Earlier today some folks I know were discussing girls and toys. Of course the conversation eventually turned to the most polarizing toy of them all – Barbie. I was reminded of something I wrote back in 2009. Given how the readership of my blog has changed since then, I thought it might be worth sharking these thoughts again…
This month is Barbie’s 50th birthday. Like many women my age, I had a crate of dolls and assorted paraphernalia as a girl, but I can still remember receiving my first Barbie for my birthday in mid-elementary school. I had stalked this doll weekly on trips to the local Clover store with my mother. I remember how beautiful she looked in the box and wanting to touch her clothes through the clear plastic packaging. I visited Barbie in the toy aisle for months and on my birthday remember how happy I was to see the Barbie package-shaped gift sitting on the breakfast table, waiting for me. Of all the dolls I owned as a girl, this one was my favorite and has stayed with me since.
Figure 1: Dr. Isis’s first Barbie — Peaches N Cream Barbie
Initially my fascination with Barbie was superficial — I was mesmerized by the shimmery bodice of her dress, her pierced ears, and heavy eye makeup. I imagined myself, like her, gliding gracefully in a cloud of peach-colored chiffon. I think my parents felt largely indifferent towards my love of this doll and humored me when she accompanied us everywhere. My Barbie became an active participant in many of the role-playing games I engaged in with friends. My childhood best friend was a little boy who lived next door who happened to have Castle Grayskull and the Death Star. My Barbie, in her poofy peach ballgown and metallic pumps, saved Eternia and Alderaan on more than one occasion. My friend humored me. I think it’s because we always had better snacks at my house.
It didn’t occur to me that there was anything unusual about Barbie battling Skeletor and Darth Vader. She could wield a light saber and the Power Sword li ke a champ. It didn’t occur to me, that is, until the fifth grade when my little girlish figure began to change from being twiggy to distinctly more hourglass. It was at this age that the girls in my class, girls who had known each other for years, began to change the way they treated each other. They started to use words like “slut” and “tramp,” although none of us really understood them. Certain girls, those of us who developed feminine features ahead of the mean, started being labeled as having “done it,” even though most of us had no concept of “it” and were only just learning that some people used their tongues when they kissed.
But girls like me who had graduated from training bras to real-life underwire were clearly different in a way that made us socially unacceptable and apparently overtly sexual. I hated being different and I grew to hate my beloved Barbie for also being different. I wore big, oversized sweatshirts to hide my figure, but my Barbie seemed to mock me, her womanly figure poured into her evening gown. So one night, after an afternoon of taunting, I punished my Barbie for shamelessly flaunting what Mattel had given her with a flawless smile on her face. I put her peach gown down the garbage disposal (an event that broke the garbage disposal and earned me a grounding) and cut Barbie’s hair. I cast my beloved, naked, mutilated Barbie into exile in my toy box and vowed to never play with her again.
Figure 2: Dr. Isis’s naked, buzzcut Peaches N Cream Barbie waves after being caught surfing the web.
I didn’t see Barbie again until high school when I found her at the bottom of the toy box while I was packing things to give to charity. She looked up at me, covered in dust with her buzzcut hair, still smiling from the bottom of the toy box and I felt sorry. I had grown into my female form, but I had judged Barbie harshly for a form she didn’t choose. And she smiled through my judgment and sentencing. I’ve kept her with me since.
[Added 2013 - I went and had a visit with Barbie again this afternoon. Her poor buzzcut hair. Funny how over the years she's helped me to accept what I am and what I am not. Again, she's helped remember not to judge myself to harshly.]
Last week I heard a radio story in which the reporter mockingly spoke of Barbie’s evolution from a 1950′s pinup to “President Barbie,” as though the attempt to make Barbie anything more than a fashion doll were futile because she’s Barbie, and I realized that part of what I like about my Barbie as an adult is that she’s a blank slate — what Barbie is capable of is defined only by the roles we deem acceptable for her. To look at Barbie and decide that she can’t be president only reflects our inability to see beyond her physique.
Barbie’s a tough woman to love because she makes us question what is acceptable femininity.
I would love to be able to write that I thought attitudes toward developing girls and their dolls had changed, but what made me think about my Barbie today was a link to a story about Dora the Explorer. I like Dora the Explorer. I like her curiosity y a ver un personaje que habla español en la televisión. Apparently, 10 years after her creation, Dora is ready to move on to middle school and the artists at Nickelodeon have designed a new, more grown up Dora to make the transition. They’ve released a silhouette:
Figure 3: Middle school Dora. I think her shoes look cute.
Lyn Mikel Brown of Colby College and Sharon Lamb of St Michael’s College, authors of Packaging Girlhood ask, “What next? Dora the Cheerleader? Dora the fashionista with stylish purse and stilettos? Dora the Pop Star with Hoppin’ Dance Club and ‘Juice” Bar?’” On their website they continue:
But we know the truth. If the original Dora grew up, she wouldn’t be a fashion icon or a shopaholic. She’d develop her map reading skills and imagine the places she could go. She’d capitalize on those problem solving skills to design new ways to bring fresh water to communities in need around the world. Maybe she’d become a world class runner or follow her love of animals and become a wildlife preservationist or biologist.
I don’t see why Dora can’t grow up to be all of those things while still choosing a skirt and ballet flats. [Or how it's her fault that she has developed a more womanly shape.] I can still write a differential equation in a pair of Naughty Monkeys. But, 59% of responders to a New York Daily News poll deemed the new Dora too sexual based on her silhouette alone.
This all makes me realize that much of the disdain young women feel towards their developing forms, the self-loathing at being perceived as potentially sexual beings, comes in part from how we treat them. To say that the new Dora or the old Barbie are too sexual because of their narrow waists and widened hips, even when we put them in the role of President, teaches girls that they are defined primarily by their physical form — that the development of secondary sexual characteristics means their primary identity is sexual. These secondary characteristics are, thus, something to be ashamed of.
So, forgive me for being a tool of the patriarchy, but I’ll take Barbie. She might have a disproportionately huge rack, but I still think she has the potential to be anything we want her to be.
And her buzzcut is kind of growing on me.