Monday, March 23, 2009

Barbie at 50 – Iconic and Ironic

There has been much in the media about Barbie’s 50th birthday, as our favorite 11 and a half-inch style icon hits a milestone. I’ve read some interesting articles about Barbie pertaining to “spinsterhood” with regard to the fact that Barbie has managed to remain single even as she reaches the half-century line. (I suspect that many girls will contest that Barbie did in fact marry, and many times. I myself spent countless afternoons dragging her perfectly stiletto-ed toes along a makeshift aisle on my carpet at the end of which was a Ken propped up awaiting her arrival. Then I would choreograph their perfectly vertical bodies through a ceremony deeming them “man and wife”).

As many young girls likely concluded, it would only be natural for Barbie to marry Ken. After all, he was sold alongside the Barbie Dream House and Barbie Corvette, as items that Barbie needed to have in order to maintain her perpetually smiling face.

I played Barbies in quite a few circles when I was younger, and it always ended up the same way. You could count on two things: The first is that your best friend would immediately call “shot gun” on hairdresser for her Barbie’s job (a coveted position because it meant you basically got to be in charge of your friend’s Barbie’s hair), and the second is that the afternoon of Barbie-play would always lead to a wedding.

Mattel’s “doll du jour” did more than make me recall the ins and outs of playing Barbies and the time I spent marching her around my bedroom amid the accoutrements of a perfect life. It made me think about how my own success story was forming when I was only nine years old.

At that age, I think playing Barbies with each other is a way for girls to manifest their feelings on what life ought to be like as they grow up. They’re just beginning to identify themselves as “women” and as women among women, “peers.” The landscape of their Barbies’ lives emulates what they know about their own lives and ultimately where they think they should be going. Based on this, I think most young girls conclude that they’re supposed to get married.

The problem with this is that nobody ever counters the idea of a wedding with any thoughts on how it might not be right for Barbie. Young girls don’t say, “You know, my Barbie is kind of sick of dating and she’d really like to spend her time traveling and writing and not worry about her biological clock. And also, she’s tired of doing your Barbie’s hair. She’s going to go work at an advertising agency in business development. Peace out.”

Young girls have also never snatched their Barbie out of a wedding after all of the set-up was complete gasping, “My Barbie’s gut instinct says this isn’t right and she can’t go through with it!”

Much work had to be done for the Barbie wedding, and it would have been pretty upsetting if the event had been hampered in any way. Seating was already arranged (Kleenex boxes were gathered from all corners of the house and lined up as “pews” for whatever random dolls had to be called in as extras for the festivities). Your friend, the hairdresser in Barbie-ville, had already spent hours brushing your Barbie’s hair into the perfect ponytail for her nuptials. Barbie’s best clothes and accessories were taken out of the very special case you kept your most sacred toys in, and festooned upon her as she prepared to walk the aisle to a tuxedo-ed Ken whose lines were already written for him…(Ken’s vows were always some combination of what we wish boys in fifth grade would have said to us, and our interpretation of tidbits we’d catch from the soap operas our mothers watched).

The point is that to disrupt what we as young girls had already accepted as “normal” in our afternoon microcosms, was to challenge what we would later perceive as acceptable behavior from our peers growing up.

Young girls romanticizing what their lives should be like via Barbie dolls and other “fairytale” networks is nothing new, but I never thought about how ironic it is that the very doll that has done so much to inspire young girls to believe that they should accomplish certain things in their lives to become successful, is the same doll that I’ve been reading about as the “ultimate spinster” on her 50th birthday.

I wonder what would have happened if one afternoon my mother knocked on the door during a Barbie wedding ceremony and dropped the bomb on us that Barbie actually didn’t want it that way? That she would go on to be the same stylish and successful icon she’s always been WITHOUT a Ken by her side and a “Mrs” before her name. Would we have still been drawn toward the fuchsia aisle in the toy store if our perception of Barbie went from “beautiful bride with a dream house” to “independent woman who listens to her gut instincts?” It’s an interesting thought.

Of course Barbie isn’t the only thing out there giving young girls the notion that they should grow up to be “have-it-all housewives.” The Easy Bake Oven has been hawking the home-making dream for decades now, and Cabbage Patch kids have young girls excited about baby clothes about 10 minutes after they stop wearing Onesies. Throw in the whole “self-esteem” problem where girls start looking for “favorable male reactions” to validate their entire existence, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster that even a Stepford Wife couldn’t fix with an arsenal of secret ingredients.

I’m inspired by the idea that Barbie is in fact a spinster. I’m inspired because I have fond memories of those afternoons playing Barbies with my friends – afternoons where I dumped all of Barbie’s belongings onto my floor, uprooting her life and sorting through her things haphazardly to prepare her for a date with Ken – and that despite the mess that was sometimes made, she came out alright. And so did I.

*Image courtesy of Getty Images

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