Sunday, November 01, 2009

Imaginations made doll larger than life

Barbie qualified for her AARP card this year and so many people wish she'd just retire already.

Feminists I know have told me that Barbie is as diabolical today as when she was introduced in 1959.

They say she is a blonde bombshell that has a figure no human woman could (or should) achieve.

They blame her, in part, for the self-loathing women of a womanly size have manifested in these last five decades. They say she trivializes, objectifies and subverts women and reinforces superficial goals: Fun, sun and plastic surgery.

Her critics have long portrayed her measurements, if recreated in a flesh and blood woman, would create a freakish fem unable to support the weight of her own top half.

The argument over a doll with a perpetual smile and vaguely vacant gaze has been so intense that social scientists have subjected her to formal study.

Turns out that while it may be true a real-life Barbie would be roughly 6 feet tall and 100 pounds, it isn't true that her human-scale proportions — 39"-22"-29" — would make it impossible for her to stand without toppling over. Barbie the doll may not be able to stand without a pre-adolescent girl clutching her around the middle, but her human equivalent would certainly be able to stand unaided, provided she was capable of walking in heels.

Scientists also claim that the likelihood of a real-life Barbie existing is one in a million, which means there are at least eight of them in New York City alone.

Of course, I never really thought I'd be defending Barbie.

I wasn't a childhood fan. In my teenage know-it-all-ness, I likely spewed the same unverified facts in pontificating my self-righteousness.

But I did have a use for Barbie. Many of the girls I wanted to be friends with loved her. They had collections and clothes and whole little worlds mapped out in their tiny bedrooms. Barbie was a model, a veterinarian, a rocket scientist and a teacher. Ken was on the periphery, an accessory, a eunuch.

Yet, aside from bottle-blonde hair and the trappings of financial wealth — the condos, the cars, the Malibu excursions — Mattel didn't really sell what Barbie was to so many girls who loved her: imagination, catharsis, escape.

When our parents argued with one another; when our best friends forever found new best friends forever; when everything seemed to be going haywire, Barbie was stable and unchanged. Barbie, with her beatific gaze and perpetual smile, was safe.

She was more than a model, a career girl or jet-setter of our imaginations. She was the inanimate friend who sat with us and took us places as our own tiny worlds were temporarily on hold.

I look over at my daughter as she sits buckled into her seat on the plane holding the pink, ballerina Barbie she begged me for at the terminal. For the entire flight the leggy, plastic beauty danced on the tray-table stage in front of her.

I can only imagine, as these girls grow into adulthood, there will come a time when they'd like to just go back to their childhood rooms and just sit and "play Barbies" for a while.

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