Sunday, October 9, 2011

My Mentor, BARBIE

Instead of throwing Barbie a 35th birthday party, feminists have been dissing the popular, petite plaything. Yet far from being a bad role model, Barbie could be a modern girl's dream mentor. O.K., so she does have the equivalent of a 16-inch waist. Over the years, I still learned some very important life lessons from Barbie.

1. Family Is Fundamental: Barbie's my age and, as the long-awaited only girl in a suburban clan of boys, I was Mattel's dream customer. I had 68 Barbies who shared a pink plastic convertible car and split-level condominium, along with 12 Little Kiddles and 28 Dawn dolls so tiny that instead of changing their clothes I just switched their heads.
2. Many Girls Have the Same Name: There were six Susans in my second grade class, which caused two of them, on the first day of school, to run home crying. Not me -- I'd spent my formative years with Talking Barbie, Tropical Barbie, Color Magic Barbie, Twist 'n Turn Barbie, Living Barbie and three Malibu Barbies, which taught me that individuality was determined not by your name but by what special activities you did best.
3. A Shortage of Men Won't Ruin the Party: Whether it was an elaborate prom spread out on the pink carpet or a Barbie beach holiday (where I locked myself in the bathroom and hurled them headfirst into the sink), the guest list always read: red-headed Barbie, Malibu Barbie triplets, cousin Francie, Scooter, Skipper, Casey, Christie, Julia, Stacey (visiting from England), Midge, Dawn, Angie, Twiggy, Ken. I heard there was a Ricky but I could never find him. I did steal my brother's G.I. Joe. But since my father was a doctor, G.I. Joe became an Army surgeon who returned from a long day at the base hospital screaming: "I just saved nine people from fatal heart attacks and you expect me to go to a party later? Don't you women know I'm exhausted?" Thus I realized, way back then, that women have superior social etiquette and most important galas do not require the attendance of guys.
4. Alternative Lifestyles Are Acceptable: In a doll domain with 96 eligible females and Ken, unusual pairings were common. Sometimes Skipper and Scooter slept in the guest room shoe box with Casey. One night I found the Malibu Barbie trio in my desk drawer on top of cousin Francie. It was O.K. by me -- as long as they followed one rule: Everyone shares clothes. And since afternoon teas and disco dances were hard to attend if you had a child to look after, each Little Kiddle was assigned nine mothers, who rotated child care responsibilities.
5. It's Cool to Have Many Careers: At different stages, Barbie was a ballerina, torch singer, equestrienne, majorette, stewardess, astronaut with pink space pants outfit, nurse, doctor and fashion model, which paved the way for my subsequent employment as receptionist, poet, secretary, paperback book critic, waitress and part-time teacher.
6. You Can Have Love and Work at the Same Time: Throughout Barbie's professional soul-searching, Ken was a constant. He didn't question why she needed fulfillment outside the home. When she want Malibu, he got tan, too. When she was Guinevere, he was secure enough in his masculinity to ware a silver lame tunic, footed pants and gold belt with his scabbard and sword.
7. Dysfunction and Deformity Are a Part of Life: In a full day of playing in a pink-flowered room, accidents were bound to happen. The pink convertible kept crashing into the pink stereo and once I stashed Midge in my Suzy Homemaker oven, but G.I. Joe rescued her right before meltdown. Another time red-headed Barbie wound up with half her nose and hair cut off, hanging from the pull chain of the light in my bedroom. But burned, squashed or decapitated, they were still included in all cookouts, coed classes or slumber parties.
8. War Is Hell: Despite repeated warnings from my (red-headed) mother, many an after-school social war was marked by attack from my brothers and their snake, spider and battalions of little green Army men. We were always on alert because any minute they could bomb us with water balloon grenades or Lucky Charms. After each battle, it took days to get everything back in working order and for calm to be restored.
9. All Homeless Must Be Sheltered: When in need, emergency sleeping arrangements called for boot-box extra bedrooms, filled with my mother's sanitary napkin cots and high heels doubling as bunk beds. Room was always made for such transients as my cousin Lisa's Chatty Cathy, my neighbor Jill's orange and purple alien trolls (visiting from another planet), and several dozen little green P.O.W.'s.
10. Monogamy Can Work:Marriage was one of Barbie's greatest achievements. Once she and Ken tied the knot, Barbie did not play around. O.K., Ken didn't have much competition, although Barbie was once tempted by the romantic antics of G.I. Joe, who could twist his arms and legs around in a complete circle. He had a fling with Francie instead, and Barbie wound up back with dependable Ken. When he got on her nerves -- she just tossed him under the bed.

Susan Shapiro is a writer and book critic who lives in Manhattan. She still has every one of her Barbies.
New York Times Articles

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