I’m no Barbie Girl. I’m a Barbie Woman.
Christmas, 1962: I rejoiced when my first and only Barbie doll was under the tree. She was the one I’d hoped for, the brunette with the bubble-cut hairdo and the heavy eye shadow. She looked just like Suzanne Pleshette.
I was ten years old, and Barbie was my last doll. I’d never been much of a doll-playing girl; I preferred stuffed animals and books. But Barbie was different. She was more avatar than doll. She was dark-haired, like me, and she was grown up, like I hoped to be someday.
She came with her own cardboard Dream House, complete with a hi-fi-TV console, a chaise longue, and bookshelves.
She also had a complete wardrobe: a Chanel-looking “Career Girl” suit with matching hat, a gold lame strapless dress with matching evening coat (“Evening Splendor”) and, just in case I wanted her to change careers, a crisp white nurse’s uniform, complete with red satin-lined cape, cap, and Registered Nurse diploma. (My favorite book series at the time was about Cherry Ames, mystery-solving Army nurse.)
Later, I saved up enough to buy Barbie a sports car, a peach-colored two-seater with turquoise upholstery. It was meant for two, so I also acquired Ken, a clean-cut guy in a tennis sweater who could be Barbie’s arm candy when she went out. He had a black tuxedo with a formal white tucked shirt and black satin bow tie to wear when she stepped out in the Evening Splendor ensemble.
To sum it up, my Barbie lived the life I imagined for myself: successful career gal (store owner/nurse/Vogue editor/private detective) with a kickass Dream House, a sports car, and a cute guy to escort her when she needed him. My sister had the blonde ponytailed Barbie, who was a stewardess, had a baby, and apparently wasn’t yet married to Ken because she didn’t want to give up her own Dream House.
We borrowed a G.I. Joe from a neighbor boy and made him the mad serial stalker who broke into our Dream Houses. (We never imagined he was a G.I. in uniform; we were military brats who knew who the good guys were. Instead, he came to attack wearing too-small pants from Ken’s wardrobe and a weird headband from Barbie.) Our Barbies teamed up and beat Joe to death with a frying pan from the Dream Kitchen. They weren’t about to let a crazed psychopath stab them in the shower!
Fast forward to the 1970s. Bubble-cut brunette, career gal Barbie had been replaced by that blonde bimbo, Malibu Barbie. Four-year-olds were playing with this flaxen-tressed babe, dunking her in their bath water and cutting her hair. When her head got moldy and her hair fell out, little girls just got Beach Party Barbie and started in on her. Sadly, Barbie was no longer a doll for older girls, but a disposable plaything for little kids. By the 1980s, Barbie was wearing skimpy polyester outfits that weren’t worth hanging up in the Dream House. And the Dream House was no longer a mid-century swinging career gal studio; it was a tacky plastic McMansion with an elevator.
By the 1990s, Barbie had been denounced as a sexist stereotype, so she conveniently morphed into a role model. These Barbies came dressed in their respective career gear: Doctor Barbie, Engineer Barbie, Astronaut Barbie, Veterinarian Barbie — collect them all! My own daughters saw through this trope and preferred to play with American Girls, dolls with historical backstories that didn’t preach: Choose a career! Dream big! Lean in!
Today, we have Barbies that reflect the shape and ethnicity of real people, an enlightened move on Mattel’s part. But no matter what the dolls look like or how many accessories they have, girls of all ages play with dolls for one reason: to create their own worlds. The dolls become what the girls want them to be; they are the actors in the dramas of the imagination.
Back in 1962, I rejoiced in Barbie because I could create the grown-up world she lived in. One day she was a private detective; the next day she was killing a bizarre stalker with a frying pan. She did it all on her own terms, trying on careers and identities just as she tried on her exquisite little outfits. I did not envy her giant breasts and tiny waist because the world I created for her did not care about her body. In my Barbie’s world, she escaped the Dream House before it burned down, rebuilt it the next day, and invited Ken over for a cocktail. She survived a horrible crash in the sports car, had surgery, and decided to become a nurse. No disaster could thwart her ingenuity or her intellect. My Barbie was no girl. She was a woman.