Tell Me Your Barbie Story

So, I can’t sleep because I’m very worried about my mom right now. I won’t bore you with details; she’s okay for the moment but a lot is weighing on my heart.
The upshot is, you get a post about Barbie dolls.
Yes, Barbie dolls. Inspired by Keet & Nini, whose site I found by way of Astrodyke. Thank you, Astrodyke!
The stuff about Barbies is in this post at Keet & Nini’s. Keet talks about her daughter loving Disney princesses and playing with Barbies, and reminisces about the other girls in her high school Science Club. She concludes:

I wonder what they are doing now, and hope whatever it is brings them joy and prosperity, and I wonder if any of them have daughters and are the daughters playing in pink rooms with Disney princesses and Barbies? We all did. I’m going to guess they had zero negative effect on our geeky, feminist tendencies. Maybe I should lighten up!

Ah, Barbie! How many hours of my youth I devoted to you!
I would like to tell you some of my Barbie stories. And then you can tell me yours.


Now, I know when little girls play with Barbie, they are supposed to be absorbed in dressing and re-dressing Barbie, mixing and matching her outfits and her shoes and just being totally enraptured with the endlessly fascinating world that is Barbie’s wardrobe. And my little sister and I did our fair share of playing the Barbie-clothes sorts of games. But, we also made up stories for our Barbies to act out. They were not always, shall we say, your typical Barbie-pink kinds of stories.

BARBIE STORY #1
When I was a child, the Vietnam war was featured nightly on the news, along with war protesters. My sister and I used to cuddle up with my beloved grandfather in his big comfy chair to watch the news with him. We didn’t completely understand the news, but there was often a reward for sticking it out. Sometimes, he’d send us to get an Oh Henry! candy bar for him, and then one for us, so it was worth the effort. (Sometimes we had to wait till Gunsmoke came on to get the candy bar.) All that news-watching had an effect on us, though, which came out in Barbie-land. We had commandeered my brother’s G.I. Joe doll – excuse me, action figure – not long after he’d gotten it. We used him as an extra boyfriend because we only had one Ken doll. But having a soldier doll, combined with that nightly news viewing…well…Barbie and Ken and Midge and some other random Barbies were at the prom. G. I. Joe was supposed to be Midge’s date but he was late getting home from the war. Everybody was wondering when G.I.Joe would get there and eagerly anticipating his return. Suddenly, G.I. Joe showed up! Crazed from his war experiences, G.I. Joe rampaged through the prom with his gun, and kidnapped Barbie. Escaping in the Barbie camper, G.I. Joe threatened to kill Barbie. Ken risked his life, overpowered G.I.Joe, and rescued Barbie. G.I. Joe committed suicide. Everyone mourned him because he had been a good kid before the war.
I suppose this story says something about the influence of t.v. on young children. Or, it’s just another illustration that young kids understand more about what’s going on than adults give them credit for.

BARBIE STORY #2
This Barbie game we played only when my cousin came to visit. I don’t know why; I suppose because it was her invention. Our Barbies were witches with magical powers to do whatever they wanted. Of course, they had fabulous wardrobes because they could have any clothes they wanted. But most importantly, they could make their boyfriends behave however they wanted. So – the Barbie-witches’ boyfriends did all the dishes, cooked all the meals, cleaned the house, and waited on the Barbies hand and foot.
Yes, the most fantastical use of magical powers we could come up with was to reverse gender roles.

BARBIE STORY #3
I had a Skipper doll that I really liked because she was new and not a hand-me-down Barbie, and her outfits were all intact. But ultimately she did not satisfy because her dramatic potential was limited, her not being an adult. She could not be expected to rob banks, shoot anyone with G.I.Joe’s gun, or even drive the getaway vehicle (the redoubtable Barbie camper).


BARBIE STORY #4
We never thought much about the fact that Barbie, Midge, and Ken were all white. I can’t remember when I saw my first Black Barbie, but I know it was well after I was out of my Barbie-playing years. I vaguely remember my niece wanting a Black Barbie and certain family members trying to tell her that Black Barbie was “not for her”. I ran across this site about a child’s science fair experiment to find out which Barbie people thought was prettier, a white or black Barbie. For a child, it’s an impressive experimental design, and the results are intriguing. (I imagine the parents gave her some guidance on this, since the idea for the experiment originated with them.) When she put up her results at the science fair, however, the school made her take them down within an hour. I suppose they could not imagine discussing race with elementary school children – and yet, taking down the exhibit was a discussion of sorts, too; one that says “this is a topic we don’t talk about”. (The experiment was done in the 2000-2001 school year.) The interpretation of the results given on the site is that children prefer what they see most often, but adults learn or “grow out of” prejudice. I wonder, however, if social desirability bias might be an influence on results.
I think I would like to say, that I am nervous about discussing that web site in this post. Because it is difficult to discuss race. I’m white, and I am often afraid that I will inadvertently give offense. This fear can keep us from wanting to even talk about race (or gender, or class, or sexual orientation, or…) So the deal I will make on this blog is that I will try to approach issues where I am a holder of privilege respectfully, and if I give offense, I expect to be called out. And if I am, I will try to respond respectfully, not defensively.
What’s the summary of my Barbie stories? I think Barbie is less important than the rest of the home environment. Kids take what is around them and project it onto Barbie, not the other way around. Or at least that’s how it was when I was young. Hard to say how it is today, with the loathsome Bratz dolls on the scene now.
If you crave more Barbie lore, you may be interested in Mondo Barbie.
Okay, now I must really try to sleep. Tell me your Barbie stories!

  1. blf
    August 14, 2007 at 5:34 am

    From The Guardian (6th October 2004), The Queen is dead:

    … an interloper has stepped in to imperil Barbie’s $3.6bn annual turnover and the welfare of her 48 pets. The upstart’s name is Bratz, and she is three years old. In 2003, Bratz generated $2.5bn in global revenue and last month secured 45.1% of the British fashion-doll market, making it the No1 bestseller. Barbie has fallen off her plastic throne.

    You can take Cloe, Dana, Jade, Sasha, Yasmin, Fianna, Neura or Meygan home. These dolls are red-, brown- or indigo- haired; just one blonde glares out. Bratz are “multi-ethnic”. There is a black Bratz, an Asian Bratz, and a Eurasian Bratz. …

  2. August 14, 2007 at 7:37 am

    I am the second of three sisters. We had an old Barbie and several new ones. We cut the hair of the old one to about shoulder length, and then we dyed her hair into funky colors using crayola markers. We had some sort of strange name for her: Zeke or Zod or something like that.
    I think they had just started coming out with the multicultural friends of Barbie when I was about 9 or so, and I got her Hawaiian friend “Tropical Miko” (or something like that) who looked more like me — she had brown eyes and dark hair, and her skin may have been a little darker than Barbie’s. Of course she was still anatomically improbable, as they all are.
    We never had any Kens, because Ken was super lame. But sometimes we would pretend that one of our Barbies was Ken. Mostly “he” would be obnoxious and sexually harass Barbie. (I wonder what that says about my childhood!)

  3. Kate Lee
    August 14, 2007 at 9:04 am

    In the beginning, my Barbies lived in the wilderness. They spent a lot of time outside. They were vicious. This one time all the Barbies ganged up on this one Barbie and they buried her in the mud, but she came back strong and in the end they were all friends. We didn’t have any Ken dolls, so they were all lesbians. I think that part is pretty funny – as a child, I decided that Barbies needed love, and if there were no Kens around to do the lovin, other Barbies would be just fine.
    All things change, though, and eventually this Barbie paradise had to be controlled. I found a particular Barbie in my cousin’s basement, and it was the UGLIEST barbie, so I thought… it had weird red hair and huge purple/blue eyemakeup. The first step was naturally to pull off its head and push the head down on its body so that it had no neck. This was how we made Barbies look ‘fat’. Then I named it “Kate” after myself. Kate had a special voice that she used and a special face that we made when we played with her. She took over the entire Barbie community. All the girls got enslaved and had to do all Kate’s chores for her.
    We also acquired a Ken doll around this time, who was actually the Beast from Beauty and the beast, and Kate locked him up in a tower so no one but her could get to him. He was a jerk, though. He spoke with a French accent and was a little slow. One of the other barbies (The “Princess Leia” barbie, I think!) was having a secret affair with him, but most of the girls were happy doing chores and being in love with each other.

  4. August 14, 2007 at 10:07 am

    We never had any Kens or GI Joes–which was fine, because my Barbie was married to Andy Gibb. Who was always away, touring y’know. Probably just as well.
    My Barbie wasn’t a real Barbie–my sister’s was, but I wanted a brown-haired doll, so mine was some kinda knockoff. Oh, and all our barbies wore ponchos, because that was all we could figure out how to make for them. I think we dressed them in tissues when they were being doctors–which isn’t a terrible approximation of scrubs, really.

  5. August 14, 2007 at 10:54 am

    I acted out a lot of stories with my Barbie dolls, and enjoyed dressing them up. But once I reached junior high, my friend and I decided we had had it with their improbable bodies and sexist teachings, and we mutilated all our Barbies in one afternoon. We used markers to give them tattoos and dye their hair, but then eventually used scissors to cut them up.
    It was fun.

  6. transgressingengineer
    August 14, 2007 at 2:17 pm

    A friend and I had the barbie discussion a while back in relation to race. I’m white; she self identifies as mixed. I recal her describing the first time she saw a Black barbie doll, where she stood in amasement looking at it. My friend said this was actually a Black doll, not just a white doll painted brown, which is what drew her attention. She described how many of the “Black” barbies she saw had the same facial and body structure of a white barbie doll. This one, however, was actually made with a Black woman’s facial and body structure in mind. The conversation she and I had was an interesting one that I had forgotten about until I read Zuska’s post above about the Black and white barbies in the school experiment.
    I hear you, Zuska, on being weary of posting on race as a white woman for fear of offending others. Lord knows I have put my foot in my mouth many times. What I have found through my many conversations about race is a new understanding of myself as a racial being. Race is a tough topic to discuss- but the conversations are so needed in our society.

  7. Yttrai
    August 14, 2007 at 2:26 pm

    I wasn’t much of a Barbie fan, but once i had them they got into the same trouble as my Star Wars Figures. Granted, the SWF had ships, and we weren’t exactly made of cash, so Barbie and friends did not get store made vehicles, but they sure had a lot of firey crashes and laser gun shootouts in their hovershoeboxes.
    Also, my Barbies were almost totally bought at yard sales, so i never played with Barbies for the outfits. In my case, it was to trick my female friends into playing with me in the same manner as i was accustomed to playing with the Star Wars gang.
    😀

  8. mmarchin
    August 14, 2007 at 3:06 pm

    To echo the familiar themes above:
    One barbie’s hair we cut short was called Spike, and for some reason, she was always naked. I think we didn’t want to use up good clothes on her.
    I’m familiar with the “fat neck” procedure described above.
    One theme I remembered was “our parents died and we have to take care of ourselves”.
    There was lots of intrigue, and I remember making barbie and Ken kiss by mashing their faces together.
    That was a great topic.

  9. LJG
    August 14, 2007 at 3:54 pm

    I remember playing Barbies with one childhood friend who had a zillion clothes for her and multiple Barbies but no Ken. We are both white, but I remember she had the Hawaiian Barbie and I was so jealous because I wanted to have long black straight hair and green eyes too! We spent the entire play-time together dividing up the clothes and making up the plot – sometimes mystery (we both loved Encyclopedia Brown books), sometimes who our boyfriends were and why they weren’t there (usually we were doctors or explorers and our boyfriends lived in different countries), sometimes we were teenagers who could do what we wanted. We spent so much time dividing up the clothes and determining the plot that we never actually got around to playing it out!

  10. usagi
    August 15, 2007 at 3:05 am

    The 5th Annual Altered Barbie Show
    Sometimes, it doesn’t suck that the neighborhood’s gentrified.

  11. jjj
    August 15, 2007 at 1:42 pm

    My main Barbie memories are of my grandmother making clothes for my Barbie–she sewed clothes that matched some of my older sister’s clothes, and also crocheted beautiful ensembles for Barbie, many of which I still have.
    But my favorite Barbie story is the story a friend of mine tells. We’ve known each other since high school (in our small midwestern towns of origin) and he came out during college, which his parents (now deceased) never accepted. He was sorting through his things a number of years ago when his parents were moving out of his childhood home, and came across his Ken dolls. He had a little carrying case for them, and the two Ken dolls were both in there, facing each other. Just as he opened this case, his mother came into the room. She got a horrified look on her face, and said, “You had TWO Ken dolls?!” and then turned around and left the room. Clearly, she had located her error: she had purchased more than one Ken doll, and the rest was history.

  12. August 15, 2007 at 2:42 pm

    When I was in second grade I had a party. One kid brought me a Barbie as a birthday present. As a 7 year old, I am pretty sure I had not yet mastered the art of grace, because when I opened it he looked a little stricken and said, “I’m sorry – my mom made me give you that,” and he kind of shrugged like, “adults – what’re ya gonna do?”
    After the party I threw barbie in the trash. I never opened her. That was the only barbie I ever owned. On the other hand, the Tonka trucks saw a lot of use.

  13. SuzyQueue
    August 15, 2007 at 7:32 pm

    The Barbies at our house are very adventurous. They each arrived as a present for one of our daughters. The older never liked them so she would trade them away to the younger one. The younger one likes to have Barbie do lots of fun things. We rigged a pocket on her kite so Barbie could go for rides. So far, the emergency parachute design isn’t as good as it should be. Who knew that falling from such a height is survivable but you will plant the doll up to her hips with the right trajectory.
    My son has an ‘action figure’ but it is afraid of heights, doesn’t like water, and needs to be fully dressed at all times – unless the girls get ahold of it. I still remember my son finding the poor doll tied to a tree, naked. He keeps the action figure on a high shelf now so it won’t get hurt.

  14. ERV
    August 15, 2007 at 9:36 pm

    LOL @ Alexis! I only got one doll as a present, and it was met with such a temper tantrum that it never happened again. LOL!
    I played with my friends Barbies, but I didnt understand the point of them. They werent cuddly. I wanted stuffed animals.

  15. Mr. B.
    August 16, 2007 at 1:21 am

    Hmmm…
    Mr. B. has a Barbie doll knock-off.
    He acquired it through an odd set of circumstances. After attending services with Mrs. B. at a Unitarian church, they went to the church basement for a craft fair. There he discovered some tiny handmade Barbie burkhas. And he had to have one. He asked Mrs. B. to please pick up a Barbie for him at a garage sale. To which request she sneeringly replied that even at garage sales, Barbies are very expensive.
    So he picked up a knockoff for fifty cents at a local toy store. The blue burkha’d Barbie now peeks out of a nice blue pot of the correct height. Mr. B. has to keep the Barbie at home, even though he would like to take her to work. Political correctness, don’t you know!
    Once he received a personally autographed picture of George Bush. This in itself is hilarious, because he has only voted once in his life for a Republican. As a joke, he put it up in the lab. You can imagine what happened.
    (Academics really aren’t very tolerant.)
    Ciao, Zuska. I hope you like this story.

  16. Luna_the_cat
    August 16, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    Even as a 6-7 year old, I loathed Barbies — mainly because of the feet. I thought then, as I think now, that prancing around on your tiptoes all the time unreasonably limits the interesting things you are able to do and has got to be stupidly uncomfortable.
    I had a 1972 Skipper doll which I liked much better — she had bendable legs and sensible flat feet, so she could climb and hike, and she wasn’t nearly as vacant-looking as Barbie. She teamed up with a stuffed donkey (“Bright Angel of the Grand Canyon”) and they went mountain climbing and exploring the desert. The number of times she was stranded away from civilisation and had to set traps for small animals and forage for food….
    Actually, I still have both Skipper and Bright Angel, slightly grubby but otherwise in perfect condition. They faced great hardships in the wilderness and covered some challenging terrain, but neither ever got mutilated.

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