Wednesday, November 22, 2006

"Bling Bling", Barbies, And Teaching Hashkafah

Earlier this month, I wrote about my problems with the gifts my 7 year old daughter received at her birthday party and the general issue of teaching hashkafah and a sense of Jewish values to one's child.

I made my move the other day to try to address the issue with my daughter.

I had saved the box that my daughter's "Bling Bling" Barbie had come in, and Monday night I took it out and sat down with my daughter. I reminded her that I had told her then that I did not like the doll. I asked her if she knew why, and she pointed at the picture on the box and said that the Barbie doll was not modestly dressed, and had a lot of jewelry on. I talked to her about the idea of being Tzenuah--modest--and not being ostentatious. She seemed to really understand. I showed her how on the box it talked about the Barbie doll representing a "new lifestyle" and that this is not our lifestyle .

My daughter nodded in understanding.

She then proceeded to point to a picture of a new series of Barbie dolls that are now available that are shown on the box and told me that she wanted one because her friend had one. She didn't skip a beat--she went from complete understanding of and agreement with the idea of being modest, to asking for a half-naked doll that completely contradicted everything we had just been talking about.

I had a similar experience years ago when I was teaching Chumash to a 7th grade class.

One day a girl in my class mentioned that on the soap opera "Days of Our Lives", one of the characters--a religious Jewish woman--had a non-Jewish boyfriend. My student saw nothing wrong with this.

That day, we discussed the soap opera in class.

We discussed the issue of intermarriage. We discussed it from the viewpoint of Halachah and the implications for the survival of Jews, Jewry, and Judaism. We discussed whether it makes a difference if the couple is in love. We discussed if it made a difference if the non-Jewish partner converts and whether such a conversion was sincere and acceptable according to Jewish Law.

Then I took a poll by secret ballot.

In the first part of the poll, I asked whether it was OK for a Jew to marry a non-Jew. I asked if it made a difference if they were "truly in love", if the non-Jewish partner would convert etc. The vast majority of the class said that intermarriage was wrong.

In the second half of the poll, I asked them whether they thought the character in the soap opera should marry the non-Jew. The majority said yes.

After having said in class that even if the non-Jewish partner would convert it would likely not be sincere, after having voted in the poll that conversion should not make a difference--those same students said that in the case of the soap opera it was real love and the non-Jew would probably convert and he would surely mean it.

No matter what they thought in theory, when it came to characters in a soap opera that they could identify with, the rules of the game changed. Remember--these were characters in a soap opera, not real people; yet because they identified with them, all the discussions and reasons went out the window. For many, all the arguments we had discussed in class against intermarriage amounted to nothing more than an idea, a theory, that was coherent and logical, but not applicable to a real flesh and blood situation in life.

I was shocked.

This is the problem I am having right now with my daughter. She understands what I tell her about being Tzenuah--the same way that she understands that if 1+9=10 then 9+1=10. But it is only a piece of information that exists in the world and makes sense, but it is not something that affects her life, her interests.

At least not yet.
But there is time.

After the poll, I kidded the girl who had mentioned this plot line in "Days Of Our Lives" in the first place that the characters in the soap opera would probably not get married anyway, and that if they did, there marriage would not work out. She bet me that they would get married and live happily ever after.

Neither of us took into account the fact that this was, after all, a soap opera.

In the soap opera plot, the girl died.

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Ezzie said...

Interesting... I wonder if it's the reverse: They understand the concepts, decide that it's not "real" (the dolls or TV shows), and therefore decide that the same rules just discussed don't apply...

Daled Amos said...

The way my daughter was close to tears, I think she took the doll seriously.

The students too, argued their case for the soap opera, that they two were "sooooooooo in love"--they so totally identified with the characters that for my students the two were as good as real.

Elie said...

I agree with Ezzie. I think most people instinctively maintain a basic separation between their actual hashkafa, and their involvement with various forms of entertainment, be it toys, books, movies, music, etc.

I'm an "FFB" and I used to watch "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" every year as a kid. Never gave me the slightest thought of becoming a Christian. And I still love rock music, though most of the lyrics do not exactly set a model for a moral lifestyle. I just don't take them so seriously. And I think our kids can be trusted, within limits, to do the same.

Your daughter can hopefully see the Barbie simply as a fun toy, without learning life-lessons from it. Perhaps that degree to which it clashes with her actual lifesytle and hashkafot is even part of the fun, like playing with a toy flying saucer.

Daled Amos said...

I would generally agree that watching the Grinch would not impart a desire to become a Christian--just as I don't believe the TV shows on PBS will make my daughter share, respect her parents, etc.

They impart information and a sense of familiarity which form the basis that can be built upon for other things.

But in the case of the soap opera, it was in the other direction--not learning values but rather applying values to a specific situation. It's a common educational tool to show a situation and ask how one should react. Here, they took material discussed in theory and specifically said that in this case the values discussed did not apply--and the arguments used showed an emotional identification with the characters: not the kind that would lead them to emulate them, but enough to consider this a special case where the arguments they used in theory did not apply.

As far as dolls go--it is not just a toy. Girls play dress-up and make believe. There is a sense of identification and an innate issue of emulation. My daughter wants to dress like her friends. I don't think it is a reach to expect she might want to dress like her Barbie doll, especially when it is marketed as being dressed in a "cool" way and having a cool lifestyle.

You gotta see at the box it came in.

Look at what it said on the box:

Life doesn't get any better than this

Get in on this super fab lifestyle

This is a problem.

Sure enough, Mattel came out with a line of clothes based on the doll.:

The clothing range will be "unmistakably Barbie and uniquely Australian", according to US toy giant Mattel, which hopes the combination will be potent enough to persuade girls aged 12 to 14 to take their fashion cues from a toy.

This is from 2004 in Australia, but the intent is clear.

Just sayin'

Jewish Atheist said...

I think it's because theory is well and good until you're dealing with real people. You see the same thing with gay rights. (Many) religious are completely against everything, but then they have a gay son or daughter or sister or brother or friend, and they don't have a problem with that actual person being gay or even getting married. You'll even find racists who have, e.g., black friends. They'll say things like, "Oh, I don't mean black people like him."

In other words, it's easy to condemn behaviors in the abstract because you aren't harming anybody you'd feel empathy towards. When real people are involved, the theory turns out to be kind of silly.

A Simple Jew said...

I agree with you. After seeing what the doll looks like, there is absolutely no way that I would allow it in my house. It would be better for a child to play with a stuffed pig.

I have noticed that the little girls in the neighborhood who play with the Bratz dolls also try to emulate the Bratz style of dress. It starts very young and I think you were wise for saying no to your daughter.

Daled Amos said...


I'm with you until the last sentence. If the "theory" (or attitude, position or philosophy) is silly, it is inherently so--regardless of whether you are dealing with people or not.

I think when dealing with real-life situations (even a soap opera, where the kids really got into the plot), you take other factors into consideration--which is something that Halachah does as well, which is why a person is supposed to go to a posek and not rely on a sefer.

It's just that my students were looking at subjective issues that they looked at emotionally instead of objectively.

Daled Amos said...


I vaguely recall reading years ago about Barbie dolls with tzenuah clothing made by a Jewish woman. More recently, I read about Muslims doing the same thing.

The problem I have is that what was implicit in the doll is becoming explicit--that the packaging is describing a life-style and actively promoting it.

Anything for a buck.

Anonymous said...

"The girl died."

the girl in your class or the girl in the show?

Daled Amos said...

The girl in the show died--as part of the plot.

I rewrote the end of the post to make that clear.