I have decided to face up to reality and admit that we have a Barbie problem.
The truth is we seem to be housing six and a half Barbies to date, including the one lying forgotten in the mud at the end of the garden. Also we’ve a Ken, but he doesn’t count. He’s just an Action Man living under a new identity. (And I don’t need an Action Man problem as well.)
I feel it is time to confront exactly what my problem is with these dolls. Is it just an irrational loathing based on my own snobbery? Or is there something truly sinister about the Barbie Empire? Some enlightened people take issue with the contorted, inappropriately sexual body shape, and the premature luring of young children into teenage interests such as fashion and ‘beauty’. Then there’s the manipulative marketing spin, creating a consumer need for the latest merchandise, variations on a theme churned out ad infinitum. Toys so detailed and literal that the playing involved requires little or no imagination. The products dictate the agenda, confining the child to play out the ideas imposed. ‘Mini replica’ play, as I call it, is what most depresses me, devoid as it is of the improvisation and resourcefulness that give children ownership of their game. So have I put my children’s creative play at risk from sabotage by these creatures?
It all started with the cake Barbie. She had been divested of her legs and done the rounds of birthday cakes as mermaid and princess, poked into a suitably shaped sponge and smothered in fondant icing. My friend Manya threw her in the wheely-bin with the last crumbs of her rock pool cake. She has stuck to her policy of maintaining a Barbie-free house with gumption – a policy we of course shared five years ago, when we pointedly dressed our first baby girls in neutrals and navy blue. Manya’s powers of diplomacy have never been more challenged than when she refused a Barbie present from, of all people, her mother-in-law. I faltered though. I retrieved the cake Barbie, gave her a thorough scrub and provided refuge in my kitchen cupboard with the baking ingredients. Inevitably she defected to the toy cupboard, where my son, undaunted by her legless status, adopted her as officially his. He took her on imaginary journeys in a shoe that converted, James Bond style, from car to plane, boat and rocket ship. I came to view her as a survivor. But she was the thin end of the wedge, and the opener of the floodgates.
That Jenna was somewhat lacking in a ‘proper’ Barbie had not gone unnoticed by one of her friends, who felt compelled to put the matter right by way of a fifth birthday present. When it emerged defiantly from the gift-wrap to gatecrash the party, the other mums exchanged nervous glances and tried valiantly to lighten the suddenly tense atmosphere, their presents now clearly upstaged. A few weeks later Jen learnt about the Divali story at school, and the Barbie was transformed into Sita, with a red biro bindi that wouldn’t come off, even with White Spirit.
Our babysitter, Harriet, thoughtfully donated the next two Barbies when she came for a haircut. Jen and Sol, armed with proper scissors, lost no time in embarking on some frenzied imitative play. Watching the blue tits later collect up the acrylic blonde locks from the lawn to line their nests, I felt confused as to whether we’d upset the eco-system or contributed to it.
Barbies five, six, and seven arrived today, along with three decades of fashion. On the eve of her sixteenth birthday, Harriet had felt able to purge herself of all things Barbie, and, like those who had de-cluttered themselves of those same toys a generation before her, had opted to recycle them. And my children were eager and grateful recipients. They’ve spent a happy afternoon together, building them a fine palace with our beloved, family heirloom wood blocks. My living room is still littered with the detritus of their game: scraps of fabric from hastily improvised carpets, teeny tiny garments and tugged out mats of hair. So much pleasure from a pile of old plastic the colour of the hateful support stocking that saw me through my last pregnancy: standard issue NHS ‘natural’. The irony of the scene is not lost on me; the seven little intruders seem somehow unworthy of their home-spun palace, though they were the inspiration for it.
All this brings me to my dilemma. Do I get rid of these loathsome dolls, or should I be grateful for the play they inspire? And if I were to plot their untimely end, wouldn’t that amount to throwing out the Barbie with the bath water?
Mary Barnard lives in Nottingham with her husband and children. Before they came along she was a special needs teacher.
Photo by Skitterphoto
First published in issue 3 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.