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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The Twi-moms’ Lament

I’m going to irritate a lot of my friends here.  Apologies in advance, but hear me out.

Leave the Twi-moms alone.  They are hurting.  And no, I don’t think I’m one of them.

The Twilight series, for those who have not read the books — and notice I did not write “for those who have not seen the movies” or “for those who have been living under a rock,” because the books and the movies and the stuff people say about them are three different artifacts of expression, and we need to acknowledge that — is about a late-adolescent girl, Bella Swan, who moves across the country to live with her father in her junior year of high school.  She has a relatively smooth transition, largely avoiding the usual problems of displacement such a situation might bring, but encounters conflict when she falls hopelessly, fecklessly into consuming, co-dependent love with a vampire.

Oops.

I saw the first movie before I had read the books.  I saw it opening night with a couple of girlfriends who were fans of the books, in a theater filled with giddy, squealing teenage girls.  It was a raucous weird time.  I didn’t entirely know what to make of it all.  The movie, a tortured melodrama fraught with good music, poor acting, and worse direction (1), was weak at best.  My friends and I stood around in the lobby of the movie theater for an hour afterward making fun of it.  We all went home that night and changed our Facebook status lines to read, “What is he doing in that tree?” (2)

But I read the book the next week.

And let me explain why I did that:  I love vampires.  Some other time we can get into a discussion, if you like, about what they represent from a literary or psychological point of view, about why they are so different every time a new author reinvents them, about why they come back into mainstream pop culture every half-generation or so.  We can get into that stuff later, maybe.  But I could tell from the movie that Stephenie Meyer was clearly doing something unique with the mythology, and I wanted to know more about it.  I had heard her recent interview on NPR and was intrigued by this apparent literary phenomenon.  Paranormal romance?  A story based on a dream?  Best-selling books written by an ordinary mom?  Written for a younger audience and will probably take me all of one day to read?  Sure, I’ll bite.  Plus, I love vampires and am willing to give a cute story a chance.

So what happened when I read the book?  I became a little bit of a fan.  It wasn’t great literature — it wasn’t even particularly good writing — but it was really entertaining.  I went back and saw the movie a second time with another friend who had not seen it yet but wanted to, this time in a nearly empty movie theater.  It was a profoundly different experience.  Now I could hear all the dialogue, now there wasn’t any giggling around me, now I had the context of the novel in which to frame the movie.  It was still poorly acted and poorly directed, but now, well, it wasn’t so bad.  I sort of got it.  It was easy to willingly suspend my disbelief, to let myself sink into the goofy fantasy of it for a couple of hours.  And I admit it was a little embarrassing to be able to do so when so many of my friends had such disparaging things to say about it, but oh well.  To be blunt, most of them had not read the books or seen the movies.  Though I love my friends, I could get only so worked up about what they thought.

Then I read the rest of the books.  From a writing standpoint, I was curious about how Meyer could possibly sustain the driving tension of the first novel across three others.  From an analytical standpoint, I was interested in her redefinition of what’s at stake for these vampires:  what exactly was the downside, again?  What was so compelling about this story?  Sure, it was fun —  a big bowl of candy, in fact.  (Generally enjoyable but not a lot of nutritional value.)  And the male leads are, in their fashion, irresistible. (3)  There’s plenty of romantic tension, which is fun, if you have inside of you a person who believes that sex is not something one does with just anyone.  And so what if Meyer was putting forth a philosophy?  She has the right to do that, it’s her book.  If you don’t like it, don’t read it. (4)

But beyond that, I think this series has been incredibly popular with teenage girls and mature adult women for one particular reason that is the same for both very different age groups:  Bella Swan is incredibly flawed.

Bella is a convincing teenage girl who has fallen deeply in love for the first time.  I think many women who fell into true love in high school can recognize themselves in her.  She has the trappings of youth:  clumsiness; an inability to see her own beauty or even, at times, self-worth; poor judgment.  And her love for Edward is fierce and dependent, much like true love really is.  Audiences may scoff at her martyr-like attitude and find her choices to be frustratingly bad.  They might even criticize her for the way she thinks, and in this modern time, they have a good point.  (Linda Holmes has an excellent review of the latest movie installment, which I agree with in pretty much every way.  Here’s the link to it:  http://www.npr.org/2011/11/17/142248824/dawn-breaks-and-much-baroque-nonsense-ensues.)

I criticized Bella, too, until I remembered my own youth, remembered experiencing these emotions in the first place, remembered being seventeen and so desperately in love that I was willing to make really stupid choices.  Perhaps I saw in Bella what I regret about my own life.  This can make any protagonist – and frankly, any person, in a book or not – annoying.

But Bella is worth my attention for her proverbial warts.  Not because they are unusual – they aren’t – but because they do not prevent her from being loved.  And not just loved, but adored – and not just by any old loser who can’t do any better, but by a demi-god.  (Two of them, even.)

This makes these books, well, a little bit inspiring.  You know, on a subconscious level.  Who doesn’t want to feel like she (or he, for that matter) is so lovable, warts and all, that the object of her (or his) affections could possibly reciprocate them with such passion?  It’s wonderful to imagine that we are more than the sum of our flaws, that others can see past the imperfect body, the neurotic habits, the lack of self-confidence, the constant need for reassurance and just love us.  Adore us, even.  Find us so compelling that their need for us is just as intense as ours is for them.

So why do I say the Twi-moms are hurting?  (And sure, some of them aren’t.)  This story just might represent something they feel they have lost.  Even if they haven’t — even if what they think they’re missing is only buried deep down under layers of marriage and children and the demands of a career and household minutiae and far too busy weekends and having to actually schedule date nights with their spouses and a general lack of time for themselves — this story just might remind them of that thing inside of them that is young and vulnerable and desirable.  It’s like a princess story for grown-ups:  a damsel in distress hidden within the trappings of the modern age.

So go easy on these vulnerable matrons.  Absolutely, teach the young kids enjoying these books and movies that Bella is messed up hard-core, that her choices are weak, that her priorities are badly skewed.  Teach them that life does not in any way resemble this fantasy, and teach them why, and teach them how to avoid being victims.

But if enjoyment of this story isn’t interfering with real life, if it’s not hampering the fulfillment of their duties and obligations, if it’s not messing with their sense of reality, let the Twi-moms enjoy themselves.  Don’t be haters just because you don’t understand.

And if you know a Twi-mom and don’t think her obsession with Twilight is healthy, then give her something else to read.  You know, something with literary merit.

Like Jane Austen.

(1)  For more examples of Catherine Hardwicke’s illustrious career, check out IMDB (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0362566/).  She has six directing credits, including Twilight and a project not yet complete.  The only other one of those movies I’ve seen, though I’d heard of them all, is Red Riding Hood, and I’d like to have that hour and a half of my life back.  RRH was one of the worst movies I think I’ve ever witnessed in my adult life.  I thought about blogging about it, in fact, but to do a good job of it I’d probably have to watch it again, and I just can’t suffer that much for my art, unless there’s really a demand for it from my audience.  For more objective context, I think it’s interesting that all the little user-generated lists that pop up on the right-hand menu bar for her IMDB page are lists of “bad directors.”

(2)  The answer to this question is that he is demonstrating his Otherness.  You know, in case you were still wondering.

(3)  Totally talking about the books here.  The choice between Taylor Lautner and Robert Pattinson is laughably the choice between Child on Steroids and Child Unwashed.  Barf.

(4)  I had heard and read the criticism that she was injecting religion into her story, but honestly, I don’t think it goes that far:  the issue of morality is not belabored any more than in any other thoughtful exploration of the Human Condition, and the question of whether Edward has a soul isn’t truly answered.