I haven’t yet seen the Barbie movie — I’ll wait until theaters are a lot less crowded — but all the talk about it has brought up a lot of nostalgia for me and what Barbie meant to me when I was growing up.
I get irked by the people who talk about Barbie dolls as being bad for girls because it falls into some of the same traps of faux feminism as those who complain about romance novels. There’s the “not like other girls” thing in which anything considered traditionally feminine is “bad.” If other girls like it, it’s frowned upon. And there’s the “unrealistic expectations” thing that infantilizes women and girls, treating us like we’re too dumb to know that romance novels or a doll with a ridiculous figure might be pure fantasy.
I don’t remember ever wanting or expecting to have Barbie’s figure. I wanted her wardrobe and her life — the life I gave her when I was using her to explore possible ways of having an adult life.
I got my first Barbie for either my 5th or 6th birthday. That must have been before they started branding heavily in pink because there was no pink in my first Barbie and her accessories. That first doll was a Malibu Barbie who came wearing a blue one-piece swimsuit. At the same time, I also got her car, which was a yellow Corvette, and a pop-up camper (a trailer that unfolded to be a tent), which was also mostly yellow. Later, I got a horse. Somewhere along the way, I got a Malibu Ken. My Barbie spent a lot of time camping and horseback riding. Sometimes, she acted out musicals while I played the cast album or my Disney story and songs albums.
Barbie’s wardrobe grew so that she had more options than that swimsuit. My mom made some clothes for her, including a wedding dress made from scraps from her wedding dress. Barbie clothes also made for an easy gift. A Barbie outfit was the go-to birthday party gift at that time. As I got older, I made a lot of Barbie clothes, myself. I had fun designing things based on some simple patterns I had.
My Barbie collection grew when I was 7. I got the Dream House, and I got a “Francie” doll. I think she was a friend or cousin of Barbie’s, but she quickly became my favorite. The one I got was “quick curl” so she had hair that could be curled, which meant it was kind of stiff and wiry, a lot like my hair, and she was a brunette. She also had slightly flatter feet and wasn’t quite as boobalicious as Barbie. She quickly became my favorite and my “avatar,” while the actual Barbie tended to be the villain. Francie later had a “spa day” and returned as a Fashion Photo PJ after she started falling apart and got increasingly gross and I got a new doll to replace her. She was still brunette, but had some work done. Alas, the original Francie didn’t make it back from Germany when we moved.
The fun thing about Barbies was that this was something you could play by yourself or you could play with others. You could do parallel play, where you were both playing out your own thing near each other, or you could come up with a group story. Barbies were essentially a vehicle for roleplaying games and collaborative storytelling. Some of it was reality-based, with Barbie having whatever job I thought I wanted to have when I grew up, going on dates with Ken, and hanging out in her townhouse. Some of it was pure fantasy, with Barbie being a princess or witch. After Star Wars, the simple, high-necked wedding dress I had became Princess Leia’s white dress.
I did a lot of what they’re now calling jukebox musicals with my dolls. I’d make up stories around the songs on a record album and assign them to different dolls, then act out the story with the dolls (and many costume changes). I did a lot of remodeling on the Dream House. I didn’t like the printed backdrop that showed the rooms, which made no sense to me. Why would you essentially have a mural of your living room on your living room wall? So I got rid of the backdrop and put up something different. I made a fireplace and a balcony out of cardboard.
It struck me a few years ago that I’m essentially living the kind of life I often gave my Barbie dolls. I don’t have a Corvette, but I do have a car and I live in a townhouse (though with stairs instead of an elevator). I have a pretty big wardrobe, thanks to not really changing sizes in the past 30 years and being bad about not getting rid of things.
I think that playing with Barbies had a lot to do with me becoming a writer because it was a way I played with storytelling and being creative. That’s really what Barbies were all about: creativity. It was a way to make things up and explore, and if you think it was all about shopping, dating, and getting married, you’ve never watched girls play with Barbies.
I still have a couple of my dolls and the more sentimental pieces of clothing in my Barbie case that’s in my closet. Maybe I should use that for story brainstorming.