When our second daughter, The Diva, was born, nobody told us we’d signed a five-year contract with Barbie.
Her older sister wore jeans and dresses with equal disinterest, had imaginary tea-parties and F1 races with equal enthusiasm and loved football as much as TV musicals.
We were not prepared for the Pink Revolution.
Ballerina pumps, shiny hand-bags, tights, a princess’ dowry in plastic jewellery, silver tiaras with flashing rubies (that crumbled like lazy metaphors into dangerous shards), fairy wings, ALL IN PINK! Even a love for daredevil Kick Buttowski necessitated a PINK Barbie Skateboard.
Early on we decided not to be judgmental about this idiocy. It wasn’t an ideology thing. We were too fatigued for complicated negotiation and harboured a firm optimism that eventually she’d ‘grow out of it’. We played along.
I’d fake enthusiasm at Hamleys. ‘Wow, sure, let’s go see all the Barbies!’ We’d walk, hand in hand, mother dressed in the colours of mud with her sparkling, flittering, girl child; past the big haired, big headed, big boobed plastic bimbos, physiologically incapable of balancing on their two miniature feet if the Blue Fairy turned them into Real Girls.
LBD Barbie though is fascinating with her bondage-bandage ‘collector’ status: something noir, evil and creepy. I imagined 50 year old men creeping in, in the minutes before closing time, grabbing a couple of the purple lipped, blue lidded plastic girls, skulking to the counter and taking their dolls home in brown paper bags to do things to them that you wouldn’t even dare to Google.
Glittery 5yo: “Mommy can I have that one in the black dress?”
Me, surfacing from deep dark thoughts: “AAAAAAAA! NOOOOOO….”
Shocked look from the 5 yo.
Calmer, me: “Sorry, no, love.”
Glittery 5yo: “Please, can I have the one who is a vet?”
We’d get home, brushing away plastic-crumbs of the vet bag, the pink brush and other detritus that shoddy manufacturing destined our recent purchase to end up as. The older Barbies would regard the new one with knowing disdain, their naked bodies, shampoo-damaged hair and pen-lined faces watching, waiting for New Barbie to turn into them.
I’d watch. Anthropologist like. Looking for patterns.
You see, my little sister had loved Barbies to distraction. (This was when a Barbie was made of soft plastic, with bendable limbs, gorgeous ‘skin’ and she cost a calculable percentage of our dad’s salary.) I couldn’t be bothered. I had a rare black Barbie with large coca-cola eyes and gorgeous hair that was cut short and eventually turned platinum. I only remember having the mildest interest in her when my sister coerced my mother into buying a set of dresses for our two Barbies. I arranged a photo shoot. My black Barbie with her short hair looked fantastic in her white wedding dress. The pictures were developed, blurry and I lost the will to play.
Eventually my brothers learned about Sati in school and I’m afraid my Barbie, with no name (and no husband to speak of, cos we only had the one Ken) was sacrificed in a home-made fire in the garden, against her will and much to my mother’s deep consternation. Some days, I wonder if I could tell that story with a Joan of Arc lens but that’s not the way it happened. And somehow, it seemed apt for patriarchal-society-approved-Barbie.
The politicization of Barbie happened earlier than you’d think. There were small stories, renegade for the time. This was the first ‘adult’ as ‘doll’ toy in our memory. I remember my aunt telling my mum she was uncomfortable with the way Barbie was built. She didn’t want her daughters thinking that that was an ideal body. “Look at those boobs,” she said, “they’re not normal.” My mother, being my mother, shrugged. “I don’t think it will make a big difference as long as you don’t make a big deal about it.”
We’re all in our thirties now, the cousins and I, and my mum was right. No one’s been hurt. Except Barbie.
I’ve resisted the temptation to spy on the Diva when she played with her dolls. I knew there is lots of conversation and moving them about and bringing in props but it is very much ‘her’ private time. She used to retreat to a corner of her bedroom and conduct her rituals like a small Goddess playing with Life.
‘What do the Barbies talk about?’ I asked her one day. The Diva shrugged, “Well, you know that one who is bald and has a weird face?” (To me they all do, but I nodded.) “She talks about her injuries a lot.” Really?! “Yes, you know they’re not really talking though, Ma.” Yes, of course, I wanted to say, it’s ME who is NUTS here. I may have panicked a little at that moment.
But one day, when she was 6, the Diva learned to read properly. The next day she went to her big sisters’ bookshelf and pulled out a Geronimo Stilton. She quickly graduated to Enid Blyton, the Molly Moon Series, abridged classics.
The unplayed-with Barbies now lie in a box, like pop-references, past their time of relevance. Despite their lack of impact in our lives, I’m still undecided if I should pass them on or just bloody throw them away.
This appeared as a blog on iDiva: http://idiva.com/opinion-iparenting/girls-and-barbie/22570