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Of Boys and Barbies

These dolls solve sexism.

I read an article in a woman’s magazine this weekend about a radical feminist who fell in love with an ultra-male-cowboy-type-of-guy. She described him as a gun-toting, truck-driving rancher who called her “darlin’ ” It didn’t work out, but she had a good time (I’ll bet she did!) and wrote a book about the experience to boot.

She blamed a lot of the attraction on the fact that her parents defeminized her in her youth as a way to overcome sexism. Key point here: She was “forbidden from playing with Barbies.”

When my kids were growing up, there was talk of this sexism stuff, too. Some parents wanted their boys to have the same opportunity to play with feminine type toys and vice versa. It was often suggested that we parents were stereotyping our children without even knowing it.

I was too busy to think much about these suppositions at the time, but I do know, without a doubt, my son played with Barbies.

He has a twin sister and another sister 21 months older. They played together a lot, of course, and my daughters had a lot of Barbie dolls. Usually, my son would concoct some sort “fort” (I do not know how he knew this word so well, but it was a big part of his vocabulary) for the dolls. The fort often had begun earlier in the day under the loving tutelage of Mrs. Rosebrock, Mrs. Pritchard and many others at the magnificent San Ramon School - then drug home. They often consisted of cardboard and miles upon miles of packing tape. (I’ve been using scant bits of packing tape ever since to make up for that environmental impact.)

The dolls often waged war with each other in some sort of fashion, in my son’s version of playing Barbies. My daughters’ meanwhile were creating cute dress combinations, oblivious to their brother’s world.

When we would travel to the beach for the day, however, my son wanted no part of Barbie play. There he wanted only one thing: a shovel. No little toy shovel, though, he wanted a big, adult version, which he would drag to the sand and get to work. Within a short time he made all sorts of forts. These forts were too big and serious for little Barbie dolls. I think there are a thousand forts somewhere in the sand at Drake’s Beach with his imprint on them.

One day, my daughters came into the playroom to find their brother had turned all of their Barbie dolls into GI Janes. He cropped all of their hair to butch cuts and made scant — hormones beginning to kick in — military type uniforms.

He could not understand the ruckus that then ensued. He simply felt this was more appropriate attire for Barbies in his forts.

This year, at the Christmas dinner table, the story was retold with tears of laughter.

Apparently Mattel sells two Barbie dolls each SECOND in the world, and I believe I know why.

They are a crucial key to solving sexism, because they are so highly adaptable for both girls and boys in their formative years — and I am not talking about Ken here.

So, with a twist on Willie Nelson’s great lyrics, I’d say, “Mommas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys — but let ‘em play with Barbies!”

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tony masi January 08, 2013 at 11:32 PM
I agree with Louisa. Barbies did seem to be designed for abuse. They were plentiful and expendable, snobbish and aloof. We used them for war casualties and auto accident victims when we could convince our sisters to let us "play" with them. And around the Fourth of July, the neighborhood Barbie population always took a nosedive as they became experimental fodder for whatever fireworks we could get our hands on. Sometimes the girls would look on in horror. Sometmes they would clap their hands with glee. I remember feeling a slight sense of disappointment, however. Barbies seemed semi-indestructable. They didn't usually damage in a visually satisfying way. Even then, there was something annoyingly enduring about them.
Derry January 10, 2013 at 07:29 PM
At Burning Man each year is a camp called "Barbie Death Camp and Wine Bistro" populated by hundreds of Barbies in outlandish costumes, escorted by Ken dolls in military fatigues, being marched into toaster ovens and various other kitchen appliances. Very kinky.... and, if you're open-minded, absolutely hilarious.
Anita D'Groin January 10, 2013 at 08:07 PM
Barbie was greater American society's vision of the ultimate female. As such, she was an easy target for us mere mortals to act out against in our frustrations and rebellions against the realities of real life. I still get a chuckle whenever I see the bumper sticker saying: "I Wanna be Like Barbie - That Bitch has Everything!"
tony masi January 11, 2013 at 01:20 AM
Barbies were the gateway drug to feminine consumerism. Unless you destroyed them first in self-defense. PS. I think the Anita names you use are very witty.
Christine Scioli January 15, 2013 at 04:08 AM
This delightful gay man I know sent me this email regarding this story I thought i shoudl share: "Great article! And oh yes, I played with them, but I went with the girly version of course." And I wrote him about our friend: You made me think of another Barbie story. Our friend, Douglas, who was the Creative Director at Weinstock's – we had their TV and radio ad account for years as well as their sister store back east – lived with us for about 6 months in between buying and redecorating still another gorgeous home. He was raised in eastern Oregon on a chinchilla farm by his adoptive parents where he had a great gun collection, but also was the only one who subscribed to Town and Country and Vogue in the town. He and (my husband) Don decided to make a huge dollhouse for the kids and the Barbies that Christmas. Douglas insisted each room have a designer theme, hardwood floors, sconces, crown molding, things like that. This was a far cry for the former Barbie home, the fort! I still have the remnants in the garage now. It holds my laundry detergent and other cleaning products, paper towels, etc. The floors have held up well so that up front time paid off!

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