With the Barbie movie off the charts, which I just saw and loved for its campiness and sweet message for Barbie and Ken to accept their ordinariness and autonomy, I thought I’d share an essay that I wrote around 2005 at 55 years old.
I was born mid-century in a time of “sex kittens”…Marilyn Monroe, Ann-Margret, Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren, Raquel Welch, and Playboy Bunnies. I wonder if Barbie had morphed from the 50s obedient, well-dressed wife with pearls and an apron to a sexy autonomous femme fatale. Then later, with women’s liberation arriving at the forefront, Mattel attempted to make Barbie and her counterparts more respectable in the working world…yet still sexy.
I first laid eyes on her in Albin’s Toy Store in Burbank, California. I was at first repelled then fascinated by her exotic appearance. I had never seen anything like her—tall, long blond hair, willowy thin, with long legs, thin delicate hands and feet and large breasts that were accentuated by her tiny waist. She seemed so poised, so self-assured, like she held some forbidden secret. I knew then I had to have her.
Who knows how long I waited or obsessed, but she became mine around 1960. Finally, I had this mysterious beauty to myself. Ah, Barbie, so exotic, so delicate, and so different from any other doll I had ever seen. She held a sensuous eroticism for this pre-pubescent girl. It gave me great pleasure to dress her in chic ensembles…quite expensive at the time…that hugged her curves as I readied her for the perfect job, playful event or glamorous evening with that special guy, which for me at that time was Richard Chamberlain as Dr. Kildare.
After awhile, I felt like something was missing. I felt Barbie was lonely living in the cardboard and dinner tray penthouse I had constructed for her next to my bed. My other dolls and play characters were far beneath her stature. After all, they were baby dolls, prepping me for motherhood…that I would oddly not aspire to. But Barbie…she was yet an unfathomable anomalie amidst a growing child’s play world…and she needed company.
Then Ken appeared on the scene. The prince had arrived to break the spell and rendezvous with his princess, but Ken was no match for Barbie either. He had no redeeming features to warrant her devotion. No genitals, no large muscles, nothing out of proportion. Then to complicate matters, Ken’s short, felt-like hair started scratching off in places. I was devastated by this flaw and tried using brown shoe polish to cover the bald spots.
I made a nice bed for them in hopes of igniting some mystery, and Mom made a pretty nightgown for Barbie to wear. I set the scene for their first night together. Ah, that proverbial first night destined to be forgotten. I can remember pressing their stiff, unyielding plastic bodies together to no avail. There was no way to entwine arms and legs. They just didn’t fit. So, I resigned to having them sleep rigidly side by side like platonic friends or couples who have been married too long.
Though Ken was a disappointment, I savor the memory of holding Barbie, that anorexic Jayne Mansfield, like a scepter in my hand and feeling seduced by some strange feminine power.
Barbie, where are you? Now into middle age (actually beyond), I have this sweet and perverse longing to have my Barbie back. She’d be middle aged, too, and probably worth a lot, but she wouldn’t be for sale. I’d display her as a talisman, a token of some fractured myth, of some other time, of some innocent longing to become…perfect, powerful…or autonomous?
My mother loved dolls and may have felt disappointed that I lost interest in them when I finally laid Barbie aside and turned my longings towards more bestial creatures, like boys. Mom saved all my “sweet-faced” dolls, coveting them for the children I would never have. The dolls now lie forgotten, some limbless, some unclad in a box in my garage. My mother’s own special china-faced doll whom she named Virginia Valentino (after Rudolph, the dark, Italian sex symbol of the 1920s), rests among the relics, but not my beloved, sensuous Barbie, who disappeared along the wayside.
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Many years later I would rediscover my Barbie in the likes of a White Tara statue I was gifted from Nepal and which was blessed by a Rinpoche. She’s gold, scantily clad with beautiful jeweled adornments. She appears strikingly similar to a black-haired Barbie with a mysterious and gentle smile, slender arms and waist and her hands in divine offering mudra. In Buddhism, Tara is the goddess of mercy and the protector from suffering. Maybe my innocent heart saw in original Barbie this archetypal feminine energy…powerful and wise unto herself…that I wished to one day embody.