I have heard more than one feminist lately bash Barbie and I feel the need to defend her, once and for all. Barbie has gotten a bad rap. I will admit she’s been kind of a sell-out these past few years. I mean going blonde was one thing but the boob job was just over the top. Then when those videos surfaced of her and GI Joe and her fans realized it was over once and for all with her and Ken, well things just went downhill from there.
But like those die hard Mel Gibson fans, I can’t give up on her, no matter how crazy! Filmmaker Susan Stern said “Everybody has a Barbie story…but the stories are really about us.” This is true for so many of us of a certain generation! Stern is the director and producer of the 1998 documentary; “Barbie Nation, the Unauthorized Tour” an informative and incredibly hard to come by film that tells the true story of Barbie’s birth. (Snippets are available on YouTube but the only hard copy I could find on Amazon was selling for $299, most likely because of the insider scenes of some of the seedier sides of Barbie fans! No really, there is such a thing as S&M Barbies).
Ironically, Barbie was actually one of the very first feminist toys. Her creator, Ruth Handler was one of the founding members of Mattel and a kick ass female executive in a time when most women didn’t work outside the home and female executives were unheard of. Handler wanted her daughter to have a doll that she could role play with. The only dolls available to little girls at the time were baby dolls, meaning their only role play could be as mothers. When Barbie hit the scene girls could imagine being anything including a doctor, a pilot, an Olympic Athlete, or a rock star. At one time Barbie was even an astronaut! That’s a lot for a girl born in 1959 (Barbie that is, I was born later)! Barbie didn’t keep girls from becoming feminists, she helped them see the possibilities that feminism presented!
Sure Barbie had her shallow side. I will admit, she was overly worried about her figure and as the years went by her waist seemed to get smaller and her breasts got bigger because, well just because she knew what sold well. Sometimes she wore way too much make up, spent too much money on shoes and in the 80s her hair was ridiculous, but all in all her heart was always in the right place. She wanted little girls to be able to dream and dream we did! As a child I spent hours with my “Barbies” and years later my daughters did too. She was a healthy and happy outlet and no matter what anyone says, neither I nor my daughters were ever threatened by her body type any more than my son was threatened by his Incredible Hulk Action Figure.
As a little girl one of my favorite Barbie past times was helping her plan all those weddings. Over and over again we planned with different gowns and different hair styles but always with the same man, Ken. As grown women, many of us still held, in the back of our minds, the image of the perfect wedding with the perfect Ken doll. Yet, like so many fantasies of childhood, sometimes we have just got to let go, especially after the announcement in 2009 that even this fantasy couple couldn’t last ‘til death do them part.
In reality, Ken’s hair was painted on and it never moved. So was his smile. He also wasn’t anatomically correct, something that surely should have caused more concern for folks than Barbie’s breasts. In reality Barbie’s dream house was kind of confusing. I mean who was Skipper anyway, her little sister? Why did she live there? Didn’t they have parents? And why were there no other men, ever, except Ken? In fact, there wasn’t even a Ken for every Barbie! And where did that baby come from my mother got my Barbie one year for Christmas with the little cradle and the blue blanket.
In the end, we shouldn’t be hanging on to any of our unrealistic female, fantasy images of Barbie’s life as adults. She was, after all, just a toy. That goes for both her body type, and her magical weddings. Real life Barbie would have probably looked more like an episode of Mad Men; with Ken drinking way too much and Barbie having to prove herself as a businesswoman while being constantly sexually harassed by her co-workers.
So we didn’t marry our Ken dolls and live happily ever after. So what? Maybe you found a Jim or a Steve, or a Cindy or a Sue, who doesn’t have perfect hair but has lots of other great qualities. Or maybe there is more than one Ken out there for each of us! So what if none of us actually look good in a bikini with high heels. That is hardly a practical outfit for most of life anyway! While we still have a long way to go, women are so much farther along than they were fifty years ago when Barbie was born. I’d like to think we have Barbie to thank for some of that because she helped us to see things that were never possible for little girls before.
In reality, I didn’t get the fairy tale life I envisioned as a little girl. What I did get instead, however, is really, truly wonderful! Sometimes we have to let go of our unrealistic fantasies in order to see the happiness that is right in front of us because real life is much, much better. Yes, it also more painful, more complicated and considerably more messy. In the long run, however, it turned out much more beautiful than we ever could have imagined as little girls. And, everyone is anatomically correct!