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I’m a Barbie Girl

Close-up of a Barbie doll wearing a shirt that reads, "Be Your Self."

As a child, I was never into baby dolls. The trend when I was that age was to make them “realistic.” I’ll leave the specifics to your memory or imagination. If it’s the latter, I assure you that it had nothing to do with the texture of their skin or the glazed look in their eyes.

When I was 8 or 9 years old, I discovered Barbie. I don’t remember my first Barbie—probably an early edition that would be worth a mint today. I don’t remember the first Barbie that was truly mine, but based on my vague memories and this fun list, it was probably Malibu Barbie, who I’m pretty sure was the model for “Stereotypical Barbie” in the film.

Whichever model I first acquired, it didn’t take long for me to develop a mild obsession. Plenty of girls were more into Barbie than I was, but the fascination was there. My mother and aunt made handmade clothing for my and my cousin’s dolls. They were exceedingly stylish, as I remember it, and nobody’d better tell me otherwise.

My younger sister and I together developed an impressive collection of Barbie and friends through the late 70s and early 80s. At first, they were performers, often standing in for the members of ABBA, as we used a pair of Radio Shack cassette decks to create the effect of a massive audience, cheering on our stars as they sang along to our portable record player. Later, they were Charlie’s Angels, and we recorded their “episodes” on those same cassette decks.

Breaking Barbie

The Charlie’s Angels era took place when we lived in Colorado, where the backyard was a mass of boulders. Barbie (and Ken) were sent on adventures in Ken’s Corvette, across the tops of the boulders and over the edge, crashing into the garden below. Thus a new generation of Weird Barbies (and Kens) was born. The fact that Barbie chose to recognize these atrocities is what truly endeared the film to me, among many, many other reasons for my Barbie movie love.

Was it the best movie ever? No. Was it the best Barbie movie a Barbie movie could hope to be? Oh, yes. It’s sharp, witty, thought-provoking, funny, sad, nostalgic, modern, edgy and provocative. My partner, a former Marine, and our two teenaged sons enjoyed it thoroughly. My minister delivered a sermon this past Sunday entitled It’s Barbie’s World. The movie is having an impact, and it certainly isn’t aimed at only girls.

I don’t know if Barbie gave me an unrealistic body image. Probably. I paid her back with bad haircuts, frequent bodily injury and a number of indignities we won’t speak of. Regardless of whether she was the cause of any neuroses, she gave me hours of imagination and the potential for career choices that seemed impossible in the 1970s. I don’t remember encountering astronaut Barbie, or Surgeon Barbie, but both came out during my early childhood. I do remember Christine, the first Black Barbie doll, released in 1968—four years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Since then, Barbie has continued to reflect more (though far from all) of the wonderful diversity among women.

Hopelessly Devoted

It occurs to me that, 45 years later, Barbie is having an effect similar to what Grease had in 1978—delighting young people oblivious to the innuendo while horrifying parents who thought they were in for a playful, nostalgic romp.

The "Pink Ladies" of "Grease"
Photo by Paramount

Like Barbie, Grease had its own feminist undertones, though they are hardly recognizable today. In Grease, protagonist Sandy gives up her good girl ways and joins a gang of more liberated ladies (“The Pink Ladies,” as it happens), each of whom is a complicated, flawed and broken individual—a far cry from picture-perfect “Sandra Dee.” Sandy becomes a “real girl” to win the love of a man (in an O-Henry-esque twist), while Barbie does it for very different reasons (leading to one of the most unexpected closing lines in film history, and a delightful new spin on Pinocchio).

A big difference is that Barbie is appealing to a broader demographic. When I attended on Sunday, the theater was a cross-section of age groups, with many from young to old proudly wearing pink.

I find myself wanting to browse the toy aisle again, just to see what iterations of Barbie exist today. Would I buy one for myself? Maybe. It might be fun to have a perky companion at my workbench, dressed in the latest fashion, encouraging me to believe that I can be whatever I want to be.

Cover photo by Sandra Gabriel on Unsplash

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