"I wish you'd play with your Barbies!" I heard a mother lament on
one of my recent forays into the Barbie aisle in search of tiny hypodermic
needles and junk food for my book "Barbie Unbound." "If you did, I could
this!" she exclaimed as she displayed a set of Barbie
see-through lingerie to her understandably confused 6-year-old.
I was stunned. Such mothers don't live in my town. In my town Barbie is
banned, reviled as the ultimate symbol of two evils -- commercialism and
sexism. Plus she's plastic.
My town is Montpelier, Vt. It is the only state capital without a
McDonald's, and that's no accident. A few years back local residents, dressed
in de rigueur Birkenstocks and hand-knitted sweaters from Nepal, packed City
Hall to protest a proposal for the golden arches. Many were vegetarians.
Others were rabid recyclers. Some just hated corporations. Not for nothing
is Vermont's only member of the House of Representatives a Socialist.
Here motherhood isn't just a natural phase of a woman's life -- it's
a political statement. How long you breastfeed your children (two years
minimum), where you school them (Waldorf or at home) and whether
you permit refined sugar are just some of the factors used in
measuring one's political correctness -- and fitness as a mother.
Your position on Barbie is another.
The anti-Barbie parents in my wooded, mountainous neighborhood
outside Montpelier are numerous and nice enough. The school secretary, who
sends her daughter to Waldorf, doesn't permit Barbie or her evil vehicle of
dissemination, TV, at home. "That's not why we came to Vermont," she told me.
My neighbor, Stuart, and his wife, Donna, an environmental lawyer, are
equally serious about Barbie's potential damage to their daughter's
"Barbie is supposedly the perfect female image when actually there
few women who look like that at all," Stuart explained. "Of course," he
added quietly, "my kids are salivating
over the Barbies in the Ames Christmas circular as we speak."
With Mattel's $2 billion annual Barbie business, you'd think that
the only toy store in town, Woodbury Mountain Toys, might at least try
selling the Barbie horse or veterinarian clinic. But no. "No one has even
come in and asked for a Barbie," sniffs Charlotte
Dion, who owns the store with her husband, Tony. Charlotte, who home schools her
very bright daughters, says Barbie does not foster children's creativity or
I had no trouble passing for a conscientious parent until two years
ago, when a serious Barbie gaffe occurred right in my home. A mother in the
neighborhood we had just moved into stopped
by to introduce herself. As her daughter and my daughter, Anna, played
upstairs, we self-righteously bashed another pet evil, Disney. Never, we
clucked, would we expose our children to such commercialism, such violence,
"Look!" my new friend's daughter suddenly burst in as she thrust
a hot-pink plastic case that exuded Barbie. "Look
what Anna has!"
I cannot adequately describe the smirk that appeared on my new
friend's face at that moment. I can only tell you that I felt like a
hooker who had stumbled upon a PTA meeting. Thank God
she didn't find the Oreos in my cupboard.
From that day forward Barbie was an underlying template of tension
in our friendship. All her daughter wanted to do at our house was play
Barbie. Ground rules were drawn. Anna was not to bring Barbies to her
friend's house. It would be best if Barbie were "put away" when the friend
came over. They could play with Barbie, but they couldn't change her
clothes. "No Barbies please" was scrawled across the child's sixth birthday
I should note that Barbie boycotts are hardly a new concept to
mothers. According to M.G. Lord's definitive book "Forever Barbie," Mattel's
early marketing studies showed that disapproving mothers felt that playing
with such an adult doll might give their sweet little daughters adult
ideas. My mother refused to buy me a
Barbie when I pined for one 30 years ago.
By age 6, I was obsessed. I would devour the Sears Christmas
catalog. Malibu Barbie. Barbie Camper. Barbie Dream House. At last an older
brother -- who is now, tellingly, a creative art
director for an advertising agency -- bought me a Barbie. He also got me the
Corvette and a Barbie house and taught me the fine art of Barbie
torture -- from sending her speeding into walls to using her as a shot put.
We called her Barbie Astronaut.
Those memories kicked in one day a year or so ago after what would
be the last Barbie conversation I had with my friend. As she
was serving French-roast coffee from beans picked by adequately compensated
farmers in a Latin
American cooperative, she suggested that perhaps it would be best if we
banned even Barbie's name from the children's conversation.
The seriousness on the face of this otherwise intelligent woman
How had this 11-and-a-half-inch piece of hardened plastic assumed such a
gigantic role in our parenting strategy, in our daily thoughts? If Barbie
were a living
woman, I wanted to tell her, she'd be unemployed with chronic back pain
from walking on her toes
all day! She'd be weak from malnutrition and so vapid that pencil
sharpening would be a challenge!
"Barbie Unbound" was born that day.
It was time, I decided, to test Barbie's grace under pressure; time for this
cultural icon of perfected femininity to endure the tougher trials of
womanhood -- menopause, child rearing, rejection, sexism, weight gain --
and see how well she managed. By that afternoon I had come up with a play
guide for putting Barbie into new and exciting roles. PMS Barbie. Barbie
Adolescent Outcast Barbie. Tailhook Barbie. Barbie DeGeneres and midge d.
lang. Barbie Plath.
Staging her liberation in "Barbie Unbound" was no easy task,
however. For Virginia Slims Barbie
Dates Tobacco Lawyer Ken, my husband, Charlie, and I spent nights rolling
miniature Barbie cigarettes to fit into the newer Barbie's finger ring
holes (created, presumably, for her engagement to Ken). My daughter watched
in horror as Charlie whipped up a tiny guillotine for
Barbie Antoinette and began severing heads. I had to get up at dawn one morning
to paste brown hair on the legs and armpits of Co-Op Barbie.
Now "Barbie Unbound" is out in bookstores in my town. Yet neither
that nor Mattel's recent announcement of a new line of fatter, hippier
Barbies has as yet appeased the people in Montpelier. "Ah, Mattel just
wants to sell more clothes," remarked one local resident, flipping through
the book the
other day. "She's still Barbie."