It’s my full-time job, but indulging in our broken politics can sometimes lead to a murky world. Why shouldn’t I look forward to going to Barbieland and immersing myself in a pink fantasy?
Bring along Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” and hopefully a more sympathetic look at the world’s most famous doll. Let the longtime feminist focus become the superhero saving theaters this summer. Gerwig had me with him the trailer.
Jackie Calmes takes a critical look at the national political scene. She has decades of experience reporting on the White House and Congress.
Barbie and I grew up together. 1959 onwards – the year my younger sister Patty and I each ripped the Christmas wrapper off a cardboard board that had the brand new one on top Ponytail barbie and about half a dozen chic outfits – all of us, including Barbie, survived the social upheavals that rocked the lives of women in the decades that followed.
The first changes in our world were good ones: our Catholic parents celebrated the election of the first president of our faith, and Patty and I replaced Ponytail Barbie with the new one Bubble Cut Barbie inspired by the glamorous First Lady Jackie Kennedy. We also got Barbie’s dream house and her Austin-Healey sports car, salmon pink with teal bucket seats. Oh yeah, and ken.
The years that followed weren’t great, either for us or for Barbie. There was President Kennedy’s death and then my father’s; War, more assassinations and racial strife (and the debut of Christie, the first black doll in barbie relay a message); Urban unrest, including our town in Ohio, and the bewildering rise of feminism. Many women, including mothers of daughters who bought dolls, vilified Barbie (those boobs! Those waists!) as a toxic Mad Men-era totem that would leave girls with self-image issues — not to mention that Barbie’s creator, Mattel Co -Founder Ruth Handler was an entrepreneurial mother of two who needed to make her mark male resistance to barbie (especially on the breasts).
In 1972 I graduated from high school and college. And Mattel reported a drop in Barbie sales for the first time. In a process that would be repeated in coming epochs, the company went into crisis mode to adapt Barbie to the changing times. My younger sisters Cathy and Connie and millions of other girls around the world have been trafficked literally about Barbie’s makeover.
At that point, I had outgrown Barbie, as we say. Unfortunately Mom dumped my new Barbie treasures and Patty’s at a flea market. But even as I self-identified as a feminist, I’ve never distanced myself from the doll or questioned what Barbie represents—that was as diverse as the girls who project themselves onto her. The barbiephobes might say I’ve become a feminist despite Mattel’s sexist stance. You’ve probably never played with Barbie.
That was certainly true of another (older) woman from Toledo, Ohio, and my early idol Gloria Steinem: “I’m so thankful I didn’t grow up with Barbie,” she says at the beginning of Andrea Nevins’ 2018. Documentary, “Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie.” “Thank God! Barbie was everything we didn’t want to be and were told not to be.”
Poor disadvantaged Steinem! She had done everything wrong. (In fairness, at the end of the documentary, she grudgingly compliments Mattel’s introduction of four new Barbies in more realistic shapes in 2016.)
Yes, the original busty Barbies my sister and I found under the Christmas tree in 1959 wore a strapless black and white striped swimsuit and heels and a wedding dress. But our barbies also came in a chanteuse’s shimmering black dress, complete with stand-up microphone and long black gloves—hardly the getup of a woman fixated only on marriage. Soon came “Busy Gal Barbie with a portfolio of fashion sketches – she didn’t just model fashion, she designed it – and “Career Girl” Barbie and “miss astronaut.”
Barbie’s original house did not have a kitchen. We didn’t miss it. The Barbie block had books, a school pennant on the wall, and a modern stereo TV. And it was all hers at a time when women couldn’t Eligible for credit without a co-signer. Barbie didn’t have a stroller; She had this sports car.
And Ken? He was just an accessory. Not that we girls didn’t like boys – we were just too busy living our dreams with Barbie to care for him. So much for criticizing that Barbie girls only lived to catch a man. Gerwig and actor Ryan Gosling, who plays the attention-hungry Ken, are reportedly covering up for Ken’s lust for a laugh.
Everyone has a poor Ken story, even Gosling. He told the Times that he once found his daughter’s Ken face down in the mud. My Ken lost hair when I dropped him in the driveway. Oops. And my sister once used a piece of carbon paper as a blanket for Ken and stained his face with permanent blue ink. Patty grabbed Mom’s nail polish remover just to remove the paint from his eyes and mouth. She survived. Now if it had been Barbie…
A dozen years into my career, I had a daughter and gave her a Barbie for her first birthday. Believe me, I didn’t signal that I hoped she would become a sex object. Sarah never played with it. My second daughter, Carrie, did. But she had no respect for Barbie—or Barbies, plural; Until then, girls had several Barbies at the same time. I found her shaved hair floating in the toilet.
The dismissive attitude of the two daughters did not upset me. What if they didn’t love Barbie like Patty and I do? They pursue their own joys and dreams. As they should. But they also share mine. And this week Sarah will accompany me to Barbie Land.