Meet hijab Barbie — just in time for Christmas! Talk about mixed messages.
Mattel Inc. has introduced a devout Muslim version of the popular Barbie doll, inspired by American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad. She has brown eyes and dark skin, dresses modestly and has long dark hair in a bun that you can’t see.
Some conservatives have criticized Mattel for hijab Barbie. Yes, it is obviously a nod to political correctness and a transparent attempt to keep the Barbie franchise edgy. Muslim modesty is in, both as a fashion and political statement. And the political angle is why we are unlikely to see other avatars of feminine modesty such as evangelical Barbie wearing a cross or frum Orthodox Jewish Barbie in her sheitel. How about Amish Barbie? Buggy sold separately.
Is there a big demand for hijab Barbie? Mattel thinks so. One obvious market for the doll is the liberal, non-Muslim parent who wants to make a statement to the world about tolerance and intersectionality.
This is the kind of person who dresses a baby boy in pink to trap the unwary into an uncomfortable/sanctimonious discussion about gender roles. These parents will have a special glow of virtue about them in the checkout line. In fact, they will make a special effort to go to the mall instead of ordering online so they can chat up the patient checkout person about the social importance of their purchase.
But kids love to experiment with juxtaposition, so what happens on Christmas morning when their girls (or boys, whatever!) immediately put hijab Barbie into a skimpy bikini? Odds are they will get a stern lecture on cultural sensitivity. Because really, kids, this isn’t about you having fun; it’s about your parents sticking it to Trump.
Another potential market (probably not for Christmas) is conservative Muslim parents who want a toy that expresses and helps transmit their values. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. America in part originated as a haven for religious groups seeking to build communities that practiced a way of life based on their beliefs. This is one of the meanings of Thanksgiving, the parable of the pilgrims. A strong and vibrant nation is rooted in family values. It is an expression that conservatives use with affection and one that makes liberals wince.
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If hijab Barbie helps preserve a form of cultural identification, then great. It’s a free country. But on the other hand, it would be a mistake to assume that all kids born into a certain culture want to remain in it. This is an intellectual shortcoming of identity politics, the insistence that you are defined by a group affiliation over which you have no choice. But part of living in a free country is the ability to adopt social mores other than the ones you grew up with, or inherited from a country where such choices are non-existent.
First-generation or newly arrived Muslim kids in traditional families may gravitate towards the more free and easy social conventions of their new home. This has always been the lure of American culture. It is the melting pot that softens or erases the hard edges of successive waves of immigrant cultures, through the innumerable choices individuals make once they get here. Pray five times a day, or fewer, or none? Eat halal or try the bacon? Wear the hijab, or don’t? For Muslim immigrants and refugees from tradition-bound countries, these are the kind of choices they may be facing for the first time in their lives.
Mattel says hijab Barbie is about empowerment. And yes, in recent decades Barbie has been all about feeding aspirations. Small children have big dreams. The real life-changing empowerment might come when Muslim girls in traditional homes make the choice to take Barbie’s hijab off — and leave it off.
James S. Robbins, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and author of This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive, has taught at the National Defense University and the Marine Corps University and served as a special assistant to the secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @James_Robbins.