Friday, April 10, 2009

Hello, Dolly!

“You know you've made it when you've been moulded in miniature plastic. But you know what children do with Barbie dolls - it's a bit scary, actually.” – Cate Blanchett

"I love shopping!"
"Wanna have a pizza party?"
"Math class is tough!"
- Teen Talk Barbie

"In 1993 a group in the United States calling itself the "Barbie Liberation Organization" modified Barbie dolls by giving them the voice box of a talking G.I. Joe doll, and secretly returned the dolls to the shelves of toy stores. Parents and children were surprised when they purchased Barbie dolls that uttered phrases such as 'Eat lead, Cobra!' and 'Vengeance is mine.'" -Wikipedia

OK, I admit it. I loved Barbie.

I spent many engrossing childhood hours “playing Barbies” either alone or with friends.

As an adult woman with feminist leanings, I have trouble reconciling my passion for a fashion doll with over-applied makeup, an artificial tan, and an anatomically impossible figure with the person I am today. I find myself slightly embarrassed when admitting my childhood weakness for the plastic doll.

Yet the fact remains, I was a Barbie fan.

I got my first Barbie for my eighth birthday. It was actually a Skipper (Barbie’s younger sister), since Barbie herself was “too mature for young girls to play with” (per my mother). She had two sausage-like spirals of long blond curly hair. I was hooked.

As I got older, my collection evolved, primarily focused around the Malibu line. Tanning was trendy during the seventies, and the “California” perfectly tanned blonde with blue eyes was all the rage. My collection included three Malibus: P.J., Francie, and Skipper (actually, I had two Malibu Skippers, the first one having been vandalized by a never-identified schoolmate who chopped off her long blond hair and left a permanent dirt smudge on her cheek. Replacement Malibu Skipper assumed the role of Barbie’s fashionable younger sister, while original Malibu Skipper was forever relegated to being the “tomboy” twin with the boyish haircut).

All of my Barbies had distinct personalities - consistent names, ages, and character traits -throughout our years together. Because of the obvious family resemblance, my Malibu quartet became a family unit of four sisters. Typical story lines included some form of tragic death of both parents, resulting in the oldest sister, Jamie, raising her younger siblings alone. Jamie was 27 years old. Somehow, in my mind, 27 was the magical age where you were old enough to be an adult, but young enough to still be fun and adventurous.

In addition to the core group of sisters, Jamie had a close friend, Laura (a short-lived model known as Yellowstone Kelley), who had the same fantastic tan, but with auburn hair and brown eyes. A little diversity for the group. And I had not forgotten my original non-Malibu Skipper, who put in appearances as the pale-skinned best friend of the twins.

The main feminist criticism of Barbie dolls is that they objectify women and portray an impossible physical standard. I cannot argue with this. A standard Barbie doll is 11.5 inches tall, giving a height of 5 feet 9 inches at 1/6 scale. Barbie's vital statistics have been estimated at 36 inches (chest), 18 inches (waist) and 33 inches (hips) (according to Wikipedia).

However, I take issue with the argument that the Barbies teach young girls that fashion and external beauty are the most important things in life. For me, Barbie provided much more.

For example, Barbie encouraged my creativity. Buttons and thimbles became plates and glasses. Swimming pools were giant lakes. Scraps of paper were transformed into tiny record albums and magazines. The backyard garden was a forest, the lawn was a prairie. Flip-flops (called “thongs” at the time) made fantastic cars – tiny one-seated convertibles one could drive around the house. Commandeering the guest bedroom to set up a Barbie mansion with secret rooms, multiple levels, and extensive integration of various household items could occupy us for hours, and was much more enjoyable than playing with the pre-fab Barbie Dream House.

Barbie taught me about disabilities. Due to the unfortunate fact that Barbie dolls hips are not designed for external rotation, I had several “amputee” Barbies as a result of trying to ride my collection of Johnny West horses. These ill-fated Barbies had to forevermore deal with the repercussions of being differently-abled.

Barbie taught me that the bonds of sisterhood would not be broken. As the youngest of three girls, I strongly identified with the youngest sister, “Jennifer” (aka replacement Malibu Skipper). Her butch but sensitive twin (aka vandalized Malibu Skipper), allowed me to explore all those anti-girly-girl tomboy feelings. The addition of best-friend-original-Skipper created the unstable triangle that always seems to occur in groups of three friends.

I won’t lie, I did enjoy the fashion aspect. The tiny outfits were cute, and choosing clothes to fit various scenarios and personalities was, well, fun. Did playing with Barbies contribute to the body-image issues I, like most American women, seem to be plagued with? Perhaps, but no more than magazine ads or television commercials (which feature actual human beings twisted and contorted into a “perfect” image).

And Barbie gave me so much more than any advertising image ever could. My Barbies were proxies by which I navigated the emotional jungle of childhood and early adolescence. They allowed me to play out complex relationship scenarios without risk. And they exemplified women making it on their own (yes, I eventually obtained a Malibu Ken, but he made only rare appearances in the plot lines).

My Barbies discussed life, love, grief, and family values. They had fights, apologized, and made up. They had their hearts broken. They experienced rage, jealousy, and compassion. At the end of the day, they made it through everything unscathed.

Barbie turned 50 this year. But to me, she’ll never be a day over 27.