On Being a Woman

Today, a woman who has influenced millions of malleable mademoiselles celebrates her 52nd birthday.  With her quiet but changeable nature, she has shown girls around the world how to try on different personas in their journey towards self-discovery.  Sexy, sassy, sweet, confident, career-driven, demure, domestic.  She's been it all!

You might have already guessed that I am not talking about a real, flesh-and-blood woman but a plastic, mammary-enhanced doll-woman.  That's right, I am talking about Barbie!

The doll that has undergone more make-overs (and dye jobs) than Madonna, turns 52 today! 

Becoming the most famous plastic woman in history has been no easy feat. 

I'll be honest here, I wanted to share with you the heart-warming story of a lonely four year old who received her first Barbie.  I wanted to tell you about how this only child, the product of a broken home, took one look at the little blonde doll and felt less alone in the world.  But the truth is...I can't remember getting my first Barbie.  I don't remember who gave her to me or what she looked like.
 I can tell you what I do remember.

Barbie and the Silky Underwear

I remember making a Barbie Townhouse out of empty milk crates and filling it with the most groovy blow-up furniture ever (a Christmas gift from my aunt). 

Evil Knievel Wind-up Bike
I remember how my BFF Bobby Oliver talked me into turning my world-trotting, uber-famous and chic journalist Barbie into a motorcycle stunt woman by tying her to his Evil Knievel wind-up stunt bike (and the nasty, blackish wound she received to her right leg after she fell off the bike and skidded across the pavement). 

And I remember the trouble I got into when I nipped a few pairs of my mother's knickers to make Barbie a silky new gown. 

For me, Barbie is less about the memories and more about the lessons. (Note to self: Milk crates make sturdy but hideous abodes, daredevil antics can leave miserable scars, and no matter how they are fashioned, undergarments make lousy ballgowns.  Cross architect, stunt woman, and couturière off my "Possible Careers" list.)
NOT my haircut, but close

My disastrous attempt at cutting Barbie's hair taught me that I was not destined to follow in the footsteps of my grandmother and mother by becoming a cosmetologist.  Barbie's missing bangs (think Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music) and lopsided locks (Victoria Beckham's asymmetrical bob looked straight as an arrow compared to my botched attempt) proved to me that I lacked the talent (and desire) to become a hairdresser. 

(More important, at the tender age of six, I unearthed a truth that is universally acknowledged by women world-wide: that a woman in possession of a good head of hair must cherish her stylist or run the risk of walking through life looking like a failed lobotomy experiment).

Barbie and Desire

The doll with the slanted, sultry gaze taught me another valuable lesson:  She taught me how it felt to desire.

In the early 1970s, Mattel created a staggering assortment of Barbie paraphernalia, including lingerie, the Barbie Friend Ship (making it so much easier for Barbie to jet to Paris for the weekend), and the Ken and Barbie Disco Stage (for their sexy parties).

It was the Malibu Barbie Country Camper that really turned me on.  Malibu Barbie and her suntanned friends, with their glasses and their towels, in the camper that included a kitchen and pop-out tent made my knees weak with desire.  The moment I saw the commercial advertising that orange plastic love shack on wheels, I knew I had to have it.

Just as Barbie and her Camper taught me about desire, she taught me about denial and disappointment.

Despite my heartfelt pleas (read: incessant whining), my poor, two-job-working mother could not afford high-falutin Ms. Malibu and her camper.  So I was left with my boring, old, regular Barbie, a shoebox with empty toilet paper tubes taped to the bottom, and my dreams of a carefree life on the open road.

The Country Camper Debacle was painful but it taught me an invaluable lesson on desire and denial and disappointment.  It's true, you don't always get what you want, but the clever girl does not let her coveting consume her.  She finds away to reach her goal or she rolls on.  (Trust me, having worked as a professional writer and aspiring novelist for twenty years now, watching my peers succeed where I have yet to achieve, I know a thing or two about desire and disappointment.)

I thought I had gotten over my need for real wheels and accepted the shoebox motorhome life had handed me, and then my best friend Tina Struffalina called to tell me her dad had bought her the Malibu Barbie Country Camper and all its accessories!

"You have to come over and see it!"  she chirped.  

With a melange of sophisticated emotions churning inside my undeveloped chest (excitement, envy - to name but a few), I loaded my Barbie goodies into my red plastic milk crate and lugged it the four blocks to Tina's house.

It's been 35 years since that summer day in Ohio, but I can still see Tina sitting on a checkered blanket on the thick grass in her backyard, a ridiculous smile plastered across her freckled face as she clutched the camper to her chest.

Oh how I coveted Tina Struffalina and her Malibu Barbie Country Camper!  (Ironically, my husband has wanted to buy a camper for twenty years now and the only thing that has stopped him is me and my high-falutin' dreams of vacas spent at the Hiltons in Paris and Rome.  Hopefully, he will not read this blog post and discover my long held, shocking secret: I once coveted a camper)

I was so pea-green with envy, I ended up picking a fight, gathering my Barbie belongings back into my milk crate, and stomping home, tears streaming down my face.

Who needed stupid old, fart-face Tina Struffalina and her Malibu Country Camper anyway?  I didn't even like going over to her pretty, two-storied house with the kitchen stocked full of all the expensive food my mom could not afford (like Nestle Quik and Vienna Finger cookies).  And her stupid brother who rode bikes with her and her mom who was always there.  

I didn't realize it then, wouldn't realize it for years to come, but I envied Tina for far more than her Malibu Barbie Country Camper. I envied her for her seemingly normal, stable life with a mother and father. But perhaps this is a story for another day.

Today, we should just focus on Barbie and what her birth has meant to millions of little girls everywhere!

I would love to know what you think about Barbie.  Do you have a special Barbie memory?  Do you still have your first Barbie doll?  Do you think it is good for girls to play with Barbie?  Does it help them to develop their ideas on what it is to be a woman or does it pervert their budding views on sexuality and gender roles?

Get the scoop on Barbie:
  • The first Barbie wore a black and white zebra-striped swimsuit (Victoria's Secret offers a similar suit in their catalog this year).
  • Mattel sold 350,000 Barbie dolls the first year.
  • Barbie's real name is Barbara Millicent Roberts and she's from Wisconsin, not California (Shocking but true!).
  • Barbie has over a MILLION Facebook fans!
  • Ken and Barbie broke up on Valentine’s Day in 2004 after being together more than 43 years (After the recent Toy Story movie, some speculate it was because Ken was in denial about his sexuality, but the truth is he stole Barbie's Malibu Country Camper and ran off with her little sister Krissy.  They are living in the camper, down by the river in Menominee, Wisconsin.  Fortunately, our bright, forward-thinking Barbie has Ken sign a pre-nup before their wedding.)
  • Happy Birthday Barbie!
Further Reading:


Nancy S. Brandt said...

Being a mere two weeks or so older than Barbie (but six MONTHS younger than Madonna) the plastic temptress has been part of my life always. My dad was in the Army and thus, we were far from wealthy. My favorite memory of Christmas was receiving a hard sided suitcase FILLED with Barbie clothes. And given how small they are, there must have been dozens and dozens of full outfits in there. My mother had made each outfit. We were living on post at Fort Monmouth, NJ at the time. Later, Dad was sent to Turkey, and we moved to a small town in Northern PA, where my mother grew up, and bought a house next door to my cousins. Their parents OWNED a hardware store and the mom was a beautician with a shop in their house. They had Barbie's Dream House and her car. Their Barbies looked like the teenaged daughters of mine. Mine had the tight curled close to the head do.

But, we (my sister and I) always had the best clothes.

Years later, I told my mother I still remembered that gift and how much it meant to me. She looked at me like I was speaking some other language.

"We had no money," she said. "It was all we could afford to give you that year."

Veronique Valentin said...

I did not have Barbie doll when I was growing up, but my sister gave me the Marie Antoinette Barbie a few years ago and I love it!

This was another wionderful blog post, Leah Marie. You have a talented with words.

Fanny said...

First off, I want to wish Barbie a very joyeux anniversaire! :)
This post was so funny, yet, it also made me sad for that little blonde girl who wished for something as simple (to most) as a dad and a "complete" family. I can only imagine how much of a challenge for a little girl it must have been. Maybe it shaped you into becoming the amazing person you are today, and for that, I am thankful!