By now the story is out. Barbie goes under the knife in 1998. The new Barbie look will represent her first make-over since 1977–she will have a smaller bust, smaller hips, a larger waist–and to my great dismay, she will loose her toothy grin in favor of a smile that looks more Prozac-induced than genuine. Although I never cared much for the original Barbie look (the 1959 variety) with her tightly curled and precise hairdo and her downcast gaze, I will miss my wide-eyed and smiling friend from 1977.
From1977 to 1983 my best girlfriend from grammar school, Julie Wheeler, and I shared more than a common first name. We shared a universe of our own making–we shared Barbie. That is not to say that we shared our Barbies–we didn’t have to practice those toy-sharing nursery lessons born of scarcity. If recent accounts in The Wall Street Journal are correct and the average American girl has eight Barbie dolls, then Julie and I were far from the mark. Each of us had well over thirty; and this does not include our inventory of Skipper dolls, take-off brand fashion dolls (most often received as gifts from the uninitiated) and, of course, the ever-secondary Ken. Every Friday after school, we ran to our bus stop and boarded with excitement. It was our usual practice to alternate between homes for Friday night sleep-overs, so one or the other of us would have our Barbie gear in tow. Even before we took our seats our Barbie weekend had begun.
Some girls play with Barbie dolls the way that you play with any other toy–as something to amuse you until something else catches your interest. We didn’t. We played with Barbie dolls the way that the boys played with their GI Joe characters or war games among themselves. The mere suggestion that there could be something more interesting was unthinkable. Our Barbies were engaged in a world of our own creation; in battles of our imaginations. Of course, their battles were infinitely more complicated and involved than the shoot-em-up variety of our male peers. Our Barbies were more subtle, one might say more political, than GI Joe. Their world was a world much like we imagined our world might be someday. There was good and evil, loyalty and betrayal, truthfulness and deception, forgiveness and revenge. Above all there was an ongoing story–a true test of our memories–from which the rules stated you could not stray. Superstar Barbie could not wake up one day and forget that
she had been the ruin of Pretty Curls Barbie last Friday. She had to pay the consequences or discover some new deception to avoid it. In our Barbie world, however, consequences were usually unavoidable. We were, after all, the masters of that universe and though we wouldn’t have used these terms, our Barbie stories always had a “moral” to them.
Contrary to the suggestions of today’s feminists, one thing that never crossed our minds as we grew up with Barbie was the thought that she represented some ideal sense of female beauty. It was true that since each of us had only one Ken doll, he was reserved for the newest and most attractive addition to our collection. But this made for nice twists in the plot. Ken became a rogue and a scoundrel. The new Barbie was usually caught unawares while the older Barbies tried to warn her of his deceptions. These older Barbies had to settle for one or another of the stuffed animals we had lying around but what they lost in excitement they gained in wisdom and a richer form of happiness. The older Barbies were the wiser and truly happy Barbies.
This remained the case until our years with Barbie began to draw to a close as our own lives became more interesting than the lives of our Barbies. By this time we had our last addition to our collection and she had a challenge. It was she who was able to transform that scoundrel Ken into a loving and caring husband. And it was she who represented our last memory from that universe because as our Barbie universe drew to a close, so too did our friendship. My collection ended up in a storage locker that has since disappeared. I never knew what happened to Julie’s collection. We drifted apart during high school, each of us with new friends and activities, and then we both moved away from home.
Recently, however, I had an unexpected and delightful phone call. It was Julie–more than 15 years since our last Barbie weekend. The remarkable thing about our conversation was not so much how we have changed or how far we have come in those 15 years. What is remarkable is how much our lives have imitated our childhood art. It is remarkable how much we learned from those weekend Barbie marathons. It is remarkable that in 15 years apart, neither of us has forgotten the lessons nor, for the most part, the plots.
As Barbie gets her plastic surgery this year in order to appease those who want her to be more politically correct, Mattel should consider what Barbie means–not to jealous feminists or zealous multiculturalists–but to the little girls who play with her. Between Julie and I, I got the blonde hair and she got everything else. But neither of us ever expected that we had to look like Barbie in order to be what we imagined her to be. Barbie was an extension of us. It was fun to pretend with her because in some ways she was better than reality would ever be, but that’s what pretending is meant to be. Now as we are both about to marry our respective Kens–the only ones in our collection–I wonder if we could have learned the lessons we taught ourselves if we had the new Prozac Barbie. Probably, if necessity demanded it. But why should play be defined by necessity? More importantly, why is it that the play of my childhood now seems more political and more “grown up” than the politics of these adults who make toys the object of heated controversy.
Farewell, then, to Superstar Barbie and farewell to childhood innocence.
Julie Ann Kessler is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.