakes too.”
She’s trying, through her play, to understand where I came from and how it’s similar to and different from her own little world. She knows that I grew up far away from Los Angeles, and she wants to bridge our worlds. Play is helping her make those connections.
As for the new look of my old favorite dolls? It’s still a little disappointing.
I’ve noticed a big shift in the way toys are made these days. With the rise of the Disney pop star, all kinds of dolls are being made to look the part. They wear shorter dresses, pile on the make-up, and look much older than the very kids who fall prey to the marketing of these dolls. Even the new, older version of Dora appears more teen than tween. Let’s face it; teens are not buying Dora dolls.
I do worry about the message it sends. We are a culture focused on outside appearance and future stardom. Around the world, parents are trying to mold their children into singers, actors, and dancers when they see just a hint of interest and/or talent. They have their reasons, and I’m not in a position to judge those.
But I do know that I want my daughter to be happy, healthy, and well adjusted. I want her to laugh when she’s happy and come to me when she’s sad. I want her to love herself for who she is and feel confident in her choices. Most of all, I just want her to feel loved.
And if this new skinny, pop starish Strawberry Shortcake is the toy that makes her happy right now? We can work with that.
It’s my job to teach her about healthy eating and healthy body image. It’s my job to help build her self-esteem. It’s my job to help her live within reality.
And there isn’t a doll out there that can take me on. Bring it, Strawberry Shortcake, I’m ready.
What do you think about the potential messages hidden in these new modern dolls?
Katie is a Child & Adolescent Psychotherapist/Parenting Consultant in Los Angeles, CA. She has a four year old daughter, two year old son, and a rock and roll husband who makes her life complete. Katie has a parenting advice blog at http://practicalkatie.com/and can also be found on Twitter.