Barbie's Little Secret

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By Sarah Haskins
Sunday, March 8, 2009

Barbie. Happy 50th. You haven't had it easy, serving as both the template for idealized female beauty and a lightning rod for controversy. So, congrats on weathering the storm. And since we're talking: I need to tell you something. -- In the debate over whether you and your pronounced bosom, platinum blond locks and teetering stature have objectified women, well, I objectified you. Wherever and whenever I could. -- Let me explain. I had anti-Barbie parents. You know the type: Parents who want you to have your birthday party at a museum. Parents who think that the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer is a "fun" show. Parents who secretly wish that all you played with was a collection of hand-carved wooden spoons from a non-Western culture. To these parents, Barbie was anathema, a symbol from an earlier time, a Stepford wife in waiting. They looked at her, even in her '80s corporate wear, and saw the same plastic pin-up who debuted at the New York Toy Fair on March 9, 1959.

Sure, Barbie had a lot of professional careers, but how could she really be an independent woman when she couldn't even stand on her own? To my baby boomer mom, and the many moms like her, the marketing drive to present Barbie as a woman with "choices" was a crock. These were women in a generation that actually made difficult choices about work and family, a generation that knew that real change took a lot more than slipping into a power suit.

But my parents were parents, not ideologues, so despite all this, I had one Barbie. She was probably a gift from a well-meaning babysitter or a birthday present we couldn't return. My sister had a Malibu Skipper, acquired in the same way. I threw a temper tantrum at Sears once and got hushed up with a generic Ken doll. He wore a red sweat suit and liked to play tennis. To balance the equation, my sister had a Ken doll named Derek. He sang lead in a band called the Rockers and wore a shimmering New Wave pink and purple jacket and a tie. Four Barbies.

How did I -- the daughter of a feminist and working woman, myself a future feminist and a generally liberal, Prius-driving recycling lady -- play with my Barbie?

I took off all her clothes and sent her looking for love. My Barbie got around.

One day it was He-Man behind the sofa. Then, before the dust bunnies had even gathered on their tryst, she was up and off to see Skeletor. She got it on with Ken from Sears and spurned him for Derek. Barbie made out with stuffed animals, hooked up with Hulk Hogan and stole away for a moment with Boba Fett. I'm sorry he didn't take his helmet off. He can't.

And it wasn't just me. To walk into the bedroom of any of my Barbie-owning friends when I was little was to face a sordid truth. "You want to play Barbie?" she would ask innocently and gesture. Off in the corner -- a bucket of large-breasted, pantsless women. "That's where the Barbies live." Across the room, a tragic tableau: Barbie in the backseat of a convertible. Barbie entangled in a desk drawer dalliance. Barbie in the bathtub with a duck and a tugboat.

My mom wanted my sister and me to grow up believing that we could do whatever we wanted, that our value lay in our character and not our appearance. But, you, Barbie. We treated you exactly as we didn't want to be treated, breaking and defiling the Golden Rule with your every after-school roll in the sofa cushions. I wonder, sometimes, whether it was because of the way you looked that we never took you seriously. Did our mother's disapproval trickle down, or did we cotton to the stereotype and just assume that the pretty girl with the ample curves was dumb?

I'm sure my mom was happy when, soon after we chopped off Barbie's locks to reveal a biker-gang look, my sister and I phased Barbie out. But I don't think she had anything to worry about in the first place. We always knew that Barbie represented an absurd fantasy. Because she was so clearly not real, we were as likely to aspire to Barbie's proportions as we were to take to the ring with Hulk Hogan.

And now, at 50, Barbie looks less like a threat than a grande dame, perched on her pedestal in toy history. After all, in her own strange way, she was a pioneer -- a trailblazing figure in branding, a woman whose every tiny wobbly step paved the way for the questionable role models that perplex and concern parents today, be they Bratz or Disney Princesses. And parents, fear not -- Barbie's legacy continues even there: For every mermaid throwing her life away for a prince, there's probably a really randy mermaid making out with Spiderman somewhere in your house.

So happy birthday, Barbie. And I'm sorry. I hope you don't feel that I didn't respect your desire to be a fighter pilot, a teacher or a doctor.

Unless you had a good time with all that action. Then never mind.

sarah@current.com

Sarah Haskins hosts the "Target Women" segment on Current TV's infoMania.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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