I never had a Barbie growing up. I had a single cheap knockoff, but never an honest-to-God Barbie.
All my life, I harbored this notion my parents gave the matter deep thought. Perhaps they considered her an insufficient role model? Or, they feared giving me an inferiority complex. After all, I was a bookish, awkward skinny girl with straight brown hair who had Coke bottle glass by age eight. On a cerebral level, maybe they didn’t approve of the shallow consumerism and lookism that Barbie symbolized.
With the new movie coming out, I asked my mom. “Oh no, they were just too expensive,” she revealed.
Who Can Blame Them?
Mom told me they knew Barbie represented a slippery slope. A single doll didn’t cost that much, but it was like a gateway drug. No doll is an island, so then you had to buy her friends. Then, you have to buy more clothes, then accessories, and before you know it, you’re unboxing a Dream Ski Chalet and new skis for Skipper and Ken and the other hangers on.
They were not wrong. My neighbors, The Stevensons, had five girls. They had it all when it came to Barbie: the pink corvette, the penthouse, the Malibu Dream House and dozens of shoeboxes stuffed with outfits. Barbie shoes littered their house like breadcrumbs left by many desperate children.
I saved up my allowance and bought a Barbie-like doll at Kmart. I had enough for the doll and one outfit. I recall standing for seemingly hours weighing which outfit to buy. If memory serves, I settled on a gold ballgown.
Back at home, I soon tired of having only one costume change for my doll. I asked my mom for money to buy her some more clothes. My ever-practical mother said she’d think about it.
On our next trip to the store, I started to drag her toward the toy section. Instead, she grabbed my hand and guided me into the sewing supplies aisle. “Making clothes for your doll will help you learn how to sew. Won’t that be fun?”
This was so my mother. Like my dad, she was a child raised in the Great Depression. She bought me a sewing kit and a few squares of fabric meant for quilts – as if anyone would even think of dressing a Barbie in calico.
She promised we’d make one outfit together, which we never did (also so my mother), but she did show me how to do a simple running stitch.
I studied the clothes on the Stevenson’s Barbies, and looked at what women wore in movies and on TV. I turned a stained lace napkin into a racy see-through onesie. I made an awkward looking sleeveless Pan Am uniform out of a worn blue pillowcase.
My greatest fashion achievement was turning a discarded fluffy white mitten into a calf-length formal gown that made the doll look like she was wearing a giant marshmallow, replete with matching muffs and booties. It was a daring look, one that would have been either adored or pummeled by judges on “Project Runway.”
Three weeks later, I was ready. I took my doll and her best wardrobe items over to the Stevensons. Their response was the kind of uncharitable mockery you’d expect from a band of Barbie-wielding elementary school girls. My doll was ugly, her clothes were stupid. Their mom made them apologize, which made the whole thing worse. I ran home and cried on my bed for hours.
My dad came home from work first. I showed him my doll. He acted impressed by all the clothes I’d made. Those girls across the street could “go to hell.”
He insisted I hold a fashion show for my mom when she got home. I set up a runway on our Formica kitchen counter. Sipping Boone’s Farm wine, she declared them all the “prettiest doll clothes she’d ever seen.” She noted that now she also knew what happened to that black satin nightie that had gone missing.
A week later, my mother casually offered to buy me a real Barbie. In retrospect, I realize this was fueled by guilt that her earlier refusal had resulted in a traumatic childhood experience. But I’d already moved on.
Instead, I turned to writing stories about Barbies. The first was about a Barbie that came to life and made the girls who owned her cry – a perfect example of art imitating the way I wished life could turn out.
The new Barbie movie debuts on the same weekend as masterful telling of the story of Robert Oppenheimer, the architect of the nuclear bombs. This match-up has generated endless memes, opinion pieces and rants on social media. Many note that despite being an American icon, the doll has never been manufactured in the United States. Others point out that the woman who created her couldn’t get it made — until the Germans made a version first.
The Washington Post notes that perhaps Oppenheimer and Barbie tell the same story, each highlighting a tipping point of collapse from which the world will never recover. After all, Barbie is “a toy that takes more than three cups of oil to produce before it lingers in landfills around the world.”
The story goes into a lot of detail about eras, epochs and ice ages, and I didn’t study geology. But the gist is that the rise of over-reliance on fossil fuels, microplastics and the emergence of a nuclear era are part a larger sum of our eventual demise. That’s about as dark a take on Barbie as you can get.
No Writer or Author Barbie until 2018
I’m glad that I never went down Barbie’s plastic rabbit hole, as my 1970’s-childhood contributed enough to landfills. But I suppose I also never identified with her. I was never going to grow up to be tall, blonde and anatomically incorrect. Plus, she showed little interest in my favorite subject: books.
While Barbie has been an astronaut, doctor, veterinarian, teacher, scientist and many other roles but Mattel never made a “Writer Barbie” or a “Best-Selling Author Barbie” while I was growing up.
Around 2010, they launched “News Anchor Barbie,” close, but not the same. In 2018, Mattel released their first true writer Barbie. Writer and poet Maya Angelou – one of my personal “she-roes” — was honored with a Barbie modeled after her that year as part of its Inspiring Women Series.
That same year, Pioneer Woman food writer/icon Ree Drummond made it into Barbieland, too. And earlier this year, Mattel released a journalist Ida B. Wells Barbie, who exposed the horrors of lynching in the 1800s.
Who can blame Mattel for waiting so long to focus on writers? I sit around in my sweats drinking coffee half the day. Generally, writers aren’t glamorous unless they’re Candace Bushnell of “Sex and the City” fame. But then I wondered, do we need a plastic toy to help us decide who we want to be when we grow up?
Out of curiosity, I used AI photo creators Dall-E and ShutterStock AI to conjure up what “Writer/Author Barbie” might look like. Those are the photos littered throughout this post. I started with a doll that I might identify with, and then expanded to look like the other women author and writer friends.
My mother insists she wasn’t anti-Barbie, her Depression Era mindset preferred spending the money on something else than a vapid blonde clotheshorse. She might have balked at buying me a Barbie, but never once hesitated to buy a book I wanted.
Plus, mom was right. I did teach myself to sew by making clothes for that doll. It turns out, human size clothes are easier.
Note: Images created by Open AI’s Dall-E and ShutterStock AI Generator, except for Maya Angelou doll, courtesy of Mattel. This post contains affiliate links.