As a parent raises a little girl, certain questions will arise.
Do we paint the room pink? What if she wants us to?
Will we ruin her life if we ban glitter? What if we teach her how to use the vacuum and therefore allow her to experience the evils of glitter herself? Will we then be reinforcing gender roles re: housework?
When do we start insisting that she wear a shirt when she goes outside?
Who the hell manufactures hot pants for toddlers and why?
And then there's Barbie.
Put on the mask of Barbie and how do you now see the world? Do you see marketing designed to prey on the young, to manipulate them until their self esteem is dependent on having the newest toy? Maybe you see a world that judges your precious, unique girl on her weight, the color of her hair, the whiteness of her teeth?
Or do you see yourself in Barbie's Dream House, contentedly playing out what you imagine to be adulthood - Pilot Barbie coming home to G.I. Joe, who has made dinner reservations at some kind of restaurant in Disneyworld to which Pilot Barbie really ought to wear a ballgown (while Joe can go in his usual fatigues, or what's left of his fatigues after his near-death experience last week, when Barbie ripped his shirt off in order to administer CPR after he crashed Lightning McQueen off the coffee table)?
Me, I never had a Barbie. My mom was worried she'd give me unrealistic expectations (Barbie, that is - let's not get into the expectations my mother may or may not have given me). I was paralytically, epileptically jealous of the girls that had Barbies, but I don't seem to have suffered lasting harm. Unless you think the pink hair... nahh.
That mask up there, by the way? VERY popular Halloween costume the year I went as Pippi Longstocking, my braids stiffened with coat hanger wire so they'd stick out straight. It was a rough Halloween - coat hanger wire drilling into my temples, too-big boots, surrounded by these terrifying blank-faced Bride Barbies.
I'm not bitter though, really I'm not. When I finally did get a 12" fashion doll, it was a Brooke Shields doll that my friend Pierre bought me in college. She was paired up with a very tan, very unusual Ken doll that I found on a discount shelf at Value City. (More about that Ken doll later.) Maybe I was too old for dolls by then. They were just funny novelties to me, and ended up as the restroom door signs at the coffee house that I ran with my friend Joe.
But I do tend to read books about Barbie. Barbie is such a blank slate: she is at once a tiny mannequin for fashion designers and a girl-shaped vacuum into which social commentators can project their theories. You can hold up a Barbie doll and talk about feminism, and fashion, and sex, and body issues, and commercialism, and even race, and you're still just talking about a doll. You're not hurting anyone's feelings. You're not sending a model down a runway dressed like that.
There are two new Barbie books out this holiday season, one to satisfy each side of my thinking about Barbie.
The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll's History and Her Impact on Us is one of those very rare pro/con books written for children that examine all sides of a subject impartially, non-formulaically, and without dumbing things down. In addition, it's Barbie. Yeah you'll see a book about the pros and cons of cloning or nuclear power written for kids... obvious report fodder, but this book takes a subject that kids are actually familiar with and shows them how she unfolds in history. Every millimeter of Barbie signifies. Giant props to Tanya Lee Stone for explaining to children the weight that adults have settled onto the slender shoulders of their doll.
Stone takes a chronological approach. Ruth Handler's life story leads to the genesis and early development of Barbie, all illustrated by period photographs and studded with cool facts. Once Barbie becomes a success, opposing viewpoints are almost immediately introduced. Little girls who felt excluded by Barbie's fair skin and European features are quoted. Social status comes into play: those who could afford all the little store-bought outfits versus those whose grandmas and moms made their Barbie clothes.
Psychiatrists, physicians, professors are all generously quoted. Body image, work roles, stereotypes of blondes, and Jenna Maroney are discussed in a Barbie context. Less emphasis is placed on the role of Mattel in all this - the "but she has a new hat!" marketing strategy that causes so many parents to tear their hair out come holiday time.
There are plenty of pro-Barbie voices as well - women who created for themselves imagined futures acted out by Barbie, as well as women who played with Barbie and never thought of her as having anything to do with themselves at all. Also Meg Cabot, who, as you can imagine, comes down firmly on Barbie's side.
Ms. Stone would have done well to interview Heather and Jessica of Go Fug Yourself. Jessica's Barbies had the most fraught existence. Did her Barbies facilitate the formation of her (who's to call it unhealthy?) obsession with desperate fashion situations, some involving turbans? Or is the reverse, in fact, true? Pink hair - chicken or egg?
Also we have Barbie: A Rare Beauty by Barbie expert Sandi Holder. Kind of a strange title, given that Barbie is one of the least rare items on the planet. It's because Ms. Holder is a Barbie collector and dealer, and specializes in the kind of Barbies that fetch thousands of dollars at auction. Thus, this nice thick heavy adult-market book has the one thing that that Tanya Lee Stone's book is a little short on - a jillion big color photos of a jillion Barbies in twelve jillion outfits.
The sameness of Barbie makes repeated photographs of her fascinating - she evolves slightly and slowly, like a time lapse photo of what we think is pretty. The hair comes down and goes up again. She is blonde, brunette, Asian, Indian. She wears folk garb, uniforms, evening gowns, ill-advised sportswear.
She wears Bob Mackie.
But what makes this book a must-have for me is that my old Ken is featured: Earring Magic Ken, who came with highlighted hair, one earring, a lavender mesh t-shirt, a biker-style pleather vest (also lavender), and, I kid you not, one cock ring on a chain around his neck and another attached to a kind of epaulet on the vest. Ms. Holder says he was "greatly misinterpreted at the time of release." I'll say. If I hadn't owned this fellow myself I'd swear he was an artist-made satire.
As is Kenny Angel, who has been topping our xmas tree for almost ten years:
Ken is wearing a wedding dress, a halo and angel wings, an AIDS ribbon and a string of pearls. And that's my son with his hand up his dress.
And you know? I think this encapsulates everything I feel about Barbie and her world. Make of it what you will. Buy your Barbies naked at yard sales and give them Sharpie tattoos like my friend Kathy and her kids. Or keep them in a glass-fronted cabinet like Smithers. Make your house a Barbie-free zone (hell, we did it with Play-Doh, and for far less ideologically supportable reasons). Try the Dara and Sara dolls, made in Iran and cute as can be. Or a Fulla doll, the modestly-clothed teenage doll who competes successfully with Barbie in some markets.
How ya like me now, wearing a black hijab and picking wildflowers with my girlfriends?
This post written by your neighborhood librarian, aka Totally Stylin' Tattoos Barbie. Totally Stylin' Tattoos Barbie comes with two master's degrees and a hair dye kit. You can't see those things in the picture, but they're in the box.
Which Barbie are you?