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Gender, Schmender: Buying Miss Barbie

November 21, 2007, 1:31 pm

I just got off the phone with a woman friend whose daughter is having a birthday (note to the childless — birthdays for those whose years number in single digits go on for days. If you are thinking about having a baby you need to know this.) The cupcakes that are going to school today came out of a box, but the cake for last Sunday’s party, while it too came out of a box, was in the shape of a butterfly with multicolored icing. I thought this was a particularly grand gesture and said so.

Although she and her husband used a Williams-Sonoma butterfly cake mold, my friend admitted that the finished product was still a little sloppy around the edges, despite the fact that they both applied their many talents to it. I pointed out that it was the thought that counted, since the little girls were going to eat it anyway, and it was the pinkness and the sugar that really mattered at that age. (Whereas at our age, the cake would be the object of extensive critique, and probably a special issue of Social Text.) I suggested that she might want to try the ever-popular Volcano Cake one year, something a relative of mine makes for children which features a controlled explosion in the center. In this situation, neatness counts not only less, but not at all. However, as far as I know, the cake has only been tested on nephews, and the butterfly cake, despite a high degree of difficulty, was probably a better bet for a girly-girl party.

This led to the conversation all feminists have with their friends: how is it that many of their daughters wake up one day, refuse to wear anything but a pink dress, and insist that Barbie is a Goddess who must be worshipped by all?

“And then,” my friend said,”I have to have the whole conversation about why we don’t do Barbie.”

“I support you completely,” I said; “I would do the same thing with a daughter. Whereas boys are different. About this time ten years ago I was driving all over the state of Connecticut looking for Barbie’s Mini-Van for my nephew.”

“Absolutely,” my friend agreed. “That would be completely different.”

I hope this last point needs no explanation. Barbie is, indeed, the bane of many feminist mothers’ existence, but there is good in everything, even if it is manufactured in China by labor that exists in a state of virtual peonage (which, by the way, I care about a lot, but Barbie doesn’t give a hoot. Barbie accepts all servitude to her as natural and normal.) Barbie is the Original Drag Queen: she has Needs. And that Christmas ten years ago, she needed a Mini-Van. Why? Well, in the first place, all the other Barbies had one. But wait, I pointed out, dreading the trips from Toys R’ Us to Toys R’ Us, Barbie already had a Dream House, and her sister Skipper to do most of the housework, which she often did in the nude. Furthermore, Ken was constantly showing up asking for dates: sometimes it appeared that Ken’s idea of a fun date included putting on Barbie’s clothes and dancing with her, either standing up in the kitchen or doing a gentle, scissor-like bump and grind lying down. So with all this excitement at the Dream House, why did Barbie need a fully loaded Mini-Van too?

“How else will she get to the Mall?” my nephew, who was four at the time, pointed out.

Silly me. So Barbie’s Mini-Van was located by Yours Truly in some corner of New England State even more godawful than the one I happened to be living in at the time, purchased and delivered as if by Magic. This process required the expenditure of vast amounts of petroleum since — you need to know this if it is your first Holiday Season of toy buying — there is no point in calling Toys R’ Us in December. Or ever, for that matter. The phone in the store is never answered, and the store employees merely gather around it, watch it ring off the hook and try to guess what the person on the other end wants until it stops ringing and they can go back to smoking dope and playing cards.

Anyway, there was a happy outcome for all when the Mini-Van was revealed on Three Kings Day. Great joy reigned in Nephewville for whatever period of time that lurid plastic items are capable of giving pleasure to dolls and the boys that love them.

But the lesson we learned was that if you give Barbie wheels, you’ve also got to watch her like a hawk. A year or so after that Christmas, when neither the nephew or I were paying attention, Barbie and her entourage skipped town and have never been seen or heard from again. Rumor has it that Girlfriend loaded Ken, Pepper and pink outfits for all into her Mini-Van (Skipper grabbed a thong before decamping from the Dream House) and moved to Florida, where we are told that they are living happily ever after in Barbie’s South Beach Dream Condo. Rumor has it they have started a retro-disco club called Dream Club Barbie, that features a mirror ball and standards from the pre-AIDS era like “Last Dance” and “It’s Raining Men.” Or maybe they’re in LA, or the Castro. We’re not sure. When my nephew is a little older, say eighteen, we’re going to go and take a look for ourselves.

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