Barbie: heroine or villainess…is it that simple?
March 5, 2009
As a feminist, I’m supposed to hate Barbie. She’s the one who you’d think blighted my otherwise cheerful adolescence – turning me into the once nearly anorexic mess that now, to my dismay, wears a size 10. Barbie is the suspected harbinger of low self-esteem. But I’ve got news for you: Barbie didn’t do anything to me. I never wanted to look like her. I never compared my roundness to her willowy frame. I never allowed her seemingly perfect appearance to challenge my wonderfully imperfect appearance. I never threw up my lunch so that I could squeeze into smaller clothes and pretend to be the blond beauty.
She’s not real…she’s plastic. And if Barbie sprung to life, reportedly she’d topple over because her boobs are too big for her frame and her feet are too small for her weight. Additionally, she only has room in her diminutive midsection for half a liver and a small portion of her intestines. It wouldn’t be long before Barbie would die a miserable death from malabsortion.
Barbie has always been a blank canvas for me; a place to project my hopes and dreams on a small stage. For all the girls who – like me – wanted to be ballerinas when we grew up (however chunky we might have been whilst engaging in this fantasy), Barbie has many a ballerina costume. For girls who dreamed of exploring outer space, there was “Miss Astronaut” Barbie (1965). For all the girls who – like me – wanted to be the first woman president, Barbie corporate suits were available in different colors and styles. And in 1992, Mattel released its first signature “Barbie for President” doll, which has gone through several transformations over the years. Sure, “Beach Blast Barbie” isn’t nearly as challenging or redemptive as the American Girl dolls with their anti-bullying and anti-racism messages, etc. Barbie is just a hanger for pretty clothes and accessories. Little girls (and some boys) like to dress and accessorize that hanger.
While early attempts to fashion Barbie after interesting career women resulted in traditional female job dolls (singer, ballerina, nurse and flight attendant), by the 1980′s - courtesy of the advancements of real women in the real workforce – Barbie had become a television news anchor, a UNICEF ambassador, a teacher, a soldier and an aerobics instructor. That was great news for girls (and some boys) who wanted to take the career fantasy a step further. Barbie had the career clothes (over 100 different careers in 50 years), and consequently you could pretend – by projecting, imagining or playing – that you’d get your dream job when you grew up. (Take a look at Time‘s photojournalism Barbie history exhibit HERE.)
Barbie AND her wardrobe give children fuel for the imagination, just like any doll. Baby dolls help you pretend to be a mother (or father), for instance. Barbie helps you project your fantasies about future opportunities. You dress her up and do her hair…then you stuff her in a box somewhere until you get a new plastic outfit to daydream about, and you start all over. Barbie offerings have evolved and now come in many different hair and skin shades. (Perhaps there’s even a Barbie or two in the White House these days, though I haven’t been able to find evidence of either a predilection about or aversion to the toy on the part of “Mom in Chief” Michelle Obama.)
Of course, I knew Barbie in the 80′s and 90′s when her wardrobe was almost entirely plastic - tragically- though I was still drawn to its sparkle and glamour. Just when I was starting to think my mother and I have nothing in common, I inquired about her experiences with Barbie and – sure enough – she had a Barbie doll for the pretty clothes too: “Part of the appeal for me…was that they were these beautiful little fabrics and they were store-bought,” my mother confessed.
“My mother made all my clothes,” she continued to explain. “They were very serviceable. They were very useful. I wore brown tie shoes, leather oxfords, to school…nothing frivolous! These Barbie clothes were – to me – so exciting because they were colorful and they were store-bought.”
I’ve seen her Barbie (she still has it) and it’s lovely. She bought it in 1963 (Barbie was just about 4 years old then and still a novelty). Mom’s Barbie has a stylish 60′s brunette bubble haircut (retail value in those days was $2.99) and about ten pristine outfits (retail value $1.50 and up). But, aside from the shoes, there’s no plastic in sight for 1963 Barbie. In the early days of Barbie, clothes were assembled with real thread (instead of glue) and made of cotton and polyester (instead of shiny paper-like fibers).
My mother – long blond braids in tow – would trot down to W. T. Grant’s department store on a weekly basis to check out the new shipment of Barbie outfits that arrived. Once, she bought the flight attendant ensemble, complete with overnight bag and wedge cap. On another occasion, she purchased the backyard cookout set, with chef’s apron and barbecue utensils (metal with wooden handles). She had the peignoir nightgown and matching pink slippers, as well as “glorious!, the ballerina outfit!” Devastated was she that Grant’s never ordered the bridal ensemble. Or, if it had, another hopeful tot swept it up before she could set eyes upon its elegant cream chiffon layers.
Not only did my grandmother make my mother’s clothes, she made her lunches too. And every day my mother would return home in the middle of the day for soup and sandwiches a la Grammy’s warm wishes. The family was well enough off so that Grammy could spend her days at home, but – with four children, one of them deemed “special needs” – money was not wastefully spent on toys outside of Christmas and birthday giving.
Mom wanted a Barbie. She wanted to project the same way I did. She wanted to dress the doll up and envision her own ascension to the realms of stylish and sophisticated careerdom. She wanted Barbie so much that she had to work for it: she worked in the school cafeteria, hosing off lunch trays and stacking them for reuse. But the payment was free hot lunch for each week she worked…not money. Mom, and her similarly blond-tressed friend K****, were the two school children entrusted with this task; and, for K****, free lunch was a necessity. Mom, on the other hand, still travelled home to eat. Grammy – fairminded as she was – coughed up the $1.50 that hot lunch was worth as an allowance…and, after two weeks, Mom had enough to buy the brunette Barbie of her dreams.
Barbie must have meant as much to me, though not on a pecuniary level. I remember chewing the rubber feet on a friend’s Barbie once when I was about 6 years old in exchange for whatever unforgivable injustice she had done to me, knowing that the doll’s desecration would vex her. And when a cousin and I were gifted slightly different ”Peaches ‘n Cream Barbie(s)” for Christmas one year, I threw an elaborate temper tantrum convinced that there was some conspiracy that resulted in my cherubic cousin getting the prettier of the two dolls.
I guess I thought – for a fleeting moment – that pretty Barbie’s were only for pretty girls and that maybe my less pretty doll was a reflection on my being the less pretty cousin.
The drama subsided, however; I loved the PRETTY Barbie I’d received, and I had other dolls over time. As far as I can remember, I never felt bad about myself just looking at and playing with the Barbies that I did.
It would seem that either my experience was unique or a West Virginia politician has come up with a corny way of making headlines. Democratic Delegate Jeff Eldridge has proposed a state-wide ban on Barbie doll sales claiming that “such toys influence girls to place too much importance on physical beauty, at the expense of their intellectual and emotional development.” I don’t know about other women who played with Barbies in their youth, but I feel intellectually and emotionally developed.
If parents are concerned about body image and emotional development when it comes to Barbies, then they need to explain the facts: Barbie is disproportionate and thus physically impossible. And while they’re at it, they should explain that actresses and models on magazine covers are airbrushed and have full-time personal trainers and nutritionists to guide them to their svelte shapes. Looking at magazine covers did more to damage my fragile ego than playing with a doll – any doll – ever did.
And – speaking of parents - the heaviest shrapnel fire that rained down on my body image came from my dear mom and dad (sorry Mom!). They taught me to fear/loathe food and made me self-conscious about being overweight, just as their parents had done to them. Mr. Eldridge, before you ban Barbie, you should make sure that you’re not telling your 6-year-old daughter that her delicious ice cream sandwich will make her undesirably fat or that she’s predisposed to obesity. Don’t parade her by McDonald’s whilst telling her that Big Macs are “the devil.” Don’t hide “naughty” snack food - like chips and candy – on an unreachable shelf and tell her that she can’t have those things. If you do, you’re worse than any Barbie doll. By forbidding the chips and candy, you’re saying that success in life is tied to physical perfection and are therefore robbing your daughter of the promise that she can be the first woman president if she wants to. Barbie, at least, offers her that fantasy.
Barbie is 50…but from afar she doesn’t look a day over 25. And if you look closely, you’ll see that she isn’t nefarious, scheming to undermine your self-esteem.
She’s just plastic…and glitter…and imagination!