Kissing Barbie

One day in my early twenties when I was out shopping with a few friends, we happened upon a distressingly pink display of Barbie-related products in the middle of a store that wasn’t a toy store. Immediately my memory filled with all the evil wickedness of the feminine stereotype that Barbie had ever represented, everything from an unreasonable figure to ugly fashions to “Math is hard! <giggle>”

I glared with contempt at the precociously saccharine offerings and muttered, “If I ever have a daughter one day, I will never let her play with Barbies.”

One of my friends smiled at me as if she were trying really hard not to laugh. “How on earth do you think you can stop her? She’s going to play with Barbies. There’s nothing you can do about it.” She said it in her characteristically sweet lilt, a voice both mild and accommodating, but behind her mousy cuteness was something slightly more skeptical than outright disdain.

At the time, neither of us had children of our own; they weren’t even on the horizon yet. I thought, What does she know? I said, “I just won’t ever buy them for her or let anyone else buy them for her.” I think I might have even shrugged. End of story.

Parenting magazines ought to come with a recipe section for the various tasty ways one might prepare crow, meal for one or two.

***

The Barbies of today are not the Barbies of fifteen years ago. We’ve had other Bad Influences in the interim (hello, Bratz and Moxie dolls) to push Barbie into positively wholesome territory. And have you seen any of Barbie’s movies? Not only has she co-opted at least as many fairy tales as Disney (and taken just as much artistic license with them), she has done it in a way that Disney is trying to, finally: with a young female protagonist capable of making her own decisions without letting concern for what the male lead will think of her be her primary motivation. Instead, she’s motivated by thoughts of doing what’s best for her family, for her kingdom, for her pets. The generic Ken-doll boyfriend — who ends up admiring her for her compassionate spirit, independent nature, and oh yeah, good looks — is just icing on the three-layer bejeweled, beribboned, and be-flowered wedding cake. (I mean, come on, we weren’t expecting Barbie to give up her nature, were we? She’s just expanding it to include a little gray matter and a backbone.)

Don’t get me wrong: the Barbie movies are still awful. But rather than being insidiously damaging to a little girl’s burgeoning self-concept — and note I’m talking about the fairy tale ones here, not the high school diaries sort — now they’re just too goody-goody for my taste. But then, I am not their target audience, and I’ll endure the annoyingly catchy songs and cloying vocal inflection from the safety of the next room. And I do have to endure them, because my kids love the Barbie movies.

Their concept of Barbie is nothing like the Barbie of my childhood. When I was a little younger than my daughter’s age, in the late 1970s, I scored my first Barbie Doll for Christmas. I actually received two dolls, the first one a Darcy doll, who was taller and more proportionally realistic and had lush dark brown hair to her elbows. I liked Darcy just fine. She was pretty and had dark hair and eyes just like me. Her clothes were cute. I played with her and appreciated her, but on some subconscious level which I was too polite and obedient to express or even understand, I knew she wasn’t Barbie, and my friends had Barbies.

In fact, I didn’t even recognize that I’d wanted a Barbie, much less how much, until I opened the wrappings off that pink box and saw the yellow and white name. Kissing Barbie. She was new that year and all the rage. And now she was mine.

Kissing Barbie’s golden hair, long and silky, was pulled back from her ears in a tony ponytail at the back of her head. She came with a pink heart-topped tube of inky magenta lipstick as big as her torso, a petite bouquet of dark pink roses, and a layered chiffon evening gown (we’d now call this a maxi dress with pouffy sleeves) of pale pink decorated with magenta pucker-lipped kiss marks. She was a vision.

But the best part of Kissing Barbie was her function. Yes, she had one other than looking pretty. She actually kissed. You could ink up those smoochers with the enclosed tube of lipstick, press a large button in Barbie’s back, and just marvel as she would leave a kiss mark on Ken-doll’s cheek. Or on you. Or on your little brother. Or on your pale pink Easter dress, over and over again, until it resembled Barbie’s frock. Or on every sheet in the box of typing paper in your mom’s office. Or on the sofa, on the dog. Oh, the possibilities stretched as far as the heavens!

More Barbies followed as the years progressed, though none ever held quite as special a place in my affectionate heart as that first one. And when I was a teenager, being educated in the social-justice-oriented bosom of my all-girls’ Dominican high school and learning about the subtle shades of feminism from those faculty members who knew how to slip it into the conversation, Barbie and her comic-book-like proportions began to take on a different meaning for me. She was no longer the feminine ideal. She was instead a monster of the Male-Dominated World, a woman who, had she been alive, would have been seven feet tall with a giant head, so top-heavy in her bosom and so minuscule in her feet that she’d have had to crawl around on all fours.

Barbie became the freak of nature that chased the other dolls, who ran screaming in terror from her outlandish physique as she tried, unsuccessfully, to plant magenta-ink kisses upon them.

***

As I’ve said, Barbie now is not Barbie then. Barbie is now a different sort of freak. She dresses badly when she’s not in a generic evening gown. She and Ken impersonate popular characters such as Bella Swan and Edward Cullen (and I think you know how I feel about them). She wears stripper-shoes and leggings, so ugly golfers wouldn’t wear them, to astronaut camp. And though it looks like math is still hard, apparently veterinary medicine is not. And her movies, well, they’re palatable if not my particular taste.

And for those of us who prefer the dark side, there’s always Monster High.

***

I should note that my daughter has had many Barbie dolls, most of them fairies or mermaids. She even got a Monster High doll for Christmas this past year. But because she sometimes quickly Moves On To Other Things, all of those dolls held her attention for only a little while, and eventually, all of them became grossly unkempt, hair tangled like sticky straw, clothes in one state of disarray or another. The collection of them, if you were to dig them out from the corners of her room and closet, look like some sort of horror scene from a sex-ploitation movie war zone.

And if I wait long enough to dig them out of the mess, my daughter will acknowledge she doesn’t want them anymore, and I’ll fix the little dolls up, clothe them and brush their hair, collect their pink belongings into neat bundles, and send them back out into the world, presentable and redeemed. I have become a one-person Barbie shelter. Perhaps subconsciously, in an environmentally responsible sort of way, I’m making up for the fact that all my childhood Barbies probably ended up in the garbage.

Or maybe I just feel bad for her. Barbie’s old. She’s had a lot of growing up to do. And poor girl, she’s done the best she could to evolve without losing herself, without denying her core nature, without becoming unrecognizable. And isn’t that what so many of us try to do? She’s just going with the flow as best she can, trying not to drown.

So come here, Barbie, before you go, and give us a kiss.

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Another Reading Where You Can Find Yours Truly

Hey there.  For those of you in the Houston area next week, I’ll be participating in a poetry reading on Saturday, February 25th, at Brazos Bookstore.  We go on at 2:00, and there are lots of us reading our poems that were published in Mutabilis Press’ most recent anthology Improbable Worlds.  Should be much fun.  And if I’m not misinformed, other poets reading that day include Tony Hoagland and Hayan Charara (among others).  Come on out; it should be lots of fun!  

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Here’s the link to Brazos’ website, in case you need directions or other information.

http://www.brazosbookstore.com/

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And here’s the link to Mutabilis Press’ website, in case you want to learn more about their publications or want to order the book but can’t come to the reading.

http://www.mutabilispress.org/

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Finally, here’s a link to my earlier blog post about this particular recent publication of mine.

http://wp.me/p1MOqK-1B

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I hope to see you all there!  🙂

 

Generosity Day

What a neat idea that I first heard about from Brené Brown’s blog Ordinary Courage.

http://www.causes.com/causes/646624-generosity-day/actions

What will you do to make Valentines’ Day a day to share kindness with anyone and everyone?  I’m going to try really hard to be patient and as non-ogrish as possible all day…  And I will have chocolates available in my classroom all day for anyone who wants them.

Reader Question: Themes in Your Short Story

Here’s the question that came in:

On my current short story that I’m editing, my friend pointed out to me that there’s a pretty strong theme of feminism, and I can really see where he’s coming from. I didn’t intend for this theme to exist though and in fact meant for another theme that is completely irrelevant to this one. Is this a problem then? Because I’m worried that the feminism might detract from the other theme, or something like that. But on the other hand, maybe its good that people can get different things out of different reads. What do you think?

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This is a great question.  I think that sometimes, when we write, our subconscious minds layer in things that we didn’t know we were thinking about or didn’t expect would come into the story (or poem, or play, or essay, etc.) at hand.  There have been several occasions when my writers’ group has analyzed a chapter or a scene in such a way that made me think, yeah, of course, that’s exactly what I was going for, but I had no idea of it at the time I was drafting it.  Writing is a funny beast that way.  And when I say funny, I mean extraordinary.

Feminism may be a philosophy that matters to you on a personal, daily basis.  Literature does not exist in a vacuum; writers are always influenced in one way or another by their lives, their experiences, their environment.  The adage that one should write what one knows doesn’t mean all fiction comes from one’s own past, but rather that we need to acknowledge that the more we know about a subject — or an emotion, or a theme, or the Human Condition in general — the more authentically we can write about it.

I don’t see anything wrong with having more than one theme in a single manuscript, even if they seem unrelated to you at first blush.  Back in school we used to joke that a piece of literature was deep if it “operated on so many different levels.”  We were being tongue-in-cheek and cracking ourselves up with this quip, but it was funny in part because it is true.  If it weren’t, it wouldn’t have become a cliché in the first place.

Hope that helps.  🙂  Anyone else want to chime in, feel free.

 

Answering Your Questions…Or At Least Trying To

I’ve been fielding questions about writing from my current and former students via email lately.  Lots of them.  And sometimes, similar questions from different people.  I’d like to open this forum up for discussions about writing — anything from creative writing technique (that’s my background) to literary analysis (that’s my background too) to grammar (really just a hobby).  I don’t profess to be an expert on anything, really, but if you pose a question in the comments section here, I’ll answer it to the best of my ability in a new blog post.  Then anyone else who’s following this blog — and I know for a fact that several of you are also writers — please feel free to chime in on the discussion as well.

This should be fun.  🙂

Something So Simple

I had a strange conversation last summer with my daughter.  We were driving home one afternoon.  My son, then four, was napping in the sun.  My daughter was watching the scenery out her window, and we were both listening to the music playing on the radio.  We hadn’t talked for several songs, just having a mellow car ride home.  Then all of a sudden, a propos of nothing, she tells me in a dreamy voice, “Mommy, I love Ferdinand.”  This is a boy in her class.  (Please note, Ferdinand is not his real name.)

“You do?” I asked, thinking this was something to investigate, but not freak out about, not yet.

“Yeah, I do.”  She was wearing the kind of smile I could imagine the Mona Lisa wearing, if she had been struck with pleasant infatuation at the age of six and had just eaten a chocolate bar.

“That sounds nice,” I said, trying to figure out how to evaluate what she meant by “love.”  I decided to abandon subtlety.  “How do you know you love Ferdinand?” I asked, keeping my voice even, light, relaxed.

“Sometimes I just feel like he’s here with me,” she said with great contentment.  “Sitting next to me, talking to me, taking a nap with me during movie time.”  (The sleepover phenomenon had just started among the kids in her grade, but not boy-girl ones, thank you very much.)

She hadn’t seen this kid in a couple of months.  “And do you like to imagine he’s here with you?”

“Yes,” she said, that same sweet smile still gracing her lips.

“So…what about him makes you love him?”

She flashed a really big grin at me.  “He’s really funny.  He makes me laugh.”

This is a good start, I thought.  “That’s an important quality in someone you love,” I said.  “And does Ferdinand love you, too?”

“Oh, yes, he adores me,” she said with the kind of self-assurance most adults don’t have when they answer this question.

“That’s very sweet.”  I smiled at her in the rearview mirror.  “Has he said that to you?”

“No,” she said peacefully, undaunted.

“Then how can you tell he loves you?”

“Because when he sees me, he gets this really big smile on his face that he doesn’t get for anyone else.”

I was struck by the simplicity of her answer, by its grace.  I did not freak out.  She was beaming, and in this moment I was hopeful that these two children really did have such a genuine affection for each other.  I was immediately reminded of Linda from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and the instincutal affection Timmy and Linda have for each other at the age of nine, a fondness they don’t have the vocabulary to explain and yet somehow, don’t need in order to feel or express it.

“We should tell Daddy about him when we get home,” I suggested, and she nodded her head and continued smiling out the window at the scenery.

I wondered whether Daddy would freak out.  Considering he started grumbling at boys he saw walking down the street as soon as we found out I was pregnant with a daughter, I guessed he would.  But, I wondered, should he?

Something of the self-assurance my daughter exhibited in the car that day gets lost between childhood and adulthood; I think it’s probably burned away in the crucible of adolescence, and unfortunately, young adulthood doesn’t do much to replenish it for most people — or at least, most of the people I’ve known or observed.  How horrible.  And I say this without too much irony.  Even I, in my rock-solid life filled with blessings and a happy marriage, haven’t completely regained that sense of confidence, at least not 100% of the time.  Sometimes I wonder if I ever will, or if my brain just isn’t hard-wired that way.  It’s a conundrum.

I’ve been thinking lately about love and what it makes us do, how it makes us feel, and how much I desperately wish everyone in the world could experience it on a daily basis.

***

One of the most important things I learned when I had children was that one’s capacity for love only increases.  Exponentially, in fact.

I worried when I was pregnant with my son that my and my husband’s love for each other and for our daughter would be divided when our son was born.  Mostly I was worried that my husband’s affection for me would diminish down to a slice of his attention as he lavished all his emotional wherewithal on the kids.  He’s such a good father that I didn’t see how it would be possible for him to focus on all of us at once, or together.  I sat on this anxiety for too long, and when I finally, tearfully, expressed my fears to him, he smiled and put a gentle hand on my swelling, kicking belly and explained to me in the most loving terms possible that I was a hormonal, raving lunatic.

“That’s just not the way it works,” he said.  “Why on earth would it be?”  He reminded me that I didn’t love him any less just because our daughter had come along.  He asked whether I intended to reduce my affection for him once our son was born.

“Of course not!” I sputtered, indignant.

He shook his head indulgently.  “Then why are you worried?”

That, I didn’t have a good answer for, and in the absence of clarity, I just kept my stupid thoughts to myself.

***

My mother is ten years older than my father.  After he graduated from high school in 1970, he went to a business school, and she was his computer programming teacher.  She had been a programmer, working in the industry, for a while and hadn’t been teaching long.

He was smitten from the first moment he saw her.  He was young and she, beautiful and confident and in a position of respect and authority in a male-dominated industry.  In the early seventies, that was a really big deal.  He was smart enough to recognize that.

My dad comes from a produce family.  They owned a grocery store which boasted some of the best produce in this part of the country (along with pretty much everything else).  He brought her an apple every single day and repeatedly asked her to go out with him.

She was downright rude in response.  “Absolutely not,” she told him.  “Go sit down and leave me alone.”

On the last day of the term, he asked her out one more time.  He told her, “After today, I’m not your student anymore.”

I like to think my mother rolled her eyes at him, although I suspect she was too straight-laced and proper to do such a thing.  Finally she said, “If I go have coffee with you, will you get off my back about it?”

“I sure will,” he assured her.

She grudgingly agreed.  A couple-few years later, they were married.

***

Love makes us do silly things.  Wonderful things.  I think about my early twenties, when I got to witness some of these stunts firsthand.  That inner joy for humanity made Steve buy a motley collection of exotic flowers and go around on Valentines’ Day handing one out to every girl he saw.  (Mine was a bird of paradise.)  It made Jason dress up in a cloak like one of the Three Musketeers and go deliver a CD of the soundtrack to his friend’s favorite TV show, wrapped in comics and adorned with a red rose, to her while she was working the dorm security desk in the middle of the night, just to keep her company.  It made Konstantin slough off his stern demeanor long enough to let me paint his fingernails black with silver glitter.

“Look, Konnie, it’s the night sky,” my roommate Amber and I told him, laughing, while he grumbled in Bulgarian, then when that didn’t deter us, in Russian, which also failed.

And then he even let us take his picture, even though he and we all knew his students (mostly ten-year-old girls who were also math geniuses) would tease him about it the next day.

***

Lately my daughter, who is six, has been giving me folded pieces of paper on which are written, “I love you.  From:  ?” next to a cartoonish sticker of a smiling, heart-shaped cupid.  She hands these notes to me as if I were meant to believe that she has just discovered them somewhere, mysteriously, with the intuition that they must be for Mama.

Obviously she has made these love notes but wants me to believe otherwise.  Her sly grin and hopeful dark brown eyes encourage me to play along.

“Oh, I must have a secret admirer,” I say each time.

“Yep!” she always replies, as if newly discovering what those words mean.

I thank and hug and kiss her.  I tuck the love note away in a box full of special cards and letters.  It will be only a couple of days before the next one comes.

I adore love notes.  Writing them has become, sadly, a lost art, and I’m pretty sure I can blame the rise of email and other electronic communication for that.  Remember when we all wrote actual letters to each other?  I had one friend in college who slipped into formal, yet passionate, Nineteenth Century diction when he composed his.  Those letters were something to see.

You should write a love letter this year.  Go ahead.  It’s not that difficult, actually.  Just pretend you aren’t going to send it, and then it’s much easier to write.  If you’re feeling really inspired, write a poem.  You’ve got a week to do it.  Go on, get started.

Happy Valentines’ Day.