To Barbie or Not to Barbie Is Not Really the Question
Warning: this post contains images that some parents may find disturbing, namely, a picture of Barbie’s waistline.
The Gabriella doll came first. It was an innocent gesture from an old friend of mine who now works for the Princess Headquarters conglomerate otherwise known as Disney. Leaving work one day, on his way to meet me for dinner and a 20 year catch-up and knowing that I had a young daughter, he filled a bag with Disney film franchise goodies which included DVD copies of The Little Mermaid and Sleeping Beauty, as well as the aforementioned Gabriella doll, which looks a little bit like a young, hip Latina version of the once-popular Midge doll.
Midge was Barbie’s brown-haired predecessor, and, to my mind, the one with much better fashion sense, playing respectable to Barbie’s hoochie mama look that has been both trumped up and down over the last five decades. But Barbie didn't start off as skanky. Originially she looked like a gal who could have been in Antonioni film or at least someone I might want to have coffee with.
My five-year-old was thrilled to receive the Gabriella doll, which came with a red one-piece bathing suit and some tiny red and white shorts modeled from the outfit the real Gabriella wore at her summer job as a lifeguard.
In case you don’t know who Gabriella is, and you should feel blessed and possibly even superior to me for this ignorance, she is the female protagonist in the High School Musical trifecta, a series of Disney movies that, in my efforts to begin schooling my daughter in the wonderful whimsical and edifying world of musicals, I “exposed her to.” (I assuaged my guilt by repeating the phrase both to myself and to other moms who hadn’t seen it yet, “It’s Harmless,” which is basically true.) Gabriella (Vanessa Hudgens) is a young Latina high school genius who falls in love with Troy Bolton (Zac Ephron), the school’s handsome young, white, not-so-dumb basketball star who may have also been responsible for the recent trend of boys with shags and long bangs that nearly cover their eyes.
Troy and Gabriella sing songs together, dance together, and eventually, although not until High School Musical II, kiss. The grand conclusion of the triad (though I believe more is on its way) is that Gabriella, despite being in love with this Troy Bolton character, goes off to an early admission to Stanford, leaving behind her foxy basketball star and musical co-star, who ultimately decides to attend UC Berkeley in an effort to be closer to her. It’s a moment any skeptical parent could be proud of. For me it was the first time that my daughter and I talked about universities in California.
“What is Stanford mom?,” she asked as the movie was concluding. It wasn’t a conversation I thought I’d be having with my then 4.5-year-old.
But I wanted her to know that Stanford wasn’t some evil halfway house that stole girls away from their first boyfriends. A good mom would have surely said, “Stanford! Why that’s the college you’re going to go to someday!” But, in light of our recent finances, it would have been smarter for me to say, “Better start working towards that scholarship now so that you, too, can go there, or any college for that matter, some day.” I said neither. I did tell her that it was a big school not far from us, and that we could go visit someday and see if we think it is worthy of Gabriella’s brilliance and charm.
Then came Sleeping Beauty. She was a birthday gift from a classmate. I’m sure my daughter must have blurted out the name on the playground, giving her classmate a helpful bit of information when it comes to shopping for a birthday present for someone you barely know. Sleeping Beauty doll is a bit taller and more exaggerated than the Gabriella doll. She is decidedly white and blue-eyed and tan with heinously dyed blonde hair that looks more like tacky costume jewelry than something that actually grows on your head. She’s Barbie on steroids and she’s got those awful Barbie feet, too. The standing-on-her-toes ones that make it impossible to wear comfortable shoes, god forbid she ever step foot in a gym or go for a run, or go do relief work in Sudan or something. It’s impossible! Not with feet that are only made for stilettos.
Our Gabriella, on the other hand, wears cute little ballet flats and preppy sneakers. She’s in high school, after all. I’m pretty sure Sleeping Beauty, whose real name is Aurora, never went to school. She was too busy, as the story goes, with her peasant life (which doesn’t explain the feet at all or the fact that I had to explain to my daughter what a “peasant girl” was, and that this was supposed had to be my example!?)
I should tell you that Barbie has been a source of conversation in my family of origin. My mother, a pretty traditional woman, is rather proud of using me as an example of a former Barbie owner who “turned out all right.” It’s true. I had a bunch of them as a kid in the 70s. I had several, and a Skipper, and a Ken, and a GI Joe doll. I used to stage a kind of Melrose Place with them, giving them weddings and divorces and having them talk behind each other’s backs and argue and make up.
Actually, I’ll just come clean about all of it. When I was a kid, I had a three-story Barbie penthouse, with a pool and a car. My Barbie lived large, had a lot of bling in her life, lots of friends, and a couple of guys to chose from. Although, I don’t know if my mom knew how this played out in my room.
A dozen years later, after I joined the Women’s Studies department at UC Berkeley, I do remember having more than a couple of Barbie discussions. My mom seems to remember me saying that I would never let my own daughter play with a Barbie. I don’t think I was quite that pedantic, but Women’s Studies classes can make you say things that, in retrospect, sound rather—pardon the expression—cocky.
There comes a time in every feminist's life when she or he has to face this Barbie issue. At the very least I had hoped to not go through the whole Disney princess thing with a daughter, but I have come to realize that as humans we are attracted to what we are attracted to, and that much of it is based on archetypes that we can explain without too much judgment and anger at our culture—which I still have plenty of. When she gets a little bit older we can start busting through the assigned gender roles and stereotypes and, of course, the sexing up of young girls that we all bristle at. With an opinionated loud-mouth for a mother, my daughter isn’t going to have much of problem distinguishing between the passive and active roles that women play in our culture, still the definitions of beauty conversation isn't going to be an easy one. I am confident that she’ll get it without me having to pull out the documentaries or make her read Simone de Beauvoir in middle school, but peer pressure is another can of worms.
So, as a mom, I’ve wondered quite a bit about this Barbie thing. I suppose I let them enter my house even if I didn’t purchase them. And, I think at some point they will be useful in having a conversation about gender roles and women’s bodies, etc. I wasn’t ever personally angry about the role that Barbie played in my life anyway. Despite having been born and raised with blond hair, I never wanted to be her, or to look like her. If anything, I think that falling asleep each night to my little FM radio and listening to all the "love songs" of the 70s did more damage to my life expectations and feelings about gender roles than Barbie ever could.
Still, Barbie has had a tough life, and I feel for her. From the get go in 1963, she was told she was too sexy, too mature for young girls. I mean, come on, is that her fault? Midge and her counterpart Skipper, which I also owned, were apparently created to appease the Barbie critics. Midge, originally marketed as Barbie’s best friend, had a fuller face that was supposed to be “less sexually intimidating.” And, she had freckles. Eventually Midge came in pregnant version, was sold with a husband, and later in an African American version and was picked up by Wal-Mart. But, as we all know, Barbie is not alone. There are hundreds of both slutty and the more buttoned-up variations of Barbie, Gabriella dolls among them.
Barbie has been the source of so much parody. She's been accused of being a meth maker and dealer, which could help explain her unusually low weight, and an anorexic. Can't a girl be skinny anymore without being a drug dealer or having an eating disorder? (Oh, and don't forget the Karen Carpenter story retold in a film acted out with Barbie dolls. I haven't.)
To make everyone else feel better, Barbie’s gone through a great deal of reconstruction, too. After spending a long time looking demurely to the side, her eyes look forward now. Since 1997, her waist has been widened, her boobs softened and reduced. She doesn’t come equipped anymore with a scale that reads 110 pounds, as she did in 1965. With the advent of high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils, how could she? That would be so unrealistic.
Mattel has tried to make her body look more teenage and less grown-up.
She keeps current, has her finger on the pulse, and, well, at least she doesn’t say unrealistic things, as she did in her 1992 version that generated many phrases such as “Math class is tough!” Today’s Barbie is a math whiz, a candidate for a Nobel Prize in Economics, or like Gabriella, a genius who corrects her own high-school math teacher’s formulas. She’s just a girl on her way to Stanford who is not going to let Troy stand in her way of future success or future earning power.
As for the Sleeping Beauty doll my daughter received, that’s another story. She has that glassy-eyed soul-less look, like she might just spend her life in front of the mirror, or worse, asleep, and waiting for her prince to come and kiss and revive her. She wears nothing practical, or even fashionable. Pink, always pink. She's all glitz with nothing interesting to say.
But, despite all of this, I knew things couldn’t be all that bad when I came into my daughter’s room the other night and listened to her playing with both of the dolls.
This was what I overhead:
Gabriella: Hey Sleeping Beauty, you better get up. Stop sleeping all the time!
Sleeping Beauty: (silent, asleep)
Gabriella: Come on Sleeping Beauty you have to get out of bed. You’ve gotta get up and go to Stanford!
Then Gabriella leans over and kisses her and Sleeping Beauty wakes up.
P.S. Since Barbie turned 50 this year, I've been wondering about the possibility of a Menopause Barbie. Wouldn't a Barbie that has hot flashes and mood swings be kind of cool to own?