Barbie gets a “makeover”

It’s the season for toys. Which makes me think of childhood toys and things I wanted. I wonder what I’d be coveting now if I was a kid? For one, I think I’d be attracted to the little play kitchens. Which seems like a horrible idea. Hey! Let’s all start pretending to do the drudgery you’ll be doing the rest of your life. Why not have a little play bathroom so you can practice cleaning a toy toilet? And trying to get rid of the mold and mildew stains in the caulk of ancient tiles? That sounds like fun! And laundry – let’s not forget that. A play laundry station so you can enjoy hours of fun slogging through pretend dirty socks.

I know children want to emulate adults. I did too. The kindergarten I attended was separated into various corners, one of which was a “house” and one was a “store.” I thought both of these were great. Playing house and playing store was fun. Of course, no actual scrubbing or cooking was involved. And I didn’t have to part with any real cash money when buying things at the store. I learned nothing of any practical use from these set-ups or kindergarten generally. But I attended long ago at a time when activities like reading Nietzsche – or reading at all – and studying supply side economics were not yet on the curriculum.

Barbie still seems to be doing the brisk business she did in my youth. I didn’t have a Barbie but still coveted the Barbie swimming pool. The commercials made it look so glamorous and entertaining. Ken and Barbie in their chaise lounge chairs. Or frolicking down the slide. I don’t think I ever saw the toy in real life so maybe it would have disappointed. At any rate, my dolls never got to find out if they’d enjoy a swanky pool; they had to content themselves to swim in a plastic bucket (and only outdoors). I also dreamed of owning a plastic doll head – not sure who made her but probably Mattel – that was roughly life-size. The toy was for applying makeup and fixing hair. I don’t know where a head would go once fixed up, hardly out on the town, but still.

My mother didn’t approve of Barbies. She said children shouldn’t have dolls with “figures.” No boobs, no ass, I guess. Instead she wanted us to have baby dolls with that little hole in their mouth to pour water down which came out the little hole between their legs. You know, as I write that, it sounds twisted. Then again, perhaps this one WAS a realistic toy. As toys, baby dolls were too limited. You couldn’t play games with baby dolls or give them interesting lives. They just had to be babies. Always.

Our school had an annual bazaar, at least when I was very little. One of my older sisters was involved in working at it. When it was over, she got a hold of two Barbies – leftover prizes? – that she then gave, one apiece, to her little sisters. We were beyond thrilled! Barbies! Just handed to us! For no reason! Unsophisticated and sheltered as we were, we (or at least I) failed to recognize or mind that these dolls must have been second-hand. They didn’t come in boxes or all fixed up. In fact, although my Barbie was a white lady with long red hair, she was given to me along with an extra head, which was a darker-complected lady sporting a curly afro. I took it all at face value, as if that was how it was meant to be. I didn’t question the Barbie gods. I’d switch out the heads and make a whole new character with a different name.

Our mother was angry that my sister and I were given the Barbies. But uncharacteristically, she didn’t take them away. Instead, she relied on her standbys, shame and guilt. I think she wanted my sister and me to voluntarily give up the dolls, to see for ourselves the inherent wrong-doing in keeping them. No f-ing way! Voluntarily give up this goldmine?! Coveted Barbies? Even used and a bit downtrodden? No way. Being shamed and guilted was not enough to make me turn on Barbie.

My sister, though? Oh, this is good. She did not want to give up her blonde-haired Barbie, but she also wanted to please our (un-pleasable) mother. We had 2 little school desks in our basement that the school had gotten rid of and my father had brought home. One day when we were playing, soon after getting the dolls, my sister went and got a hammer from our father’s tool bench. She put her Barbie, naked, on one of the desktops. And she attempted to give Barbie a boob reduction with the hammer. Oh yes. I still see this image in my mind decades later. It was troubling to say the least. Where on earth had my sister come up with such an idea?? Here she was, trying to have it both ways; keep Barbie but also eliminate the woman’s “figure” that our mother found so distasteful in a child’s toy.

It didn’t work. My sister’s Barbie was made of a hard plastic and her boob merely cracked on one side. So forevermore, my sister’s Barbie had a botched boob job. MY Barbie stayed intact; I was not about to take a hammer to her. The fact that she had a woman’s physique didn’t faze me one bit and I held tight. Although when I washed her hair the top fell out, resulting in a kind of male pattern baldness, while the rest turned orange. That bothered me most of all.

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21 thoughts on “Barbie gets a “makeover”

  1. Victo Dolore

    This made me laugh! Particularly the emulating housework part. The womanly figure was one of my own mother’s purported issues with Barbie. Sometimes I think we can go too far with that, teaching girls to be ashamed of their own developing figures.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Your mom too? (I remember your recent no-Barbie post.) The weird thing was, despite everything I know and think about the limited images of beauty presented to girls, I never thought of Barbie in those terms. I just thought she was pretty & fun, but I didn’t aspire to be a hard plastic doll with permanently misshapen feet!

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  2. John Callaghan

    It’s the old tired addage that if a boy plays with guns he become a killer, and anyone who plays video games will become some vigerously, masturbating, serial killer. And Barbie makes women hate themselves. It’s horseshit mostly. And you’re right, kid’s know a toy from the real thing.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      True, as you say, that’s how it goes. Thing was, my mother was not representing feminism so much as the nineteenth century. Her objection had nothing to do with us getting distorted self-images.

      And lay off those video games already. (Heh.)

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  3. C. E. Robinson

    Never had a Barbie. she didn’t exist in my world. I did have a doll with a porcelain face and real hair! Funny thing, i still held onto her even when her face cracked from being put too close to the wood stove to keep her warm. Mom made me throw her into the incinerator, and that made me sad. So much for doll history! Now for Tonka Trucks, I have fond memories! And no body image distortions!

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  4. Andrew Davis

    Your recollection gives off shades of Sedaris. I don’t know what the male equivalent for Barbie, which is kinda sad since I’m a man. Maybe Star Wars figures. I put poor Luke from the Dagobah swamp through hell.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      Ha ha! I guess you’re immediately discounting Ken? I suppose G.I. Joe factored into a lot of boys’ childhoods as a nice, rugged “role model” (or suggestive selling for enlisting). And thanks – I’m a Sedaris fan.

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      1. Andrew Davis

        Funny, but I did not even consider Ken. I think I was into Star Wars because the marketing in the 80’s saturated the market. I had over 100 figures at one time, and with the rough play I put them through they all looked like they were involved a street brawl along Cannery Row. Even the poor Ewoks!

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  5. longchaps2

    I admit I was never a big fan of barbie because the idiot who developed them did not make the legs bendable to where they could ride a plastic horse. You could only scissor them forward or back and they would be totally unbalanced and ridiculous on the horses. I remember after a few unsuccessful attempts I sent them to live with the indians as captives, lol. I was a blood thirsty child.

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    1. writerinsoul Post author

      An excellent point! I don’t remember if mine road side-saddle or was just kind of wedged on as you say. Your comment reminds me I had a plastic Canadian Mountie doll on a horse who was made so he was permanently in a horse-riding position, even when he was off the horse, just walking around. He looked pretty stupid. –Colette

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      1. longchaps2

        Ha, hah. I would have given you some serious gold for that Canadian Mountie doll. I mean, dang. He probably had a super cool hat too. As far as looking stupid on the ground, pshaw, he would have LIVED on a horse in my playhouse. Yeah, now I’ve got some serious “doll” envy going on.

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  6. Cristina

    This just made me laugh out loud! A hammer, what on earth! And it also makes me tear up a little, because I’m picturing this sweet little girl that just wanted to please her mother and keep her doll all at the same time. Poor baby, I just want to give her a hug in this story!

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