“No Barbies in THIS house.”
“She won’t be playing with Barbies!”
“Ugh, I hate that huge Barbie section in the toy aisles at Target.”
“I refuse to buy into the Barbie stereotypes for my daughter.”
When raising my now 24-year-old daughter, I heard variations on the above more times than I could count. I’m sure my like-minded mom-friends assumed I would be with them on the ‘no Barbies ever’ bandwagon. After all, I was a dyed-in-the-wool outspoken liberal progressive mom with deep feminist roots dating back to 1979 when a group of boys in my seventh-grade social studies class tore up and stomped on my poster on the Equal Rights Amendment while the male teacher laughed.
I was a plus-size gay woman more comfortable in cargo shorts than summer dresses and possessed an astonishing ineptitude at hair and makeup. I’m sure they thought I would have no place for a Barbie in my house!
They were wrong.
My childhood home was filled with Barbies
Little did they know that my childhood bedroom had been home to dozens of Barbies (both new models and 1960s hand-me-downs from my elder sister), a few redheaded Midges, a Ken or two, and even a few Skippers ( including the jaw-dropping “Growing Up Skipper” who grew taller, got a smaller waist and an impressive chest as a twist of her arm took her from pre-puberty to full on teenager). I had the plane, the pool, the beach bus. I had wedding gowns, ball gowns, and iconic black and white striped bathing suits.
When my family traveled on vacations, I packed a suitcase for me and a smaller, doll-sized suitcase for Barbie, so she and her impressive wardrobe could come along on adventures. I was a fat, awkward girl with braces, glasses, and a bad Dorothy Hamill haircut — but through Barbie, I was whoever I wanted to be. Often the adventures I created for her mirrored what my lonely self was longing for — sometimes, she was a lost plain girl who was discovered to be a princess, a bold adventurer taking off for adventures in her groovy van, an Olympic swimmer who practiced at home in her very own pool; a jet set spy taking off in her private plane to save the world.
Her escapades were limited only by my own imagination. I also discovered early on that dragging out the Barbies was a way to get my teenage sister, eight years my senior, to pay attention to me. She still loved Barbie but welcomed the excuse of a little sister to continue to play with her so as not to appear “uncool.”
I never forgot the Barbie of my youth
When I became the mom of a girl myself, I never forgot the Barbie companions of my youth. When my daughter was 5, my marriage ended, and as a single mom, I managed to scrimp and save and make sure that Barbie in some form ended up under the Christmas Tree, perched in an Easter Basket, or wrapped up for a birthday celebration.
One particular Christmas Eve was spent assembling and re-assembling a huge (off-brand) Barbie house with an elevator. During those worried, exhausted years, I remember the relief of just sitting on the floor, my back against my daughter’s bubblegum pink bedroom wall, brushing and braiding the hair of Barbie after Barbie, buttoning up gowns and dresses, serving as “talent contest judge” or “beauty pageant judge” and laughing about that one weird second-hand Barbie with the tangled hair we decided lived in the attic of the massive Barbie house.
Her bookcase contained Barbie books detailing her adventures as a teacher, a veterinarian, a ballerina, and even President. I never worried about the message of beauty standards that Barbie critics told me to watch out for. I was never concerned with an emphasis on clothes and hair because my daughter was growing up in a house with a mom who was staggeringly bad at all things feminine, so I figured, who better than Barbie to be her guide?
And when my mom-friends tsk-tsk-ed me for “letting” my daughter have Barbies, I would always answer, “I had every Barbie known to man, and I still ended up a feminist — my daughter will be fine. A doll doesn’t have that much power.”
It turns out she had more power than any of us knew.
This past weekend I saw the Barbie movie with my wife and daughter
Flash forward a few decades to a modest small-town movie theater on a rainy afternoon of a summer vacation in Maine. My wife, daughter, and I are seeing the Barbie movie on its opening day. I was caught off guard by how emotional I got during this roller coaster ride of a film that, at its heart, is about the power of women and girls to shape the world, the potential of Barbie to chart her destiny, and to create a world where the Barbies and Kens (and Midges and Allans!) were each free to live out their dreams and find their paths. And then, amid the pink scenery and the cheeky dialogue came a quiet moment and a line that took my breath away:
We mothers stand still so our daughters can look back to see how far they’ve come.Rhea Perlman as Ruth in “Barbie”
I felt filmmaker Greta Gerwig had reached my deepest parts, the complicated mix of woman and mother just trying to get it right. I stifled a sob and grabbed my daughter’s arm, thinking, “I’m crying at the BARBIE Movie!?”
The dolls have long since been packed away and donated; the townhouse I labored over that Christmas Eve went to two little girls in the neighborhood. Every wayward Barbie shoe, hairbrush, or accessory has long been vacuumed and disposed of. And along the way, the busyness of life overtook and carried us until we landed at this empty-nest life, where I settled into my role as the bystander, rather than the conductor, in my daughter’s.
After the movie, I pulled myself together, emerged into the humid warmth of a summer evening, and snuck a look at the fierce, funny, passionate feminist I had raised. Intellect and heart wrapped in a layer of humor with sarcasm. I hope that when she turns back to see me where I stand still, she sees how far she’s come from those days on the old blue carpet of her Barbie pink bedroom, when a tired clueless mom, an anxious little girl, and a stereotypical blonde doll somehow found their way to the future together.
Thank you, Barbie.
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