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.