Reflections on Barbie Dolls

I think my first cognizant feelings of sexual titillation came to me when playing with my Barbie dolls, that overwhelming need to know just what it was Ken hid under that molded plastic sheath, how it held him in so tight that he never needed underwear (how I never could find out if Ken wore boxers or briefs). I guess molding Ken to his body was the liberated woman's revenge, the answer to the chastity belt. Ken never fit in Barbie's clothes, either, not well at least. Sure you could put him in a skirt if it were long enough and you didn't snap it, and he had a turtleneck that certainly matched, and he could carry a handbag, but it wasn't the same. And it didn't hide the fact that matching genitals didn't make Ken the same as Barbie. They were just hiding something from me, and I knew that.

Did Ken set a standard that is as hard for men to meet as Barbie's standard is for women? Did G.I. Joe set the standard men wanted to follow, and Ken set the standard women expected? Do women expect men to go clothes shopping with them the way Ken went with Barbie? To sit through movies and cry at the sad parts? Ken would ride in Barbie's pink convertible with that smile on his face, loving every minute of her company, never once worried about what the guys would think. Ken would hang out with Barbie and her girlfriends instead of hanging out at the bar with his buddies. Of course, in retrospect, this might be because it was tough to be the only guy in the bar who couldn't use the urinals, but girls grew up thinking it was because Ken was sensitive, a real man with one heck of a set of chest and shoulder muscles. And he never had a hair out of place...that was molded just like everything else. When your little hand mirrors don't actually reflect, this is as it should be, even if your hair is yellow. How else could he style it? And men weren't supposed to obsess about their hair, it was just supposed to be there. It was the California Sun-In look, hair held down by the water Ken had just left, wowing all the girls on the beach before going to sit with his beloved Barbie. Why didn't they make a Speedo for Ken? Because he would have looked more ridiculous in his attempts to fill it out than the average man would...that darn molding again and again, always holding him back, always cursing Barbie with a little sister instead of a little baby of her own. What have our toys done to us?

I think Barbie had implants. It isn't the size so much as the perkiness. If you have big breasts and never wear a bra, you sag. If you have big breasts, eventually you sag even if you wear a bra. That's not genetic, it's gravity. Barbie's breasts practically floated in the air. Either they were implants or she had a secret store of helium that never ran dry. The saddest thing about Barbie is that she had an effect on girls, too, just like Ken did. Pretty, peppy, no PMS, always smiling...she could be a doctor, a teacher, a librarian, and still look like a runway model when she went out to celebrate with Ken. Did Barbie ever stop smiling? Never. Did she ever get bloated, water retention, a cramp in her back from carrying around that hefty bosom? Never. Barbie was perfect. Blonde hair, blue eyes, tall, thin and plastic. Barbie was plastic, maybe a little rubber thrown in...that's the part the dogs always liked to chew, the rubber legs. If you didn't have Barbie's looks, even just the head looks, you felt inadequate. Imagine being cursed with red hair? Or brown hair? Or brown eyes, pale skin, dark skin? Most of us don't look like Barbie.

Little boys liked to cut Barbie's hair when they fought with little girls. If they were particularly malicious or angry, they would rip Barbie's head completely off (probably unspoken revenge for the bobbitization of Ken). Did the little boys who decapitated Barbies end up as serial killers or rapists? Has anyone ever done a study on this? I wouldn't be surprised if there were some sort of correlation. If you went into a penitentiary and visited every one of the Death Row inmates and asked them whether, as a child, they maimed Barbie dolls, would a higher percentage of those men say yes than, for example, members of our House or Senate? Or is this an unfair comparison? Perhaps the subjects of the study have to be more different from one another.

Now toys have grown up...we never watched Barbie and Ken on television, we just made up our own little games about them. Today you can buy toys based on the television shows you watch. The women are perhaps more unrealistic than Barbie, scary though that thought is. They aren't slender with big bust like Barbie, they're muscular, more muscular than Ken was, and still they have big, perky breasts. They are more likely to have an unearthly shade of hair and dress in quasi-futuristic garb, so in that sense perhaps they aren't as psychologically damaging, but in another sense, when you play with a character whose personality is dictated to you on a television show, is that healthy play? Why can't we have heroes that reflect who we are as Americans in this day and age? Why do we not have a Slugboy? Able to ingest seven cartons of fries in one sitting without a single burp. Why do we not have Mr. Couch Potato? Instead of changing his face, you squeeze his imaginary remote control to change channels. Why don't we have the Fast Food Goddess? Able to recite the price list at every fast food outlet within a ten mile radius, and give you driving directions without consulting a map.

In some ways I miss my Barbies. I don't wear ballgowns when I clean the house. Okay, I don't really clean the house as often as I should, but I don't wear ballgowns when I do (although I have hung sheet rock in heels before). Barbie never had to clean house. Barbie never had to sit up with a sick child or comfort a hurting friend. Barbie was just Barbie. Ken was just Ken. I think, perhaps this very night, I'm going to sit and try to play with Barbie dolls again. I find that as I've aged, I've lost that ability to play, to invent imaginary dialog between synthetic plastic friends, but I want to get it back. I want to return to the time when the biggest problem a woman, Barbie, had was trying to get her shoes to stay on her molded plastic feet, a place where the clothes always fit and always looked good, a place, I really don't want to go back there. Plastic life is plastic. Real life...real life is where I am. Imperfect, crabby at times, silly at other times (way too silly), I'm not Barbie, I'm not married to Ken, and you know what? That's okay.

Copyright 2001 Lisa Christine Svenson