For 1998: Less Kewpie And More Doll

SATURDAY, NOV. 22, 1997

Let’s call this column “Barbie Does The Right Thing” and let’s begin it with a declaration: I’ve always hated Barbie. Indeed, I’ve had it in for ol’ Plastic Head for as long as I can remember.

When I was a boy, it was because she was one of my sister’s favorite toys. Obviously, I had to hate her - she was covered with cooties. As a man, though, the animus has more to do with Barbie’s status as an icon of our expectations for women. Meaning a pinched waist, a painted face, an empty head and bazooms out to here.

Sure, they’d put her in a lab coat sometimes and call her “Dr. Barbie,” but anyone with eyes knew how this doctor operated. Let’s just say that her stacked-to-the-max proportions were probably more influential on the psyches of young girls (and boys) than her plastic stethoscope ever could be.

At some level, it’s probably unfair to blame Barbie for retarding little girls’ perceptions of themselves and their abilities. That’s a dishonor shared by many of us. But Barbie has always been the embodiment of that retardation, symbol of all that is patronizing and paternalistic about our relationships with women. So it never bothered me to see her take her lumps.

Maybe it bothered Mattel, though. Maybe that’s why the toy maker recently announced that beginning next year, it will phase in an updated Barbie. Less makeup, less prodigious chest, less pinched waistline. In short, a Barbie who looks less like a trollop with too much time on her hands and more like real women and girls.

Some have questioned the wisdom of tinkering with a billion-dollar-plus franchise. Some girls and women say they like their synthetic sister just the way she is.

Hey, hard plastic.

I think the change is good, if for no other reason than that I’ll be able to watch my little girl play with Barbie without wanting to punt her (the doll, not the daughter) into the trees behind the house.

I’ve always thought there was something insidious about Barbie Doll. It wasn’t simply that her beauty was, in the most literal sense, unattainable, but that she codified beauty as the single most important - indeed, the defining - attribute of a woman’s worth. Barbie was nothing but beautiful. Had no other dimension.

I know that “lookism” - the tendency to judge people by appearance - goes both ways these days and that women stand readier than ever to evaluate men by raw physical attributes. But women, by and large, don’t control the machinery of perception in this country. So they’ll never be able to do to men what men have always done to them - meaning judge us solely and completely as a collection of body parts. For that, men ought to be thankful.

We couldn’t handle it. Yet women do everyday, straining to meet criteria that are, for all but the most genetically blessed, impossible. And when failure comes, as inevitably it must, it too often leaves women devastated, doubting and, sometimes, dead of self-starvation.

So, yeah, I can get behind a more realistic Barbie. I can get behind anything that helps a girl see herself as more than a rack upon which breasts are hung.

But why stop here? Why not let Barbie carry her realism deeper into the shadows of despair where imperfect girls live? Let her reflect their reality.

Mattel could make Smart Barbie. Comes with Threatened Ken.

Or Abused Barbie. Comes with Abusive Ken with Special Kung Fu grip.

Or … Teen Mom Barbie. No Ken available.

Yes, I know, Barbie is not supposed to be real; she’s a fantasy. And I have no problem with fantasy; I love a pretty woman as much as the next guy. But I want girls to understand that pretty is only one of a million wonderful things they can be. That’s why it cheers me to see Barbie do the right thing.

At least I’ll no longer have to indulge fantasies of sending my daughter’s dolls sailing over the roof. Already had my excuse ready, though.

“Ooh, look, honey. It’s Astronaut Barbie.”


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