After years of hearing mothers’ laments about how Barbie poisons young girls’ minds with an unrealistic ideal of womanhood, Mattel created a new line of Barbies with three different body types (short, tall and curvy), 22 eye colors and 24 hairstyles. These are not “friends” of Barbie, but actual Barbies.
I should be rejoicing. But instead, I feel a little disquieted.
It was so much easier to bash Barbie when she was the mean girl from high school with the perfect coif and the impossible bust-line. But seeing her transformation is like running into your nemesis 20 years after graduation in the plus-size aisle at Target and having her bend your ear about her scaring divorce.
I need Barbie to remain ridiculously proportioned and blonde. The uber shiksa with the unobtainable curves. I need her to be that way because – after all these years – I realize that my problem with Barbie wasn’t a problem at all.
As it turns out, I relied on Barbie to be blonde and button-nosed because I needed a foil for my Jewishness. I needed her to represent the ideal for assimilation and the ideal for womanhood, so that I could know what to push back against, as well as what to embrace.
It’s not for nothing that Barbie was created by a Jewish woman. Ruth Handler named the iconic doll after her daughter, Barbara (yes, Handler’s son’s name was Ken). At the time, the dolls were part of the feminist revolution. Barbie had a career, a home, a great car and an amazing wardrobe. And she did it all without a husband.
After a while, though, girls stopped seeing Barbie as a role model and started focusing on her looks. I was one of them.
My kinky brown curls were far more conspicuous contrasted against her silken blonde locks; my olive-toned hands looked ever more brown as I manipulate the perfect peachness of her plastic flesh. In creating my own funkier furniture for her Malibu dream home and letting Skipper take the wheel of Barbie’s Corvette, I could discover how integral “otherness” was to my identity.
What I learned by playing with Barbies is not that I wanted to be a scientist (in high heels) or an astronaut (in high heels) or a doctor (in high heels). It’s that I wanted to be a rebel. The counter-culture Jew girl who never wore a drop of makeup.
In the absence of something to rebel against, what am I?
This is the question that I’m left with now that Mattel has transformed its aspirational symbol of glamor into a panoply of gals who look as though they’re headed to Applebee’s on their lunch break.
It’s a deeply existential question, and one that I’ll have to puzzle over as I decide whether to buy a Barbie for my daughter. But it’s a question I welcome, a puzzle I look forward to solving. After all these years, Barbie has given me something to play with.