December 12, 2009

Is It True that Blondes Have More Fun?

Barbie takes a lot of heat for creating unrealistic ideas in little girls, particularly for her impossible-to-humanly-achieve measurements (approximately 39-18-33). Maybe there’s some truth to that, but frankly, I think there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Take fairy tales, for instance, which left me anticipating the arrival of a handsome, white-steed-mounted prince, who would swoop into my humdrum life with magical kisses and the conviction of love at first sight. Or what about all those commercials promoting bouncy, shiny hair as the way to a man’s heart? Bouncy, shiny, terrific-smelling hair. Bouncy, shiny, terrific-smelling blonde hair.


Summer in Detroit, late 1960s. I was at Molly’s house, next door. We wore lightweight shorts and sleeveless blouses, scoop necked, tucked in. Socks and round-toed play shoes. Little kid clothes. We might have been seven and eight. While Molly and I played Barbies on her porch, a tall concrete stoop guarded by boxwoods that were no higher than the stoop itself, but wide, wide – so wide that when we jumped over them from the height of the stoop, we risked landing on their trunks and damaging the genitals whose intended purpose we didn’t yet know – my brother and David-from-three-doors-down lurked in the bushes with their G.I. Joe action figures, spying on the enemy (us) and pretending to blow things up.

Tiring of our pretend "boyfriends" (my doll had a long-term fantasy fling with Davy Jones of the Monkees), Molly and I begged the boys to play Barbie and G.I. Joe (or boyfriend/girlfriend) with us. My brother, Bryan, two years younger than me, refused. David, my age, the next-to-youngest of thirteen children and perhaps more mature sexually and more aware of the possibilities of pre-sexual play than Bryan, was at least willing to entertain our pleas. I didn’t really want to play Barbie and G.I. Joe with Bryan, anyway, but we needed two boys. Bryan would pair up with Molly, leaving David for me.

Now, I have to say that I did not then, nor did I ever, have a crush on David. Throughout my life I have had crushes on boys in my class, boys at church, boys I merely saw across the cafeteria without ever knowing their names, TV characters, co-workers, friends, my brother’s friends, and even a cousin. I know from crushes, okay? So I think I am not being disingenuous when I say that although I liked David, I did not like him like him. Still, there was more to playing Barbie and G.I. Joe than just play. This was some sort of practice for the real thing, and when Bryan opted out, leaving just one male to choose between two females, the stakes rose precipitously.

If Molly and I didn’t actually say, "Pick me, pick me!" it was certainly what we implied – and what we felt. It hurt when David declared that G.I. Joe would go out with/date/be the boyfriend of Molly’s doll. Molly – who was younger and less mature than me. Molly – who pulled her pants to her ankles and then hopped about, laughing, until a parent came to spank her bare bottom and then drag her pants up and her into the house, not necessarily in that order. Molly – who never took part in our all-day-Saturday games of tag because she had to go to Temple and who was not, we agreed, missed. Molly? He wanted to be with Molly?

Because that’s how it felt. As if he had chosen her over me. And why? "Because blondes have more fun," he said. Molly herself was dark, but her Barbie was blonde. My doll, a Barbie wanna-be named Susie, had dull brown hair, like me. We were seven. Maybe eight. I doubt we knew what the good folks at Clairol meant by "more fun," but believe me when I say that I wasn’t having it.

December 2, 2009

The Pink Dress

The only time I ever stole, it was for Barbie. My family went, one Sunday afternoon, to visit our friends, the Beebees. They had moved from within Detroit’s city limits to a new, safer, antiseptic neighborhood in one of the suburbs, where all the houses looked alike and were set back the same exact distance from the clean cement streets where there were curbs but no sidewalks. The Beebees had one daughter, Debbie, a few years older than me. Debbie had long, dark brown hair, a blue bike that would one day be handed down to me (my first two-wheeler), and an extensive wardrobe for her Barbies. On the day of the theft, Debbie was really past the age when she found dolls amusing, but my family was there all afternoon and she wasn’t allowed to go anywhere else. Playing Barbies with me at least passed the time.

My eye went immediately to a doll clothed in a long, sleeveless dress a slightly darker pink than the inside of the big shell that my sister had told me you could hear the ocean in. The dress was plain, with no decoration beyond a small brown bow at the waist and a slightly flaring skirt that hit Barbie just above her trim ankles. My disappointment was deep, as deep as if I had witnessed the death of everything holy, when Debbie chose that doll to play with, plucking her casually from the pile of doll paraphernalia on her bedroom floor. Then, without even looking at the doll, Debbie unsnapped the halter strap and, in one careless motion, swept the dress from the doll’s body.

I scooped it up, almost before it could touch the ground. My trembling hands pressed the gorgeous confection to my heart. The pink material was soft beneath my fingers, soft and less slick than mass-manufactured Barbie clothes. It was also more elegant than many Barbie creations, although elegant was not a word I would have known to use then. With no sequins, spangles, or feathers, this was a dress I could imagine a real person wearing.

This was a dress I could imagine wearing.

November 24, 2009

She's Got Barbie Roberts Eyes

To the uninitiated, a Barbie is a Barbie. To see one is to see them all. Collectors know better, and can recite the subtle variations in features that distinguish Barbie #2 ("brunette or blonde ponytail, blue irises, curved eyebrows") from 1967’s Twist N Turn Barbie ("bendable legs, twist waist, rooted eyelashes"). Other variations include eye shadow and lip color, and painted versus rooted eyelashes. Aside from iris color (Barbie #3 was the first to have colored irises), though, the eyes themselves remained the same.

But in 1971, twelve years after her introduction, Mattel made a more dramatic change to Barbie’s face – her eyes would now face forward, a change from her original more "demure sideways glance."

Demure? Really?

The original Barbie’s eyes are not demure. They are coy, sneaky, and just a touch contemptuous. "You think I’m the plaything," she seems to be saying, "but I’m the one in charge. Wait and see."

Desperately Seeking Curls

I have spent my entire life – nearly five decades now – looking in the mirror and seeing what isn’t there. The ears that went unpierced, for example, because my mother wouldn’t give her permission and Leggett – the downtown department store that in the ’70s was the only place to get one’s ears pierced in my hometown – required parental permission for anyone under sixteen. I felt the sting of intact earlobes whenever my friends exchanged earrings for birthdays and at Christmas. "You’d look so cute with pierced ears," they’d say, and "Your mother doesn’t let you wear make-up?" for that was something else I never saw in the mirror.

In junior high, a girl in my PE class, a girl I didn’t even know, asked to borrow my eyebrow pencil. (Her brow color had apparently evaporated due to the rigors of badminton or volleyball or square dancing.) "I don’t wear eyebrow color," I had to say, thinking, "But I wear the shame of its lack every day."

November 12, 2009

Barbie, Beautiful Barbie

If you've read my profile, you know that I am working on a collection of essays about childhood and adolescence, called Never a Barbie. My aim is to update this blog once a week with Barbie bits and pieces that have not yet found a home in the longer works, but yesterday I ran across Barbie's first television commercial on You Tube, and just had to share. (Thanks to Barbie Collectors for posting.)

Last week I said that little girls were conditioned to identify with Barbie. Note the lyrics that follow the sales pitch:

Someday I'm gonna be exactly like you
'til then I know just what I'll do
Barbie, beautiful Barbie
I'll make believe that I am you.

I rest my case.

November 10, 2009

My Own Two Feet

I always wanted to have Barbie’s feet.

Well, okay, maybe not the wires that run from her heels to her thighs and allow her knees to bend with that clickclickclick clickclickclick so dear to a child’s ear. When it comes to the inner workings of our legs and feet, I clearly got the better deal.

Ah, but the shape of them: slender, high-arched, delicate – while I tromp around on Fred Flintstone feet: flat, fat and with no discernible taper between calf and ankle. My feet always worked, and for that I am grateful, but transportation aside, they did little for me and certainly seemed to go out of their way to scuttle my desire to attain the twin pinnacles of adolescence – beauty and popularity.

When I was a kid, my shoe choices were limited not just by income (low to middle) and size (short and wide) but by my mother’s insistence that I was allergic to rubber. I’m not sure exactly what was this based on, except that the elastic in her bras made her itch and left deep red grooves in her white flesh each night. She said, "You’re allergic to rubber, just like me." So the allergic to rubber thing was always there – sort of like my little brother. If there was a time in my life when either of them didn’t exist, I don’t remember it.

November 6, 2009

Just Like Barbie

Just so you know: I am no conspiracy theorist. I fully believe that six million died in the Holocaust, that the photos of American Airlines Flight 77 crashing into the Pentagon on September 11 were not staged, and that – through the miracle of then-modern technology and the generosity of a neighbor with color TV – I witnessed one giant step for mankind. I have no opinion on whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I don’t believe that H1N1 is an attempt by PETA, anti-immigrationists, anti-Catholics, or the manufacturers of surgical masks to further their goals, and I don’t believe that the conversion to digital TV is part of some massive government plot to control our thoughts.

But I do believe that little girls are programmed – or at least conditioned – to identify with Barbie.

That was, from the very beginning, the whole point.

October 29, 2009

Anything She Wanted

I was born on October 1, 1960. Barbara Millicent Roberts – better known to billions as, merely, "Barbie" – was born on March 9, 1959. Although little more than eighteen months separate us, she emerged – like Athena from the forehead of Zeus – fully grown, and I have spent my entire life trying to catch up. When I was learning to walk, she was tripping the light fantastic in color-coordinated pumps and strappy sandals. When I was dealing with pimples and adolescent angst, she smiled, clear-skinned and unconcerned. You might say that when I married, at thirty-eight, I finally lapped her, since she, despite a long and sometimes turbulent relationship with Ken, has not. But she has far outstripped me on the career track.

I have never been a vet, an actress, a teacher, a model or a flight attendant. I have never been a member of any of the armed services, let alone all four of them. (I’m not entirely sure she hasn’t served in other countries, as well.) I have not been a lawyer, though I considered it for a while in college. ("You’re too sensitive to be a lawyer/social worker/actress," my father said.) I was not athletic enough to be a circus star, a ballerina, an Olympic skater. I will never go to space. I have never run for president.

October 28, 2009

By Any Other Name

I wasn’t always Barbara. The name was too grown-up for a baby, my parents and siblings thought, and so they called me Susie.

I was perfectly happy being Susie. Until I started kindergarten, where the teacher said that my real name was Barbara. "In school," she said, "we use real names." Right off the bat I was a stranger to myself, answering to a name that, while technically mine, I had never claimed, and it was in was in kindergarten that I learned that Barbara means "stranger."

I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor, my folded hands pressing my dress into the hollow of my lap like a good girl, as the teacher told us the meaning of our names: "Stranger" didn’t sound too bad, but something changed when she told the class that Barbara also means "barbarian." Although I was surrounded by other children, it felt as if I were suddenly alone, as if everyone else had moved back and left me in the middle of a large open space ringed by laughing, pointing faces. These were the same kids who ate paste and couldn’t be trusted with pointy scissors, and yet their laughter made me feel that I was, in fact, a stranger and outsider. As if not even following all the rules would protect me from being different. It was too late, I thought, to go back to being Susie. I would have to be Barbara for the rest of my life.

October 27, 2009

Don't Call Me Barbie

Don’t call me Barbie.

Of all the permutations of Barbara, it’s the one name I will not answer to. Call me Barb if you must, though if we don’t know each other well, I would prefer that you didn’t. I might respond to Babs—if it's offered with affection and humor—but I won’t come if you call me Barbie.

A boy whose name I’ve long forgotten called me Barbie on the playground one morning.

"Barbie, Barbie, Barbie, Barbara is a Barbie doll."

"Shut up! Don’t call me that, shut up."

He danced around me, just out of reach, singing, "Barbie, Barbie, Barbie." I stomped my foot. Shut up, shut up, shut up. He laughed and ran away when, fueled by a humiliated rage that scorched my memory, I charged at him, too young to realize that my violent response was fuel for his teasing—and that I was drawing more attention to myself by attempting to silence him.

I didn’t have the words in second grade to explain this terrible transgression to the teacher who asked what the boy had done. Gulping through shameful tears, I told her that he had called me Barbie.