Friday, July 21, 2023

life in plastic

I was definitely a Barbie fan as a kid, probably from around the time I first noticed that toys and clothes were a thing. While my interest in other kinds of dolls waxed and waned, Barbie was different. It was more about being Barbie and slogging her through outfit changes and dramatic scenes. Setting up the intricate townhouse with the string operated-elevator and the vinyl pool set that came with tiny plastic beach balls and suntan lotion. Less about treating her like a doll to be mothered, though I did this to some degree with Cabbage Patches later on. That kind of mothering never took (obviously) but the fascination with Barbie and her wardrobe did. Christmases from around ages 5-12 were filled with requests for Barbies and Barbie accouterments, including that lopsided cardboard townhouse that eventually warped from humidity and fell apart (a far cheaper alternative to the dream house, which probably should have taught me about real estate and economics early on.)

Still, those years were an endless trail of Barbie, from gold glitzy lame-clad Babie to roller skating Barbie (and Ken). Barbies with magical perms and long hair you curled with a strangely large and violent plastic contraption. Rocker Barbies in neon. Off-brand Barbies whose legs didn't bend but we'd buy them anyways, largely because there were so many clothes carted around in our pink vinyl cases you needed an army of Barbies to wear them. You had the newer and more pristine Barbies and you had the Barbies who had seen some shit--shorn, taken in the bathtub, heads popped off and stuck crudely back on. The one inexplicably missing an arm or leg. I went through a stage around age 6 where Barbie's legs were always in my mouth, my teeth gnawing her slender feet enough to leave marks and some cases, go straight through to the bone. 

My sources for clothes were multiple, including a huge stash of clothes and dolls inherited from my older cousins from the 70s and a woman who lived across the street who sewed the most exquisite and tiny doll clothes and sold them at craft fairs. I occasionally got her missteps and her cast-offs, including a cool tiny floral sleeping bag I adored.  Occasionally my mom would buy them from her or swap them for the bisque-painted animals and figures my mom worked on and sometimes sold with her at the fairs (we also got a second-hand guinea pig from her when her teen daughter moved out). These were beautiful and detailed in amazing fabric, denim, and furs, and nothing like what Barbie was getting in the stores. I never really wanted the career-driven Babies--the doctors and astronauts. I wanted the most pink and glamorous, the most outfitted in tulle and satin. Who cared about careers when your wardrobe was fabulous.

We eventually had a lot of collective Barbie stuff between the two of us as my sister got older. Cars and beauty counters and swimming pools filled with water we were forbidden to play with in the house lest we spill it. Luxe canopy beds that Barbie barely fit into. Lots of random single shoes and a pair of red cowboy boots. While my interest was waning as I ended elementary school, we still sometimes hauled them out and at least dressed them stylishly and proposed intricate soap opera-like dramatics before abandoning them for something else. Once, under the direction of a girl loosely related by marriage through my aunt and uncle, I'm pretty sure there was some sort of nekkid Barbie orgy and possibly a murder that was great fun and had us in hysterics. There were boys that were the offspring of my parents' bowling partners who broke the elevator and a pillar in my townhouse and convinced me at age 9 I'd never live with boys. You know, the usual stuff. 

I don't think I quite understood that Barbie's body was amiss, that the strangely proportioned monstrosity meant for the male gaze and teetering on her tiptoes was supposed to be the "ideal" body. But then again, you got that shit everywhere. I think by the time my own body issues were kicking in, I was barely paying any attention to Barbie at all and there are probably far more sinister and immediate things to blame for the afflictions of girls and their bodies in the 1980s. Like the new pediatrician who urged my mother at 10 to put me on a diet to lose 20 pounds thus beginning a decade and a half of dysfunctional dieting. At least Barbie was shown as an independent woman with career ambitions, which I probably never realized was as subversive as it was for the time We were, after all,  just a decade or so out of women actually being able to have credit cards without husband approval.  Everyone always talks now about "main character energy" and I don't think we realized quite how much Barbie had. While she was often paired with Ken, she was just as often not. I think there was a Barbie friend that had a kid (or maybe I hallucinated it) but Barbie, despite lavish fantasy wedding dresses, was always a single girl and independent--also probably far more revolutionary than we thought. 

The coolest things I am seeing about the movie, which we are hoping to get to see in theaters, though I may have to go it alone or just wait til streaming due to J's schedule, is that it seems to include everyone in on the Barbie train. not just statuesque blondes, but people of all races, body types, etc, all the main characters of their own stories. To Barbie, I may own my storytelling acumen and flair for dramatic plots, but also my interests in clothes and fashion since I too like to dress up for no good reason, and in fact, bought a Barbie pink sundress just lack week just in case we make it to the theater or just to wear out. I've often wondered if there was a writer Barbie what would she be wearing? Her accessories? No doubt a tiny bottle of Advil and a notebook with tiny page? A tiny laptop and cup of Starbucks? Self-doubt and imposter syndrome?