Empowering Toys and the Problem of Class Divisions by Katie M. Deaver


I recently noticed that I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about financial security, the way class systems work in the United States context, and how these types of realities inform my feminism.  Part of this is no doubt due to the fact that for the first time in my life I am not a student with multiple part time jobs, but rather am a “real” adult working full time at a job that offers retirement and medical benefits.

As I’ve written about before, I grew up in a poor family in rural Wisconsin and as a result I am often hyper vigilant about my finances.  While I likely go a bit overboard when organizing my budgeting, balancing, saving, and spending this type of organizing is something I can control.  The simple act of paying a bill, or determining how much I can spend on groceries this week gives me a profound sense of safety because for the first time there really is enough coming in to support my basic needs.

Throughout my feminist journey I have often felt a bit outside of the feminist community because of my experiences growing up as a poor white woman.  Poor white women often seem to be left out of the feminist equation, and I have often felt that my lived experience isn’t taken seriously by the majority of my white feminist sisters.  This reality is one of the reasons that I am so passionate about the intersectional feminism, as well as part of the reason I have studied primarily with womanist and mujerista scholars because their approaches to feminism tend to closely consider the realities of class and economics.  My reality of being a woman only tells one part of my story, and my experience of being raised poor has greatly influenced what it means for me to be a woman and a feminist.

I recently had the privilege of meeting my boyfriend’s five year old daughter.  Even though I had known her through him from the first time I met him this initial meeting with her has suddenly made me rethink and reimagine how I live out feminism in my everyday life.  I have two amazing nieces, ages seven and four, and they have certainly received more than their fair share of feminist inspired gifts and books from Auntie Katie, but suddenly I feel a new urgency toward living out feminism.  It’s certainly worth noting that our current political climate leaves my heart and body feeling heavy with responsibility as I work to build a world that I feel is worthy of little girls like those that I know and love.

I truly believe that children are deeply formed by their being able to see themselves represented in the toys they play with, the movies they watch, and the music they listen to.  My nieces are Korean American and they live in the same rural community where I was raised.  One of the first Christmas gifts I gave each of them were baby dolls that looked like them which I was able to find since I lived in Chicago.  While this is a very small thing in many ways the fact that my nieces don’t see toys that represent them or that look like them when they are in the toy aisle at Walmart really bothers me.

As it turns out I recently realized that this isn’t just a racial and geographical problem, this problem is class based as well.  A few weeks ago my boyfriend mentioned something to me about the price of Barbie dolls and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.  He and his daughter had been shopping and as she was selecting a toy he was noting the various prices of the different types of Barbie dolls.  Architect, Veterinarian, and Zoo Keeper Barbie are all priced in the $20 range, whereas Beach, Ballerina, and Dress-up Barbie are all priced at around $5.  It’s not that there is anything wrong with Beach, Ballerina, or Dress-up Barbie, but I think that from a feminist standpoint we have to problematize the fact that only children whose parent can afford (or is willing to pay for) $20 Architect Barbie get to play with Architect Barbie.

Can Beach Barbie become an architect or a veterinarian in her bikini, absolutely; but how do we ensure that poor girls learn that they can be anything they want to be even though the toys they play with may not always reinforce this for them?  How do we teach girls that they matter, that their bodies and lives matter when our health care choices are being taken away?  How do we teach girls that they are allowed to take up space, to be loud, to be strong, and to be smart?  How do we teach girls that they don’t need men in order to be fulfilled, that they don’t need to have children but that they might want to and that either way it is their decision?

It seems silly that the simple price of a Barbie doll can suddenly force so many questions to the surface… and yet I want more for my nieces, more for my boyfriend’s little girl, and more for all little girls.  They deserve so much better than what we are constantly battling and dealing with, and I continue to wonder how we bring something better into existence.  Deep down I know that this change comes about in a million little ways.  I know that female representation changes you in ways that you never could have imagined at the time.  I really never believed that I would see a woman come so close to becoming the President of the United States but the joy and strength that I felt in the months leading up to the election were spiritual in so many ways.  I know that if it had not been for the female pastors leading worship at my church growing up I would have never thought that I could go to seminary or that I could be a pastor if I wanted to do so.  In so many ways our very existence as women allows us to lead by example and to be the person that shows those little girls that they really can do anything.

 

Dr. Katie M. Deaver, earned her Ph.D. in Feminist Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Deaver holds a B.A. in Religion and Music from Luther College in Decorah, IA, as well as MATS and Th.M. degrees from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Her dissertation explored the connections between the Christian understanding of atonement theology and the prevalence of domestic violence in the United States. Her other areas of interest include the connection between power and violence, sexual ethics, and working toward the elimination of the oppression and exploitation of women and girls around the world.

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Categories: Childhood, Children, Education, Feminism, Gender, Korean American, Popular Culture, Race and Ethnicity, shopping, Women and Community, Women's Agency, Women's Power, Women's Voices

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10 replies

  1. Thank you for this post, Katie. The class-based price differences for Barbie are deeply disturbing. All the more so because as a culture we continue to insist that class does not exist or if it does it is merit-based. We teach and preach that anyone can become president or CEO or a doctor, lawyer, architect if they work hard enough, and of course there are individual and anecdotal examples to hold up. The devastating implication is that if you are poor it is your own fault. Thanks for raising a vital subject.

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  2. Thank you for this post.As a white womyn who went from middle class to low income after a divorcre and never got back to middle class,I have also experienced other feminist who don’t have a clue what low income is like.I too think what children play with matters.We have a long way to go in dealing with class in our culture.I am glad you have a more stable income now.Worrying about money is so mind numbing.

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  3. Brings back my childhood memories, Katie – Poverty, toys, lack of toys by today’s standards. I was never one to play with dolls. Toy guns, chemistry sets, books were my choices. I outgrew the first two and became addicted to the last one. I wonder what choices will stay with today’s young girls when they grow into women. One thing I’m sure of: they will remember the love and strength of you and others who are in their lives now.
    While the US is mired in an increasingly sticky swamp of patriarchy, encourage girls and women to look further. There is a whole world out there. In Canada our new Gov. General is now a woman, who is an astronaut as well. Make sure they see the strong women of the US, starting with yourself.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for this comment Barbara! I love your comment about wondering which choices will stay with today’s young girls it is so very true. I also love the reminder to encourage girls and women to look further!

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  4. Aah! So affirming to read your experience with feminism coming from a poor white background. Me too. I am 66 years old and as a white girl in Australia lived close to the poverty line. Feminism in Australia is also not good at grappling with “poor” in the white community. I have never looked at Barbie dolls and had no idea of their classist pricing. I shall have to look in Australia! You have piqued my interest. And what a feat finding dolls that reflect your niece’s reality. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for this comment! That is very interesting… I would love to know if the price difference is true in Australia as well! I never thought about what that might look like in other countries, it is so interesting to think about!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Glad to see topic of economic class and money come up in such heartfelt, eloquent writing! There are so many elements of this I identify with – thanks for your piece and hope to see more!

    Like

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