come on barbie, let’s go party
I was not a Barbie girl growing up. Sure, we had some dolls. We had Barbie and Skipper and Midge, and Ken thrown in for some balance. We didn’t have a Barbie house and her clothes were stuffed in an old coffee can my mother kept on a high shelf in a kitchen closet, and we had to ask mom every time we wanted to change her clothes. It was just too much trouble. And I could never get the hang of dressing her, anyhow. The shoes never stayed on, I could never pull the damn dresses over her head and her hair always seemed to have a million split ends. Maybe I should blame it on Barbie that I never liked dressing up.
Barbie ended up under my bed, stripped naked. Unused, unloved, undressed. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere. I gave up playing with dolls and spent most of my days in the backyard, digging up what were surely arrowheads, as I was convinced our house was built on an ancient Indian burial ground. This was long before Poltergeist, so there were no corpses and sinister ghosts in my backyard fantasy. Just me making some great discovery that would go on display at the Smithsonian and I’d be rich and famous and have much nicer clothes and shoes than Barbie.
Was that it? Was I jealous of Barbie and her sun dresses and perfect figure? Was I jealous of how very feminine and lady like she was? I admit, there came a time when I wish I had tits like Barbie. Maybe her hips, too. But not then. I was happy in my Wrangler jeans and an entire collection of product t-shirts obtained through my mother’s passion for collecting UPC codes. I eschewed all things Barbie. I dug for buried treasure. Yet, there was a part of me that wondered if I was missing an important component of my girlie DNA because I could not find the joy my friends did in putting a too tight dress over Barbie’s big head and then pretending that all the Barbies were going to some fabulous ball where they would meet fabulous men who would buy them fabulous things. Then again, I couldn’t interest my friends in the idea that there might be dinosaur bones in the backyard, so which of us was really missing out? Yea, probably me. I just did not get the same sort of satisfaction they did from making Barbie look awesome in her glittery clothes. Great, you made a piece of plastic look like a hot piece of ass. Now what? You pretend that you are that hot piece of ass and you give Ken the name of the guy you have a crush on you pretend that you are going to a dance together? So tell me, at the end of this dance, does he tell you that he only went with you on a bet? Does he tell you he already has a girlfriend? Does he tell you he’s gay? I was never any good at the fantasy stuff. Mine always ended in heartbreak. I was just preparing myself for life.
Many, many years later, I had a daughter. I said right from the start that no one should buy her anything Barbie. I suppose I harbored this hidden resentment toward the entire Barbie collection of girls and guys for all those years. I never found any arrowheads or dinosaur bones, I never even made it to the Smithsonian as a visitor until I was 47, but all those girls who played Barbie while I was getting my hands and Wranglers dirty were now wearing fabulous clothes and married to fabulous guys. But didn’t they see? They were empty shells of women! All they thought about was fashion and money and how their hair looked. All they cared about was shoes and purses and keeping their delicate, hourglass figures in shape. I would not have my daughter buy into that lie. I would not have her think that she had to spend her life striving for perfection in beauty, that she needed designer clothes and five inch heels to find the right man. Sure, there were teacher Barbies and doctor Barbies that showed women could be anything they wanted to, but they still had to look perky and beautiful while doing it. I was justifying my Barbie hatred by throwing these feminist cliches at my family, when I didn’t really buy into my own justification at all. I just had a visceral hatred for Barbie that could not be explained in one phone call from my aunt. “I am going to get her Princess Barbie for her birthday!” “No, please don’t do that. We have a family policy against toys that stereotype.” And my aunt would hang up, confused, and just send a check. It was a lot easier than saying “I have a resentment toward all things Barbie because I could never get her dress on straight.”
I think it was my daughter’s eight birthday when one of her classmates bought her two Barbie dolls and some clothes. The excitement on Nat’s face when she opened up that gift horrified me. Didn’t I teach her that Barbie was bad, that Barbie was the antithesis to everything I wanted my daughter to be? What happened to the girl who collected Power Ranger figures and dismissed cheerleading in favor of playing basketball? I wanted to grab her, shake her and say “Barbie is whore! Put her down or you’ll catch her germs!” But I stood by quietly after the party as Nat opened up the Barbie dolls. She laid out the clothes, the brush, the shoes, the accessories. Oh, look at that, a cute pink purse, too! And ribbons for her hair! Nat picked up the doll and undressed her. She picked out a fabulous dress from the set of clothes, deciding that Barbie would be going to a fabulous prom that evening. She tried to put the dress on her. Barbie’s hand got caught in the dress. Barbie’s head was too big. Barbie’s chest was in the way. Nat got frustrated and threw the Barbie on the floor not five minutes after opening the package. I expressed the proper emotions to my daughter about her being disappointed in the dolls, but inside, I was all “Oh hell YES. She hates the Barbie just like me. I WIN!”
Two hours later, I heard both my daughter and son playing in the bathroom. That’s never good. The door was closed, the water was running, and Nat was laughing uproariously while DJ was saying…something. I put my ear to the door to better hear. I heard the sound of splashing water, which is the sound of a mess being made. I heard more laughter and then “You caught her head! You win!” I opened the door and saw the bathroom sink filled with water, my soaking wet son wearing an evil grin that was made more disturbing by the fact that there was a Barbie head gripped in his teeth. They had been playing Bobbing for Barbie Heads. It wasn’t exactly digging for arrowheads but, score one for me.
All these years later, I still get a pang of something - jealousy, anger, Pavolvian hate - when I see a little girl playing effortlessly with a Barbie. Part of me wants to tear it out her hands and say PUT DOWN THE BARBIE, YOU’RE GOING TO TURN INTO PARIS HILTON! and another part of me wants to kneel down next to the girl and say “Please, tell me how to dress her so she doesn’t look she’s about to head out for a walk of shame.
I am decidedly ungirlie. I know that. I have embraced that. Yet there’s still a small part of me that wants to finally get that stupid dress on Barbie and keep those damn shoes on her feet long enough to enact one small fantasy, where she gets picked up by an un-gay Ken in his convertible and they go to some fabulous party and they kiss passionately at midnight and admit their true love for each other as their hearts race and fireworks go off and they swear to spend eternity in each other’s arms. Which works out well, because at 12:05 is when the aliens attack and everyone at the fabulous party dies.
See, I’m just no good at this stuff. I guess I was not meant to be a Barbie girl.