Published in the Globe and Mail, 2012
They sit on my desk, like four weird sisters, and watch me as I write, reminding me of Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep in the campy Death Becomes Her. Once they were beautiful, but now, broken and weathered, they just refuse to die. Or rather, I won’t let them die.
They were my Barbies. Correction: They are my Barbies. When I visited my sister’s place a few months ago, she presented me with a cardboard box. “Do you mind if we throw these out?” she asked. “They’re all broken.”
I opened the lid. It was like that scene in Gone with the Wind, when Scarlett looks over the rows of wounded soldiers with their mangled limbs and crushed skulls. The hopelessness was tactile, but the nostalgia was overpowering.
I picked up Superstar Barbie. She’d lost both a leg and her head, which I found rolled with her once-sleek, hot pink evening gown. Her hands and feet were mutilated, as if a distracted child had chewed on her. She arrived in my Christmas stocking when I was 5, her peacock blue eye shadow brilliant. I named her Janet, since I was obsessed with Three’s Company at the time. Her long locks were golden and there was no sign that some day she would have an embarrassing bald spot at the front of her decapitated noggin.
Next, my hands fell upon Kissing Barbie. Chrissy (again with the Three’s Company theme) was the second Barbie I owned. She’d stick her lips out if you pressed a spot on her back, and at one time she had her own lipstick in a heart-shaped tube. In my sister’s cardboard box, Chrissy was in pretty good shape, though it was obvious that at one point in her life she’d given up on lipstick and had decided to go with red magic marker, now smeared all over her face. Other than her frightening rash, Chrissy was looking well.
Western Barbie, on the other hand, looked grim indeed. I’d named her Pam. (At that point my obsession with Three’s Company had ended and I’d moved on to Dallas.) When Pam was new, she could wink. Now, however, her fake lashes her gone, torn off by yours truly, probably when I was 9 or 10. Her eyes were hollow and had the look of death, or at least the undead. Like Janet, she was paraplegic. I dressed her, amputated legs and all, in her cowgirl outfit, and found her cowgirl hat, made of much finer quality plastic than any of my own kids’ toys.
Clara (my obsession with TV shows now over) was also known as Twirly-Curls Barbie. Her hair had once been long, down to her knees, but it was all broken off in tufts now, as if she’d suffered from alopecia, or maybe mange. In spite of the sorry state of her hair, she was still pretty. I wondered if it was ironic that her fuchsia dress was held together with hair elastics.
“No,” I said to my sister, “don’t throw them out.”
I smoothed out each Barbie’s hair (a few more tufts came out of Clara’s) and put them in my suitcase to take home. I didn’t have a plan for them. Even if I operated on them to make them more whole, there wasn’t much chance my two sons would be interested.
Still, I had grown up with these dolls. Amazingly, I didn’t develop a warped sense of body image and it never occurred to me to worry that Barbie was almost always blond, or that her boobs were enormous, or that her legs were ridiculously long. I dressed and undressed my Barbies repeatedly (thanks to grandmothers who had both the patience and ability to sew or knit tiny outfits), but I never developed much interest in fashion or makeup.
My Barbies may have looked like superstars or models but, like humans, their personalities were deceptively complex. Through these dolls, I was able to act out my imagination as it grew and developed. Their stories reflected who I was and who I wanted to be.
When I was very little, around the time Lady Diana wed Prince Charles, my Barbies all took turns as princesses. They were still outdoorsy, often going on camping trips around our farm, even swimming in puddles and hiking over wood piles.
When I was a little older and discovered Annie and Bob Cratchitt, some of my Barbies became poor and had to beg for food, while others were evil Miss Hannigans or Scrooges bent on trampling the downtrodden.
When I discovered boys, my Barbies all fought over bent-armed Ken (who was a better dancer than his straight-armed cousin), and they attended many balls, slow-dancing to ‘You’re the Inspiration’ or ‘Lady in Red’. There were many weddings. When I discovered the concept of divorce, they did that too, but only if their husbands were abusive.
When I was a bit older and learned more about world history, my Barbies were Jews hiding from the Nazis, or writers trying to free the Russian people from Stalin, huddling together as atomic bombs sped toward them.
Janet, I’m afraid, was once raped. In an act of vengeance, she murdered her rapist and had to testify in court. Though she was convicted, her Matlock-type lawyers (only young, handsome, and Ken-like) continued working hard to get her out, especially since they were all in love with her.
These Barbies had been through far too much to be thrown out. Looking at them now, battered and bruised as they are, I can see my past, my development from a little girl into a teenager. I didn’t see unattainable perfection, I saw my heroines: freedom fighters, adventurers, lovers and politicians. Those stories helped create who I am today, and so did Barbie.
In spite of her reputation, I think she did a pretty good job.