Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Gender, Schmender: Buying Miss Barbie

I just got off the phone with a woman friend whose daughter is having a birthday (note to the childless -- birthdays for those whose years number in single digits go on for days. If you are thinking about having a baby you need to know this.) The cupcakes that are going to school today came out of a box, but the cake for last Sunday's party, while it too came out of a box, was in the shape of a butterfly with multicolored icing. I thought this was a particularly grand gesture and said so.

Although she and her husband used a Williams-Sonoma butterfly cake mold, my friend admitted that the finished product was still a little sloppy around the edges, despite the fact that they both applied their many talents to it. I pointed out that it was the thought that counted, since the little girls were going to eat it anyway, and it was the pinkness and the sugar that really mattered at that age. (Whereas at our age, the cake would be the object of extensive critique, and probably a special issue of Social Text.) I suggested that she might want to try the ever-popular Volcano Cake one year, something a relative of mine makes for children which features a controlled explosion in the center. In this situation, neatness counts not only less, but not at all. However, as far as I know, the cake has only been tested on nephews, and the butterfly cake, despite a high degree of difficulty, was probably a better bet for a girly-girl party.

This led to the conversation all feminists have with their friends: how is it that many of their daughters wake up one day, refuse to wear anything but a pink dress, and insist that Barbie is a Goddess who must be worshipped by all?

"And then," my friend said,"I have to have the whole conversation about why we don't do Barbie."

"I support you completely," I said; "I would do the same thing with a daughter. Whereas boys are different. About this time ten years ago I was driving all over the state of Connecticut looking for Barbie's Mini-Van for my nephew."

"Absolutely," my friend agreed. "That would be completely different."

I hope this last point needs no explanation. Barbie is, indeed, the bane of many feminist mothers' existence, but there is good in everything, even if it is manufactured in China by labor that exists in a state of virtual peonage (which, by the way, I care about a lot, but Barbie doesn't give a hoot. Barbie accepts all servitude to her as natural and normal.) Barbie is the Original Drag Queen: she has Needs. And that Christmas ten years ago, she needed a Mini-Van. Why? Well, in the first place, all the other Barbies had one. But wait, I pointed out, dreading the trips from Toys R' Us to Toys R' Us, Barbie already had a Dream House, and her sister Skipper to do most of the housework, which she often did in the nude. Furthermore, Ken was constantly showing up asking for dates: sometimes it appeared that Ken's idea of a fun date included putting on Barbie's clothes and dancing with her, either standing up in the kitchen or doing a gentle, scissor-like bump and grind lying down. So with all this excitement at the Dream House, why did Barbie need a fully loaded Mini-Van too?

"How else will she get to the Mall?" my nephew, who was four at the time, pointed out.

Silly me. So Barbie's Mini-Van was located by Yours Truly in some corner of New England State even more godawful than the one I happened to be living in at the time, purchased and delivered as if by Magic. This process required the expenditure of vast amounts of petroleum since -- you need to know this if it is your first Holiday Season of toy buying -- there is no point in calling Toys R' Us in December. Or ever, for that matter. The phone in the store is never answered, and the store employees merely gather around it, watch it ring off the hook and try to guess what the person on the other end wants until it stops ringing and they can go back to smoking dope and playing cards.

Anyway, there was a happy outcome for all when the Mini-Van was revealed on Three Kings Day. Great joy reigned in Nephewville for whatever period of time that lurid plastic items are capable of giving pleasure to dolls and the boys that love them.

But the lesson we learned was that if you give Barbie wheels, you've also got to watch her like a hawk. A year or so after that Christmas, when neither the nephew or I were paying attention, Barbie and her entourage skipped town and have never been seen or heard from again. Rumor has it that Girlfriend loaded Ken, Pepper and pink outfits for all into her Mini-Van (Skipper grabbed a thong before decamping from the Dream House) and moved to Florida, where we are told that they are living happily ever after in Barbie's South Beach Dream Condo. Rumor has it they have started a retro-disco club called Dream Club Barbie, that features a mirror ball and standards from the pre-AIDS era like "Last Dance" and "It's Raining Men." Or maybe they're in LA, or the Castro. We're not sure. When my nephew is a little older, say eighteen, we're going to go and take a look for ourselves.


Anonymous said...

What's really sad is when you think Barbie might have some class. My goddaughter had a Christmas where all she wanted was what her mother called putrid pink plastic. It was gross.

But I'm glad to hear that your nephew's Barbie & co. escaped to Florida. She's definitely a bit more assertive than she was in my day.

Morgan said...

I am fairly ambivalent about Barbie, because of her role in my own childhood, but if you didn't catch this when it was originally written, this NYT article was brought to mind by your entry:

dr said...

The NYT article morganleigh linked to was just outstanding. What strikes me about Barbie now is that she's losing ground to the generalized "princess" phenomenon and so seems to be trying to make herself over in their image.

Anonymous said...

Butch lesbian mom trying to talk her 6 year old out of Barbie purchase...
Daughter: I know her feet are too small, and her breasts are too big, but she is just a DOLL, Mama!!

True story from the wilds of San Francisco

Anonymous said...

Ho ho ho. I'm afraid Barbie's too uncool for the little girls these days. I have little nieces, 5 and 7 years old, and they absolutely love "Bratz." The princess image is now for girls 3 years old and under. Now, they mimic these Bratz dolls who love clothes, make up, shopping and boys. I've had to sit through 3D movies and video games... it's unbelievable.

Zenith junior

GayProf said...

Oh.My.God. This is my favorite entry of yours ever, ever.

Possibly my favorite sentence: Whereas at our age, the cake would be the object of extensive critique, and probably a special issue of Social Text.

The whole thing worked, though, from top to bottom.

I agree with Zen, Jr., however. Barbie is out now. It's all about the Bratz. Apparently Barbie just didn't lead enough of a consumer lifestyle for the modern generation.

Gorgon said...

As a lesbian who used to play with Barbies and had a blast doing so, I wonder if it is really so damaging to children. I almost never thought about how pretty Barbie was and I wasn't - instead my friends and I made Barbie one powerful woman: she ruled over Ken with an iron fist, eventually divorced him and drove off with Skipper in the Malibu car. Barbie was more of an extension of our psyches - she was the strong, powerful woman we all wanted to be.

Anonymous said...

The year we decided, after much discussion, to give our daughter a Barbie, was the same year she got a gorgeous set of wooden blocks. Daughter spent the better part of the day using the blocks to build "Barbie Dungeons" (her term) which were designed to collapse (amid loud shrieks) on the Barbie within.

Worked for me.

Second daughter is now in the "putrid pink plastic" stage (love that phrase!). My impression is that this is just something little girls have to work through. If the feminist parent doesn't make a big deal about it, it can pass fairly painlessly.

Anonymous said...

I agree with a couple of other commenters -- it's not that a child is playing with Barbies; it's how the child is playing with Barbies. My daughter acts out plays and stories with her dolls, and then writes it down. Her Barbies serve as first draft to her imagination. They have also added to the humor around the family, and act as insight into her thoughts. Once, after watching a particularly talky art movie (think Checkhov in Chinese), she gave as her review that she "would never act that out with my Barbies." Now as she continues her Jane Austen phase (thank you Keira!) she writes elaborate sequels. And to her mother's amusement, only GI Joe will do for Mr Darcy.

Imagination si'; fashion no.

But I am a bit troubled that some would decide that any toy is okay for one gender and not another. Isn't that exactly the attitude that modern parents hope to avoid?