Barbie is polarizing. In case you’re not aware of the current debate, Mattel is paying Sports Illustrated to be part of the magazine’s 50th Anniversary “Legends” issue, on sale today, by featuring 55-year-old Barbie in a promotional campaign named, “Unapologetic.” Get it? Both brands have banded together in an aggressively defensive posture, proudly asserting that their objectification of women has been good for women – that the famous SI Swimsuit cover models are now legends and successful businesswomen, just as Barbie has provided amazing leadership roles models for girls. Hmmph.
I was not allowed to play with Barbie. My mother, an early feminist and charter subscriber to Ms. Magazine, scoffed at Barbie. Blonde, with a ridiculously unrealistic figure, she was deemed a too-sexy airhead and not a good role model for a serious, smart, ambitious brunette. She arguably spawned a whole generation of dumb blonde party girl jokes, some clean and some not-so-clean, but all presenting blondes as superficial, like:
Blonde Barbie 1, standing across the street from Neiman-Marcus couldn’t figure out how to get across the street to go shopping. She spies another blonde Barbie coming out of the store.
Blonde Barbie 1: “Yoo-hoo! Hi! How do I get to the other side of the street?”
Blonde Barbie 2: “You ARE on the other side of the street!”
Ha, Ha. Makes me laugh every time.
While my mother’s judgment and scorn of Barbie seeped into my thinking, one of my favorite memories was playing with Barbie at a neighbor’s house. There were a lot of kids in the family, a lot of built in playmates, and the girls had multiple Barbies and all the accessories: a lot of cheap, pink, plastic stuff which I coveted. Or maybe it was the built in playmates I coveted. Even though Mattel dutifully introduced lots of alternative dolls who were not blonde, we all wanted to be the main event, the popular center of attention, the blonde Barbie who got Ken. At least that’s what I remember wanting and squabbling over: to be the popular girl who gets the boy.
So when my daughter was a little girl and wanted Barbie dolls, I paused. The judgmental voice was still inside me. Barbie! What a misogynistic toy. No way! But there was another voice inside me. I don’t want my daughter to feel embarrassed or ashamed for wanting to fit in with other girls, the way I felt ashamed. Barbie is, at least potentially, a strong woman and embodies the imagination and the dreams of the girl who is playing with her. Barbie is a way for a girl to imagine being a woman. What do girls want to be? Well, aside from princesses who rule, they want to be women, like their moms and the other grown women they see. What better way to play out the kind of women they want to be than through play-acting scenarios with dolls and other girls? The best part of playing with Barbie was styling her hair and changing her outfits. Because what better way to play out the kind of woman you want to be than by trying on different outfits, different personas? It’s how we learn, imagine, and grow. And Ken? Well, he’s a sexless accessory – very safe for a young girl. You know there’s going to be men in your life, but you don’t quite know what their role will be. It’s all about you and your Barbie avatar, represented by your hair and clothing and overall style. Like the prom, it’s about the girl and her dress not the guy. He comes later, or should come later, after she figures out more about who she is and who she wants to be.
Still, when we tackled a construction project on our house which required my daughter to move out of her room, I was not sorry to pack up a variety of partially clothed Barbies with tangled hairstyles into a bin and stick it in the attic. When the construction project was over and she got her own room, she was not interested in her naked Barbies any more. Or maybe she was, but I was happy to encourage her to forget about them and leave them languishing in the attic. Several years later, she begged me for a baby doll, a real baby doll that drank a bottle, wet her diaper, and cried. I was stunned. Who is this girly girl of mine? I tried to honor who she is and searched for the perfect baby doll. But it was too late. It was not the perfect baby doll she envisioned, she was now a teenager, and my judgmental voice had been too dominant.
Around this time, my daughter and I watched Legally Blonde, the romantic comedy where blonde California girl Elle Woods shows up her superficial boyfriend and his more seemingly appropriate fiancé, the elite prep school East Coast brunette, Vivian, by using her life experience and her knowledge and intuition for a big courtroom win. Blondes Have More Fun; They Have More Friends; And They Are Smart and Win! I loved the movie. Maybe you can be fun-loving and smart? It softened my judgmental voice.
When I heard about the marketing campaign for Barbie within the pages of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, the judgmental voice kicked in, aghast. And then I realized that it’s not Barbie I object to. I’ve made my peace with Barbie. In fact, I admire Barbie. She is adorable and accomplished and has created many hours of imaginary play for girls everywhere who deserve more credit for knowing that success is not just about unrealistic physical measurements and a come hither stance. What I object to is that Mattel thinks that Barbie needs to pose for the SI Swimsuit issue, a magazine for men not for young girls, in order to gain publicity for the doll and presumably to sell more dolls. Are these men going to buy Barbie dolls? Barbie the lawyer, doctor, astronaut, teacher, corporate executive, artist, politician doesn’t need to model in a sex-lite magazine for men. She is better than that. Hey, what I’d really like to see is 55-year-old Barbie embarking on her meaningful midlife encore career while on her meaningful midlife spiritual journey for enlightenment, discovering that loving others is more fun than desperately seeking love from others. I guess that wouldn’t sell very well.
Image shows the cover-wrap of Sports Illustrated magazine’s 50th anniversary annual swimsuit issue. (AP Photo/Sports Illustrated)