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  • Kirsten Bell

Barbie and me: A love story

The new Barbie movie comes out this month. Targeting both Barbie lovers and Barbie haters, the film looks set to play on the gap between Barbieland and the real world. Regardless of whether it’s any good, in light of the fact that the doll has been a staple in the lives of generations of girls since its initial release in 1959, the film’s producers are clearly banking on its nostalgia value to draw in the crowds.

I probably won’t be lining up to see it, but the clip brought back memories of my own obsession with the doll as a child. From about the age of six to ten, I adored Barbie. Although she was briefly displaced in my affections by a fake Cabbage Patch doll,1 at the height of my Barbie obsession, I had a collection of at least a dozen Barbies, a large bag of outfits, and a whole shelf of my cupboard had been sacrificed to make way for a homemade Barbie flat.2 I even founded a Barbie club, although my younger brother was its sole member – I would create various tests for him and give him certificates and stickers if he passed them.3

Perhaps influenced by my early love for her, I’ve long thought that Barbie gets a bad rap. Virtually since her inception, she has been the focus of feminist fury, blamed for everything from perpetuating the cult of thinness and valorising traditional gender roles to reinforcing normative white femininity. Particular ire has been reserved for Barbie’s unrealistic proportions – including the fact that, cartoonishly big boobs aside, she is so thin her bones would shatter if she tried to lift anything larger than a cupcake or a hairbrush.4

But it’s worth noting that the proportions of action figures aimed at boys are just as unrealistic. For example, according to The Adonis Complex, G.I. Joe’s dimensions would be impossible without steroid abuse, and even then stretch the bounds of human biology. Thus, while the weight of Barbie’s head would snap the clavicle of a real woman with a neck that slender, G.I. Joe’s biceps are even bigger than his head, approaching the size of his freakishly small waist. Basically, if you saw someone with either Barbie or G.I. Joe’s proportions in real life, you’d run based on the premise that a poorly disguised alien invasion was imminent.

Even as a child, I don’t believe I ever mistook Barbie for a representation of a ‘real’ woman – she was as firmly in the realm of make believe as Monkey Magic. While I certainly noticed her appearance, this was primarily because the first Barbies my older sister and I owned were cheap knockoffs made of hollow plastic; I think I was about eight when my mother upgraded us to a ‘real’ Barbie. Even my eight-year-old eyes could detect the inferiority of our prior fake Barbies in comparison to the real McCoy, although I remember being more concerned by the alarmingly bendable nature of fake Barbie’s legs than her appearance as a whole.

Once I started collecting ‘real’ Barbies, Peaches & Cream Barbie quickly became my favourite, but mostly because she came with the best outfit and had the least Pat Benatar-like makeup.5 However, as a result of modifications both accidental and intentional, few of our Barbies stayed in their original state for long. Various Barbies quickly acquired scars from regular play that were incorporated into their personas. For example, my Barbie collection contained:

  1. Burn-victim Barbie: the result of me trying to iron Barbie’s dress while she was wearing it.

  2. Decapitation Barbie: technically Malibu Barbie, Decapitation Barbie was so-named because her head had a tendency to fall off unless shoved down low on her neck.6 This attribute made her quite useful in scenarios involving car explosions, which featured heavily in the games I played with my brother.

  3. Pictish Barbie: the product of an incident with a blue biro, which I quickly learned was permanent.

  4. Fight-club Barbie: technically ‘winking’ Barbie, her gimmick was that she could wink one eye, although the mechanism didn’t work properly, making her look like she’d been punched in the face and had the swollen eye to prove it.

My sister and I also quickly learned that you mess with Barbie’s hair at your peril – mostly because my sister kept cutting their hair into different styles, making her Barbies all look like they’d been electrocuted.7

Perhaps the most extreme modification was my sister’s attempt to resolve the problem of our lack of a Ken doll: she simply cut the boobs off one of our imitation Barbies and modified her hair in order to transform her into a man. The resultant ‘Ken’ had two gaping holes in his chest and a mohawk (fake Barbie’s hair sprouted out of a centre part rather than covering her scalp), but served as an adequate substitute in our games for a while.

It was a momentous occasion when I finally got my first real Ken doll. Unfortunately, he was the short-lived ‘bucking rodeo’ Ken, which had a movable midriff so that he could theoretically buck back-and-forth on a horse. However, without the horse (which I did not have), rodeo Ken merely looked like he’d been repeatedly punched in the gut.8 Complicating matters further, by that point I had something like ten Barbies, which meant that Ken was your classic polygamist.

Given that various games centred primarily on Barbies competing for Ken’s affections,9 they didn’t exactly pass the Bechdel test. However, Ken was primarily Barbie’s accessory – which, as far as I can tell, has basically been his role since he first arrived on the scene in 1961. Given that most of my games with my brother consisted of putting Barbie into perilous James Bond-type situations,10 if someone had to be kidnapped, it was generally Ken; Barbie SWAT teams would go in and rescue him. Also, supervillains were always female – mostly, fight-club Barbie or burn-victim Barbie got that honour (even as kids, we knew that Bond villains were supposed to be disfigured).

Peak Barbie for me was December 25th, 1985, when I got the Heart Family for Christmas. The first family unit in Barbie’s world, their intent was to introduce girls to ‘simple, wholesome family values’. For instance, the mother’s wedding ring was nailed into her hand – kind of like she’d been crucified in it.11

‘Fun is being part of the family that’s all heart’ declared the advertising jingle for the dolls. However, despite the ad’s insistence that ‘mom is pretty, dad is handsome, and the babies are so cute, playing with them’s such a hoot’, the mother looked like she’d escaped from a fundamentalist Mormon sect, the father looked like a cross between Gordon Gekko and an orderly in a mental hospital, the son looked like Chucky, and the daughter like a demented Shirley Temple.

Funnily enough, despite the thrill of receiving the Heart Family for Christmas, my interest in playing Barbie started to wane the following year. By my eleventh birthday, I was basically done with them. I suppose I was at the age when most girls naturally lose interest in dolls, but I suspect it was also the Heart Family that did it. After all, if the whole point of Barbie was that she was the first adult doll – a blank slate onto which girls could project their hopes and dreams – then saddling her with a husband and babies whose nappies she had to change (and putting her in pantyhose, for goddsakes!), was a little too much reality.

So I say let Barbie have her stair-less Dream House, her waist that’s too small to realistically house intestines or a liver, her feet permanently arched in preparation for the perfect set of high heels, and her endless love of pink. Because however Mattel markets her, at the end of the day, she gets taken out of the box (both literally and figuratively), and then, well, she’s anyone’s game.

Me and the Heart Family, Christmas 1985, age 10



1 The fake Cabbage Patch doll looked broadly like the real thing, but was a quarter of the price. When my sister was annoyed with me, she would either threaten to throw it out the window or, when particularly angry, proceed straight to doll torture.

2 We’re not talking Barbie’s Dream House here – more like a single-occupancy room in a flea-ridden hotel.

3 These primarily pertained to how to dress Barbie and how she might respond in various scenarios of my own devising: on a date, incapacitating an enemy agent, etc.

4 And with that figure, we all know the former has never passed Barbie’s lips.

5 Nothing against Pat Benatar, but even as a child I was of the firmly held view that eyeshadow should not be the colour of blue Smarties.*

*For the record, Smarties could actually be used as makeup, because the colour came off if you licked them. A friend with an artistic bent once made up her whole face using only Smarties. So convincing was the effect that her mother assumed Jacinta had been raiding her makeup supply.

6 Probably due to my brother’s tendency to hang Barbies from the door of the bedroom I shared with my sister when he was displeased with us.

7 I believe this is one of the main reasons why my sister’s Barbie obsession was much briefer than my own. Her primary interest in the dolls resided in giving them makeovers via haircuts and homemade clothes, but the end result always looked like it should be wandering an apocalyptic hellscape. Moreover, she wasn’t able to readily substitute her deficient version for my own without raising suspicion, which was her standard response when other identical objects (e.g., watches, toys, radios) we had been given broke. Throughout my childhood, I had numerous items inexplicably stop working from one day to the next. It was only much later that she confessed to being the culprit.

8 As rodeo Ken was a matched pair with winking Barbie, they basically looked like the poster children for a couple into bondage and dominance games who’d forgotten their safe word.

9 Years before the official arrival of wheelchair Barbie, Barbie was transformed into a paraplegic in one of our regular games, after a jealous rival for Ken’s affections tried to run her over. (My brother’s Hot Wheel cars might have been small, but they were deadly!)

10 We were massive James Bond fans – but only Roger Moore’s Bond, of course. Every genuine child of the eighties knows that Moore was the ‘real’ Bond.

11 The makers were clearly hellbent on ensuring that thing never came off.

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