09 March 2009

Bringing Up Barbie

Barbie, the 11 ½-inch “teenage fashion doll” from Mattel, turns 50 this week. She was already firmly entrenched in the American psyche by the time I was a kid, and the lessons she taught had taken hold already. Those lessons are either crass consumerism or feminist empowerment, depending on whom you ask. But don’t ask me. I wasn’t allowed to play with Barbies, when I visited girl friends.

From the little I saw of Barbie, she didn’t interest me much. Her characterless moue held no appeal. (Remember, I was about to become an opera fan. Stand a Barbie next to Maria Callas. There’s no contest.)

Moreover, Barbie was useless. In order to play with her, one had to hold her, much the way one holds a drumstick: she couldn’t stand alone. Her feet are too tiny to support her, and they’re pointed, besides, so that she can wear those tiny plastic high heels — that invariably slipped off and got lost. Thus I suspect that, as a feminist role model, she functions pretty poorly, never mind that she once ran for President. I know from personal experience, however, that when held by her feet, Barbie could be wielded as a club, and the blows she dealt could smart.

What Barbie was principally good for, then, was accessorizing. One could easily spend a small fortune on her outfits, her Dream House, her camper, her convertible car, her many little friends. Though anxieties over my gender-identification (and what the neighbors might have to say about it) probably compelled my mother’s no-Barbie rule, her inclination to thrift surely played a role, as well: we didn’t buy brand-name soap or canned goods, so why would we set ourselves up to buy brand-name doll furniture and clothing?

The emphasis on Barbie’s wardrobe did mean that millions of Americans* spent a lot of time undressing her, growing accustomed to her unlikely proportions and her strangely neutered curves, that mix of prurience and prudery that is a naked Barbie. Though I was never the paradigm for the narrator of A.M. Homes’ wonderful short story, “A Real Doll,” I did get near enough to Barbie’s nudity to feel a combination of excitement and pity for her. I had nothing but pity for poor Ken, with his puny pubic bump and his flamboyant wardrobe. Granted, even G.I. Joe was only slightly more virile, or at least hirsute, but Ken was a goddam eunuch, before I understood what eunuchs were and why I was glad I wasn’t one. It’s become chic to disparage Barbie for the “unreasonable body expectations” she inspires in little girls, but what’s Ken teaching boys (or girls) to expect? Yikes.

Pity didn’t prevent me from perverting an art project, when I was an adult. I took a Ken doll and dressed him in the purple-satin gown designed for the Wicked Queen from Disney’s Snow White, then available in toy stores everywhere. The fit was perfect, and the newly outfitted doll was a present to Marceline Hugot, a classmate from Brown, when she went off to film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, in which her co-stars (Patrick Swayze, John Leguizamo, and Wesley Snipes) played drag queens. Marceline told me that Transvestite Ken was popular in the trailer, between takes.

That’s the extent of my connection to the Barbie phenomenon, and it’s strange to feel so removed from something so universal. I don’t regret not growing up with Barbie, and I have no intention of becoming a Waylon Smithers–type adult collector. Yet I’ll always wonder whether the old song is true, and life in a Barbie World really is fantastic, because it’s plastic.

*French people, too. There was a report on the news on Sunday. Who'd have thought?

All photographs from the Mattel website.

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