Thinking Historically about Childhood (aka, I can't wait for the "Barbie" movie)

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If you’re anything like me and love summer movies, you might be excited for the upcoming release of “Barbie” (Warner Bros). And while I’m not going to claim there is any historical value in seeing the film, I do think that the mere existence of the film is a great opportunity for conversations with students about a variety of topics: the history of children’s toys, the history of childhood, as well as personal reflection and even nostalgia.


The character “Barbie” is no doubt iconic in American life. Since the 1950s millions of children worldwide have dressed their dolls, imagined life in their “Dream Houses,” and zoomed their Barbies in pink cars on playroom floors. The public debate about the image projected by Barbie has also been ever-present: a blonde haired, blue-eyed woman sculpted with an unrealistically “ideal” body. Over the years, Mattel has sought to mitigate Barbie’s image problem by creating new Barbies that are more diverse and seek to inspire girls, in particular, to believe that any dream is a possibility. 


I’ve been reflecting on Barbie, and toys in general, as a potential topic for US history classes this week as marketing ramps up for the film’s release. As crazy as this claim may sound, I do not remember ever owning a Barbie. My mother assures me that this was not the case and that for a time as a child I was just as immersed in Barbie’s imaginary world as the rest of my cohort of 1970s-born American girls.


While I certainly don’t expect to remember everything from my personal history, I do have strong memories of my favorite childhood possession: a two-sided chalkboard. For a time as a child I remember my father writing very short stories (two or three sentences) on the board after I went to sleep at night so I could read them in the morning. My father was a history teacher then and I remember visiting his classroom and him letting me write on the board at the front of the room. I also vividly recall that later I lined up my stuffed animals in a classroom formation on my bedroom floor to teach them “lessons.” 


My own children are grown (enough) that I can make connections between their professional goals and their childhood passions. My oldest, who was never without a colored pencil and a drawing pad, is now an illustrator. My youngest, who wrote stories for us that he “bound” with multiple rows of staples, is studying film and writing. When I reflect on these memories with my children and share the historical evidence of their youthful work, I’m reminded of how often our college students forget subjects/areas of interest that they were passionate about once they arrive in college. The focus on career/income goals often completely takes over any discussion of their actual interests.


So, back to “Barbie” … what if we ask our students to think about the toys that brought them joy as children and imagine a way in which they could find that same joy as they pursue career choices? An in-class assignment might include students conducting research on their favorite childhood toys – they might, like me, have to ask the adults who raised them for some insight. A student who loved Barbies or GI Joes, or Matchbox Cars, for example, could engage in the history of their chosen product, its controversies and evolution over time. Ultimately, however, we as teachers could ask them to think about how that toy provoked joy and what they are/could be doing in their lives today to find that same spark. Questions will be raised about their personal childhood histories while also considering some of the popular culture of the eras in which they were raised.


As a graduate student I took a seminar called “History of Childhood.” This experience was the first time I had ever considered the extent to which young people’s lives have changed dramatically over the course of history. The topic made me more conscious about including children’s experiences in my general US History classes – and recognizing those experiences as historically valid and meaningful.


So let's toy (sorry) with this question: has anyone out there in the Macmillan Community included a study of toys/childhood in their survey history courses? Please share.

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.