Barbie’s taken a lot of heat lately. What with her tiny waist, impossible (as in actually impossible to sustain an upright position) legs, and huowge knockers, but I’d like to submit a defense: despite her shortcomings (or longcomings, at least where the legs are concerned) everything, or nearly everything, I need to know, I learned by playing Barbies.
I’m the oldest sibling in my family, but growing up I was the youngest of the “big kids” on my block. In my house, I was pretty used to being king shit; little sissies did what they were told “˜round my playroom. But over at the neighbors’ houses, I was just a small turd in a big terlit (this expression is particularly apropos when you consider that while playing “Superheroes” I was told I had to be “Poop Head” when Wonder Woman, Cat Woman, Powergirl, and the other bona fide superheroine names were already snagged. My suggestion that I be “Spidergal” definitely didn’t win any hearts or minds. When playing with my own Barbie Dolls I had the grand pick. I could delegate who got to play with Barbie’s Dream House and when, and I always hoarded the dapperest get-ups. But over at the neighbors, I had to share. And I often got the short end of the share stick (e.g. when the Kens ran out, and Barbies always outnumbered Kens 10 to 1 because Kens don’t have hair or boobs or even cool clothes so they’re not as good an investment, I was given a Strawberry Shortcake doll taped to a building block with legs drawn on it). At the time I resented this. But I also realized that the value of playing with the big kids far outweighed the sacrifice of playing with the slapdash Shortcake/block-legged Ken substitute.
I doubt I would have grasped the concept of sharing very well had I not been forced into it. And I also consider this trade-off of quality dolls for sophisticated companionship my first lesson in social bargaining. I also found, oh sweet magical epiphany, that playing with the lesser dolls didn’t equal lesser fun. I had a great time, no matter how shoddy my Barbie allotment, playing with imaginative older kids who’d (it occurred to me one day) earned the right to the finest Barbies–through acquiring more dolls and thus providing more to share, through bringing life (and hence play) experience to the table, and of course through sheer seniority (they could give me the bunk Ken because they’d taken their turn playing with him). I was also, frequently enough, the beneficiary of seemingly random Barbie generosity. The oldest and grandest of the big kids, would every so often, out of nowhere, offer Chrystal Barbie up to me. CHRYSTAL BARBIE. The best of the best. Better than Peaches n’ Cream Barbie, better than Ice Capades Barbie, Better than Heart Barbie, even better than Tropical Miko. The warmth I’d feel in my teeny tiny heart”¦that’s the kind of sharing experience you remember. I also learned to bestow random acts of Barbied kindness on the little kids, the only neighbor kids over whom I reigned. Barbie did right by me in this respect.
You can bet that when saddled with the Shortcake/block-legged Ken substitute you learn to use your imagination. Whether Ken was part of a government experiment whereby his legs were replaced with bionic blocks ala Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man; or the bunk Ken was scrapped altogether and the storylines included: a) Barbie holding down two jobs to support the family while Ken infiltrated the Russian Armed Forces (this was during the Cold War, people), or b) Barbie lived in a Kenless world where she raised her kids with another Barbie (usually in my suburban, square child mind this was in a Kate and Allie-style setup where the two moms were divorced or widowed and living as friends rather than lovers, but it was still a departure from what I was must accustomed to at that time, the mom + dad + runts scenario); no matter the story, you can bet fun was had.
Because trust me, we didn’t just dress the dolls and parade them around (well, unless we were producing a Barbie Beauty Pageant, but more about that later), we were creating intricate stories where our Barbies did whatever we wanted to do–my Barbies were usually, alternatingly, lawyers or country western singers, with jobs in hat shops and kitten rescue shelters on the side.
We crafted ways to make up for the aforementioned Ken shortage by having the dad in one Barbie storyline play the brother in another. The lack of Kens also reinforced the Amazon education I was receiving just by living in a female dominated neighborhood: girls rule, boys drool; which, as I got older, became: girlfriends come first, boyfriends come second. Barbie, I was a better girl for knowing you. I’m a better woman for it too.
OK, maybe I didn’t learn anything about sex from Barbies. I mean, for a start, they don’t have any genitalia. And sex was amazingly simple in the Barbieverse. Take clothes off of Doll 1 and Doll 2. Place Doll 1 on top of Doll 2. Declare that they’re “doin’ it”. Sex has been accomplished. But some of the social norms that surround sex were explored. Like will my Barbie have sex once a year, with her husband Ken on Ken’s birthday? Will she go all the way on a first day with a Strawberry Shortcake taped to a block of wood? Will she land somewhere between these two? As an avid Barbier, I had to consider these things.
A rose by an unattractive name is not as sweet. A Barbie named Edna Morag Spackleberry, not hot. A Barbie named Blanche Veronique La Fontaine, white hot.
In the Barbie social circle in which I was raised, television sitcom surnames were popular. Huxtable was the #1 most coveted sur, with Tanner (a nod to the family on Alf, not Full House) coming in second. This meant a fight for the best names for our Barbie families. We’d generally take turns selecting and then naming Barbies. And since I most often played Barbies with my BFN (best friend neighbor), I picked second in the Barbie draft. My BFN would pick a Barb, then I would, then back and forth until all 50 (yes, fifty) Barbies and five Kens were allocated with no one getting all the silkiest maned Bs or all the Kens with undies molded on (“undie Kens” were strongly preferred to “dink Kens”, which had no undies, they were apparently too advanced for us). We’d follow the same process for Barbie naming. BFN always went first. Because, according to neighborhood play protocol, big kids always go first. My BFN was 14 months older than me. That means she pwnd the show (am I using that word right?).
Because I rarely got to give my Barbie the grand poobah of all Barbie names, Valentina Francesca Huxtable, everyone’s favorite, I began trying to one up any older kids I might be Barbieing with by coming up with impressive NEW names. Though I was at an age disadvantage, I had a very glamorous grandmother. She watched soap operas and let me watch them with her. She had fancy old lady friends with names like Marguerite. She wore designer blouses made by Donna Karan (which, at the time, I thought was pronounced “Kuh-Ronn”). And her beach house was filled with romance novels–an endless source of exotic, glammertime names. Because the names I found on The Young and the Restless, at tea, in the closet, and in smutty novels weren’t on NBC prime time or in children’s books, the other kids weren’t terribly aware of them, I had a significant leg up.
The first time I deputed Alessandra Chancellor and Abbott Montalban, a stunning Malibu couple (all of Southern California seemed very exotic at the time), with the casual, but snotty, aside, “I’m just really tired of “˜Huxtable’ and “˜Tanner’, you can have both of them if you want,” jaws dropped. I learned in that moment that competition is all about being in on the hot, new thing. And sometimes, even if you don’t know your ear from your ass, you can just fool others into thinking that you know what that hot thing is, simply by declaring it. Once I learned that sometimes just saying something in a convincing manner will give it power (contemporary American politics), I was able to even the playing field, no matter what my impediment. I once said that I thought of my retainer as mouth jewelry. That I really liked having one, actually, and that I’d hate to not have one because plain teeth are boring. A COMPLETE LIE. Of course retainers are terrible. They’re uncomfortable and they’ve got that horrible oral stink, no matter how thoroughly you clean them. But it was out there. I said it. It became real. My overbite became a thing of envy. Yes, Barbie, knowledge is power.
Barbie Dream House, oh, the possibilities. We’d spend HOURS building Barbie homes. If three people were playing, we’d usually take the three sections of the dream house and divide them up with one section for each person; when two played, one section went to each, with the third being the shared vacation home.
Bookshelves became strip malls, with condos and art studios on the upper shelves. A pile of white pillows made a great ski resort, and wooden blocks and Trapper Keepers could be used to build chalets.
The homes were elaborately furnished with waterbeds (Ziplocs filled with water–don’t let Mom catch you doing this), fish tanks (empty Tic Tac containers turned upside-down, with blue Post-Its with fish drawn on taped to the back, and bean bag chairs (colorful ankle socks filled with rice). Accessories included tiny anything! Half of my charm necklace charms were used in Barbie homes. Mini swords found in cherries in Shirley Temples always made their way into the pocket for future Barbie use. Golf tees and empty thread spools were fashioned into avant-garde lamps, pin cushions were throw pillows, baseball cards and magazine cut-outs were posters, the possibilities were endless.
Resourcefulness was key. If you’ve ever looked at an object and thought, “this looks like a small ______,” think about the application that had for Barbie building.
I still, more or less, decorate this way. My home, like Barbie’s, has been lovingly and artfully decorated, and for not a lot of scratch.
To this day, no matter how much my job calls for it, I’ve never been more organized than when producing a Barbie beauty pageant. Barbie beauty pageants are so much work that, like the real Miss America Pageant, they’re usually only accomplished once a year.
50 Barbies representing 50 states (we did not have enough Barbies to include Guam or Puerto Rico). This spectacle included coordinating 50 glamorous names, 50 talents, 50 sets of outfits (gown, interview, talent, and swimwear) + accessories, and 50 bios.
Let me outline the simple 14-step formula for a successful pageant:
Step 1: Strip all Barbies down to their bday suits.
Step 2: Lay the nekkid Barbies face down in a row.
Step 3: Cut notebook paper into 50 dime-sized pieces of paper.
Step 4: Number the little pieces of paper.
Step 5: Tape a number to each Barbie’s butt (labels henceforce known as “butt numbers”).
Step 6: Acquire 25 sheets of loose leaf college-ruled paper (school-ruled is for babies) and cut them in half.
Step 7: Create a brief biographical sketch for each contestant, this will be her pageant profile. This profile should fit on a half a page of loose leaf college-ruled paper and should include glamorous name, state of domicile, age, background, talent, and aspirations.
Step 8: Select a host. This will usually be a dark haired Ken, the one that looks the most like Ralph Macchio. And he should be named something awesome, like Agent Troy McLemore (because he moonlights as a vice cop).
Step 9: Wardrobe for Ken (aka Troy McLemore). This was simple; I owned only one Ken tuxedo. It had a white smoking jacket, black pants, and a white shirt with pink bow tie and matching pink cummerbund. Of Ken/Troy’s black dress shoes, one had been misplaced, so Ken usually wore rubber white sneakers.
Step 10: Wardrobe for the contestants. This, along with the profile creation was both the most fun and the most time consuming. I maybe owned 50 gowns, but I definitely didn’t own 50 bathing suits. This meant an intricate system of which Barbies share which outfits and how to accessorize them differently so that they don’t appear to be the same. This could take hours, even days (since eventually Mom will make you come downstairs for dinner and you’ll have to bring the garbage out after that, and then you’ll probably want to watch Marty Stouffer’s Wild America on TV).
Step 11: Accessories. Butt numbers are used to track which combs and shoes go with which contestants and coordinating outfits.
Step 12: Talent assignment. The first few talents are easy to select as they’re based mostly on available outfits and common sense. We’ve got a cowgirl outfit, so Miss Texas, Alexis Lexington, is a lassoer. An ice capade outfit will double nicely as a ballet tutu, so Miss New York, Dominique Pierre, will be a dancer. Animal Lovin’ Ken’s leopard print shirt will fit a Barbie in a pinch, Miss California, Jasmine VanVeldenfeld, will train white tigers (small Snoopy stuffed animals can stand in as white tigers as needed). The Barbie and The Rockers set comes with not just white leather skirts and silver tube tops, but little plastic electric guitars, so a couple of contestants can perform guitar solos. From there it gets more difficult. Barbie has a lot of workout and movement clothing, so a lot of the remaining talent will be sport and fitness based. There are always odd outfits that need use, like Barbie’s yellow raincoat, something like this might allow Miss Washington, Bianca Nordstrom, to perform a “Singing in the Rain” dramatic song and dance routine. And then basically everyone else gets placed in front of the mic from the Barbie Grammy Awards Set while a Whitney Houston tape is played, or sits at the Barbie grand piano (white with pink bench, of course) with the radio tuned to the classical music station (if the radio station is on commercial break, this is the perfect time for an intermission/potty break).
Step 13: Find someone in the house who is willing to witness the pageant. Dad will watch if he can keep the TV on. Mom will watch the first few contestants. Little sisters can generally be coerced into watching the entire pageant, while being told not to touch anything.
Step 14: SHOW TIME. If you haven’t seen a Barbie beauty pageant, I suggest you find one to spectate post-haste. Dynasty meets 80s glam metal. Exquisite.
Duh. This is, like, Barbie’s domain (in addition to veterinary medicine, aeronautics, hairdressing, pet grooming, hat sales, surfing, babysitting, and all the other stuff Barbie has explored professionally).
Barbie allowed for the kind of fashion experimentation you’ll rarely get with real clothes. For one thing, actual women can’t usually get away with wearing electric pink leg warmers over turquoise full body spandex, but Barbie pwns it! (Seriously, am I using “pwn” correctly? I don’t really know what it means).
I learned how to French braid on my Barbies. I learned that, despite what I’d been told, black and navy sometimes look really cute together. So do pink and red. And, contrary to what many have hypothesized, Barbie didn’t teach me to hate my body. She taught me to decipher real from fake. When I put on a denim skirt, it fell a little above my knees, and with my hands at my sides it was fingertip length. When I put a denim skirt on Barbie, it covered maybe a fifth of her thighs and her arms were sort of stuck out in front of her, so who knows where the skirt was in relationship to her fingertips. Because Barbie was SO out of proportion, it was easy to see that her body was the one that was messed up. I never thought, “my legs should be longer,” I thought, “Barbie’s legs should be shorter.”
Barbie was a plastic thing. She was an amazing thing, she made all kinds of fun exploration possible, but it was obvious that she wasn’t an accurate human form just miniaturized. When Barbie’s plastic hair was braided, the braid was as thick as one on my own head. That doesn’t make any sense if I’m supposed to be a giant version of Barbie. My braid would have to be a foot around to maintain the proportion. No one’s braid looks like that. I saw Barbie for what she was, an exaggeration. Which, I think, made it easier to look at magazines the same way. When I started reading Seventeen, I didn’t think that my face should be all one color, because the models had no freckles, moles, or pinkness, I thought they looked fake. Like dolls. Maybe fun to play with, but not what I want to be.
No toy rivaled Barbie for me. I spent thousands (I did the math, this is legit) of hours playing Barbies as a girl. I loved that time. I had uncomplicated fun and I learned so much more than I realized at the time. So if there’s any moral to this fun little psychotically detailed journey down memory lane, it’s this: Let your kids play with Barbies, it’s not hurting them. Give them credit, they can decipher real from fake, and if they can’t, they need to discover the difference between the two for themselves.
Now who wants to come over and play? I’ll let you play with CHRYSTAL BARBIE (yeah, I have one now).