Kids, like adults, cycle through their toys. My son phased through dinosaurs, superheros, Star Wars. And though he won’t admit it, he still loves his bin of Legos and his glow-in-the dark light saber (ah, boys and their swords…). My girls had Little Pony and Polly Pocket obsessions. One flirted with American Girls but it never went anywhere. But the thing my daughters keep cycling back to over and over is Barbie.
I know, I know. I’m a feminist. I should HATE Barbie. I have lots of friends who loathe her waspish waist, her platinum blond cornsilk hair, not to mention her slutty little shoes and micro mini clothes. And I can see why lots of moms might want to banish Barbie and her "Made in Taiwan" bootie from their daughters’ toy chest. These friends feel Barbie sends a terrible message to girls: beauty=skinny and big chested, happiness=clothes and Ken. I admit they have a point. She is a freakish Glamazon with her 36-18-33 figure. In recent years Mattel has attempted to make her more of role model by creating "Astronaut Barbie," "Dr. Barbie," "Teacher Barbie" and a host of other career themed dolls. They even gave her plastic surgery in 1997, widening her waist to make her more “real.” Even so her very name still conjures images of a blandly attractive and vacuous woman.
Why, then, do I LOVE Barbie? I still walk down that Flamingo Pink aisle of Toys R Us with a strange combination of desire and reverence. Part of it is nostalgia. I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t have a Barbie. One of our first ones was a hand-me-down from a much older cousin. She had short reddish brown hair, plastic protruding eyelashes, and no smile whatsoever. My older sister and I agreed she looked just like Lucille Ball when Lucy was mad at Ricky for not letting her sing at the Copa Cabana. Since then I’ve had dozens of Barbies and played with them long after it was "cool" to play with dolls. My favorites were the non-traditional Barbies: Christy with her Foxy Brown hair; my Hawaiian Barbie in her sassy hula skirt; and Donny and Marie in their shimmery purple unitards.
I just don’t see Barbie as the anti-Christ in stilettos (that would be Brat Dolls who look just like some prostitutes from Vadivostok I once saw—I know, I’m a hypocrite). Mostly I like Barbie because she could be whatever I projected onto her. My Barbies were Superheros, adventurers, detectives, Olympic athletes. Okay, so I never pretended they were nuclear physicists or Rhodes scholars; that doesn’t mean I didn’t create fun and intelligent imaginary worlds that may or may not have contributed to my current status as a pretty good person (hey, I may not have written the great American novel, but I have read all of Shakespeare thank you very much). And as for Ken, Barbie’s life does not revolve around that 12" dude with a washboard belly and a plastic coif. Mattel even had them “break up” a few years back. For every Ken doll, we had at least 4 Barbies–and no, never once did we play "Brigham Young Era Barbie" where Barbie, Midge and Skipper were sister wives to polygamist Ken. On the contrary, Ken was an accessory, like her white go-go boots or the little sombrero my aunt brought me back from Tijuana.
Growing up Mormon, I always wanted children but didn't spend a lot of time playing "little mother." And though you could buy tiny plastic babies, my friends and I never made Barbie the Mom. Was it that she seemed too young (we could have played "Teen Pregnancy Barbie" but that wouldn’t have been fun)? Was it that the Magenta Corvette had no room for a carseat? Certainly I was too ignorant to know that of course Barbie has never had kids because even if she managed to maintain that itty bitty waist, no one’s chest could stay THAT perky post childbearing. Barbie was not about caretaking. She was her own woman, defined neither by men nor children, changing careers like she changed those trampy shoes, free to explore and create her world. Is that really so wrong?
I’ve watched my girls play Barbies, and sometimes wonder if I am encouraging materialism, immodesty, selfishness. But mostly their play makes me happy. This summer Barbie did lots of skydiving from our tree house with plastic supermarket bags as parachutes. Millie has had Barbie catching and training wild mustangs. Currently, Georgia spends hours designing dresses out of baby wipes and rubber bands. Honestly? Some of her designs rock. And Bea likes to make her swim in the tub. So while Barbie may not be an ideal role model, as long as she fuels little girls’ imaginations, she’ll always have a place in my heart.