“I’m a Barbie girl, in the Barbie world. Life in plastic, it’s fantastic. You can brush my hair, undress me everywhere. Imagination—life is your creation.” — Aqua, Barbie Girl
Barbie, Barbie, Barbie. Whatever is a mom to do with you?
Dress you up for a night on the town? Buy you a mansion in Malibu? Find you a spiffy date in tight white jeans? Revel in your chic cuteness and spend, spend, spend? Ask you about your dreams? (Barbie, do you want to be president? A doctor? A racecar driver? Do you mind wearing tight, short skirts and revealing tops during any and all of your endeavors? You don’t? Well, then, may your dreams come true!) Ignore you, buy a bunch of American girls, and hope you go away?
Maybe a mom can do all of that, Barbie. Because good, bad, and gorgeous, you are a part of us now. Maybe the best thing to do with you is to invite you over and have a nice, long chat. So pull up an uncomfortable pink plastic chair that will fall over the moment you touch it, Barbie. Slip your slanted toes into some fluffy pink mules. Help yourself to a cup of tea and a slice of three-layer cake. It’s time we got real, girlfriend.
First of all, I like you. I do. As a kid, I envied your house with the real working elevator, and I thought Ken was just dreamy. You guys were so great together. After you got married, when you were going to have a child, I taped a superball to your belly, because I knew your perfectly flat abs covered in nude flowered underwear couldn’t possibly grow large enough to simulate a pregnancy. And after the baby was born, that superball just bounced right off you. Everything seems to slide or bounce right off you, Barbie. I love that about you. Because nothing ever slides or bounces off us, the real women who played with you when we were little. You’re something, Barbie, that we can never be—you’re perfect. Aren’t you?
You sure do seem to have it all—what with Ken and the dream house and now the cell phone and the flat-screen TV. Barbie, you’ve got more reality than a reality TV show. And fantasy? Girl, you’re the stuff fantasy is made of. And not just male fantasy, either. No, you’re the real deal, invented by Ruth Handler in 1959 so that little girls could play with a three-dimensional doll that would allow them to imagine their future selves, not just as mothers nurturing a child but as anything. And dang if little girls can’t do just that with you—imagine themselves to be anything in the wide world of careers. So what’s not to like?
Barbie? What are you thinking behind those wide-awake, slightly hazy baby blues? Anything? Anything at all?
You see, Barbie, that’s the problem. The reason we need to have this talk. Because even though I like you, and even though I have bought some permutations of you so that my daughter could dress you up and dress you down, I can never tell what the hell you’re thinking. In fact, you look to me to have the brainpower of a curvaceous robot. And if little girls—thirty years ago, today, or thirty years from now—are to use you as a role model for what they might be as adults, they might get the wrong idea.
For example, little girls who play with you might think that what they think matters less than how they look. They just might think that a grown woman, while holding any career under the sun, should have size double D breasts that don’t need a bra to defy gravity. And that, whether they are fulfilling their dreams as a veterinarian or hanging poolside with Ken and that brunette girl with the forgettable name, all of their clothing should be tight enough to make walking upstairs while staying dressed a serious logistical challenge. And little girls who play with you might get the idea that they should all look pretty much the same, no matter how much difference there is in their minds or personalities or backgrounds. Oh, there are Barbie exceptions, to be sure. But the exceptions are just that—exceptions. They aren’t the norm. Little girls who play with you and don’t fit the norm you represent—in other words, most little girls—might get the idea that they aren’t—well, you know. Cool. Capable. Worthy. With it. All They Should Be. Ideal.
And that’s a shame, Barbie. It really is. Because lots of little girls play with you. You even have a website now, where they can style your hair and change your fashions and rock out with you in a posh crib. Oh, and imagine themselves as something or other job-wise, in between the rockin fun.
So, Barbie, even though I like you, I think it’s time to say goodbye. We had some good times. My little girl even won a pink Barbie castle, complete with a working elevator, so we got to live out that dream together. But she’s ready to move on now, and so am I. So I’ve packed you away in a big plastic container with all your outfits and your pieces of broken furniture. I hate to say it, but I don’t think you’re going to make the cut when it comes time to decide which toys are saved in the attic for my possible future grandchildren.
But don’t worry. I’m sure the little girls in my granddaughter’s generation will rock out with you in a fluffy pink castle in the sky. If they do, will you do me a favor? Tell them they really can be anything they want to be, as long as they figure out who they are and what they do well, and they’re willing to work hard. Tell them they don’t need more stuff than a reality TV diva, and they don’t need to be so perfect that everything will slide or bounce right off them. Tell them everything they need to be who they are is within them.
Maybe, Barbie, if you can manage that, you’ll become all of who you can be.