Barbie: 50 Years of Inspiration

BlogHer Original Post

Back in December, I opened the Amazon homepage and was greeted by this:

What's Your Favorite Barbie Memory?
Over the past 50 years, Barbie has filled homes with memories and inspired millions of children to dream--to see themselves as astronauts, rock stars, doctors, fashion designers, professional athletes, and even female Presidents. Shop the Barbie Store for great deals just in time for the holidays.

Gah! I swear that must be James Bond Villainess Barbie! It is so evilly insipid and scary, I can easily imagine it luring James Bond Ken into bed ("Hello, Mr. Bond," it says with a Russian accent as it removes its top. "Would you like to heat up this new cold war?") and then trying to bludgeon him with a frozen Chicken Kiev.

That said, I loved Barbies until I was nine or ten years old, which was several years beyond my peers' interest in playing dolls. In second grade, I received the Barbie Dream House and the Dream Store as gifts for Hanukkah, and I went to town setting up the store on the first floor of the house. I liked combing my various Barbies' hair, dressing her in glamorous dresses and stiletto shoes that inevitably fell off her feet and got lost in my bedroom carpet until I found one by stepping on it barefoot and driving a mini hole in my sole, and, in the later years, assisting Ken in scoring. It is almost sad how much interest my penis-less Ken had in humping my ultra smooth Barbies.

Somehow I don't think Amazon wants me to share my memories of the sound of hard plastic hitting hard plastic as Ken and Barbie went at it. However, Sensibly Sassy's Two Cents celebrates the 50th birthday of Barbie in a more positive fashion, and invited people to share their Barbie stories:

I loved Barbie and I had many reasons for doing so. My main reason for being a Barbie girl was the hope she instilled in my young mind, with Barbie as a role model I could be anything. I would walk down the Barbie isle in amazement as she would don a space suit, a veterinarian's lab coat or look stunning in floor length ball gown. Barbie was an example to me and other girls, that you could be feminine and smart and pursue your dreams, whatever they may be. And while Ken was a part of the picture, he wasn't the entire picture. The emphasis wasn't on him, it was on Barbie and her dreams... In fact, this year is Barbie's 50th Anniversary of inspiring fun and dreams.

In her Barbie birthday post, Traci Keel supports Barbie,shares a photo of her daughter with the newfangled Barbie Dream House (man, those things have gotten much more elaborate since I had one in 1983! - if I were a truly snarky and horrible person, I would wonder when the bank was going to foreclose on it...), and shares some interesting Barbie facts before her conclusion:

So, my question is this: Why does a woman like Barbie who has impacted history, juggled the demands of a professional career, maintained staggering physical beauty, and managed a storybook romance ... find it necessary to go to work in hot pants and a midriff-baring t-shirt?

Really, you must see the picture that Traci shares. I can only imagine what the other employees are decked out in. In that vein, Blog O' Beth finds Barbie to be a bad role model for girls, but still lets her daughter play with the doll:

At the time my mother's dislike of the Barbie puzzled me but now I get it. Barbie is a stunning symbol of a misogynistic society that continually is reinforcing that the ideal woman should be skinny, have big boobs, blond hair and walk in high heels. I'm horrified by her sheer existence....

I'll let Lucy play with Barbie because I know Barbie can't overshadow my desire to raise an empowered, strong, confident, independent woman. I know this because Barbie never once overshadowed my mother.

But what kind of lessons did Barbie really teach? Whenever I confess about my Barbies' deviant behaviors (ie - she liked sex with Ken!), other women tell me that their Barbies did, too. It's interesting, although not surprising, that a lot of girls had their Barbies and Kens engage in sexual activities. We live in a culture saturated by images of sex and sexuality. If Barbie wasn't supposed to be knocking boots, then why would she have do-me heels, mini skirts, and giant boobs? (Of course, it's more complicated than that, but that's the message we get.) I am particularly impressed by Bryna's confession. Her Barbie house was a pancake house by day, whore house at night. Hilarious.

All of this reminds of me of a short story I ready by AM Homes when I was in high school. I was in my early stages of rabid feminism, and on a tear about Barbie and how bad she was for girls because of her unrealistic body and consumerist bent. A friend gave me an anthology of stories that we related to Barbie, and one of them was A Real Doll by Homes. In summary, a teenage boy has sex with his sister's Barbie and Ken dolls. (Separately, not as a threesome. To paraphrase George Michael, sex is better when it's one human on one doll.) It is a demented tale of sexual obsession with elements of unrelated torture and ideas of feminine sexuality and body image. (It's also fabulous, as is everything by Homes.)

I was completely disturbed and utterly fascinated by Homes's take on how girls use their Barbies, and realized how normal I was in comparison. Now that I know that other people played Barbie whore house, I'm a little disappointed in myself. Despite my love of the Barbie Dream Store and all of the consumer-oriented Barbie products that I wanted, I guess I never had the capitalist instincts in me to think about how Barbie could profit by exploiting penisless Ken's lust. Nor did I have the technology to make a Barbie porno (complete with a commercial!) and share it with the world,as a few teen girls were clever enough to do before it was removed from YouTube. (I am very sad about this, as it was a brilliant satire.)

Whether you love her, hate her, or just want to dress (or undress) her, it's only fair to wish Barbie a happy 50th birthday! The lady's been through a lot, even if she doesn't look like it. May Barbie to continue to inspire kids in ways both positive and deviant - the most feminist principle I can think of - for many more years!

Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants. (Barbie definitely does not fit into that campaign!) Her first book, Off the Beaten (Subway) Track, is about unusual things to see and do in NYC.

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